A Woman Travelling: Reflecting on 10 Years of Travels

On Safety

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.

 

Fin

 

 

 

 

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Travels in Literature: The Shadow of The Wind-Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Warning: MASSIVE SPOILERS

the shadow of the windFor 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.

Travels in Literature: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet

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.