Guest Feature: First Impressions in Montreal (Hayley Swinson)

I first met Hayley when she was rooming with another friend of mine in Richmond’s storied district called The Fan. I wanted to be her friend because she spelled her name like my childhood idol Hayley Mills, and because unlike the rest of us broke college students, she had resorted not to IKEA but to an antique store for her bedroom furniture, which included a creaky but still elegant four-poster bed.

I asked Hayley to contribute to The Unfamous because she is exactly the type of person who embodies what The Unfamous is all about: She’s a dreamer, an adventurer, and a constant stream of creativity. After college, Hayley moved to Montreal for a year before returning to her home state of South Carolina to work with small theater productions. Those connections led her to assist with film and television productions in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she worked before leaving for Scotland to pursue a Master in Creative Writing.

This week’s guest feature is a story from Hayley’s initial days in Montreal. Arriving with no job, no connections, no place to live, and, despite 10 years of French lessons, a limited understanding of both the French language and the Quebecois accent, Hayley found herself relying on the help of the friendly Montreal natives after finding herself a victim of robbery. “Though the frustration of my own limitations never completely evaporated,” Hayley told me, “it was often overshadowed by the gratitude I felt towards the many people who went out of their way to help, and that, more than the negative experiences, is what sticks in my memory from my time in Montreal.”

Hayley is currently working on a 30,000-word fiction piece for her dissertation for the University of Edinburgh. The piece is planned as part one of three for a larger novel about a girl with narcolepsy.  She was recently awarded a place in Edinburgh’s City of Literature Story Shop and will be reading at the International Book Festival in August.

Apart from her dissertation, Hayley also contributes to a number of literary and travel websites, including the Slow-Chic blog for French boutique hotels and Love. Writing. Adventure. which features reviews of romance novels and will soon add installments of a serial romantic fiction piece. Hayley resides in Scotland and can be reached via her portfolio and website, http://hayleyswinson.com.


 

First Impressions
Hayley Swinson

Getting robbed was not as bad as I expected it to be. I left the hostel around 9 AM and walked to the lot where I’d left my car stuffed with my belongings while I searched Craigslist for an apartment in Montreal. I’d made the mistake of moving to a foreign city smack dab in the middle of September instead of at the end or beginning of the month when most people move in and out of apartments and more are available. I was staying at the Auberge de Jeunesse just off of René-Lévesque (Renay-Levesssske I said that first week, giving away my newbie status) for five days when it finally happened. Because, let’s be honest, a car with a South Carolina tag packed up to the windows in a lot in downtown Montreal? It was only a matter of time before someone threw a rock through my window.

The last couple of nights I hadn’t slept very well. I knew my car and my belongings were not safe. I took as many precautions as I could: I backed up to the cement wall so my trunk couldn’t be opened. I parked under the brightest light in the lot. I locked the glove box. But my car was a sitting duck, and I knew it. I had to find a place to live in this city I was still discovering—and soon. So when I walked up to the lot on a Saturday morning, it was almost a relief that it had finally happened. The parking lot attendant was standing nearby with a shocked look on his face, “It was like this when I got here…” he trailed off, at a loss for words.

I followed the trail of my things, strewn about the parking lot leading up to my car, who I had lovingly nicknamed “Calvin” after the character from Calvin and Hobbes. Somehow things tend to hold more meaning after you’ve named them. Calvin and I had been through a lot together. A couple weeks prior, I’d experienced the summer from hell working as a camp counselor at an overnight camp in West Virginia. For most of the summer, I’d been at odds with my coworkers (mostly 18 and 19 year olds) and the managerial staff (who didn’t know what they were doing) because of safety issues and other things I won’t get into. Strangely, Calvin seemed to reflect my depression. The car stereo mysteriously stopped working—radio, CD player and all—until the minute I drove off the campgrounds for the last time, traveling to Montreal only a couple weeks later.

And as I stared at the driver’s side window that was completely shattered—green glass littered the driver’s seat and floor-mat—I felt violated. Bits of the stuff was lodged in between the center console and the seats, glittering from the cup holders like jewels. There was a divot in the black rubber on the steering wheel, where the chunk of cement (which I found on the floor) had bounced off. I remembered gazing at the Montreal skyline from that window as Calvin and I approached the city for the first time—lit skyscrapers twinkling in the dark across the harbor, road signs in French first, then English, traffic signals I didn’t understand. I hadn’t left my time zone, but I was somewhere completely foreign. I remembered taking it in, breathing it in, thinking, “This is it. This is my new home.” And when I got lost on the way to the hostel, I felt scared, but I didn’t feel alone. Calvin and I had driven until we settled into the right place, on the right street, in the right city. That was only five days ago. So how did we get here? To this lot on this day with this injury?

The vandals had not taken much. They’d pulled everything from my center console, strewn it into the parking lot in search of—what? Something of value, I guess. Under a neighboring car I found a few CDs and two notebooks I occasionally wrote in. Of all my possessions, I valued these books most, and as I flipped through them, I was relieved to find them relatively unscathed. Then I realized what was missing: my noise-canceling Bose headphones, a Christmas gift from my family as a way to combat my anxiety on airplanes. The tears that had been until now held back by shock pricked at the corners of my eyes. I wasn’t able to identify the feeling until months later, when I left my apartment on the way to work to discover that someone had stolen my bike. I experienced confusion, shock, and finally a feeling of violation. It felt like someone had looked up my skirt. Who did this person think he was? Why did he think he had a right to my things? How dare he?

And so on the verge of tears, I decided to call my dad. He was silent on the other end after I’d explained what happened to my car. Then he took a breath, “You know, Hayley,” he paused, choosing his words carefully, “No one will fault you if you decide to come back home.” I suddenly felt light-headed. I was angry.

“That’s just not gonna happen,” I said, trying to keep my tone civil. How could he misunderstand my reason for calling? I wasn’t looking for an out. I was looking for commiseration, a virtual hug. Instead I had to steel myself. I sniffed away my impending tears and hung up as quickly as I could without being too rude.

I took a breath, sat down on the curb and thought it out. How do I fix this? OK. Step one: put your belongings in a safe place. I pulled out my phone and called a few storage facilities in the area to get rates while I waited for the police to arrive. I found a U-Haul center less than a ten-minute drive away. So now what? Step two: get the car fixed. I called the mechanic closest to me and asked if I could bring the car in right away. “Who gave you my name?” He asked curtly.

“I found you on google maps,” I said.

“OK, well just come down whenever and I’ll take a look,” he said, more politely this time.

After the police arrived and I filed a report, I brushed the majority of the glass off my seat and placed a beach towel over it. Not content with breaking a window and pilfering my belongings, the thief (or thieves) had also knocked Calvin’s right side-mirror off, just for kicks. It dangled from its electrical cords like a limb stripped to its tendons. I rolled down the right window and gingerly placed the mirror on the inside of the door. So, with one broken window and the other rolled down, I pulled out of the lot into downtown Montreal traffic, with the chilly September breeze assaulting me from both sides (“You’re just going to drive it like that?” the parking attendant asked, as if I had a choice).

I pulled into the cavernous garage at the U-Haul center and wandered down a long hallway of storage units into a dim room with a half-moon desk at the front. In front of the desk there was a stool and a concrete support column covered in band posters. As I approached the desk, a man wearing sunglasses (even though the room was dark and windowless) emerged from a hallway carrying an instrument in a case. A keyboard, perhaps? A keytar? He looked vaguely familiar. I wondered if he was a band member from one of the many popular indie bands based in Montreal (Arcade Fire? Wolf Parade? Islands?), and I tried not to look at him. He seemed uncomfortable. We both waited, shifting from foot to foot until an overall-clad man appeared. He dealt with the musician first, then explained their pricing system to me as the sunglasses-sporting man wandered off. I signed up for the smallest unit available, about the size of a coat closet. He gave me directions to the unit and suggested I purchase a lock.

“You don’t provide locks?” I asked, incredulous.

He laughed at me, “Nah, they’re like a buck at the hardware store.”

I didn’t quite follow the logic, but decided not to contest it and spent the next hour unloading my things onto a trolley and wheeling them into my new storage unit. They’d have to live without a lock for a few hours until I could purchase one. Better than stuffed in a car in a public lot, though.

After I finished this task, I got back in my car and called the mechanic to make sure I could bring in the car. “I should be here then,” he said.

I navigated to Griffintown, just south of the main part of downtown. That is, if you’re going by the Montreal compass, which supposedly places Parc Mont-Royal at due north and everything else altered accordingly. When in fact, the mountain is situated more northwest. On my way to the mechanic, I stopped by a convenience store to pick up a lock, but I didn’t realize I’d be practicing my French skills. The man working at the counter spoke little English, and I had to describe to him in patchy French what I was looking for since I didn’t know the word for padlock—un cadenas, as it turns out. And after such an ordeal, I still haven’t forgotten the word, even four years later.

When I arrived at the mechanic’s in Griffintown and drove into the garage, I immediately felt out of place. My car took up what felt like half of the space even though there were six other cars parked inside. But they each seemed tiny compared to mine, miniature. I looked around as I got out of the car. There were British flags hanging on the walls, and BMW paraphernalia strewn around the place. And it hit me: minis. The only other cars in this garage were Mini Coopers. Suddenly, I understood why the man was so brusque over the phone. So when Adam, the friendly owner of Miniac Garage, appeared, looking bewildered, I felt myself blush. He passed me a handyvac to vacuum up the glass as I explained my situation: a recent immigrant to Montreal with a Working Vacation visa, a working knowledge of French, and no connections to speak of. Suddenly, he grew chatty. He told me about his first year in Montreal after moving from Lebanon. He said he’d worked as a busboy at a movie theater. “That was the worst job I ever had,” he said. Then he explained that many people living in Montreal were immigrants, which is why they are so friendly. In fact, many “native” Montrealers are second or third-generation immigrants. “There is a feeling of mutual respect among the people who have settled here,” he explained. “So you’re looking for work, eh?” he asked me of the noise of the handyvac.

I switched off the vacuum and looked at him. “Anything I can get,” I said.

“Well, I’ve just moved into this garage and was thinking of painting. You think you could handle that?”

“Sure,” I said, “I can handle it.”

 

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Guest Feature: “The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague”

“The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague,” this weekend’s guest feature, highlights abrupt confrontation with identity and the realizations, doubts, and affirmations that come with that confrontation. You can read the essay here on its own or at the end of this post.

A few notes about the author, Anna Cherry:

I asked Anna for a photo to include with her essay, and she sent me this one, self-titled “Miserable Farm Animal.”

Anna befriended me in southwest Spain by committing my attendance to a local church service after meeting a group of missionaries very early in the morning on the sidewalk near her apartment. The missionaries were on their way to church. Anna was on her way back from a night out. There’s something to be said about experiences found through contradictions.

Anna is an adventurer. She grew up in Arkansas and spent time teaching in southwest Spain and later Madrid before returning to the States in 2013. She’s outspoken, slightly disorganized, and immensely pretty. Once a photographer stopped her in the streets of London just to take her photo. She’ll talk to anyone. If there were only a ham sandwich in the room, she’d talk to that.

About a year ago, I sent Anna a video of Lily Meyers performing her poem “Shrinking,” a poem about wrestling with social pressures and identity. Anna responded with “The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague,” an essay she wrote for the literary magazine Penumbra. I asked Anna if I could share her essay on The Unfamous, and she agreed.

In an immediate sense,” she explains, “the piece started as a way to vent about something that had stirred up a lot of feelings—of injustice and resentment, of inadequacy and concern about the person I was. I was pissed off that this girl had felt entitled to publicly condemn my personality and accuse me of being inauthentic, especially since authenticity was a state I’d long worried over and strived for, and who was she to take that away from me? There’s some quote that has stuck with me for years but which I can’t remember the details of. I may be conflating authors, but there was one who had lost a large, or perhaps his entire, body of early work because his wife had left his portfolio of pages on a train. At first he’d been really messed up about it, but then he was like, Ah, probably for the best anyway; the first ___ years of a writer’s work is just revenge-seeking against those who’ve wronged him, and it isn’t until he’s gotten that out of his system that he produces anything of worth. So that comes to mind when speaking about motivation for much of my writing, and this essay in particular. But I also wrote the piece for the same reason I write most of what I do—as a method of working out the ways in which I’ve experienced the world in a more structured, analytical, and distanced context. A context wherein I’m granted control over the situation, and can have the space, time, and freedom to examine it from many different perspectives that might’ve been unavailable to me in the moment. In the meat of some pieces of my writing, there are a lot of emotions I try to process, as if I might be able to pin down a moral or lesson, but often I’ll come out on the other side of writing feeling much less judgmental of everything and everyone in the situation. Arriving there is therapeutic and feels like achieving a sort of justice or balance.”

Anna has since come to terms with and embraced her character as well as the evolving nature of identity and existence. Her currently philosophy she describes as “amorphous and fluid.” She is focused simply on “prioritizing meaningful human connections.” Somewhat spontaneous and always vibrant, Anna is currently freelancing near New York, “living the dream on a pullout couch,” the result of an epiphany she had one day while straightening her hair in her apartment. “I needed to write down a solid timeline for the places I wanted to live in the world or I might not do it,” she realized. 

Like many of us, Anna is living and doing, finding her way. She is currently editor of ¡Vaya Madrid!, an online magazine for English-speakers living in Madrid, and contributes essays and travelogues to publications around the world. (For a particularly entertaining example (and might I add typically chaotic series of unforeseen events), see her travelogue about a week she “accidentally” spent in Greece.) Anna lives and works around New York.


 

The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague
Anna Cherry

I sometimes say that a woman feels most vulnerable when she is either a.) naked, or b.) eating, so when the sentence dropped into my silence, I was afraid.

“You’re so much hotter than you let yourself be.” She was studying me with a look that felt penetrating, pan-searing.

I’d done an editorial internship the summer after graduating college, and she’d been one of my rope-teaching superiors. While I was no longer associated with the magazine, I was still hanging around town and so continued to be included in the party e-vites. These were events I went to with gusto, and some fear. They were stocked with all the culture I’d generally accused my hometown of lacking; but for all the import beer, Whole Foods, obscure music, and tantalizing literary types, there was the inkling that I was an imposter in such a circle (and furthermore knew nothing about anything). Also, side-room pep talks with the editor—a sporadic mentor—could equal parts inspire and deflate me; telling him that I was still living at home and working at T.G.I. Friday’s was not at the top of my to-do list.

My ex-superior and a guy I’d never met with the Mississippi River system tattooed on his forearm had started speaking French on the back patio, at which point I retreated to the kitchen. Ginger beer (alcohol-free, I would discover after it was too late) required no author opinions nor grungily-romantic hobo stories. Somehow they’d found me here, though, my eyes full of fear, my mouth full of lemon cookies.

“Uh,” I said, laughing, because she was joking, right? “I’m not sure if I should take that as an insult or a compliment.”

I remember it like a matriarchal face-off before a rumble—her directly across, the only other female in the room, flanked by strange men. There was the new associate editor, a gentle-voiced guy from New York; his friend with the tat, who’d come here to write a novel; and a visiting author from New Orleans, camera in tow. I was meeting them all tonight for the first or second time.

“I just mean, you could be so much more attractive than you allow yourself to be.”

Coughing-laugh noises from the audience.

“I disagree, for the record,” the new associate editor offered from his corner of the bar top.

I was regretting my decision to wear the 80s-lesbian-power-suit jacket. I’d wanted it to say “casual and bold!” But I wasn’t all that bold, and maybe I looked better in skirts. Maybe it, along with antisocial snacking, was not becoming. (“Not becoming”: words the editor would use to describe my current lack of direction.)

More nervous laughter from my side. She finally indicated her beef: I didn’t act as intelligent as I was. I only dated dumb, traditionally attractive guys.

I might have pointed out here that her boyfriend had the jaw structure of a 90s rom-com heartthrob and that she had never met a single one of mine. But I had grown up in the Bible Belt and was inclined to submit. Maybe she had my best interest at heart.

“Really? Do you think so?” I did seem to have a thing for men who were into sports instead of reading. Men who snapped, “Spit it out!” in a no-nonsense way that felt justified, if a little jarring.

“Yes,” she said like she was blessing my heart. “You act like a dumbass.”

There was something about the word—dumbass—the texture of it in the room. Toothed, slapping, like a big, cold fish hitting me in the face. I’d noticed that breaths and voices had been sucked up, as if the vents were hoovering tension. Mississippi River guy had made a quiet exit.

“I don’t think that’s fair…” I began.

I’ve been told there’s something about me that invites destruction. Friends and lovers have corroborated the claim, in one way or another. When explaining it to me, my college roommate used the illustration of sibling rivalry. Her younger sister would cry, recoil, fumble words—and this made my college roommate angrier. It fed something in her, a mean little flame.

“You do. You act like a dumbass so boys will like you.”

I might’ve begun with the defining infatuation of my youth: an aloof boy three years my senior who listened to indie music and wore church polos ironically. I’d tried to become more sophisticated. Affect the alluring melancholy of Sylvia Plath. Later I would swear off trying to win the approval of someone who would throw the fourteen-year-old version of myself out on her heart. (Sure, she was bubbly, and posted Avril Lavigne lyrics on her AIM away messages—not ironically—but in many ways she was more earnest than I could ever hope to be.) I might’ve mentioned the time my (female) tenth grade English teacher took me out in the hallway to ask, had I used the Internet for the poem analysis assignment? Had I gotten outside help, maybe a family member? Was I sure? The time my (male) political science professor told me I was a talented writer, but called me a flake and advised me to step up and “stop being a goofball.” (I’d been making As in his classes. Did he possess some sixth sense for my all-nighter crams, my serial procrastination? Or was this just his shtick to keep students on their toes?) I might’ve mentioned that, during the internship, I’d taken to reading articles with titles like “Subtle Ways Women Undermine Themselves in the Office” and trying to be aware of how often I cocked my head or said statements like questions during magazine meetings.

Instead I opted for the panicked, soupy, “I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I suppose it’s possible—”

“You act like a dumbass, and it’s sad.” She was collecting momentum or righteous indignation. I remember being surprised at the number of times and with what delight she seemed to wield the word.

My mother is possibly the most hard-working, self-sacrificing, kind, and all-around genuinely cute woman I know; taking advantage of her had been like second nature. She’d surrender her portion of dessert, never demand help with the dishes, habitually allow her sleep to be interrupted by us, the dog, my dad’s snoring. It was like her life was spent in hopeful waiting that other people would be benevolent enough to restore her, and the older I got, the more I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to stop being so ladylike before she withered away. I considered aloud the possibility that I had inherited some sort of learned helplessness.

“Isn’t your mom, like, a professional housewife?” she asked.

Once, I’d noticed this ex-colleague silently wiping tears from her eyes while sitting at her desk, catty-corner from mine. I’d felt for her an intense tenderness, the kind that occasionally punctuates resentment. I’d found her irritating—her frequent use of the word “gauche” and predictable disdain for Kings of Leon songs—and intimidating. She talked back, achieved a charming balance of fierce wit and self-deprecation, seduced hipsters at music events. I thought she was ridiculous and incredibly cool.

“Maybe I do do that, I don’t know. I mean, I could spend forever trying to analyze how much of my personality is authentic,” I said. “But at some point you just have to accept that you are the way that you are, you know?” She had no idea how many times I’d taken this train of self-reflection; it could only wreck itself in the is-your-blue-my-blue? pretentiousness of an intro philosophy class, the kind that could move one to extol the virtues of an Adam Sandler movie.

Here, her boyfriend chimed in. (He’d started listening from the doorway at some point.) He explained in a consoling psychologist’s voice the importance of examining and challenging aspects of yourself in order to improve. This was the second time we’d met.

“I had to spend three months in a room with you, trust me, you do,” she said. “And, I mean, I liked you—but god, you were so annoying!”

I wondered if she’d forgotten that we were still talking about me. My entire personality.

Before leaving with her boyfriend, the associate editor, and the friend, she and I agreed that that we had to have a Guinness milkshake party. After she was gone I was surprised to discover that, more than share in a Guinness milkshake party, I desired to never see her again.

She never apologized, unless you counted the curious embrace before her exit wherein she held my face and assured me that she “didn’t mean it bad.” Later, the author from New Orleans would admit he’d thought we might kiss. It would’ve struck me as an appropriately bewildering finale to the evening.

Monday I got an e-mail from the managing editor of the magazine with a link to an article by the author whose piece I’d obsessively fact checked and co-edited during my internship. It was an ode to fact checkers in which he admitted to taking my work for granted, even apologizing to me by name. I was thrilled by the validation. I even relished his earlier depiction of me as a ruthless, meddling force, since “brazenness” was something I possessed in my face-to-face professional dealings only in my most ass-kicking daydreams. In the forwarded e-mail, I was able to see how the managing editor had been alerted to the piece’s existence. “I don’t have a sub, but is this about what I think it might be ?!?!?!” my ex-colleague had written. It felt deeply satisfying, her discovering the article, one that contained someone’s perception of me as competent, dignified. And, if not like an apology, at least a shared nod—even if there would be no milkshake party in our future.

Guest Feature: Mid-Day Meditation

This week we feature a meditative exercise created by Kristin Skelton. Hailing from Canada, Kristen and I met while she was interning in DC. She now teaches elementary school English in South Korea.

Kristin shares, “This is a relaxing, guided meditation, perfect for all levels. I love meditation and for me personally its a very important practice. Meditation can be at any place. You simply quiet your mind and look within. When meditating, empty your mind of all thoughts. At first this may be difficult. As a thought enters your mind, acknowledge it, but let it drift away and look within once more. Look within your heart, mind, and soul. After meditating you will feel lighter and brighter! Being near the ocean is where my heart sings. The ocean waves are soothing and calming, and that’s why I chose to center this meditation around one of earth’s most beautiful gifts.”