I first travelled the full distance between east (Europe) and west (Europe) long after I had made the move. Because my legal status changed several times over the years, the distance felt different each time. There is a slight feeling of arrival when leaving one place, as if you’re coming home, and a strong sense of displacement at the other end, when you arrive elsewhere, oscillating between two places, with varying degrees of presence and visibility. My privilege is that the oscillation continues to be possible, with varying degrees of certainty.
Something shifts every time. I have sketched the terrains I cross like a map I carry with, and avoid sitting by the window, so I can imagine the landscape like a continuous geographic narrative. I think of abstraction that comes with distance that the body cannot really grasp; sometimes, the near is really very far, just within reach, but unreachable nevertheless. Distance digs at the body in so many ways.
The map of lived experience is so different to that which shapes territory or names land. This is not just a question of political frequency or geographic imaginaries, but also the constant reconfiguration of bodies; how differently I move west to east, than east to west.
This is a distance that for some, is travelled bunched together in a car rental to save on airplane costs, so the arrival is gradual, it keeps changing depending on the destination, even when it classed as movement coming from within, as if Europe isn’t all shifting ground and political framing and bunched up histories and ties and occupations that extend way beyond its borders.
Movement through Europe changes depending on how far east you go; sometimes, you cross landscapes without borders making themselves known, and there’s a feeling of trespass that accompanies that. Then, the toll points that look like border control to tired eyes, and finally, the border control, which shifts with every visit. Declaration as a poetics of distance.
I like to think of this movement through as a movement without direction(queer movement); I continue to not know if I moved because I was in search for something, or if I was moved by something. Distance travels. The first time I crossed a border, the country I left was in the midst of one of the most aggressive phases of communism, and I found myself in Geneva, with one my parents — they were unable to both leave because their exit from the country had been denied on suspicion of seeking political asylum — waiting outside a hospital, asking for help for a damaging eye condition with no resources. We were let in. We went home. I left again, later, not for a while, but differently. What does desire have to do with distance, and how much loss is there in distance, and for who?
I like the dust in the air, the way the news-stands look at home, the smell of heat in the summer, the sweat marks on the floor, the disrepair. On the occasion that family visit from there, they speak about cleanliness and structure and feel surprised at the confounding mix between desire and exclusion. Distance as aesthetic practice.
Distance is now tied to land, to self, to permissions; it is embodied and variable. But there is no travel without distance. I just need to remember that distance is something to be felt, and feelings are difficult, and there is no choice but to make multiple vantage points possible (free-fall).
I recently found myself in a conversation with a group of women about what has been lost, and what has been gained, and solidarity, and surprise. We talked about Brexit and feminism, about gender politics and institutional structures, about generations, and I wasn’t sure how I was occupying language at that point. They talked about surprise and disappointment, and I thought about loss, too, but what I was untangling felt both urgent and detached, like following unravelling a thread and finding split ends. It’s hard to talk about histories less visible when they are authored by those outside of them, but I did not try hard enough to bridge that distance. Moving back, when you want to move forward. Such a narrative feeling. What was constituted as surprising felt hopeful, but there is value in confronting what has been lingering there for a while, without the cultural momentum that makes it a palatable public discussion. There is nothing surprising about Brexit, but that does not mean we do not have hope.
I was recently in a conversation with someone about ethnic diversity and race and different collisions of bodies and misidentification and Eastern Europe; about how different forms of movement register differently depending on the bodies that undertake them; about the times when migration is occupation. Being with distance. Or perhaps, being of distance. Unpeeling, of sorts.
I recently found myself in a conversation about collectivity that stretched between several geographic points in Europe that spanned east and west, and it seemed that what we were all trying to figure out is what community means under post-socialism, what it means under Eastern European capitalism and its huge regional and national disparities and peculiarities, what it means under neoliberalism. We came to the politics of scepticism and the fear that collectivity is just another form of industrialising togetherness for efficiency: or at least, performing that efficiency; searching for ways of being together that do not avert politics on false promises.
The distance between ‘what if’ and ‘yes, we did it’ and its beautiful collapse. The line of bodies that travelled to. Being there, temporary yet permanent.
‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost’ Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
We arrived by the sea towards the end of our journey, and it felt like a threshold. We were in a small town on the outskirts of a working harbour, and there was no beach, per se, only concrete and rock melting down into clear cold water. We were underneath a tall bridge, trains racing by the coast; there was a small mirror hung on one of the legs of the bridge, just close to the water, which moved slightly every time a train passed by. There were three hooks next to it, faded blue, one which held an old towel. Concrete filled the gaps where rocks had eroded, so an odd conglomeration of materials created wide stairs that reached down into the water. Underneath the railway arch, several boats were stacked precariously one on top of the other. On the opposite side, reaching out to sea, a small hut from which you could hire loungers loosely positioned on platforms of the rocky shore. This was no ordinary beach though, and there was no one there to hire the loungers, perched precariously on the edges of rocks.
To search for ways of getting lost is to have a freedom of movement, and that is so precarious and temporary, but so outside permissions, too. Depths and edges and contours, and finding light.
**Encounters is a series by the Department of Feminist Conversations in conversation with the work that inspires, nourishes, challenges or provokes us. We welcome contributions from interested readers: your encounter can be with a novel, a poem, a political text, a film, a song, a photograph, a cartoon, an exhibition, a performance, a game — the list goes on and on. To register your interest, please email us at: departmentfc[at]gmail[dot]com