Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gretel - prologue to a graphic novel I'm working on

She couldn’t help it. It was part of her. It wasn’t something that she one day decided to do or something that she could turn on or off. All her life, people had told her to just ignore it. You couldn’t just ignore it. It was distracting. People were distracting. It wasn’t a simple thing to walk down to the shops for a newspaper. She liked to wear smudged sunglasses and an old cap low on her head to avoid any unwanted attention from people. She mostly wore drab grey loose clothing. Her eyes looked only a few steps ahead so she didn’t actively walk into someone. That would be the worst. Catching someone’s eye or having to engage in conversation was bad enough. Physical touch was too much.

She read somewhere that it had something to do with extra links in the brain. Doctors had wanted to study her brain but she had no interest in submitting herself to endless rounds of tests and scans. Letting her body go into one of those huge expensive machines wasn’t part of her plan. Not that she really had a plan. Her plans usually went as far as what work and other obligations she had that week. Family birthdays, sure, were kind of hard to get out of but she avoided appointments where possible. She hadn’t been to the dentist in five years and had started to worry if that sensitivity in her top right teeth was actually a problem. The thought of someone’s hands in her mouth was more than she could bare.

Who knows what the dentist or their assistant would taste like? Thirty year old carpet, skin that has spent too many hours in the sun all sweaty and salty or over-heated milk sickly sweet and sour. They never tasted like warm cherry pie or straight from the oven chocolate cookies. With all of the possible tastes in this world, why was it that she encountered more unpleasant than pleasant ones. Did other taste synesthetics experience the same thing? She didn’t know anyone else with her gift so couldn’t answer the question.

She’d never met another taste synesthetic. She first learned the term when she was a teenager. Wikipedia and internet chat rooms were her salvation. A doctor had declared his diagnosis one day after years of visits. Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia to be precise. As a baby, the notes on her Maternal Child record book noted that she had been ‘failing to thrive’. Her mother had always fussed over her poor eating habits as a child and hoped that things would improve when she started school. Surely her peer group would provide a positive influence. They didn’t.

 She was petit and found it easy to fade into the corners. At recess and lunch time she managed to appear occupied with packing up classroom activities, tidying her desk or taking a trip to the bathroom. Her teachers never seemed to notice that she spent more time unpacking her individually wrapped lunch items than she did consuming them.

The crackers and the carrot sticks had to be in separate containers. Cheese slices had to be a particular brand and kept cool. Cross contamination and possible food spoilage were easy excuses for food to be put in the large round file in the corner of the classroom. Other kids turfed their dry crusts and browned apple cores amongst the scrunched waxed paper and plastic scraps. Gretel became adept at hiding her mother’s homemade treats in between the foil and brown paper bags of the class’ detritus.

After school she would retire to her room and sit with her favourite blanket under the desk that her mother had kept from her own childhood. Her mother envisioned the little girl at the desk reading her beloved books saved from her own childhood, cutting and gluing artistic creations or drawing grand designs on endless supplies of paper. Instead, Gretel would sit leaning against the wooden desk, with the afternoon sun streaming through dusty net curtains onto her legs until she succumbed to snooze-land.

Her mother was grateful that Gretel didn’t come home from school and plop in front of the TV like other children she knew. She assumed that the school day exhausted her sweet little girl. Gretel lacked energy partly due to her lack of food consumption but also because she found interaction with other people so energy zapping. They were too stimulating, too distracting, too much. She couldn’t watch TV or go to the movies. All those people, all those words and sounds each with their own taste. Everything got too much. One would be lid ice-cream, another would be defrosted bread, synthetic maple syrup, damp grass, raw potato, and ear-wax or week old kitty litter.

She could understand the appeal of texture and temperature when it came to food but flavour as embodied in food was a foreign concept to Gretel. She would taste flavours thousands of times a day and so didn’t experience hunger as others did. Flavour went beyond sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. She had tried and failed to describe the taste of vinyl car upholstery after hours in the sun. Oily, sweaty and flaccid went only part way there. It was also earthy and sweet with a lingering hint of musty leaves. It was only the recurrent grumble of her stomach and weakness in her limbs that defined hunger for Gretel.

Her sixth grade teacher had tasted of vanilla ice cream. Mr Whitehall gave her a brain freeze. She found it difficult to concentrate as she held her head back, pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and covered her mouth and nose with her hands. WikiHow users voted these the most effective methods for dealing with brain freeze. She wasn’t so sure.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On travelling and returning home

On travelling and returning home

 When I travel I feel that I don’t belong, that I’m foreign, something other. I’m unknown and unseen. It is only when I break the unspoken but mutually understood codes that I find myself in the glare of the locals. It can be something as innocent as walking on the wrong side of the footpath. It took me travelling to a land where the traffic drives on the right not the left side of the road that I discovered pedestrians too are expected to follow the same directional flow. I couldn’t comprehend why everyone seemed intent on walking at me. Observations undertaken across a variety of countries have reinforced this notion that pedestrian traffic flow more or less is dictated by the motorised traffic direction.

 Crossing a street takes multiple swivels of the head left and right before I’m sure that it is safe to cross. Walking in New York City, and many other American cities in fact, takes things to the next level. I’ve had people walk right into me as I stopped at the edge of the footpath – sorry, pavement – in observance of the red don’t walk signal facing me. Only fools and foreigners wait for the white walk signal apparently.

As a visitor to a new city, I’ve also crossed boundaries into no-go zones, or the wrong side of the tracks. Sometimes I’ve sensed a subtle change in atmosphere or appearance of buildings. Other times it’s more overt like the frequency of daylight drug sales. When conversing with locals later on, I’ve heard more than once ‘oh you didn’t go there, did you?’ The names of these areas can sound so nice as well – Tenderloin, Mission District, Kings Cross, Sunshine.

As a traveller, I knowingly and actively cultivate my role an outsider. I eavesdrop on conversations in cafes or on public transport. I like to pick up the nuances in the way language is used differently to what I am familiar with.  Instead of the phrase ‘take-way’ when it comes to meals, I now know ‘take-out’ or ‘box it up’ if taking home the leftovers of a meal in the States. The words are the known but appear in new constructions. In Australia, an entrée is the first course but in America an entrée is the main meal. All the more confusing as I seem to recall that entrée in French means entrance which makes sense in referring to the start or entrance to a meal.

I vacillate between mimicking the local accent and phrases, and swinging right back into a strong Aussie vernacular. I find it incredulous that some people don’t pick me immediately as being from somewhere else. Others jump in and say ‘of course, you’re from Australia. I meant where in Australia exactly?’ before telling me about the time they spent three months in Byron Bay twenty years ago.

I like to ask waiters and bartenders where they like to eat or drink and what dishes should I try before I leave their fair city – it’s always ‘their fair city’. My travels are mostly defined by the food I eat and what and where I drink. I couldn’t imagine a trip to New York City without a slice of thin crust pepperoni pizza eaten off a too small paper plate. New Orleans now will always require a plate of fried crab claws, shrimp and oysters then a beer drunk from a plastic cup as I walk the French Quarter enjoying the street music.

So what happens when I return home? Exactly.

This time round I’m choosing to walk new streets and drink coffee from new cafes. I’m thinking of pretending that I’m from somewhere else and ask waiters and bartenders what I should do, try, eat, and drink in my home town of Melbourne. One the joys of travelling is returning home and finding yourself and your town the novelty.