DEPARTURES (& Coming Home) by Bronwyn Mills

1896 -1900 Circus Poster. Jules Chéret [Public domain], via Wikimedia

1896 -1900 Circus Poster. Jules Chéret [Public domain], via Wikimedia

How many times have you had to say goodbye? In New York City alone, while it seems hard to think of ever saying a final goodbye to Gotham, one friend accused me of single-handedly raising the base rate of rent-stabilized apartments in Manhattan.  That is a lot of goodbyes. However if I can turn the clock back a bit, as an idealistic young actor in the company of Ed, my new flame, also an aspiring actor, we first bid the city adieu to study mime in Paris —”Goodbye,” we said, “we are on a pilgrimage to  Culture, to Art, to Experience—to its centre!”  To the Paris of Hemingway, of Stein, of Fitzgerald, dirty old man Henry Miller and egocentric Anais Nin—of Man Ray, madman Artaud, Louis Barrault… All of whom were quite dead, of course.

Every morning, Ed would go out to the streets below with a deep yellow ceramic pitcher and come back with cafe-au-lait and croissants with strawberry jam; we’d sit in bed savoring our coffee, inhaling the city air, listening to the city stretch and groan. We got our residence permits. From our little room in the Quartier Latin, we moved to Montmartre and a funny little residence hotel, the “Hotel Perfect,” a little pension next to–my god, was it? a brothel?—and a place which forbade cooking in the rooms but where you could smell everyone’s dinner as you climbed the stairs.  It was full of recent immigrants who nodded cursorily at you in the hallways, not eager to talk.  Back then, Paris was not renown for its hospitality.

We did not learn much mime.  My French was—well, I was the dictionary and Ed, the one who could unfurl those words on his tongue with a golden French accent.  We hitchhiked to Italy, thence towards Rome, catching a rather dangerous ride with two truckers who, when they hesitated at getting rid of affable Ed to enjoy me, dumped us both on the edge of Spoleto, home of the once glorious Spoleto Film Festival, at three in the morning. We found a bar that was still open and, going in to ask directions to a hostel,  found shelter on a floor in the apartment of a nice fellow who had felt sorry for us and took us in. After getting to Rome, we met a Dutch couple traveling in a van with Libyan plates—the van hadn’t been properly registered for years, they told us, but every time they were pulled over, they simply produced all the car’s documents, which were in Arabic;  flummoxed, the police waved them on.  One could not do that now—probably not any of it. We and the Dutch folks drank and dined together, learned “bella figura”—and “brutta figura” when Ed dared to drink out of a glass of wine the preceding party had left behind. We said goodbye and, not wanting to leave our new friends, came right back. We were all set to ply our trade as extras in the Italian film industry, except that I became ill,  and we had to make a hasty departure for treatment at home.

What kind of a quest were we on? When I was a small child, I came within a cat’s whisker of being killed in an accident—that and wanting to write gave me a permanent appetite for new experience. Those wanderers that we met on the road, I wonder what were they in search of?  Or running from? I am reminded of the old Tavernier film, Round About Midnight, where the Dexter Gordon character says to a departing friend—”You know what’s gonna meet you at the airport?”  “No,” says the friend. “YOU!” says Gordon.  We run after the chimera of finding ourselves—perhaps the innocent self lost through some painfully sudden or excruciatingly prolonged event—or our “bliss,” our purpose, and, when all is said and done, the flawed self we thought we left behind is waiting for us, in disguise.  That is, we don’t recognize him or her when we get off the runway and, merde!, we’re back in the saddle again.

Some folks go on a spiritual journey.  More power to them; it isn’t in me to do that, although, to get an insight into the psyche of the culture, I once participated in a “Romeria,” a pilgrimage, to the shrine of the national saint of a small Latin American country. People walked in from every nook and cranny, from miles away near one border or the other, poured into the old capital, to its cathedral and its holy springs to ask the Virgen de los Angeles for a cure, to complete a promise to the Virgen if she would only grant X, or Y, and lo! it came to pass.  I only walked 26 kilometers and, at the end, my reward for participating was excruciatingly sore feet–oh, and I still have some of the Holy Water I collected in an old plastic film canister.

The theme of Tavernier’s film aside, music is full of departures.  Just a phrase of Sezen Aksu’s Gidiyorum Bu Ṣehirden/I Am Leaving This City and a plucking of the strings of the saz[1] and I leave Istanbul all over again, with all the same ambivalence. Among the foundation myths of the Turks one important one has them leaving Central Asia, always leaving, always looking for home, until Mehmet the Conqueror  broke through the walls of Constantinople’s old city in 1453. Sezen’s song, ostensibly about a love affair gone awry, has a subtext, I have heard, referencing the expulsion of Greek Anatolians—more politely referred to as the “population exchange” wherein Turkish speaking Greeks and Greek-speaking Turks who had lived in Turkey and Greece, respectively, for generations were forced to move back “home.” On the other hand, my friend Ö. used to say that one did not leave for long:  one would come back to Istanbul because your heart had been broken there.  Perhaps.  It is a huge, complicated city; and I miss it. In Istanbul, I  was able to work on my own writing and was part of a writers’ group that included British poet, John Ash: as I left, John’s way of acknowledging his sorrow at my leaving was to pick a fight with me.  Now he is quite ill and back in Manchester, England; and I cannot imagine how sad that is for him—he who loved the city so much with his poetry; and the country, so much in his travel writing.

To send me off, Sedat, a fine and impossible colleague, threw a dinner party on Burgaz, one of the Princes Islands, where he lived; we swam in the Marmara and pretended it was just another trip. It wasn’t. One cannot leave a city like that easily.  Indeed, I have been back twice, and each time the departure is wrenching. I miss the ferries, those giant waterbugs skimming over the Bosphorus, the Horn, the Sea of Marmara, the rush of people to find seats outside where we could look out upon the water and the scenery on the shores. I miss the men walking up and down selling tea in little tulip glasses and bagel-shaped simit in the mornings. I miss the evening call to prayer—the most beautiful of the day—reverberating out over the city. I miss shutting off the  lights   in    my study and watching the single blinking light of a ship sneaking up the Bosphorus like none of them are supposed to at night.  I miss Fındıkzade, “the village of hazelnut trees,” the neighborhood where I first stayed upon arrival—a bit of an ugly duckling of a place with some of the warmest most hospitable people in the world.

What started out as a journey simply to take a job, when I had none, rewarded me with experiential knowledge I could have gained in no other way. Turks do not have horns. Their culture is complex, diverse, rich, even decadent sometimes, and—no, I am not describing a layer cake—very, very old. Leaving is like shedding one’s skin…you have changed; but that place you left does not stand still nor wait for you.  Nor will it be as you remembered when and if you return.

Street scene in Cotonou, Bénin's  commercial capital.  Photo by author.

Street scene in Cotonou, Bénin’s
commercial capital. Photo by author.

Probably I will never return to West Africa. To leave the noise of roosters crowing at some ungodly hour of the morning from Camp Guezo, the Beninois army installation across the street,  to quit the daily dose of Malerone, an antimalarial that made my hands break out in a rash, to no longer endure the humidity that gave the word “soporific” a whole new dimension—that was not so difficult. But to never to hear the music of Fongbe, the predominant language in southern Bénin, to leave, with such finality, Joseph Adande’s Dutch Uncle remonstrances, Yemi’s spunk, dear deeply Catholic Rufin’s willingness to accompany me to such definitively non-Catholic ceremonies and places… To leave Robert, pudgy for an African male, Robert who sometimes wore a dashiki printed with old yellow bi-planes, one of which inevitably took a nosedive into his tummy—Robert once said, “Bronwyn, you have been sent to Africa to learn patience,” seeing I was about to burst into flame… Never to be at Caroll’s house, where I drank lovely wine and listened to her chorus singing to a Western god in Fongbe, Mawu towe… I attended numerous vodou ceremonies, but I remember thinking, well, I haven’t really got all that much material from my stay, then—and to this day—realizing that I could spend a good part of the rest of my life writing it all up. I am profoundly indebted to the people who opened up their world to my naive observations.  Have I learned patience?  Bénin helped, but, sorry, I’m still at it.

Just before I came to Cotonou, commercial capital of La République du Bénin, singer Angélique Kidjo returned to Bénin—her original home—to give a concert.  I was struck by her comment: all over the world, no one understands my language, but you do[2], so you must sing. For too many Africans, the imposition of colonial languages blotted out a sense of being at home in one’s own culture. Consider what Fawlty Towers star, Prunella Scales, rather pompously once told me, in an interview: “English is, you know, the most beautiful language in the world.”  I don’t know that all those people English-speakers colonized would agree. Talk to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who has returned to Gikuyu, his mother tongue, for writing fiction, after making his reputation in English.  Ngũgĩ explains this as not only “decolonizing [his] mind,” but also as a way of enriching rather than embalming his own language. (He was beaten for using it in school; jailed by recent Kenyan dictator, Moi, for producing a play in that language.[3]) For if a language isn’t used for creative purposes, it diminishes, becomes solely utilitarian, crass even; and  while I wouldn’t dare make such a bald statement as Scales,’ indeed, Pilgrim, I think I know how you can come home again—use your language, your mother tongue in a way that enriches the both of you, and us.

I have been a legal resident of four different countries as well as still being a citizen of my own; I’ve said what appears to be a final goodbye to three, not to mention the places visited and then, ever so wistfully, left behind. Thomas Wolfe, so many years ago, famously said that you can’t go home again; but I wonder, in the long run can one ever leave? I think of all those artists who felt compelled to go to Paris, whooping it up in Bohemian style.  And then?  then?  I think of my latest cat, who hung around off and on for a few days, decided that perhaps I and my place weren’t so bad and, then, one by one over 48 hours brought her three kittens to an old dog bed I had outside. It’s a bit awkward to compare our language to three kittens; but I think it fair to say that we carry our origins around with us. They enfold and transport us, as the shell does the turtle.  A departure is merely pulling in our lidded heads, waiting for the crowd to disperse, then poking our heads back out and trudging on.




[1] A bağlama, a traditional Anatolian strummed instrument with a long neck and several (though not all) resonating strings.

[2] You, the Beninois audience.

[3] Only through the efforts of PEN International and such organizations was he freed. He was then so persecuted by the Moi regime that he was forced into exile.