I take carefree joy in the Mediterranean, but it’s deadly for thousands heading to European shores
When I was younger, I’d spend summers on the Côte d’Azur. Family scattered across continents regroup, coming back to take stock, chew fat, tentatively touch base. “Holy smokes,” says my uncle, dropping his holdall to the floor and glancing round the kitchen. “Long time.”
We drink rosé from 11am, and in the supermarket my Yankee cousins can’t believe there is an entire aisle dedicated to yoghurt. Whenever I can, I sneak off and buy Gauloises from the tabac, because smoking in French is cool.
An assortment of French relatives arrive by surprise on a daily basis, all cheekbones and linen. My aunt tells a classic joke about a Belgian monk driving backwards up a hill, and at some point someone brings up le mistral. The mistral is a wind that blows cold across Provence in the baking heat and, legend has it, has the power to drive you mad. It would take only the tiniest thing, like a glass rolling off the table, for everyone to start shouting: “C’est le mistral! Le mistral se lève!” My cousin Simone sits back with an air of sultry nonchalance, managing to look both incredibly alluring and exquisitely bored.
I listen to the language that pulls my lips into new shapes, while cicadas fill the silence.
Later on, we go to my great-aunt’s house for some bouillabaisse (a traditional fish stew) 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, pours a thimbleful into some crystal and we knock it back out of politeness. It tastes like nail varnish remover.
Someone lights a cigar. The smoke hangs in the heat, and the conversation turns to politics.
“Mais qu’est-ce que vous avez fait?” they said. (“What have you done?”) “C’est absolument une bêtise!” (“What a stupid thing to do!”)
I make a joke and say that Brexit isn’t our fault … c’est le mistral! Nobody laughs.
My great-uncle José comes from Martinique, where he made a living making neon signs that 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 from Marseille, vowels shaped like parallelograms. “Les musulmans … ne travaillent pas” (“Muslims don’t work”), he says. He pours 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 intergenerational tête-à-tête. They are having none of it. “Mais t’es jeune” (“But you’re young”), scoffs Tante Hélène, waving her hand dismissively, adding that she is sick of the French republic and wants to bring back the monarchy.
At home, I sneak out on to the veranda and smoke a cigarette after everyone’s gone to bed. I look out at the bay of La Madrague, near Saint-Tropez, where the lights are 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, and find comfort there.
In the bathroom, there is a plastic shower curtain with a map of the world on it. I stand inside the shower and look at the continents through the mottled smears of limescale. The next day I swim in the Med. I lie on my back and look at the clouds, my limbs floating like pasta in salty water. I take off my bikini top and the starchy surf become my censor. I have no fear. The water works for me.
Later, my brother and I walk up the hill from the beach and crash straight into the pool with our clothes on. I relish the chlorine sluice, the soft bleach between my teeth. Struggling under the weight of wet cotton is fun. Then we capsize each other from the inflatable dinghy, squealing and laughing and fake-drowning, and the sand from the beach floats from my feet to the bottom of the pool.
This is what it means to be white European. To cross between the wet and the dry, between the sea and the sky, between verbs and their past participles, landing strips and customs officials, borders nothing but sliding doors on to balconies of apartments they will not think twice about renting to you.
Not thronging in a boat made of air when the sea turns stern, pleading with the Mediterranean, with its green eyes and bad temper, to welcome you on to its shores because if your skin is not pasta the sand will not extend its hand to greet you. Drain yourself, it says, since you invited yourself on to the plate. What does it matter if you are inside, or out, if you are always above suspicion?
I get out of the shower and push the curtain to the side, watch the countries bunch together like a concertina. The windows in my bedroom have wrought-iron bars, but Tante Monique tells us that we should keep the shutters closed anyway, in case child thieves seeking passports slip through.
Who belongs in our continental nostalgia? Is it only those for whom Paris is a city in which to lock lips on a padlocked bridge, not home to the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) and bonfires in the banlieue?
Where we whisper that mi casa (my house) is not tu casa (your house), and we’ll keep this collective without you.
Earlier this year, at the French embassy in London, they made me one of them. They gave me a red book with my picture on the inside back, so that I can keep crossing between curtains and water, inside and out.