I need a reconstruction of a tooth deep behind. I was planning to remove it, but my French dentist advised me against it. It will cost me 675 euro, if I want the work well done. I have another half a century in front of me. A tooth deep behind will serve me.
In 50 years from now, I will be 98. Still feasible to stay alive that long. Working little, taking good rest, and lately, consulting my Guinean medicine man, I can easily reach this age. With a good planning.
I wonder what I will do all this time. In those 20 years, I could make a good European career, somewhere in Germany or Netherlands. I could truly live, rather than remain undead.
To be or not to be, an everyday choice, a question that I see in front of myself every morning, when I slowly open my eyes, feeling a tremendous void inside my skull. Give up, or stand up and fight. I was educated to give up. But Poland is no more, and with it, the culture of giving up. At least as I see it, as I anticipate it, it has been sucked by a great vortex, the widening gyre of that new revelation to come. Of that new Russia to come, that eternal Russia the parasite inside our skulls. Oh, that eternal idea that, if we could talk the things through (dogadać się) with Russia, civilise it, together we would rule the world. It returns right on the front page of today's Gazeta Wyborcza, on the occasion of Andrzej Chwalba's new book, Polska-Rosja, Historia obsesji, obsesja historii. We might have civilised Ivan the Terrible. We ought to have done it.
Russia, the eternal temptation of the Poles. Certainly, it is not better than Europe. Yet just like the Dark Side in Star Wars, it is easier, quicker, offering endless opportunities of rogue advancement; more terrible Ivan, roguer the advancement. I wonder whether I wouldn't chose it myself, if I had no talent, no love of hard work. I would certainly do.
It is just a chance that I am one of the tiny percentage of those who had not been infected, or managed to overcome the infection. I am just lucky to have this strong constitution, this blood redder than most. This is why I am here, on this side of the Oder, in Europe, in a place that Russia would never conquer, even if she managed to talk the things through with Poland. Making a list of items to acquire for another half a century.
The elegant red notebook in which I try to collect any happy thoughts that remain is with me for some 20 years now. I still have some clothes I bought in Portugal as a student. When I settle down after Heidelberg, the things I buy with my German salary will überleben me (I could say they will outlive me, yet certain things are beyond English). How long does a handmade Afghani carpet live? I have been told it lives shorter than a silk Tabriz. Yet probably more than those 50 years, I wouldn't walk on it that much. Or should I opt for a densely woven Bijar? A silk Kashmiri that -quite incredibly- represents less than a half of my French salary? A Meissen porcelain set, paintings, polyglot book collection will live those 50 years with me and then face an uncertain destiny. Or I will live those 50 years for them, to accompany them, to dust them. To put hot tea in the porcelain cups, to read the books. Undead, I want to burry myself in a living museum, among fragile things that nonetheless überleben empires.
I didn't live a long time as a flounder, on the bottom, just a couple of days. I've been so ill that I asked to be tested for COVID, and it came out negative, just to give me the insight on how quiet and efficient the things are here in the West, at the height of an apocalypse. It was the very same day that the vaccine was announced, and it was as if I suddenly realised that Christmas is coming.
Maintenant c'est moi qui descends Rue Descartes, quand la Ville se comporte toujours fidèle à sa nature, Gardłowym śmiechem odzywając się w ciemności, / Wypiekając długie chleby i w gliniane dzbanki nalewając wino, / Ryby, cytryny i czosnek kupując na targach, / Obojętne na honor i hańbę i wielkość i chwałę,
J'ai acheté des crevettes et du vin blanc, et je n'ai pas voulu des patates douces, je les deteste (mais ils sont en promotion, Madame, seulement pour ce weekend). J'ai l'envie de la viande de crocodile pour le Noël, accompagnée des feuilles vertes de manioc. Je fais l'amour pendant qu'ils font la guerre. En Pologne - c'est à dire nulle part - wiadomo: na świętego Marcina zadyma się zaczyna.
Ce que ce pays donne au monde, c'est moi. Juste comme Roumanie a donné au monde Cioran, qui ne voulait parler roumain à personne. Ils m'appelleraient traîtresse de la race, s'ils savaient combien je désire les mains poilues d'un de ces frères à moi. Et pourtant, to wszystko już było i zmieniło się / W pomniki przedstawiające nie wiadomo kogo. Et la civilisation, c'est moi, pour eux à jamais perdue, moi et cette sacoche et les livres qui sont dedans.
Opieram łokcie o szorstki granit nabrzeża quand je suis de retour du pays souterrain et je vois en lumière. J'écoute une cantate de Bach pour me sentir européenne, car c'est ça, l'Europe, une cantate de Bach ouie entre le souvenir des feuilles de manioc et des huitres passées par le feu et du rougir des lions et les mains poilues de ce frère à qui j'ai promis tous les plaisirs de ce monde et de l'autre. Et je ne veux surtout pas qu'on me parle roumain au lit.
It's the second (third?) day that I am sick. Is it the virus? Or just the triumphal return of my nose problems? Brought about by a strange return of the old memories of Poland?
The statistics, made public very late last night, indicate almost 87 thousand of new cases in the last 24 hours. Out of the depths of his Bedouin survival instinct, my husband says: it is the sign that the end of this pandemic is nigh. Is it? Constant exponential growth exists only in mathematics. In reality, there is always a point of breaking the wave.
I've been living on the bottom, honestly speaking, since I came to this flat and this country, six weeks ago. I really wonder what happens to me. My hands tremble, and I feel a strange disinterest in life. Not only in the books I've brought from the library. It is a singular void of dreams, fancies, desires.
Perhaps the only positive aspect of the current crisis is that the other Veronique finally died. It was difficult to break my relation with the old country, as difficult as it was, in a time, to break the relation with my family. Both inevitable, if I want to survive.
Poland is far from me now, the discourses that they go on reproducing like yet another viral machine, distant and isolated from the world. And it leaves me homeless and lost in the middle of the current situation, in the world in mutation. I am here, but I lack any attachment, including the attachment to the ground under my feet.
I should be attached to my studies, to my projects. I should grasp them as the only stable thing, I should be attached to my identity as a scholar, the only one that remains. Yet books don't captivate me, and my brain is like white cotton. I wish I was the scholar I used to be, I wish I could write learned articles again. But everything is empty, like this flat with white walls. I hate white walls. I miss a home in dark red, an Afghani carpet under my feet. I only want my life back, as it was, with only a tiny correction.
I suppose my salary, the biggest salary I ever touched in my life, is landing smoothly on my French account. One day, when the pandemic is over, I might be able to use this money to rebuild my life. To discover that, after all, the bottom was a metaphor.
It is highly probable that the lockdown that started this Friday prevented me from perpetrating my zina. Finally, I got dearly attached to those exquisite, non intrusive manners of my banlieusard lover, named after that old Arabic poet Ibn Mamar who loved Busaina. The only love affair of those last 15 years, and who knows, maybe the last love affair of my life. At least it provides me with a good recollection, even if it is only of those avid kisses the first time he came chez moi.
As I said, it is the religion that tears us apart, so that I hesitate on the brink of committing my zina, for the first and only time in my life. Perhaps it would be easier if we lived in the Bedouin Arabia, in the time of Jamil and Busaina. But it is the Parisian banlieue, 15th century Hijri, and I am afraid of disillusionment. I got too much used to those extra sophisticated erotic gadgets that my husband sends me through the Amazon to enjoy an intercourse with a live man. The thing would be obviously too short and of too little excitement, and it would cost me my religion.
On the other hand, the events in Poland cause me a creepy sensation. As if my zina could put me in a real danger of unwanted pregnancy. It is not like this, of course, I have my pills and my condoms and my right to abortion granted by my religion and entirely covered by my medical insurance. But it brings me bad memories, the memories of my youth, of that creeping anxiety I used to experience as a young woman.
I was 21, if I calculate correctly, when the abortion became illegal in Poland. And even when it was legal, oh, how much abuse, how many traumas I could bring to my narration. We never felt safe, me, my mother, whoever. Certainly, now, as I am 48, the probability I might ever become pregnant in my life slowly goes down to the round zero. But I lived all my womanly life in the shadow of Polish fundamentalism. Only now the women of my country are awaken from that long slumber. Awaken only to see their rights shrinking.
I do not believe in the victory of this Polish revolution. To the contrary, I follow with increasing preoccupation the growth of violence against women. Those fascist boys of Poland got an explicit permission to attack, an invitation. They have metal bars and steel rosaries. They are told to "defend their churches" against the protesters that are explicitly qualified as "satanic".
There is an abysmal difference between my religion and their religion. Perhaps because mine creates those smoothly mannered, non intrusive men who kiss avidly and keep telling me: Tu n'es pas obligée... And of course, this is what creates the biggest temptation of all.
I've seen, I've checked, and I know for sure. I got the utter certainty based on careful examination. THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE. No alternative to my marriage, to my way of life, to my aspirations. Either I keep my Leiden and my Oxford well in mind, or I commit suicide right as I stand, or rather sit on my sofa in this Parisian banlieue.
I've just touched the bottom. It was a catabasis, the utter descent into the abyss. I pulled the brake right on the brink of depression. The Great Plague is something that I might mention as my justification. Yet sincerely speaking, I just came out of my own free will right to the brink and looked beyond. How my life could have been different. If I were actually lonely. If I were actually an immigrant. If I actually had no money on my account. If I actually belonged to this banlieue.
Yet I am a solvent citizen in my own Europe. An international scholar. An attractive, sexually active woman adored by her husband all along these last 15 years or so.
As soon as the pandemic is over and the flights out of Arabia operate again, I promise myself to offer a beautiful marriage, generously, bravely, by the ample standards of that God who loves beauty and who seems so absent in this Parisian banlieue (in spite of heads being cut off in His name). I will take my husband to the Concertgebouw, like in old times, and to Casa Rosso. I will pay for the two tickets from my own pocket, in an ostensive way, licking the traditional penis-shaped Amsterdamer lollipop.
Bon, et alors, quelle est la conclusion ? La conclusion générale is that all those men on Tinder et al. are not there to find a real woman or to build an authentic relationship, even one based on sexual affinity or good quality sex taken seriously. They are very far from that horizon of expectation, they have no faith that such things might come true, might be real. It is their lack of faith, paradoxically, that utterly prevents me from committing my zina.
All those dating sites are great producers of solitude, keeping people at ever increasing distance from fulfilment. Maybe this is the reason why they are so popular. They utterly channel and legitimize the fear of vagina dentata. For love hurts, even good quality sex hurts. Grandeur and braveness are required to face it.
So all those people distract themselves making believe they are searching. Yet they are constantly at one step from their great love and their great sex. They are almost touching it with the tips of their fingers. But it never comes true, keeping away from them the burden of commitment.
Meanwhile, the real life goes on, elsewhere.
And this is how, at 48 years of age, I finally get clear what I do truly appreciate in men. Manners, I say, and sexual ethics. And what it takes to be a good friend.
In other words, what makes a man is inside, just the way it happens to be with computers. Certainly, I also appreciate a lot of other things, such as bravery and that kind of entrepreneurial / engineering spirit (the equivalent of hunting capacity of our ancestors, and more, since it's men who make our lives go on, they pump the oil and make the tomatoes come to the supermarkets on time), and good communication skill. Yet on the other hand, it surprises me of how many attributes I am able to abdicate. First thing, I don't expect them to speak 20 languages and to have read all those books I read myself. I accept them lacking in intellectual terms, just as in ancient times men used to accept their concubines to be silly. It is long time ago that I understood there is no such thing as learned debates at breakfast. I don't seek any sort of social stance through being a couple. Perhaps I'm wrong in this, perhaps I miss greatly that sort of additional push, yet I've got used to make my career at uniquely my own personal expense.
And at the outcome of all these adventures, I have got what I bargained for. Certainly, many better things might be possible, greater, more dignified love is always a mirage on the horizon. Well, sexual ethics is a way of speaking, purity is a construct. Manners as well. Constructs. But what I got makes me feel comfortable. Gosh, I never expected my life would be like this at 48. I ended up liking my age, the age of greater insight.
And who knows, what kind of dashing adventure might be just around the corner, a surprise of that God who loves beauty.
In those remote times when I was still busy in doing research and writing learned essays, I wrote, among other topics, on women in the Orient, on how their oriental adventure was a way of adopting a male gender identity: that of a desert sheikh, not that of an Arab woman. This recollection leads me to the question what did I actually learn, adopt or engage during those last fifteen years of my desert marriage. It is something that comes to the fore as I am here in Paris and try to negotiate the reality to which I am exposed.
What strikes me is that somehow, anachronistically and through a peculiar gender inversion, I have adopted the characteristic prejudices of a desert sheikh. And now I talk to those men here, and I experience a surprizing, inverted cultural shock, as if I were attacking this City of Men from the East rather than from the West. What is more, as if I were myself an Oriental man rather than woman. We talk and they tell me things about them, their life, and the latter invariably includes stories of "having had" various -rather numerous- sexual partners. Narrated in plusquamperfectum, such stories should do nothing to a western woman. We are not supposed to be jealous of the past; almost to the contrary, the vastness of experience should be appreciated. Yet those confessions end up giving me that typically oriental feeling of vague repugnance. Those men are sullied, impure, in quite a substantial way, independently of any moral appreciation of what they did and what they did not, of what could be forgiven or justified, or simply considered as a normal life of an adult male. I just have that oriental feeling in the guts.
Apparently there exists a flourishing market of hymen reconstruction, producing false virgin brides for the benefit of Oriental men. I wonder if there exists a technique of restoring male virtue for the benefit of the uncompromising Oriental women like me.
Et voilà, my ephemeral love is gone, even sooner than the red roses of passion are gone. No, not him. In that delicate field, he has both directness and refined manners that I never, or very rarely, saw among much more educated, upper class men. How much paradoxical it is to say that it is religion that tears us apart.
Whatever Polish journals might say about it, France is not a caliphate, and truly the Islamic sexual ethics as I saw during this brief survey oscillate flatly around the zero line. It is so strange that I must come here to say this. After talking intimately to hundreds of men, I did not come across a single fundamentalist.
It is a strange feeling, as if I were the last woman on earth.
Overall, all these adventures, sweet and bitter, make me understand what actually my longing is, and what an exorbitant price I am disposed to pay for that utter luxury of having a God.
A God? Or perhaps that minoritarian, elitist, yet entirely earthly privilege of having a sexual dignity. Acquired at an exorbitant price of tears and living flesh torn apart.
Yet in a long lineage of women, I am the first one to have a sexual dignity. My mother, and the mother of my mother, and the mother of the mother of my mother had neither sharaf nor effective control over their bodies; they lived lame, dirty and bitter sexual lives. With all those restrictions I've imposed upon myself, I am not only better served, but also infinitely freer to give myself to whoever I chose than any of them. Infinitely more senhora de mim (just to use the expression of the Portuguese feminist poet, Maria Teresa Horta). And all this made possible, since I've decided to leave behind the country and culture in which I was born. Where many of these acquired freedoms are about to be withdrawn just as I write these words.
I distinctly remember a lesson about sex that my mother gave me when I was a teenager. Myślisz, że seks to coś pięknego, she said, bo jeszcze nikt cię nie zerżnął tak, żeby cię wszystko bolało. It wouldn't be unfundamented to say that it is against the crudeness of this sentence that I converted, years later, to the religion of God. Because I wanted to live and to love differently, far away from my country, culture and spiritual void into which I had been born. Because I wanted to believe, against all evidence if necessary, that sex is beautiful and brings the grace of that God who loves beauty.
Last woman over the face of the earth as I may be, I stick to my sexual dignity so tightly, because I still believe that a moment might come in which such things matter.
In conclusion, the exorbitant price I pay is the price of hope. The price of keeping intact the belief in things that one day may matter.
The autumn brought me love: a love that is ephemeral, gratuitous, generous, tender, totally asocial, without a future. Et pourtant c'est une aventure tellement parisienne d'avoir tombé amoureuse d'un Arabe de la banlieue... In this silence and solitude of the Great Pandemic, he brought me red roses, those dark red roses of passion, and two bottles of Burgundy wine.
Most probably, I will continue married to my husband, who was my ephemeral, gratuitous, generous, tender, totally asocial love without a future 15 years ago. Most probably, I will vaguely continue my serendipitous search of a social love, a normal life, a home in France that I see as such an impossible venture. Most probably, I will continue as a solitaire woman. Most probably, I will timidly dream about that spiritual love at the heights of the religion of God. That intense and burning love of the Islamic paradise.
What can I do? Nothing, just fall on my knees and pray.