The French have this nice word, dépaysement, which is the feeling, sometimes disturbing, when you step outside of your culture, or your home, your usual reference points. When you’re “decountrified” you see things differently… including “home”. A sense of displacement, perhaps exile. As well as becoming hypersensitive to the new external environment (especially landscape) you can get pushed back into yourself.
I think it’s that outsider’s eye that underlies a lot of what I write, and at times I’ve also used the camera as a tool for…filtering that feeling. One consequence of having moved around so much is that your life can get compartmentalized. There’s a temptation to hold on to stuff, people, objects from the past. And of course those glimpses of life you get when you’re in a state of movement are fascinating. The trick is to always stay moving.
I recently saw some old Super 8 film of a trip – slow-moving red landscapes, backyards, clothes drying on Hills Hoists in small country towns, kids waving by the side of the road, specks of what might be camels or emus on the horizon, smokestacks and factories outlined against the sky on a rainy day as the train pulls into Port Augusta.
I still love the glimpses of life you get from a train, any moving vehicle. One of my favourite times of day is early evening. Windows lit up from inside. People are chopping onions on kitchen counters and smoking cigarettes on balconies and arguing with their wives and watching TV and standing looking into the fridge and it gives me this feeling of tranquility, of order, a great tenderness for all these people going about their daily lives, and the urge to somehow capture that, put it in my pocket.
I moved to Marseilles ten years ago, with my French partner of the time, without a word of French and had to reconstruct…everything. Starting with learning how to speak and write again.
Even though I’d always written (dozens of those nice black and red Chinese tradestore notebooks you could get for 2 dollars) it began to take on more importance to me. It was unstructured, highly descriptive, random stuff. But I think I was embarking on a kind of descriptive project to try and make sense of where I was, and my place in it.
It took me several weeks before I successfully had an exchange with a French person in the wild. I asked a woman in a boulangerie for a can of coke and she understood and I paid for it and we wished each other a nice day. It was absolutely mind-blowing that it worked. So yes, in that context, when you’re operating at that limited level of communication, the pages and pages of scribbled notes in English I still have from that time constituted some sort of refuge, an antidote to the loss of self.
My family moved around a lot. The first of these big moves was leaving Western Australia and crossing the Nullabor Plain on the Indian Pacific.
Marseilles is a city that certainly gives you a lot of material to work with, to say the least.
Words and Images by Alison Murray
Sequencing A S Patric