'Things From Europe' - a podcast with spoken word artist Madi Maxwell-Libby
Listen to our podcast with Madi here, where she recites her poem and we chat about bankers, Brexit and the beauty of Europe.
Things From Europe
A poem by Madi MAXWELL-LIBBY
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When I was younger than I am now, but the oldest I was back then, I'd spend summers in the Cote d'Azur.
Family scattered across continents regrouped like seeds returning to their fruit, coming back to take stock, too fat, and top up on anecdotes the way you'd fill up an ice tray.
We drank rosé form about 11 am onwards, and in the supermarché my Yankee uncles couldn't believe that there was an entire aisle dedicated to yogurt:
"Oh my God! The food here is insane! All there is here is pain, beurre and jambon!"
France, with its lamp posts of wartired times, small and even smaller cars, does not sleep easy with the American dream.
Whenever I could, I'd sneak off and buy Gauloises from the tabac, because smoking in French was cool.
An assortment of relatives would arrive by surprise on a daily basis. My aunt would tell the classic joke about the Belgian monk driving backwards up a hill (don't ask) and at some point someone would bring up 'le mistral'. The mistral is a phantom wind from the Gulfstream that blows cold in the baking heat. And everyone in the South of France over a certain age is obsessed with the mistral. Apparently, it makes people go mad, moves things around like a poltergeist, and like the tiniest movement would cause everyone to just go into a panic about this wind, like a glass would roll off the table, and everyone would start shouting: "Oh my God, c'est le mistral! Le mistral se lève!"
I listened to the language that pulls my lips into new shapes while cicadas filled the silence. Later on we'd go to my great aunt's house for some boulleabaisse and unsolicited personal remarks: it's dark and hot, and 10 o'clock. Dessert is not yet served.
My great uncle brings out his homemade hooch, pulls a thimble-full into some crystal, and we knock it back out of politeness. It takes like nail-varnish remover, only not quite as sweet. Someone lights a cigar. The smoke hangs in the heat and the conversation turns to politics. They are furious with us about Brexit.
"Mais qu'est-ce que vous avez faites?"- they said, "What have you done?". "C'est une absolument bêtise!" - "What a stupid thing to do!". My mum and I'd hang our heads and I'd try to make a joke about it and would say: "It's not our fault - c'est le mistral!".
They don't find it funny. My great uncle José comes from Martinique where he made a living making neon signs and did nothing to illuminate his view of black people, or women. Next to him sits Jacques, in his 80s, skin like a soft leather scrotum. He is "pied noir", born in Algeria, under French rule. His accent is Marseillaise, vowels shaped like parallelograms.
He tells the story of how he lost his house and gained a glass eye in the Algerian war of Independence: "Les Musulmans ne travaillent pas" - "Muslims don't work", - he says. He poures pastis over ice and it turns cloudy and white. Across the table, I, as a spokesperson for the London metropolitan elite, do my best in broken French to redress the balance in this overfamilial, intergenerational, eau-de-colonial tête-à-tête.
But I am young, says his wife, tante Hélene, who says, she is sick of the French republic and wants to bring back the monarchy.
But they will die soon. And they too will become anecdotes in the ice tray that I will plop into conversation when I get home, swilling their words round my gums for an audience. At home, I sneak out onto the veranda and smoke a cigarette while everyone has gone to bed.
I look out at the navy bay with the lights spread like sequins and think: "How nice it is to have family in a foreign clime. To have roots where you have planted no seeds. To set foot in a country for the first time and be told "Welcome back". To put yourself in context. To sit with blood late at night, peeling answers, trying to work out the sum of your parts".
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