Friendship Across Lines

The other day, a package arrived from my friend Jone in Spain. It contained a necklace with the laubur, an unofficial symbol of the Basque Country. It bares resembles to the swastika, but the laubur, known in other languages by other names, is an ancient symbol long used by a number of different cultures and only later appropriated for alteration by the Nazis. Laubur means simply “four heads” in Basque. It’s rotated axis pushes forward and symbolizes the constant evolution of life.

I know there is a lot of controversy over the Basque Country, but politics aside, I have never experienced anything but the most genuine friendship from the people there. I spent several weeks in the Basque Country while living in Spain in 2011 and 2012, and my Basque friends made every effort to be inclusive, sensitive to the fact that I was uninformed about Spanish history and politics, let alone Basque history and politics, and respectful of my own cultural norms and traditions. I went everywhere from the beautiful cities of San Sebastián and Bilbao to the town of Irún and even smaller towns whose names I can’t even remember — places with all-night long garage punk concerts and heritage festivals; a fog-enveloped winery on the top of a small mountain; a storied church at the top of two hundred stone steps on a rocky island. A friend of mine’s family took me to the beach to walk long the shore that connected France and Spain. Another friend’s grandmother served me up a whole fish when we dropped by her house unannounced.

It is a beautiful place.

I wanted to learn more about this incredible culture so I started learning the Basque language. It is an ancient language — far older than most languages in existence in the modern day — whose roots are largely unknown. It shares almost no commonalities either in terms of vocabulary or structure with other tongues. There are many hard consonants, yet the words have a way of rolling together.

It is difficult to find Basque language textbooks in the United States. There is one in the entire D.C. public library system. This past spring, it was a terrific surprise when I received a package from my Basque friend Judit. She had sent me a Basque textbook and workbook as well as a Basque children’s storybook with which to practice.

And shortly after, another surprise package arrived from my friend Raquel, Obabakoak, one of the only few hundred books originally written and published in Basque. The version she sent me was in English, thankfully (I’m still working on reading the children’s storybook Judit sent. Diligent student though I am, I have not yet progressed beyond a basic understanding of the language!), with stories that beautifully capture the communities, folklore, and landscape that characterize the Basque Country.

Raquel doesn’t speak Basque. Judit and Jone do. I have Basque friends who are separatists and Basque friends who want to remain part of Spain. I have still other friends who are indifferent.

The politics are not, at this point, what’s important to me. If I were living in the Basque Country myself, or if I had roots there, or even if I were living again in Spain, maybe the politics would be of greater importance. But what’s important to me now is the friendship I’ve experienced from all the people I’ve met there. When Jone sent me the laubur, she included a note. “I want you to know that every day I think about you,” she said. “I would like you to feel the same way about us, your friends and family, and also about the Basque Country. This gift is a symbol of the Basque people, and I want you to have it.” She also wrote, “Enjoy life, it’s beautiful!”

It’s true.


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,


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.”


Sun Struck

I had this dream a couple of months ago. I was standing on top of a plateau surveying the entire landscape below. It was as if I had reached a summit. The sun was straight up above. And I was smiling, but really smiling, because I was so, so happy.

Listen. I don’t usually have dreams like this. I don’t usually remember them. But this one stuck with me. Like I was thinking about it all the time. I had to get to that summit. Had to get to the sun.

And a couple of days ago I was there.

Nothing ever happens when you expect it to. I flew to Argentina on a whim. I took a bus to Córdoba at the last minute. I met up with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in four years. We went to the Sierra because I mentioned it offhand and from there it was inevitable that we would go. This is how things happen to me. One minute I have no idea what I’m doing, and the next I’m on top of a mountain.

We went to this secret beach tucked back in a valley. You have to climb a small mountain to get there. Then take a trail down the hillside. There was a little girl there. 4 years old. Paloma. Also, horses. And a boat and two boys who rowed the boat up the river to nowhere.

Later, to the summit (different day), and alongside the river (after).

There isn’t time to process things when you’re hiking up mountains in Argentina. Things that seemed obvious before begin to seem very far away. Things that didn’t even occur to you before suddenly seem possible. How to explain it? Like anything could happen. You could be nowhere or you could be everywhere. I started to say that I felt like I was at the other end of the world, but then I realized that literally I was.

On the beach, the rocks.
On the mountain, the sun.

Sand all on the floor of the car, like long days of summer when you drive home.

Riding in the car, you feel like you are flying. You can look up at the sun roof and see the stars. It’s night. You can see the moon. It’s about to be an eclipse. You look up and everything you see if stars.

All of this is real.
Sometimes I make things up but all of this is real.

Nothing ever happens when you expect it to. One day you could be at your desk in DC, and the next you could be stopped on the side of the road in the middle of Córdoba, everything pitch black except the insatiable moon and the hundreds of stars.

I can’t stop thinking about this. The beach, the mountain, the sun, the stars.

Te acuerdas de … ?

During my flight back, the flight attendant saw me smiling and said jokingly, “What are you so happy about?”

Ha. Everything. Because I love this. I love it all.