On Portraiture

When Jamie invites me to drive down the southwest coast of France from Arcachon to Biarritz, I bring my camera. He lives in a van and knows every road to Spain by heart.

It’s the beginning of a long weekend in May, and there’s no 7pm curfew in isolation. After parking in a nature reserve on the outskirts of Mimizan, we walk towards the beach through a forest littered with old branches. We are surrounded by pines, but the branches lay stripped dry and bleached white, like whale bones. Some have been assembled into well-fortified tipis, by either a children’s summer camp or a strange man who moves in the woods by night. I do not take any photos.

There are some people who are opposed to photography as an art. Typically, the argument is that photography is too easy. Point and shoot.

Technically, that’s correct. But you could make the same case for classic arts like painting: you brush colours onto a canvas. It doesn’t guarantee that your final product will be worth remembering. It just guarantees that you’ll have one.

Without a fresh roll of film, Jamie’s camera rests in the van, which has long faded from view. We climb the dune that separates forest from ocean, sand filling our shoes with every step. Panels of wood forming a hasty boardwalk are draped across it, stopping us from sinking in completely. We pause at the top to admire the Atlantic below us, our hair blowing straight behind us as if it were not there at all. The waves are grey and scatter white all over the place.

Jamie describes it as a mess. I have no idea how to read waves, except that they make me feel small and weak. He explains that when the wind blows east towards the beach, the sea is unable to focus, and tosses itself haphazardly towards shore.

We look at the wind forecast together, a premonition of how as the evening goes on, the little arrow on the screen will begin pointing north. Neither north nor east will allow for neat waves, the kind that make for ideal surfing conditions.

We descend to the ocean, and I take a photo.

Later as rain falls on the roof of the van, Jamie says that he doesn’t care if I sleep with someone else because he’s not attached to me. Our bodies are intertwined under the blankets, his body constantly emanating heat and mine sweating as consequence. My toes touch the baseboard, the only part of me still cold.

The candle flickers on the nightside table, unafraid of the falling blankets. Jamie’s face flashes red and vaguely reminds me of someone I used to know when I was younger. In those few seconds, he is more photograph than person to me. I would take a photo but I cannot see beyond the flame to find my camera. It’s the last thing I remember thinking before falling asleep.

We wake to rain, something I get used to. Our dishes from last night lay outside, cleaning themselves in the falling water. Jamie gets up to make himself a coffee and the steam from his coffeemaker billows in the van, evaporating into nothing. We’re both hungry but lack the energy that is typical of a wet Saturday morning, moving as slow as time permits.

As we travel further south, I realize that there isn’t much to distinguish between the beach towns that line the southwest coast. Everything falls on a gradient of cream white to pale peach, missing the bright colours that adorn the Riviera, and rightfully so. There’s nothing flashy to see on the sand coated miles that stretch from Arcachon to Biarritz. Casinos with blinking lights and sprawling resorts are best placed elsewhere. Fine dining is a far off thought; ice cream vendors and waffle stands pepper every town, nestled amongst surf schools and board rental shops.

Modest families with children who are partial to mild hikes through the pines take up temporary residence on this side of the Atlantic. Car parks are filled with camper vans taking advantage of the long weekend. France’s best surf spots bring forth vans full of mostly men, with the occasional woman among them.  

The backroad to Biarritz goes through the same pine forest that we’ve already been following for miles. Occasionally we wind through a tiny town and witness the closing motions of a local market, making me feel mildly melancholic. The occasional forgotten pepper or potato lie lonely on the ground, waiting for the rare gleaner to come across its path. There’s not enough colour left to be worth taking out my camera.

To Jamie, all markets are the same. He feels similarly about the cities we pass, yet drives the same stretch of road several times a year. We continue pushing on through the trees, rain still dripping from above.

When I look out my window, the individual rows of pines thud one after the other. The Landes forest is entirely man-made, a regional project ordered by Napoleon to rescue the area from its swamp-like state and harvest the wood that would be available for years to come. Pines were the sole type of tree planted; at exactly two meters apart in rows that span as far as the eye can see, they are easily prone to forest fires.

I take a photo with a slow shutter speed, watching them burn together as we drive through.

Approaching Bayonne, we find rolls of film in a supermarket off the highway and are ecstatic to refill our cameras. Jamie loads his camera in the parking lot and fires the first shot of me in the passenger seat, smiling awkwardly.

In John Berger’s essay No More Portraits, he writes that the era of significant portraits has ended because there is no longer the need to encapsulate one’s greatness on a single painted canvas. We have cameras now, and an endless amount of ways to frame ourselves. The act of representing oneself is no longer a privilege held for those of high social standing. Since the democratization of photography, we are both artist and subject, gazing and being gazed at.

Jamie pulls the van over into a clearing in the forest, a brilliant green in the wake of rain. We wade into its heart, our pants streaked with the water that brushes off the plants we stride through. Our cameras are clutched close to our chests, keeping them dry from the water that drips off the branches above.

With fresh rolls of film, we see everything in a new light, as if our gazes have been altered. We now look at everything and question whether it’s worth remembering. If it is, we raise our cameras and press the button. If it’s not, we choose to forget it.

We come across a hidden stream, its water the colour of copper. I look at Jamie twice and choose to turn away. He takes one shot of me, my yellow raincoat pulled over my head, unsure of how to pose.

There is always an exchange between photographer and subject. Unlike drawing or painting where the artist is given full creative autonomy, the subject has a level of control over how they will be portrayed.

I ask Jamie to take off his clothes and streak through the field. Without questioning it, he finds a dry patch of earth under a tree and throws everything into a pile. He steps gingerly through the tall grass and tells me to look away from his cold thus shrunken penis. I put my camera lens between us and listen to the sharp click.

We make it to Biarritz in the late afternoon on Saturday, a few hours before curfew sets in. The rain has just cleared and the boardwalk is crowded with families strolling hand in hand. The waves here are nicer than in Mimizan, allowing crowds of surfers to bob in the water. A few brave groups of friends sit along the wet beach, dark sand sticking to their jeans as they rise. The sidewalk is narrower than one would imagine of a bustling coastal city, and snippets of conversation float around our ears as we pass by.

We don’t take any portraits in Biarritz. Despite it being the objective of our trip, we only end up spending a few hours there, turned off by the crowds of people that flood its streets and beaches. It’s the exact opposite of Mimizan’s barren landscape, and is hard to take a photo without catching several strangers in the background.

We walk the sloped path along the Atlantic under the constant threat of rain, feeling like the weekend could last forever. We stop on a hill and look at the water below us. I’m not sure which way the wind is blowing, but I don’t think it’s towards us.

I put my camera to my eye. Jamie, dressed head to toe in black, stands out in monochrome against the grey-blue sea. According to Berger, in a photographic portrait we are exposed to the likeness of a person, but we remain “highly conscious of the fact that nothing can contain itself.”

With his back turned to me, Jamie could be anyone. Portraits are maybe better that way, lingering in anonymity. Perhaps that’s the best thing about photography; its abundance allows memory to live in fragments, representing quiet details rather than aiming for grandeur.

I take in the ocean, the rocks, the grains of salt caught in Jamie’s hair, and the space that stands between us. I press the shutter button and realize I have no film left.

These Boots Were Made for Unpaid Farm Labour

Physical labour is not something that intellectuals concern themselves with. I would know, as I have spent the majority of my adult life reading books by diverse authors, sitting in cafes with my Macbook Air, and alternating between a tight black turtleneck and a baggy black turtleneck. When proving myself aesthetically as an intellectual was not enough, I moved to Paris to focus on writing and lived out my finest struggling artist fantasy until the pandemic turned the city and my mental capacity to dust.

Going into France’s third confinement, non-ironically binge-watching The 100 had become the highlight of my life. I have never experienced such a strong subconscious cry for help before, but therapy was too expensive and moving back to Canada meant having to live with my brother. So, I did what any intellectual would do and quit my job, sold all my belongings, and became an unpaid farmhand in the south of France.

My interest in agriculture is the direct result of a white woman assuming that I, a young Asian living in the heart of old money Paris, was a maid. As everyone was forced indoors during the first confinement, a rich lady who lived in my building asked me to do her ironing because she couldn’t bear the thought of doing her own domestic labour. I said yes under the condition that she paid me per hour, which allowed me to triple the time it took to iron her bath towels.

As our one-sided friendship progressed, she began to order seasonal produce for me from an organic farmer, and the cottagecore spirit took hold of me from there. Expensive and high quality produce allowed me to escape the walls of quarantine to the countryside, a kinder place where you could live in freedom with the earth and all that you can produce by hand. I also got really into snakes, but that’s another story that I can’t explain for legal reasons.   

Fast forward several existential crises later, and I am now working as a farmhand on a biodynamic vineyard in the Bordeaux wine region. Biodynamic farming is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture and food production, which is overseen on the vineyard by Virginie, the momager of the Chateau.

Much like homeopathic medicine, biodynamic farming works best if you believe it does. Some biodynamic practices include burying manure-stuffed cow horns twice per year to enhance soil health, which I have not yet had the pleasure of partaking in. Others involve sprinkling a kombucha-like infusion out of a 20-pound metal backpack onto the soil, which I unfortunately have partaken in.

Working at the repetitive rhythm that is required of farming is not something that I’m used to. But after a year of agoraphobia in Europe’s COVID capital, it’s refreshing to move in a wide open space.

In the morning we wake up to mist and eat fresh bread before going outside to attach vines to their wires, encouraging them to grow in the proper direction. We move slowly down the line, removing dead branches from the past harvest and piling them in lines for the tractor to pick up later.

After a two-hour lunch when the sun rises high in the sky, we gather shiny blue-shelled bugs by hand to be burned in a funeral pyre at the end of the week. They are swept into a large white bucket that emits a sweet putridity when opened. Their ashes will be scattered around the vineyard to warn their brethren away from eating the vines.

I like to pretend that each bug emits a warning to its friends when I snatch one from its leaf, but then I feel too much like a colonist, and erase the thought from my head. At least we aren’t using pesticides.

Naturally, I now work much harder than I did in Paris. As an au pair, my job was gaslighting rich 7-year-olds into making new friends at the park so I could settle on a bench with my phone. On the vineyard, I labour in the fields for five hours per day in exchange for room, board, and the thrill of sharing a shower with thirteen people.

One of those people is Kateri, who is the Native American version of me. Both being retired au pairs, we have replaced childcare with looking over the newly hatched ducklings, who we take for a two-minute swim once per day. As a farm couple, we’re nestled somewhere between George and Lonny from Of Mice and Men and Oliver and Elio from Call Me By Your Name.

Together, we are learning how to take up space in a place that is not our own. Living in a house full of confident farm boys who mock you constantly for your accent and lack of practical skills requires us to unlearn making ourselves small. Thus, we spend the majority of our free time creating a secret sign language to tell each other when the coast is clear to binge eat chocolate chips in the kitchen.

There are days that I miss the freedom of having a space to call my own and wearing something other than the same pair of wind resistant khakis every day. But sometimes girls just wanna walk around in communally-shared rubber boots and further inflame their scoliosis with repetitive bending motions caused by pruning Cabernet Sauvignon. It matters not that I spend a majority of the day smelling like a four-week-old kombucha scoby, but rather that I know what a four-week-old kombucha scoby smells like. You just can’t get that salt of the earth experience by living in a cramped studio surrounded by layers of concrete.

The only downside of being a volunteer farmhand is that I live with no employment or financial security, but living the authentic experience of a John Steinbeck character is enough to keep me going. Nothing really scares me anymore, except for being asked to drive the tractor. I live in permanent fear of accidentally running over the vines and ruining the entire year’s harvest. I suppose that’s where I differ from an actual rancher; professional farm workers don’t have a dichotomy of work that interests them because they like vegetables versus work that they politely decline because they’ve deemed it too labour intensive.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m appropriating agricultural labour just for the fleeting sense of peace that accompanies the cottagecore aesthetic, given that I am a city girl with zero practical skills except the ability to “think critically”. I write about being a volunteer farmhand in the late afternoon while full-time agriculture workers give their whole bodies to this type of work. Behind the gold-filtered photos of wine tours that populate Instagram is permanent back pain that can’t bear taking a day off, nor enjoy the occasional yoga break that some of us might take. No matter how happy or convivial the atmosphere may be, everyone seems to be suffering some degree of fatigue.

Yet, I highly doubt that farmers spend time critically analyzing the class politics of labour idealization when they’ve got a farm to run. While Virginie and her family spend sunup to sundown working on either the physical or business side of the vineyard, I retreat to my laptop on a sunny table in the garden to do my “intellectual work”, as they’ve deemed it. Between tending to the vines, animals, garden, house, wine, and sales, there’s always work to be done, so it doesn’t really matter if a stranger helps you complete the task.

While I am content to spend the rest of my twenties floating between various gold-speckled properties in search of low-skilled farm work with absolute strangers off the internet, I’m sure I’ll go back to the city eventually. This is partially because I accidentally awakened the Antichrist by making Jesus jokes in a farmhouse that has a large crucifix in each room, which resulted in the lights angrily flickering on and off, and now I can’t be alone past 7pm. Alas, we repent and learn, but for now I’m thriving in the middle of nowhere.

With all the open space and repetitive motion that puts your body on autopilot, I’ve had plenty of time to think about writing my first movie script. The farm family has already green-lighted their vineyard as the shooting location, but I have yet to tell them that it is likely going to be a psychosexual thriller involving aliens. As it turns out, physical labour is not completely separate from intellect. Time and balance allow both to flourish, but no one is truly obliged to one or the other.

Since moving to the farm, I haven’t read any books, and I only wear turtlenecks to stay warm after dinner. Yet, I have begun playing piano again, and have revitalized this three-year neglected blog.

The vines are beginning to blossom, and their grapes will be harvested in the last days of summer. I’ve never missed anyone the way I miss my osteopath, but in a place where time is marked by seasonal vegetables and I am potentially the hottest girl for at least twenty-five hectares, I’m in no rush to move on.

the space? wide open. the harvest? abundant. the foot fungus? immaculate.

How To Say Goodbye to Your Foreign Lover at the Airport

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When living in a foreign country it is inevitable that you will fall in love with something. Perhaps not necessarily a person, but maybe a city or quiet park or secret cafe. Given the “foreign” factor, it is inevitable that you and your love will be forced to part ways at some point. I say not necessarily a person, but judging by the title of this post you know I could only possibly mean someone.

This is nothing of a new narrative in the expat or exchange experience. It comes as a matter-of-fact, an essential loss you must pay for having the most beautiful times of your life: the pity of being forced to leave someone you love. There is no cutesy 1920s romance filter I can throw over this tale to make it seem less tragic to myself. One minute you are strolling along the Seine, brunching in Monaco, taking night trains to Italy. Laying in parks with empty bottles of wine and thinking maybe, just maybe, this life could last forever.

Soon it is the end of July and the past three weeks were the best of your life. But they are ending, even though your visa isn’t. You are packing up suitcases that aren’t even yours and hiding love letters in them just to have something that will survive the distance. Of course you will go to the airport for your tragic movie-esque farewell, which is every bit sad as you imagined.

Yet, there are some things I wasn’t aware of before I set off to say goodbye to my foreign lover at the airport. So to ease the pain of the farewell and embarrassment of crying in public, I wanted to present to my loyal readers of this under-utilized blog with my top six tips for the broken hearted traveller to survive saying goodbye at the airport!

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salida is spanish for exit (you should start tearing up now)
  1. if you are the one departing: do not watch a sad movie on the plane

I will admit that one of the lowest moments of my life was when I sobbed in the midst of eating Air Canada’s finest coleslaw while watching Her on a plane. Tears were streaming down my face as I tried to chew through the rubbery vinegar cabbage, all while the Quebecois man beside me pretended like he wasn’t staring. Opt for something more heartwarming like going to sleep where you can forget all about your life for a few hours!

      2. be aware of your closest bathrooms at all times

It is crucial that you locate the bathroom closest to your designated farewell spot ahead of time. This step is often overlooked by lovers saying goodbye, yet it is a key component of keeping your cool at the airport. Having knowledge of the closest bathroom will allow you to make a quick dash there to lock yourself in for a good cry as soon as you’ve bid farewell, otherwise onlookers will be staring as you wander in a daze, crying loudly through the maze of suitcases and tourists.

      3. bring sunglasses to the airport

It is inevitable that you will be sobbing during the goodbye. While bystanders may find this tragically adorable and even touching while you are together, you must remember that eventually you will be forced to turn and walk away….alone. To avoid people staring at your puffy watering eyes, bring sunglasses to hide your shame and heartbreak. The bigger the better!! Darker too!!

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really worried i sound like bella swan in New Moon

      4. don’t forget tissues either

If you have forgotten your travel size pocket tissue pack, please refer to tip number two. But to save time it is better to stop at your local Monoprix beforehand to avoid trying to discreetly wipe your nose on your beloved’s shirt.

    5. do not wander around the arrival gates

There is a great disconnect in the aura between the departure and the arrival gates at the airport. No matter if there is a Mango, a Laduree, or a Starbucks located near the arrival gates, avoid this area at all costs as it is full of pre-travel excitement and happy reunions between lovers and families. The departure gates are 100% more likely to have sad goodbyes, as every day people leave their foreign lovers without any inkling if they’ll ever see each other again!

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we only smoke when within proximity of high quality cameras

     6. if your goodbye is in Paris: fly from CDG, not ORY

Paris Orly Airport has a serious disadvantage if you are planning to say goodbye to your significant other there, mainly that the only form of public transport is a nausea-inducing bus that is always crowded. If possible, opt for CDG airport which is connected to the RER B train. It might smell like urine but at least you won’t vomit on your way home while you are crying and sitting backwards across from highly uncomfortable men who don’t know how to deal with public displays of emotion.

I hope my tips help you survive your sad parting with your significant other! If you are like me and now live in Paris sans amour, at some point you may wonder is there a point of even living in the City of Love if you don’t have a lover anymore? It will surely be sad, maybe just outright depressing, and maybe you won’t be able to eat the same food or listen to the same music or go to the same places anymore or even hate coming home to your formerly shared apartment, but there is never any ending to Paris. If there is anything that lasts, it will be the love this city has fostered and annoyed many city officials with on its lock-covered bridges.  

What to See, Do, and Eat at Aeroporto Milano Malpensa

Milan: a city famous for its cutting-edge style, magnificent architecture, and beautiful people. Millions of travellers make a stop in this northern Italian city, but very few know about its hidden gem, just 60km from its city centre (12€ by train). Aeroporto Milano Malpensa is Milan’s biggest airport, with two terminals serving both national and international flights. It used to be Milan’s greatest kept secret, but after this post you’ll realize why it’s the best day trip from Milan!

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Nothing quite like the Italian landscape.

Very few tourists make the stop at the Milan Airport due to many reasons: it is quite far from the city centre and is expensive to get there on a budget. Nevertheless, it is still worth the day trip.

The Aeroporto can easily be covered in 12 hours, but I’d recommend staying overnight to get the full experience. I slept on the floor on the right side of the EasyJet counter in Terminal 2, right before you pass through security. I would recommend bringing several blankets and (if you have room in your backpack) an inflatible air mattress. There are a few armchairs to sit on, but they present a challenge because like all armchairs, they have arms, which prevents you from sprawling out on all four seats.

Shops and restaurants don’t actually open until 6am, so if you arrive past midnight like I did it’s best you pack snacks. Otherwise, there’s a vending machine where you can buy highly questionable tuna sandwiches (TONO in Italian) for 3€.

The Aeroporto has two terminals that are connected by a free shuttle service, so you can easily ride stress-free between the two to optimize your sightseeing options, as well as heighten your people-watching chances.

Once you are in Terminal 1 and have proved you are capable of putting liquids into little bottles, I would recommend going for brunch at Caffe Milano. This isn’t as chic as other options, like the first class lounges, but it guarantees overpriced food with an unparalleled view of the Ferrari boutique. I got the smoked salmon bagel for 9€, which I would highly encourage. As you feel the cream cheese melt in your mouth you will realize that overpriced Milan airport food is still cheaper than a regular Parisian cafe, and suddenly the salmon will taste that much more smoked.

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snag a table by the hall to get the best people watching angles!

After eating, take a stroll towards Gate B where you will pass by numerous chic Italian boutiques like Zara Home or H&M. There is this great locally-sourced concept store on the way to the international departures where you can buy magazines, travel pillows, gum, or paperback romances. I’d recommend picking up some chips maybe so you can snack on them loudly on the airplane as everyone around you tries to sleep.

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support local!

What’s a day trip without a little wanderlust? Aeroporto Milano Malpensa has these great little electric screens that name various cities around the world. This is one of the must-dos of the Aeroporto: stand in front of the screen, and think a city you’d like to go next!  The world really is your oyster. Maybe next time you’re at Aeroporto Milano Malpensa you can actually take a flight there.

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The world is a book and those who do not travel do not have the same privilege as the socially advantaged ❤

For those high-rollers on a bigger budget than exchange students such as myself, you can take a stroll by the Lufthansa Lounge or the Emirates Lounge. Getting in the actual lounge might be the most difficult part of the day trip, as it will involve strenuously impersonating one of the rich Italians in suits and heels you passed at the chic boutiques.

Depending on how much shopping and eating you want to do, I would recommend budgeting at least 100€ for this day trip. I’d recommend this for couples, families, and solo travelers especially, such as myself. I really learned a lot about myself on this journey and saw how Vueling Airlines tested the limits of my patience, but I persevered in the end and thus was able to share my experiences with you.

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Dont forget to stand up and awkwardly charge your phone at this high tech station while writing your travel post!

I would like to thank my friends for being able to board their flight eight hours earlier than me, leaving me all alone on this journey of self-discovery. But most importantly, I’d like to thank France’s airstrike. I couldn’t have embarked upon this wonderful day trip without you. CIAO 4 NOW!

Bread and Anxiety: The Story So Far

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just like I imagined ❤

Bonjour to my loyal readers, dearest friends, social media acquaintances, and any unfortunate souls who have stumbled upon my blog. The rumours are true- yes, I am on exchange in Paris, and yes, I’ve already become at least three times more annoying on Facebook and Instagram.

I’ve been pounding back croissants for approximately nine days now and I’ve only gained about six pounds so far. My exchange experience is already exceeding my expectations so hopefully my good fortune continues, as will my unabashed consumption of gluten products and complex carbohydrates.

I’d say I’m adjusting well to French life and could become une Parisienne by the end of the summer. Paris has made me aware of not only my glaring class privilege but my serious lack of street style. It was only natural that my first purchase here was a fur coat (vegan, of course) for the low, low price of ten euros, complete with the musty but comforting smell of thrift. A steal even with the plummeting value of the Canadian dollar! I think this fur coat will really help me stand out in the sea of foreigners who have no real grasp on French culture nor language.

Currently my French is at a level where I can walk into a café feeling moderately anxious and come out wanting to hurl myself into La Seine. So far I’ve mastered the art of nodding hesitantly and uttering a questionable oui when French people speak to me. I figure even if I don’t become conversational, at least I’ll still return home with some Hemingway-influenced short stories I wrote in cute cafés and enough #tbt pictures to make you vomit for months to come.

I have about seven months to learn the Parisian ways and I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the narrow streets that bring you to a new garden square every time you set down their paths. You’re never really “lost” in Paris. There’s a reason Paris is romanticized by the best white, upper class, predominantly Anglophone writers and artists of the Western world. To live in Paris is to learn to flâner, to stroll around without a destination whilst ignoring the racial and economic inequality all around you!

But even when my feet are aching from walking all day in my heeled boots, my literary aspirations keep me stumbling over the cobblestone streets. It won’t be easy to become a style icon, wine connoisseur, literary socialite, and Francophone in such a short time, but with the rate I’ve been Instagramming at you’ll have no choice but to join my journey 🙂

BISOUS *cringes and recoils awkwardly* BISOUS