So when I travelled to Spain the first time I found the blank space where “spanien” was filled with colour and life. With palm trees and that certain glow in the sky. With tiny bars with metal tables where you can eat the best toast with tomatoes, olive oil and salt. With arguing with waiters. With long beach days with the usual variety of people. A scholarly looking woman with just a towel and a book, fellow tourists liberated and sunbathing topless. Families that always come with nearly a houseful of stuff. People selling bottles of water and corn cobs cooked over coals. At sunset, older couples hauling out their card tables to sit on the promenade and us wondering how they got them there. Teenagers hanging out.
In Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in The Woods” Bryson writes about an incident that occurred while he was hiking the Appalachian trail, albeit in a different part of the trail. Two women were brutally murdered and the murderer never found. This incident is told briefly and without much consequence, that is, it doesn’t stop Bryson from hiking the trail and so doesn’t effect the story much. But for me, a reader and a woman who likes travel it did have an effect. It reminded me that for women travelling and travelling alone are still rebellious acts. It reminded me that so often when women tread in spaces that have been traditionally occupied by men there is danger and fear. It reminded me that explaining this fear is still a job, an exhausting, draining job, that often to falls to women. It reminded me that my good navigation skills, even in strange cities, isn’t a natural skill but a consequence of having travelled alone and paying attention to where I am at all times. It reminded me of the way we are often blind to situations that don’t affect us directly and as such there are probably a multitude of issues that I, a white woman, don’t personally see and need to learn about. And it made me angry that women’s safety is so often treated this way, as an oh-well-what-can-you-do, and something that shouldn’t discourage women from travelling or even taking precautions. As a feminist, I would like to live in a world where women are always safe, but this isn’t, notably, the world we live in. Telling women that sure, they should travel any and everywhere and throw caution to the wind seems callous at worst, and thoughtless at best.
On Being Alone
Back when I was 21 after my first trip abroad (and alone) I remember someone saying to me that they could never eat alone in a restaurant. Of course at that time I fancied myself an extremely worldly and independent woman (having both lived abroad AND gone to the cinema by myself) and looked at this comment with contempt. But it’s hard to deny, for me at lest, that in the last ten years the attitude towards women travelling alone , or in general doing things alone, has changed a lot. Many young women from my home town are travelling alone now, and my social media is flooded with advertisements for groups with titles like ‘Solo Women Travelling’ and so on. Also a lot of mentions of “girl tribes” which, if I’m honest makes me highly uncomfortable. When I see fellow women doing things alone it makes me happy, it makes me proud. But there’s a commercialisation of women travelling that honestly doesn’t sit right with me. We know that women have a lot of buying power and these trips that promise round the world adventures, courses that suggest that you will make a massive income while lying on the beach and sipping from a coconut, and wellness retreats that promise you that through the right meditations and essential oils your life will be fixed, seem less like women’s empowerment to me and more like plain old capitalism. As I’ve written before, travelling is great and can certainly help and empower us but we have to be careful how we frame it. And if I’m honest, why does it have to be empowering? What is wrong with women doing something we want just because we want to? Because it’s fun? Because we can? It seems in this day and age we are all crushed under the weight of having to constantly be bettering ourselves. Our hobbies should become jobs and our spare time filled with informative podcasts and TED Talks, if we’re not making money we feel guilty. But there’s nothing wrong with doing something because we want to and this is especially true for women whose enjoyment of leisure time so often gets labelled as selfish.
On Being The Only One
Often, over the last two years I’ve wondered why I found this move to Ireland more difficult and more frustrating than when I lived here before or when I lived in any of the other cities I’ve lived in over the years. And it occurred to me the other day that it is because I’m relatively alone. That is, I’m the only non-Irish person I know. In other places I’ve lived I’ve always had the barrier of expats around me, people with whom you can laugh at your cultural foibles, wonder at the things that annoy you and praise the things you love. Whatever the case may be you’re on equal footing. Everything is as new and different to you as it is to everyone else. Without that, I’ve felt lost at times.
Of course I am writing this as a white and English speaking person who has moved to a largely white and English speaking area so I don’t wish to conflate my experiences with that of people who might be visible minorities or experience racism or prejudice.
On Social Media
When it comes to social media, particularly Pinterest and Instagram I often find myself torn. On the one hand I know and can feel the way that they contribute to personal and community stress. When it comes to travel it’s not enough anymore to go somewhere interesting and have a fun or interesting time. It has to be done while perfectly dressed and shot with a high quality camera and edited to perfection and posted with a thoughtful and engaging, but not-to-obviously-looking-for-followers and then. THEN if it’s a moody shot of a mountain or something it will be praised as art but if it’s you on that mountain then it’s more vain, self obsessed unrealistic-expectation-setting trash. Social media is fickle and difficult, just when someone thinks they’ve figured out the algorithm, it changes. It puts pressure on us to act like every moment is perfect. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know there.
On the flipside I think that a lot of the derision towards Instagram and Pinterest has a sexist undertone. People use Instagram to showcase their beautiful homes and skilfully and artistically applied make up, their DIY craft projects and other things that traditionally have been feminine pursuits. Pursuits that are so often labelled as shallow.
Sometimes I miss the days of travelling without Instagram. It didn’t matter if my outfits weren’t perfect always (okay, hardly ever) and I didn’t feel that I had anything to lose or to prove. Still I enjoy an artfully arranged and taken Instagram shot. I suppose the necessary thing as in everything is to find balance, to keep learning and to worry less what people think, a not simple task in itself.
Warning: MASSIVE SPOILERS
For years I’ve been working my way through one of these “A hundred books everyone should read in their lifetime” lists that someone tagged me in on Facebook years ago when that was still a cool thing to do. This list, like many of its ilk, is severely lacking in diversity so I am not rushing through the list but as a list lover I am still determined to finish it. One of the books on this list is The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I was ready to be intrigued by this book, a mystery set in post-civil war Barcelona and indeed there were parts I liked. The discussion of the civil war and the aftermath is intriguing and thoughtful and the pain and suffering of living in Barcelona and Spain during that time is raw and believable. There are truly funny moments and the main characters are well developed and interesting. The resolution of the mystery is a bit long-winded and sometimes, arguably, unnecessary. Even I, a person wholly uncapable of solving literary mysteries, had figured out the end. That’s not a complaint necessarily, because The Shadow of The Wind is an homage to the gothic novel, right down to the creepy, abandoned and possibly cursed mansion and the troubled women within, to the dark lurking figures and violent villains. But it’s the women that present the problem. Perhaps I am thinking more critically about these things because we are in a cultural moment where women’s stories are more centred than ever, and we are finally taking control of abuse narratives. Whatever the reason, here’s the problem as I see it, the women in the novel lack volition or desires of their own. In the first part of the novel we meet Daniel, then only a boy who after finding a mysterious book meets Clara, a beautiful and blind young woman. Young Daniel is smitten but over the years the two develop a friendship. Daniel remains in love with her throughout his adolescence evening abandoning his childhood best friend to spend time with her. But she does not return his feelings and when he walks in on her having sex with someone else their friendship ends. In the final pages of the novel, the narrator makes sure to tell us that Clara is aging and bitter and has a failed marriage under her belt. She, supposedly, longs for the admiration and boyish love of Daniel. But why do we need to know this at all? The narrator never really tells us anything about Clara, she’s beautiful and vapid like the rest of the female characters in the book and so she deserves to be “punished”. She deserves this punishment for treating the main character as a friend and not a lover, an unforgivable sin. And what is her punishment anyway, a divorce and age? Things that happen to many and all of us, respectively. Why would she become a bitter older woman unless youth, beauty and marriage are the only things that can possibly matter to women? The other women don’t fare much better. There’s Bea, Daniel’s later conquest who we first learn about as, yes, you guessed it, vapid and beautiful and unsure of what she wants. Luckily Daniel shows her and after they get to know each other in the Biblical sense she falls ill. Of course, she is pregnant like another character who the same fate has befallen. The story within a story structure draws explicit parallels between our protagonist Daniel and the mysterious author he is obsessed with, Julian Carax. Like Daniel, Juilan comes from a working-class background and was in love with a beautiful woman. I want to say she was described as vapid too, but we don’t even get to find out that much about her. After they have sex she becomes pregnant and Julian flees to Paris after her father attempts to send him to the army. Later we find out she dies in childbirth as her father refused to get a doctor. Unlike Julian, Daniel has the ability to change the course of his life and that of his unborn child by marrying Bea and starting a life together. That’s all well and good, if not particularly feminist, but completely missing from this story are the women’s desires or even personalities. The mystery of the novel can’t be separated from the treatment of women. Julian becomes a writer and later a disturbed and mysterious figure because of the loss of his young love. But the women only exist as fuel for the men’s desires and their suffering the fuel for their art and their actions. Yes, they consent to the sexual activity but that’s all we learn of them. Their hopes and dreams, what they could have become if they were allowed, these ideas aren’t even entertained. That Daniel and Julian in their romantic turmoil abandon and destroy friendships and destroy or alter the lives of the women they purport to care about, even leading to the death of another character, Nuria, is presented without criticism is another oversight. Like so many other books women exist merely to be acted upon and only through their conquest can the men become who they are and the story take shape.
A few weeks ago I was waiting to meet my husband and I was standing in the street with my shopping bags in hand, in which I had a cinnamon scented candle and a baguette, among other things of course. Man cannot live from cinnamon candles and French bread alone. There was a brisk wind blowing and I thought,
ah I am so European winter, this is what it is all about, carb loading and scented candles.
Happy holidays everyone, I was working on some serious topics for the blog, but like many I feel overwhelmed by the world at the moment and I think we all need a bit of a mental break, so I thought I would write about my holiday plans this year. The holidays can feel like an overwhelming time. The idea that we are spending beyond our means to buy presents that we don’t need, the pressure to entertain, the extension of Christmas all the way back to Halloween, the erasure or main-stream minimization of other important holidays that take place around this time, these are real problems. Still, I think we can make the holidays into a time to spread love, to do good and to come out the other side feeling refreshed and renewed. If we include others, give generously to those in need, put thought into our actions and bring our values to the holiday table, we can make it through, guilt free and uplifted. I went through a little phase where I pretended to not like Christmas but in reality it is my favourite time of year. I love the cheesy music, the food, the warmth of sitting by a fire, I love buying presents and yes, I love getting presents. I love spending time with family and I enjoy and need the time spent doing absolutely nothing, spending a day or two in pyjamas and not worrying what anyone thinks. I love Christmas dinner and Christmas breakfast. I love it all.
Honestly, I get caught up in all of it. Just this morning I read about ten articles about festive entertaining, despite the fact that I am not doing anything this year. But despite all of this, I’ve made an effort to lighten up the load. I had a good laugh the other days as I was browsing for last minute Christmas presents on Amazon. I had Amazon UK in one tab and Amazon Canada in the other, both open to the “last minute gifts page”. To my shock Amazon Canada mainly listed toys and electronics and Amazon UK had… alcohol and condoms. I guess they celebrate a bit differently over here. This will be our first Christmas together in Ireland and in our own place so I’ve tried to make it a bit special. However, we are also looking for a new place in January and are trying to save money, so while we’ve spent enough on Christmas presents we also been somewhat frugal (not totally, we aren’t saints) on decorations and that sort of thing. For our tree I knit a few bows out of leftover yarn and we got some vintage decorations from my in-laws that look perfect n our home. I also went foraging around our house for pine branches, pine cones and berries and have put them in small glass containers all around our house. I mean all around, no room has been spared. They look beautiful and our house smells festive. I also made a pom-pom garland which looks
very instagrammable lovely atop our bookshelf. We are big take-away eaters but in the past weeks have cut back and for our last order each got a meal instead of starters, soup and a load of other things that we always end up eating half of. I’ve also taken some time in the weeks before Christmas to eat healthy, work on some courses I’ve been taking, exercise and meditate. Don’t get me wrong, I plan to eat all around me over the holidays but wanted to feel a bit better before I do that. There’s also something calming and invigorating about going for a Christmas walk. Even though, for this Canadian, it’s bit bewildering going for a walk a mere few days before Christmas when everything is still green. Well kind of brown actually, even the Emerald Isle isn’t Emerald all the time.
However you celebrate, or don’t, this holiday season let’s take time to sit down with a cup of tea, go for a walk, take a minute to ourselves, to create something and to be generous with our time and money and to have compassion for ourselves and those around us. Let’s dress up (if that’s your thing), dance the night away, light candles, curl up for a movie night, watch the new Star Wars, listen to sad songs, call loved ones who are far away and enjoy the moment. Happy Holidays everyone.
I have a few rituals for when I get discouraged with myself. One is I buy or download a book that could be called pretentious so that I can casually drop into conversation that I am “just reading Ulysses”. Or I listen to new age podcasts. It’s not that I particularly agree with everything in them but I just love the idea that I can meditate my way to a better life. For the record, I do believe in meditation and some of the other parts of it, but I think there is room for doubt in any belief system. In any case you would think that after many new age podcasts and “build your self a life you don’t need a holiday from” affirmations that I wouldn’t experience jealousy. But you would be wrong! I am not, as previously disclosed, what you might call a positive person. In fact, I am the opposite. Where others my see the unknown as something beautiful to embrace I live in constant terror of what bad thing might befall me around the next corner. And I’m jealous, but I’m not just jealous of one thing (ie: other people’s travels). No, I am jealous of everything even when I can rationalise why I don’t have or even want something. Someone has a cleaner? I am jealous of that even though the longest I’ve lived in one apartment at a time has been two years, the last two years in fact. A European friend gets to go on a long haul break and I am stuck doing city breaks? Of course that makes sense I’m from Canada and if I want to go home once a year than that costs as much as their long trips. Someone just has that pregnancy glow? I’m jealous of that too, even as a childless-by-choice woman. Earlier I was feeling down because “I hadn’t gone anywhere this year” and this despite a weeklong road trip around Ireland, a city break in Belfast, a music festival and a week in Prague. Does this all sound ridiculous? That’s because it is.
Now I would like to offer you a solution, but I don’t have one. The truth is that there are people who have things I don’t have. There are people who are better at not buying a take away on the weekend and have more money for bigger things they want. There are people who pursued their careers and didn’t do the “free spirit” thing. There are people who come from wealthier backgrounds. Those are all true and being thankful for what I have (which I am) doesn’t magically make them untrue. Personally I don’t find that I can improve my mood by reminding myself of the things I have, because again, I can rationalise them all away. The fact is that I’ve always had an image in my mind of who I was and wanted to be. In my mind I was the world traveller who was always wearing floaty caftans and “just dropping by” before jetting off somewhere else. I never seemed to have a job but yet had stylish clothes and an extensive wine knowledge. I was well read and had heated arguments on the phone in another language. I could easily discuss current affairs around the world while also being able to casually drop some reason that someone should or shouldn’t do something based on their numerology. And friends. That’s who I am now. Well, more or less. I need a few caftans and my knowledge of wine is not so much extensive as it is “I have tried a lot of different bottles of wine to excess”. But even being the person I wanted to be doesn’t stop me from seeing what other people have and sometimes being envious. This is why I balk at the “build a life you don’t need a vacation from” nonsense. You can build the exact life you want and still wonder what it would be like to have that other thing. There’s that cheesy saying about one door opening when the other door closes but the truth is that when we choose one door another one closes. Every choice we make excludes another choice, or excludes it for now.
So what to do about that human emotion of jealously? I think, as I’ve learnt from the many meditation podcasts I’ve listened too, the only thing to do is experience it and then let it go. To say to ourselves, “I feel jealous of that” and then to not shame ourselves. We try to make ourselves relentlessly happy and feel guilty when we aren’t, we already have so much we tell ourselves. In the travel community we say that if we just change our destination then we can be happy. That endless travel is the solution. But it’s not. Happiness is an elusive and ever-changing thing and trying to make ourselves happy doesn’t work. Next time we feel jealous let’s forgive ourselves for being human and then just keep doing our thing. Instead of trying to be relentlessly happy let’s relentlessly be ourselves.
One of my greatest annoyances about life in Europe is that if you ever try to make a generalisation about Europe even one that is positive, you will be met with cries of ” but Europe is a huge place and all the countries are so diverse and cultured” as if that is not true for every continent and even country. Once I got into an online debate with someone about racism in Europe. I made it clear that I had travelled and lived in different European countries and witnessed racism in all of them. I wasn’t saying all Europeans are racist just that there are racist people everywhere. The reply I got was “but Europe is very diverse”. Since no one has ever changed their mind about anything on the internet that is where I gave up. But I digress. The point is that even though that is my pet peeve it’s true that European countries vary drastically from each other, which is why I was excited to visit a new country, the Czech Republic, specifically Prague.
We landed on a rainy Wednesday afternoon and after a taxi ride where I envisioned us in the next instalment of Taken (this happens in every taxi I take, I’m not singling out our very lovely taxi driver) we arrived at our hotel BoHo Prague, a small boutique hotel. If you’re staying in Prague, especially for first timers like us, I would highly recommend it. It was so comfortable and, perhaps better, it was right in the centre of the old town so it was perfect for getting to all the tourist spots, which we did all of. Our first afternoon we drank a Radler and got a delicious sandwich from a street vendor before falling asleep with the intention (not really) of getting back up. However, the next day we awoke refreshed and ready to go to Prague castle. The castle is one of the most expansive castles in Europe and as such it was fairly busy, but the views and architecture were impressive. After walking down we headed to the beer garden to enjoy some famous Czech beer and also another famous tourist tradition of charging you for random things. Again, not singling out Prague this happens in every tourist place but c’est la vie! We were touristing and enjoying it.
The next day we went to the Communism Museum after I made a pit stop at the capitalist museum, ie: the shopping mall, ie: mainly Sephora. A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my husbands friends about privacy, something that I believe my generation needs to be worried about even though personally I find it hard to do the necessary work to protect my privacy. Walking through the communism museum reinforced my view that we need to be concerned about privacy as it is essential to democracy. Here were terrible stories of what happens when privacy is taken away, and it is a recent part of history as well. That had a big impact on me and I left thinking about how forgetful we are as a human race. The museum is well presented, it feels increasingly claustrophobic as you go through it and the writing is excellent, as are the photos and displays.
Later we went for some traditional Czech food. Full disclosure, we went to one of those touristy places that was off of a main square BUT the food was delicious. I had the wild boar goulash and my husband had a platter of sorts which was a variety of meats, a lot of meat…so much meat. Where was I? After dinner we rolled home, very full. I would also like to add that sometimes those touristy places aren’t the horrible clichés we think they are. For example, in Valencia there are lots of paella restaurants on the beach, which obviously lend themselves to tourists but mixed in with the over-priced cocktail bars and a place where once my patatas bravas were totally covered in shrimp hairs, are the good restaurants where local families go to eat their Sunday paella. Anyway I can’t guarantee the place we ate wasn’t a shrimp-hair-on-potatoes kind of place but our food was good.
Revived from our food coma we went on the boat tour the next morning. It was bright and crisp and the views from the river were spectacular. Later we went to a quiet Irish bar to watch football. I mean, I think we know it wasn’t me watching the football. But I enjoyed a few drinks and a lot of chicken wings. Many European cities (that I’ve been to) have these types of places, the atmosphere of an Irish pub but that has American football one night and soccer the next, that has pub quizzes and American style food but done well. And usually there’s a blend of locals, expats and tourists and I find these places charming.
For our last day, we headed to the Café Louvre, a café famous for entertaining famous guests like Einstein and being a big part of café society. I am intrigued by the Lost Generation and A Moveable Feast is a book that I enjoyed immensely despite reminding myself frequently of what a, let’s say, not-good, person Ernest Hemingway was. Anyway, my point is, sitting in the café Louvre drinking a café au lait and eating my brunch with other tourists and locals, someone writing, what I imagined to be their travel memoirs, well, it felt cool and it reminded me of A Moveable Feast. For brunch I had smoked salmon on pancakes (for fellow North Americans, they weren’t exactly pancakes but fluffy, savoury delights) with sour cream and it was delicious. Apparently there can be long waits on the weekends but we got in easily on a Sunday morning.
This was our first time in Prague and it was a truly lovely time. I always think you need to go somewhere twice. The first time to be a tourist and the second to, well, do the non-touristy things. Which means, Prague, we’ll be back.
A quick browse of the blogs I read, pinterest and instagram tells me all the ways I can make money. They range from the glamourous (start a “side hustle”, manifest more money just by thinking about it, positive affirmations) to the downright torturous (make pack lunches for the rest of your life and never enjoy any of the finer things in life like take out or a can of coke from the refrigerator section of the shop or Netflix). I would be lying if I said I don’t fall into the temptation of trying these various things. Sometimes I put on my finest silk robe, light some candles and swan around the house reciting my horoscope and telling my husband we need to manifest 500 Euros. He asks me why I don’t aim a bit higher but I think that we should be reasonable in our requests to the Universe or God. I mean, really. Other times I am scrooge, chronicling every cent and feeling guilty for having 2 pints instead of one or taking a taxi when we could have walked. I get it. Here we are with housing prices becoming nearly unreachable and there is the ever present threat of a robot taking our job. Many people my age are going back to school for a second or third time. The world seems on the brink of calamity and social media makes us feel constantly inferior. If we sort out our finances, it seems, maybe we can have a perfect apartment and travel constantly and in general escape that existential dread (too far? Maybe).
So I wanted to write this because I want to share what my finances are like after 10 years of travelling every year for long periods of time and living abroad. I’m not here to tell you to skip your take away coffee, or to live like your poor, or to just GET YOUR PRIORPTIES STRAIGHT because, pardon my French, I think that’s all horseshit. You won’t get rich by skipping your coffee and travel isn’t a priority for everyone. Furthermore telling people to punish themselves for not being rich by not ever having any small luxuries is cruel and judgmental. I’m not here to tell you how you can travel Europe for 7 years with $500 because a.) how? and b.) this sounds terrible to me.I used to feel frustrated when people would tell me I was lucky to travel because it didn’t seem like luck to me, I worked hard to get everything I have. But in another sense I am lucky, lucky to have a stable financial background, to have been able to live at home and find good jobs and to have been born when and where I was. So the goal of this isn’t to tell anyone to save for travel or how to do it. I find that finances and travel aren’t often talked about in a honest way and I wanted to do that.
First of all the negatives. I have debt and have been working hard to get it paid off, it’s not easy. Second of all, because I wanted to travel I did a lot of my degree online so I could work more and while I don’t say I regret it there are certain aspects I now see the negatives too. Had I done my degree in a class room I could have met other people in my field, made friends, networked and probably seen a more clear career path. I have borrowed money from my parents (which I paid back years ago). I have lived in some not great places and eaten a lot of rice and beans (the metaphorical rice and beans). I once stayed in a fifty person dorm.
When it comes to saving money, I worked in restaurants and always made good tips which I saved. I made a chart and tracked everything I spent and made. I bought conditioner in Dollarama (oh, how I miss you Dollarama. Not the conditioner, that was rubbish and I only did that once) and have always used mainly drugstore make up. I lived at home for little or no rent, got a lift or a taxi to work ( I don’t drive so a car would be a bit of a strange investment). I picked up every shift I could and went to work even when I was sick. Ultimately, for me travel was the thing I wanted most so I worked to get it. There’s no secret to saving money for travel, except for just doing it and for the average person that means giving up other things. That’s it. It’s also important to remember that not every can afford to, or even wants to travel and we should stop telling them “but I travelled all of Norway with 25 cents!”. Let’s just stop that nonsense. I would also like to add that I travelled for 1-5 months at a time, not including the nearly two years in Spain and two here in Ireland. Yes, that’s a long time to travel and I enjoyed it, I’m not going to dispute that! But it also means that for 11 to 7 months I was at home working and that’s a long time to not have new clothes or a seasonal beverage, still those are things that can be done without. What shouldn’t be done without is nights out with friends, after work drinks and functions with family and friends. Whether you’re at home or abroad human connection requires money and time and those things shouldn’t be sacrificed for a trip.
Lastly, this year I turned the much maligned thirty. And when you turn thirty, at least for me, things start happening to you. By things I mean that I now prefer designer make up, and the thought of staying in a hostel makes me want to run screaming in the other direction. I spend more money on things for my house. I want to eat good food and when I travel I want to eat the local food not hide out in the hostel eating the free dinners. I am not at all criticising those things, I had a good time doing them all through my twenties but priorities change and that’s okay. That is to say, I better up my manifestation goals. Maybe 550 euro?
For many Christmas pictures and pictures of our trip to Prague check on my Instagram @stephanierosetravels
This past winter I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a set of novels that amount to a modern masterpiece, expansive and moving in their depiction of the lives of two women in Naples over the span of sixty years. When I finished the final book I saw there was a “readers guide” at the end of the novel. There’s something annoying about finding a reading guide at the end of a novel that cannot be reduced to simple and trite terms like “who was your favourite character”? These reading guides are often found at the end of books intended for women, I suppose because women are more likely to be in a reading group (or that’s the impression people have) but more often than not the questions seem like they are directed at the boozy moms from some summer comedy and not, you know, women who read a breadth of great literature and enjoy discussing it with their friends. One of the things that this reading guide said was something about the universality of the story. But what universality? In the Neapolitan novels Ferrante shows us what a changing Italy looks like, what it’s like for women to be born into a deeply patriarchal society and the pain and hardship that goes with trying to free oneself from it or, at least, navigate it. There were certainly parts that felt like things that all women have experienced. The ugliness and mundanity of day-to-day life ,the one that so often minimizes and suffocates women. The sense of being around people who are threatened by your intelligence and skill, their desire for you to become less and less until you’re nothing at all, the feeling of loss and jealousy and self doubt and of course the love, competitiveness and the pain of female friendships, yes these are universal themes. But there was also a lot of this book that I didn’t “understand” in the sense that it wasn’t my own experience. The physical violence that the women are consistently subjected to, the deep poverty, the landscape of a post-war Italy. At one point the narrator describes a young man, who, striving to become more modern, a Socialist and a feminist, has decided to stop beating women. The problem is he doesn’t quite know how since violence against women has been as much a part of the day to day life of men as eating dinner. In moments like these misogyny and violence become something uncontrollable and overruling. The male characters, as much as the female ones are trapped by a life that has only shown them cruelty and force, where power can only be maintained by destruction and violence. Furthermore the characters don’t have a neat, clean, history book view of fascism, misogyny or familial ties and seeing these things from the perspective of characters who transition from impoverished children to educated adults is enlightening, it’s thrilling. Ferrante’s writing is so vivid and violent that the characters pain feels at once personal and foreign.
The reason that representation matters so much in entertainment is because underrepresented people deserve to see themselves reflected. But for people who aren’t in that group it’s also necessary to see nuanced and complicated portrayals of different ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. None of us benefit from seeing, hearing or reading the same stories over and over again. And that’s why I chaffed at the depiction of The Neapolitan Quartet being a “universal” story. Not only because I don’t think it was a universal story but also because I don’t want or need it to be. In the last year I made a conscious effort to read more books by women and writers who aren’t white or straight and it has made a massive difference in my life and in the way I see the world. I want to be exposed to stories that show me something different. The part of the novel that was foreign to me, life in Naples, I enjoyed because it was about something that I didn’t know anything about. The parts that were relatable to me, the parts about being a woman were excellent because they spoke about that specific experience. There’s something cathartic about reading (or watching, or hearing) something that expresses something you’ve felt but not been able to put into words. There’s a reason that the response to The Neapolitan Quartet, because it so accurately describes women’s inner lives. But those inner lives are specific to women and they are not, from my perspective, universal.
Likewise, like you, I imagine, I have an image of Italy in my mind. I imagine old farm houses where long family lunches take place between close knit family members. I imagine the ancient Roman architecture, the quaint villages (imagined in black and white, like the first episode of the second season of Master of None ), the pasta, the stylish people populating the streets. I’ve visited Italy, but I could move to Italy tomorrow and live there for the rest of my life and still not know what it feels like to bean Italian person. Or to be an Italian woman born in post-war Naples. North American people hold this idea that Europeans do everything right. We want to cook like Italians and enviously look up to the Scandinavian countries’ education system and their moody crime dramas. We want to dress like French women and envy cool British girls. We see it as an advanced place where the large societal problems we have in North America have long since been vanquished. But this isn’t the reality. There are deep problems in Europe and a troubled history that is threatening to rear it’s ugly head once again. It’s for reasons like these that novels like The Neapolitan Quartet are essential to read. Elena Ferrante’s writing is moving, bold and unforgettable and it challenges us at every step.