A Bit Too Continental
There’s one in every family. In our family, it was my Aunt Garry. It wasn’t that we didn’t like her. It was more that we didn’t know what to do with her. Talking to Garry was different from talking to a normal person. You’d be chatting away about the Sunday frock you’d bought or what you were going to put on for the tea when, all of a sudden, Garry would go off on one of her tangents. She’d start blethering on about some book she’d read or a painting she’d seen. No doubt the connection was clear to her, but you’d be lost yourself; sat there like a clampet, nodding and saying, “aye, aye I see where you’re coming from Garry,” when really, you didn’t see at all.
People avoided Garry. At family shin digs she got sat with the kids. Looking back, I realise this was meant as a snub. It didn’t bother Garry at all. There was nothing she liked more than an audience and us wee ones had her on a pedestal. Aunt Garry wasn’t like other grown-up ladies we knew: our mothers, aunts, and school friends’ mothers, who all seemed elderly at thirty-two. Her outfits were out of magazines. She never left the house without lipstick on, even if she was only nipping down to the Spar. She told bold stories with swearing in them and most importantly, never told us off for hiding our vegetables inside old hankies, (this being our tried and tested method for disposing of unwanted veg). In fact, she’d sometimes conspire with us, opening her enormous handbag so we could drop our tissue-wrapped parcels in. She drew the line at garden peas. The wee buggers always went everywhere.
Some folks said Garry was up herself. They were intimidated by her high-brow chat. Others said she was just calearied. It wasn’t normal to be thirty-six and not yet settled, still gadding about like a teenage girl. They tutted about her after church and wouldn’t call her by her chosen name. In Ballymena you got Maggie for Margaret, or Mags or maybe Meg. Garry was a fella’s name and not a common derivative. The old ones wouldn’t lower themselves. Instead they continued to call her Margaret. It didn’t suit Aunt Garry and sometimes did not register. She’d tuned her ear to a different name.
My mum said Garry had a wild notion of herself. She’d all manner of suggestions for what her sister-in-law should do. Settle down – here in the place she was actually from – and marry quickly, while she still had a fleeting chance of weans. Get a job: a sensible job; so, when people asked what she did, Garry could say typing or receptionist at the leisure centre, and folks could easily picture this. Mum didn’t consider freelance journalism a real career. She placed her emphasis upon the word free. Nor did she think it appropriate for a single woman to be swanning about Central Europe with nothing but a press card for an excuse. Mum’s idea of a journalist fell somewhere between Clark Kent and Bill next door who done the churches’ page for the local paper. Aunt Garry did not fit either of these moulds. My mum didn’t know where to place her and, when asked why her sister-in-law spent so much time abroad, would say, with calculated vagueness, “Margaret’s a kind of missionary.”
Dad was always soft on Garry. She was his youngest sister, the sixth of seven. Though two years older than him, he still called her his wee sister and refused to hold her responsible. “Uch now,” he’d say, “there’s no badness in our Garry. She’s a dote. She’s just a bit too continental for the likes of us.”
This puzzled me because I knew all about Continents, specifically Europe. I’d just completed a big school project. Our teacher had allowed us to choose our own topics. Most kids went for a football team. Emma Green picked New Kids on the Block. Kelly Ingram done the Bible, because her dad was a minister. I went for the EEC even though I knew it’d be hard. I had my eye on the Best Project Shield. I didn’t know much about the EEC when I started. We were in it. So was Ireland, and some other countries I remembered from watching the World Cup with Dad. The rest I learned from library books. I traced maps. I drew pictures of each country’s national costume. I learnt what side they were on in the War. I worked out how you say good morning, please and thank you in each language and wrote it down in my best joined up. My mum went to school with the Thomas Cook lady, so I got a rake of foreign coins for free and stuck them in with superglue. I spent almost three months on that stupid project. I even wrote to my MEP. He wrote back with a brochure telling me to vote for him. This had nothing to do with the EEC, but I still put it into my scrapbook. I wanted my teacher to see how much research I’d done.
By the time I’d finished with my project I knew a lot about our continent. Aunt Garry had lived in France and Spain, then travelled around the rest of Europe writing stories for magazines. We lived on the same continent as France and Spain. It didn’t matter that we had pounds while they used francs and pesetas. We were European too. So why did Dad think Garry was more continental than us? We were part of the same continent. Or, were we? I was a bit confused. Maybe, we didn’t count because we lived on an island. Were we less European because we weren’t attached, or too far over to one side? Did they not want us because it always rained here? Was it something to do with being Protestant? In Ballymena, folks were obsessed with the Continent. They were spending the Twelfth fortnight on the Continent. They were going to the Continent for a bit of heat. I knew they weren’t talking about the North Coast, or even Scarborough where we sometimes went to a caravan. No. The Continent meant Spain or Portugal; Italy if you were made of money. Those places were considered European. For some reason, Ballymena was not.
In a way, I understood. I didn’t feel like a European. I was from Northern Ireland, Europe’s car park. I was almost included, but still outside. I might not have felt like a European, but I couldn’t deny the facts. I lived on the continent of Europe. This made me European by default. I was well-used to knowing things that I didn’t feel. I was a Christian. I knew this for certain. Aged five, during a Good News Club, I’d asked the Lord Jesus into my heart. I knew he was still in there, making me a Christian. It said so in the Bible: once you let him in, he couldn’t get out. It didn’t really matter that I didn’t feel it. Feelings were things you couldn’t trust. Facts were facts. This reassured me. When it came to Europe and eternal salvation, I had written evidence to back me up.
I was as European as Aunt Garry, or Roxette, or François Mitterrand, (whose name I loved saying because the sound of it came out through my nose). But when I thought about the word European I knew it didn’t apply to me. European was the Eiffel Tower, ABBA singing “Waterloo,” flamenco dancing and drinking wine (which Mum didn’t let in our house), languages which sounded a lot like shouting, sausages you ate in slices, and Toblerone. European was not the Tower Centre or Findus Crispy Pancakes for dinner, Gerry Adams on the telly with somebody doing his voice for him, or the Folk and Transport Museum, or singing choruses off an overhead projector, or car picnics in the rain. Even at the age of ten, this realization struck me as a bit unfair. I knew I could call myself European, but I wanted to feel it too.
With hindsight, I’m not sure it was Europe I idolized, so much as my Aunt Garry. I too wanted to be fluent in three different languages and have ears that were pierced more than once. I wanted a round-the-year tan, a genuine love of olives, and the ability to understand what paintings actually meant. I was only ten. Ballymena was my world. I was raised in constant drizzle. No sun for me. No fountains or dancing. No festivals for wayward saints. I understood why Garry needed to escape. The same bold thing itched inside me.
I began to observe my aunt more carefully. When she came home for weddings or Christmas I wouldn’t let her out of my sight. I copied her accent, her walk, her clothes. I told her I wanted to be a journalist and – in the hope of appearing convincing – showed her my tome on the EEC. I said scathing things about Ballymena I’d heard her say on previous trips: “Would it ever stop raining for half an hour,” and, “why does the whole place shut down at five?” I wanted Aunt Garry to see I was like her. I belonged in Europe too. I was her biggest – perhaps only – advocate.
The year she returned from a stint on the Algarve with her hair braided in tight cornrows, I ignored my mum who said it was tacky, the sort of thing wee girls got done on their holidays. I plaited my hair into dozens of braids. It took all night and a whole tin of Silvikrin and though the effect was quite alarming, I kept my plaits in till they went fuzzy and started to smell.
When Aunt Garry brought a Spanish fella home for Cousin Shane’s wedding, I went out of my way to welcome him. I said he seemed nice; not foreign at all. I talked to him, (in fairness, I mostly nodded, but he could see my intentions were kind). I ate the strange sweets he brought for my grandparents, though they tasted a lot like perfume, and lied through my teeth when Mum said he was clearly a Catholic: “Sure, weren’t they all Papists in Spain.” “Naw,” I said, “Javier’s one of us. His da’s in the Orange. He’s only after telling me there’s a lodge in Madrid. They even have a kind of Twelfth.”
And when poor Garry said she’d do a big family paella as a kind of thank you for putting her up, I was the only one who ate the prawns though the sight of them nearly made me boke. I knew enough about loyalty to dry swallow a couple and call them delicious, whilst the others hoked the chorizo out and insisted they did not eat shellfish; shellfish weren’t a Protestant thing. Afterwards, Aunt Garry gave me a pair of Spanish earrings which I couldn’t wear because my ears weren’t pierced. “You’re a free spirit too. I can tell,” she said. I didn’t know what to say in return. I felt like I might cry with the happy. I considered piercing my ears with a needle. In the end I talked myself out of it. Physical pain I could thole, but not my mother’s legendary wrath.
So enamoured was I with Garry, that during my second year at the grammar, I convinced her to take me to Paris, on what would now be called a mini-break. It took all my powers of negotiation to convince my mother who was understandably reluctant, to send her daughter off to a foreign country with Aunt Garry in loco parentis. Paris would count as Christmas and birthday for the next ten years at least. Paris would force me to widen my palate. I would most likely return a lot less fussy. Perhaps – I hinted heavily – I’d develop a love of parsnips. (Parsnips were my mother’s holy grail.) Paris would be educational. I could practice the French I was learning in school. In reality my language skills were limited to polite enquiries about the weather and the location of the nearest launderette, all of which were delivered in a thickly accented mumble; less Champs Élysées intonation, more Cullybackey brogue.
Maybe Aunt Garry was feeling lonely. Maybe she took pity on me. She let me talk her into Paris. She said the two of us would have a blast and for the first half day she was absolutely right. I was in my element. We walked up the Seine and took pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower. Aunt Garry taught me how to say it backwards – Tour Eiffel – so I wouldn’t sound like a tourist. Not sounding or looking like a tourist was very important to her. I asked if you said Blackpool Tower the same way. She laughed and said I’d so much to learn. But she’d make a European of me yet. I did not want to disappoint Garry. I wanted to be continental too. So, I put on my church face when we went to the Louvre and tried to look interested in all the paintings of puffy baby Jesus and men with wigs for hair. I didn’t even say “I thought it would be bigger”, when we stood in front of the Mona Lisa, though I could tell the other visitors were just as unimpressed as me.
At lunch, when Garry said, “you should try something traditionally French,” I had a wee taste of her snails. It felt like I was eating knuckles. They made me vomit at the back of my throat but I managed not to spit them out. I could tell Garry thought I was very grown up. When the main course came –- with frites, thank goodness – she said, “I’ll let you have a wee nip of wine. It’s totally normal over here just don’t tell your mum.” She filled my glass up to half-way and lifted her own so we could do cheers. There was a mirror behind her. I could see myself reflected in it. I was wearing a scarf she’d leant me with my good Tammy Girl jumper. My hair had not yet slipped out of its French plait. The candlelight was flickering across my face. I was in Paris, drinking wine. I was going to have cheese for dessert. And it didn’t matter that the wine tasted vile – like vinegar or juice gone off – or that I’d prefer a bowl of ice cream, because I was a proper European. As long as I didn’t open my mouth, I could even pass for French. I felt giddy on the thought of this. I ran some French words round my head: Bonjour. Ça va? Très bien. They came easily to mind like the way I’d think but not say swear words when I was cross or stubbed my toe. I raised my glass and knocked it back. Aunt Garry placed her hand on mine. “Steady on,” she said, “that’s not Schloer you’re drinking. You’re not used to it. It’ll go to your head.”
When I stood up to leave the café, I could tell the wine had muddled me. Aunt Garry noticed too. I was bumping into other tables. I was hot in my face and under my arms. “I think we better take you back to the hotel”, she said. “Don’t worry. You can sleep it off.” She tucked me in to my side of the bed, told me to close my wee eyes and take a nap. Maybe we’d overdone it a bit for the first day. She was going to nip out and do some work; she was writing an article about Parisian ladies who accessorised with little dogs. In the name of research, she thought she might take a stroll round the Jardins du Luxembourg. She turned out the light and closed the door. She’d be back before I woke up.
She wasn’t. I woke an hour later in a wild panic. For a moment, I couldn’t remember where I was. My head was thumping. I was drenched in sweat. My mouth was crusty from the wine. I’d never known thirst like it, but Mum said you couldn’t drink the water from foreign taps. If you did, you’d get the runs. I couldn’t get diarrhea in Paris. Half the toilets were just holes in the ground. So, I pulled a jumper on over my nightie, stuffed my feet into Garry’s trainers and stumbled downstairs to the hotel’s bar. It was quiet – thank goodness – too late for lunch, too early for dinner, though back home they’d have had their tea an hour ago. I climbed up on a bar stool and tried to keep myself from crying. I could see my reflection in the polished brass beer taps. My cheeks were flushed. My eyes were puffy. My French plait had fallen out at one side. There was no way I was passing for French, or any kind of European. I looked exactly what I was: a twelve-year old girl from Ballymena, who couldn’t hold her wine.
The bar man recognized this instantly. I mumbled, “un vair do low seal vu play.” He said, “I’ll get you some water right away.” His English was perfect. My French was not. When the water arrived, he’d added a fluorescent pink bendy straw; the sort of thing a child would use. This was – as they say – the final straw. I could not cope with the mortification. I knew I was going to cry. I grabbed the tumbler and muttered merci. It sounded more like mercy. This may have been intentional. I couldn’t face the stairs with water. My arms were jelly. I was already sobbing. I knew I’d spill it everywhere. I took the lift up to our room. It was mirrored as everything in Paris is. The French seem to revel in the sight of themselves. I rode five floors up inside a kaleidoscope, forced to observe myself in brutal surround. The French plait coming out in chunks. The greying polyester nightie with its childish print of bunny rabbits. The pale potatoey sag of my face. The pasty shins still blotched from sleep, poured into a pair of Dunnes school socks.
I understood then the cavernous gap between knowing a thing and believing it. On paper I was European. In reality I would only ever be a tourist. Europe was not for the like of us, in our small, rainy-drenched outpost, crouched clumsily on the edge of things. I wondered what it had cost Aunt Garry to make her leap to the other side. Did she lose a little of herself each time she walked along a French boulevard, or began a conversation in German or went out for dinner after nine? I wanted the freedom she’d found out here. But home sat heavily on my shoulders. I was thick with it and stiff and awkward. I did not know how to shrug it off.