Porte de La Chappelle; or the taste of diaspora in a crowded salon

I’m sitting inside a crowded salon, my tongue burning with the aftertaste of the curry I had just eaten. The sound of rapid conversation in Tamil envelops me – a constant rumble that ebbs and flows, quickly overwhelming me. If I close my eyes I can almost imagine Colombo’s sweltering sun making my skin sing. But it’s 15 degrees outside and the slow whisper of French sneaking in from somewhere reminds me that I’m 8000 km away from home, in perhaps the most surreal part of Paris I’ve visited to date.

When I first arrived in Paris, it was the unfamiliarity of everything that scared me. And now, in La Chappelle, known to the locals as Little Jaffna or little Sri Lanka, I’m almost literally driven to tears on the street, my senses rudely shocked by the smell of fresh mango and masala chai in the air, a scent as familiar to me as my mother’s voice.

I don’t know what it is that makes the tears come. Maybe it is that I am homesick- easy enough to believe.

The other explanation is survivor’s guilt. The war has been over for 6 years and I’ve pushed it out of my mind with such ease. Of course there would always be things that I’ll never forget- curfew, check points, more deaths than I can count, never switching off the radio for fear of missing a bomb warning. But I was young, and sheltered by privilege. The war will never be as real to me as it is to the people who rush by my on the street now, openly staring at this obliviously lost looking stranger. I walk past the sari shops, the shop attendants inside always, always taking a second look at my skin, darker than most Sinhalese, asking me if I am Tamil. I tell them no, but that I can understand, and that seems to be enough. We talk of home; I offer them the broken fragments of a language that I remember from childhood, knowing full well that their memories of home are so different from my own. Yes, I grew up listening to death counts and bomb warnings, but I never had to worry about waking up to the sound of kafirs, or wonder whether the mango I was about to put in my mouth was laced with cyanide, courtesy of retreating troops.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to restart your life in a foreign country, where you don’t understand the language, where you have to adopt a foreign tongue and a city that will never be home, just to survive. I’m thinking of how homesick I was in my first few days at Yale-NUS despite knowing that home was just a few hours away by flight, my family always accessible via Skype. But to live not knowing f your family was alive, to live not knowing if you could ever go back home- if home would ever take you back- this is something I can’t even push myself to imagine.

The lady in the shop is wearing a sari under her jacket. It is freezing, and the flimsy silk of the sari is obviously doing very little to keep her warm. I’m struck now by how furiously my friends and I fought to escape the clutches of our culture- seeing heritage as shameful, instead of as something to be proud of. We fought for so long against learning Sinhala- “why? It’ll never be useful anyway! I never want to live here!”- but now as I stand on the street in this city that is still so incredibly foreign to me, seeing the curvature of the letters I have grown up loathing, it feels like coming home.

I am thankful now for my privilege. For the privilege of living a life in Colombo that allowed me to escape the worst of the war, for the privilege of being at a school that allows me to do things I couldn’t even have dreamed of before. I am thankful for the opportunities that I have that so many others just like me, smarter than me, more deserving than me, have been deprived of, by war, by circumstance, by whatever you want to call it.

Standing on the Rue de la Chapelle, I can smell tea now. Strong, bitter, brewed on the highest hills of a teardrop isle. I sit on a bench by the side of the road and I allow the tears to flow.


on cute boys:

For a long while, I was far too self conscious about my faltering French to be able to speak confidently in public. It was different during class times, and with Anne, in my home stay- I trusted them enough to be able to laugh at myself when I sounded foolish. But in public, in a city full of sophistication and elegant people, I was too afraid of coming across as “silly”. At grocery stores, I’d get too nervous and stutter if the cashier spoke too rapidly for me to understand, or I’d make the cardinal sin of switching to English mid-sentence just to avoid the hassle of being misunderstood. Looking back now, it was singularly stupid of me to limit myself in this way, but in the beginning at least, this is how it was.

And then, one day, Something happened. This Something came in the form of an extremely cute cashier at the Carrefour where I was buying my lunch. I said the requisite “bonjour” and he chatted amiably about the weather while he was bagging my things. And then, as he handed me the bag, he said “you want to swipe?” in English. I stared at him in complete bemusement. What does that even mean? (I confess, my first reaction to “swipe” was to wonder whether he was referring to Tinder. I am a little ashamed.)

“This is- how you say- in English?” And then comprehension struck as he smiled sheepishly, waving a tissue in my face. “It’s a tissue”, I told him.

“Tissue,” he repeats as seriously as if I had told him some sort of state secret, committing the word to memory. “I thank you, mademoiselle! My English- très faible!”

I don’t know what it was, but I walked out of there with a huge smile on my face, and from that day on I’ve never been nervous or self conscious about speaking French in public. 

edit: this sounds like a load of crappy, sentimental garbage but I was in the city of love. bite me.

updates from Paris

My second day of classes. So far, things are going great. My professor is hilarious: imagine Chris Rock, but French, and with a purple blazer. He translates comedy using overly spirited hand gestures and, when he absolutely has to explain something in English, a mock exaggerated American accent.

At 10.01 am exactly, he stops talking. The noise outside is deafening; we can barely hear him speak. He laughs, looking at our bemused faces. And bemused we are- in Paris, public displays of emotion of any kind are rare. Was it some kind of protest? Was there a midday rave going on that we weren’t aware of?

“C’est le bac”, he says. The results of the “bac” (equivalent to IB/ A-Levels), had just come out. The noise was the sound of students celebrating on the streets. “They’ve all got good results then?” someone asks.

Our professor smirks. “No, they’re just glad to be done with school”.

All of us in the class look at each other and burst out laughing. Some things, it seems, are universal.

watching purple skies fade: Paris 2015

Two visa mishaps, an eleven hour flight delay and one faulty baggage claim later, here I am. La Ville Lumière. The City of Love. “Pah-ree”, my adopted home for the next seven weeks.

I’ve been here now for exactly one week, and already I’ve been made to reconsider everything I thought I knew about France. There is an unfortunate stereotype that the French as a people are notoriously cold; it was with this misconception that I stepped off my long flight from Colombo to Paris, nervously making my way to the home stay where I would live for the rest of the summer. I was ready for stares, for curt replies in response to my flawed French, for all the bad things that I had convinced myself was going to happen. Instead, I was greeted first by the customs officer, who grinned widely at me when I responded “oui” to his “parlez-vous français?”. Next, my taxi driver, who correctly identified me as Sri Lankan after three guesses (“Bangladaise? Non. Indienne? Non, mais vous êtes proche. Ahhh, Sri Lankaise!”) and then proceeded to chat about the Asian subcontinent for the entire ride. “Bienvenue à Paris,” he told me as he helped me unload my suitcase outside the apartment I would be staying at, “et bonne chance!” I pocketed the change he gave back, and the good luck he wished for me, and rang the buzzer.

And then, I met Anne.

Anne is sixty four, widowed, has no children and puts me at ease, right away. She wears purple eyeliner and dresses almost exclusively in black. She eats ice cream with me on the balcony overlooking La Tour Eiffel, and tells me about all the students who have lived with her before.

We have chicken for dinner, finished off with a glass of rosé. “You are happy, à chez-moi?” she asks. I nod, looking out at the expanse of concrete jungle in front of me, set against a sky that blends powder blue and pastel pink, even now at 9 pm. I think I will be.

from Rome, with love.

When I applied to college in Singapore, I did not for a second imagine that two months into freshman year, I would be sipping red wine as I devoured my spaghetti carbonara in La Roma, Italy.

Rome was everything I imagined it to be: crisp, cold air, cobbled stone pavements, trees shedding autumnal gold and the constant pulsating vitality of a city that holds centuries of history within its walls. What I did not imagine, however, was that I would come back from Italy with a fundamentally different perspective with which I see the world.

The one thing that stood out the most was really how international the world has become. There I was, thousands of miles from home, in a beautiful city that I had only seen in movies and the Internet, and somehow, I found things to talk about with strangers that I will probably never see again. There was Phyll, the Nigerian lady who tapped my elbow on bus 75 to La Via Dandolo because she overheard me talking to Professor Hui in English. Phyll was starved for conversation; she said she had been living in Rome for 3 years and that she almost never got to speak in English because Italian was far more commonly used. She told me about her children, four and six years old, who were waiting for her back in Nigeria, and let me hold her baby, who was born away from home, in an adopted city across the sea, only a month and two weeks old. “His name is Exalt,” she told me. “As in to exalt the gods.”

On the train from Naples to Rome, I met another lady, whose name I do not know. She was a fashion designer from Salerno. She spoke a little English; she told me that she was working in Rome, but dreams of London and Paris. “One step at a time,” she said. We ended up talking about traveling, and it turns out that Santorini, Greece was on top of both of our travel lists! It’s funny how you can share these little nuggets of commonality with people seemingly a world away from you.

Then there was Erine, who plopped down next to me on a park bench while I was in the middle of a sandwich, on the Viale di Trastevere and started speaking to me in rapid Italian. I smiled at her mutely and just said “non parlo italiano” and she stared at me, crestfallen. After a few moments of silence, she turns back to me and says, “parlez-vous français?” And that is the story of how I ended up in a lengthy conversation in broken French with Ukrainian born Russian Erine, who had been living in Rome and working at St. Peter’s Basilica for the last seven years. Sitting there on that bench, long after she left, I was left speechless at these precious moments of human connection that could leave me smiling in a world so far removed from my own.

These moments of random friendliness –  of the stranger in the Nirvana T-shirt who winked at me when he saw me wearing the same T-shirt, of the shopkeeper who ran down the street after me because I forgot to take my 20 cents of change, of the lady who saw me struggling with a selfie on the Pont di Sisto and offered to take the picture for me-  these are what I will remember the most, long after I forget which emperor built the Colosseum, or which Pope commissioned the Sistine Chapel, and it really hits home the thought that had I been buried in my phone or my iPod, as I so often am, these moments would never have happened.

Beyond what I learned in an academic sense, this trip taught me a new way of looking at art, history, architecture and the world around me. It taught me that the world is such a beautiful place, if you let it be.

On being 18 and wiser than you thought possible:

1. Waking up when your sheets alone suffocate you, pulling the weight of your bones back into the delicious forgetfulness of sleep is the hardest thing in the world. It’s harder than algebra. Learning how to keep going is what I will need 20 years from now- not the value of x.

2. Hearts are made out of muscle and sinew but oh boy, they’re a lot stronger than they look. If a heart can keep beating even after being shattered beyond recognition, you can move on too.

3. There’s an art to the way His eyes change colour in sunlight- brown to almost gold. You’ll spend your whole life trying to explain it- but you know, good art never warrants an explanation.

4. You are made up of millions of little cells, working day in and day out to keep you alive. Remember that when you’re sitting alone in the bathroom floor, your broken heart and a blunt blade in your hands, painting exit signs on your wrists.

5. The terminal velocity of a life lived in regret is one that no science can measure. You’ll understand that when you watch your mother cry herself to sleep while your father weeps silently into a half empty bottle of whiskey, his breath stale with the bitterness of “what if”.

6. Exactly a hundred years ago, a single bullet killed an archduke and propelled the whole world into war. So don’t listen when people tell you to brush it off. Feel. Feel everything, no matter how small. The little things make the big picture.

7. There are 164 different languages. With so many words to say, don’t forget to tell your mother you love her every night after dinner.

8. We are all made of the same star stuff. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You’re breathing in the same air as Audre Lorde, Amelia Earhart, Cleopatra. Remember this when the boy at the check out counter brushes your breast in a not quite accident. Do not laugh it off. Confront him. Find your voice. Live up to the legacies left behind by women as strong as you hope to be.


on heartbreak at 16:

i remember You
telling me
caught up in the delirium of onceuponatime
that when She kissed You,
You felt galaxies
explode inside
and that the stars aligned for Her,
always for Her.

You said She
drank vodka out of teacups
and smoked clove cigarettes
with Her morning scrambled eggs
and that She
made Your heartbeat flutter
as You lay together
watching purple skies fade
and i hid inside myself
because hard liquor made me sick
and i could never stand the smell of smoke
and it would always be Her.

You trail your fingers
across the bridge of my nose
and say
that She could sing in French
and my eyes begin to water
as i cling on to you for dear life
and say in a voice that’s not quite mine
the only French i know:
je t’aime
je t’aime
je t’aime.