31 July 2023

An unforgettable love

An American still, by birth, my experience of Europe borders on unacceptably naive to my British self. When I was an American in Germany some years ago, before Covid, I suddenly realised that a 'Continental' breakfast did not refer to cereal at a Holiday Inn Express outside of Topeka, but to breakfast in continental Europe, as opposed to a Full English breakfast. Now, a British man in Europe, I complain about Brexit and the additional passport queues, and the American accents I hear stick out to me like they hadn't before. On my flight back from Bologna, there was a group of gay men, all couples, who were on the same flight as me, all from New York, I gathered as I listened to conversations around me in queue after queue and I wondered where they had been and what they, as Americans, had found surprising: did they all know that a continental breakfast was a breakfast in continental Europe. I still feel odd travelling with just my British passport, like I might get stopped when I open my mouth and someone at the gate says, But where are you really from, the way everyone else does. I'm British, I swear — I've just learned about the breakfast system. 

The trip to Italy was without major incident, although plagued with minor ones: I missed a flight because of thunderstorms and spent the night in a hotel in Frankfurt. This would be the sort of adventure a younger, American version of me would have savoured and found exciting — another country that I would have ticked off my list of places visited in a year. But the British forty-one-year-old version of me found it exhausting, as I then rushed from one queue to the next for twelve hours, before arriving in front of a crowd of linguists, sweating, but grinning enthusiastically, a day later. The next minor incident was ruining the screen of my Microsoft Surface Pro with sparkling water and sitting outside in the sun, trying to dry it out. Then, as I was running early in the morning with a colleague, we got lost on our first trip down the hill from the citadel where we were staying, where we missed the signs and ended up in the middle of a vineyard, being chased by two dogs who seemed genuinely shocked that we had appeared at six-thirty and were unsure what to do. We ran again, a couple of days later, on a flatter course out to Cesena, and I stopped at the turnaround point to take a picture of what I said at the time was the ocean, a silly, American mistake. 

I got home late on Sunday night to the house on Victoria Road, wearing shorts and feeling like I had when I came back from Sweden, that going away had not provided what I hoped would be a hard reset on my life, like I would come back to the house I left in 2018, before everything started to change and this unhappiness settled on me and wouldn't, as it had in the past, move on at some point. Zizek says, if you love someone for a reason, you don't love them. It's a very particular understanding of love, it's a Western understanding of love, one that I can't apply to my own situation, in the same way I can't apply the philosophy of the vaguely Christian TikTok men, guys like Dave, who are having sex with their wives because they listen to what their wives want. It's just that simple, they say. I watch the video through a time and bit of the repeat, arguing with Dave in my head and assuring him — even though he says he knows that men will say it's not that simple, that is, in fact, that simple — that it is not that simple. There are cultural assumptions about love and communication and marriage one has to take into consideration. I angrily swipe on, knowing I will meet Dave again having committed a 1.2 watch time to one video, but the algorithm decides I next need to see a video about the history of the atomic bomb like the universe is commenting on itself, like the plot of my life has been perfectly optimised for ironic effect. The one trick that no wife can resist which isn't really a trick, then an animated documentary about Tsar Bomba, Part 3, even though you've not seen parts one or two.

I don't like Zizek, but I like this explanation of love because I don't know why I feel love. I repeat his quote to the solicitor or vicar or colleague like I'm begging them, anyone but myself, to solve my problems, to help me forgive myself the intractable, original sin of my life, because I don't how to forgive it. I'm crying, I'm asking for tissues like a child. Do this for me, please, someone, anyone but me, and the person across from me nods with empathy, it does sound like a difficult situation. And then, like magic, like the swipe of the TikTok algorithm, as it has happened for the last fifteen years, the thing that saves me, that buys me time, is this thing that has come up, that I need to deal with now, that supersedes everything else. The larger problems, the question of what is love, what is happiness, satisfaction, joy, disappear again beneath the surface of the water, drug down by the weight of everything else that needs attention, another flight to make, another boiler problem to sort out, another child who needs to be taken to or taken from an event. I can stop thinking for a little bit at least, and just keep going, unforgiven but with some hope that Zizek is wrong and Dave is right, that love can be justified, and that all you need to do is listen more carefully. That you can suffer under the weight of sin that no one can forgive and one day find some peace that you can understand, that you can explain, and that frees you, tangibly, empirically, from all of pain you invent.