I do not have my weapons here.
Montreal, July 2016.
The men appraise here. Walking down the street. The first thing is that they catch your eye and – the stare. No catcalls. But a stare. And you can feel the eyes. This happens from park benches. From cars. They stop the cars to let me run past (I run here, I am trying to remind my body what it can do) and I can feel their eyes track me.
I talk about this with J. ‘It’s the village mentality. Everyone is checking each other out in the summer. Whose sister has had a baby, whose brother is dating someone new, where did they get that shirt, bag, apple?
‘But this isn’t everyone. It’s the men. It’s me. I’m not used to this.’
Well…yeah. People have also been covered up for seven, eight months of year, so when there is a little less clothing, they look. But they won’t say anything. You’re safe.’
‘I don’t feel safe. This is not safety, to me.’
The two jackasses in plaid shirts on the subway, Joliette station, Hochelaga. Stoned at 11am, passing a can of energy drink or bug juice or something. Stumbling. And loud, so loud. They’re anglo speakers, in a very French neighbourhood. I do not think I have noticed before how quiet the francophone speakers are. But these voices – or perhaps because I can understand them, and their crudeness, and their leering and staggering, grates like fingernails on a blackboard. My brain is shuddering.
My headphones are half in. I am slowly aware. Something something ‘SQUIRT! SQUIRT!…your fucking girlfriends, man…I wanna meet your fuckin’ girlfriends.’
In the subway car, I watch them (they are aware of this). A girl, a black girl gets on, white jeans. She stands in front of them. Something is said, a snickering, falling about. She flinches and moves to sit on the side of the carriage. It looks like she may have moved so they will no longer amuse themselves with comments about her ass.
Language is a colonial choice here. An imposition. An aggression. A claiming of space. And they are so loud and obnoxious and unnecessary.
I don’t have my weapons here. My words, in French, are stumbling, unsophisticated and more than anything, slow. It takes me seconds to process what is being said, seconds to understand, seconds to formulate a response. Which is often imperfect and so we start again.
My body, my body which I have relied upon to be strong, is oddly clumsy. As if I’m in a different gravity, one where I move too quick, too hard, constantly misjudge space. I’m bruised on my calves from walking into the hard corners of things, I spill water, wine, pickle juice constantly.
(I am not pregnant, before anyone gets any ideas).
I get lost, all the time. I am disorientated, can’t tell North from East, turn the wrong way up streets and constantly get distances wrong.
Then I have to ask directions. And the whole thing starts again.
In Edinburgh, I am fast and sure and strong on my feet. I wear hard black boots and black skinny jeans and dramatic coats and my hair is short. I know where I am going, and I know what to say when I get there. This doesn’t always make me the most sympathetic of humans. It lets me get things done. I enjoy being like this, most of the time.
I do not often – not never, but not often – feel like I have to fight for space there. I am a middle class white woman with a career profile that means I receive some professional recognition. I know what this means.
In Scotland, I had this idea that the claiming of space – aural, visual, physical, online space – did not have to an adversarial act. That somehow there was enough space.
The photograph of Iesha Evans in Baton Rouge. Space held. For a second.
We’re on our way to Nova Scotia. Nouvelle Ecosse. I’m puzzling over a conversation with J’s brother before we left, about a piece of history I know little about, that of Acadie.
In Moncton, it becomes clear. I think of Nova Scotia as the final destination of the thousands of crofters forcibly and brutally removed from the Highlands to form new colonies on Nova Scotia, amongst other places. Cape Breton with its estimates of 25,000 Gaelic-speaking Scot immigrants arriving between 1775 and 1850.
Before Nova Scotia, it was Acadie. French speaking – and strategically valuable – settlements from which tens of thousands of French speakers were forcibly removed to France and to the United States (primarily Louisiana) in mid 1700s, as France treatied with the British Empire, who wanted the land. Le Grand Derangement.
There is no mention on the monuments of the fate of local First Nations Mikmaq people. Except how they saved the first German and Welsh settler families of Moncton during the first winter, with knowledge of maple syrup, samphire, salt marsh grass. No mention beyond this brief saviour role.
Looking around the red clay river banks, I wonder about space and defense and weapons and violence. The most prominent sign we can see is for the local Staples, Tim Horton’s, Subway. Huge great warehouses of them, equally huge car parks. Taking up so much space.
The other photographs of the suppression of the Black Live Matter protesters in Baton Rouge. Sweat and concrete and pressure.
On the subway, I keep staring. I don’t say anything. I am wearing a full length green floral dress, enormous cats-eye sunglasses. They fidget. Show off. Shove each other around. By accident – not entirely by accident – I follow them up the escalator at Berri UQAM. I follow them onto the platform. Then onto the train. They are aware of me now. I realise that I am on the wrong train, the wrong line entirely. I toy with the idea of staying further, seeing if I can actively freak them out but slip out before the doors before they close, walk serenely down the stairs. I like to think that they’ve been successfully freaked out, but I don’t know if they have. If I am only pleasing myself, with the thought that watchful silence can be enough of a weapon.
Aggression and defense. Space and displacement. Action and reaction.
I do not want to need my weapons here. I do not have my weapons here.