Friday, June 10, 2011, Bayeux, France
Working from the journal I kept while traveling alone In Europe has reminded me how the journey shaped my writing and my views of my novel protagonist. I went to Europe to gather insight into what it might be like for my protagonist, Aihne Fontaine, to go to a foreign country and to travel 800 years into the past. Although I couldn't literally travel back in time, I would be walking through some very old parts of Europe, which I hoped would transform me back, even just in my head. And I was right: I found I shared not only Aihne's perspective as a traveler in a foreign land, but I felt I knew what it might be like to be a time traveler like her--sometimes while sitting in front of a 5000-year-old dolmen or standing inside a centuries-old church. Aihne is a Harvard student, time traveler, and lover of everything 12th-century France, Aihne is independent, intelligent and a serious academic. Like Aihne, I viewed my travel experience as academic at root (although, as you may know from previous blog entries, I strayed off my research path to see the wonders around me).
What surprised me during my own travel experience was the wide gap between the person I identified as me in the mirror and the person the culture I was visiting reflected back at me as I meandered into their train stations, hotels, or cafes. I knew at once Aihne must feel the same after landing in the indifferent city of Poitiers, France in 1136. But I must take my communication muddles and multiply them by ten to get close to how hard it must be to go back in time almost a millennium. Aihne and I both sought to be understood and to understand. I took the opportunity when I could to connect with Aihne and her experience, even in the middle of my own social discomfort. I tried to catch her perspective by walking cobbled streets or sitting on a bench in a cathedral. Then back in my tiny hotel room, I would write furiously in my notebook to reach further into her head and get it all down. At times the connection wasn't strong. Sometimes it was interrupted by my own angst, but eventually I got through.
Journal Excerpt, Friday morning, June 10, 2011, Breakfast Room, Hotel Churchill, Bayeux, France:
Not awake. Australian show off! He could answer our matron de in French and she was pleased. Oh, wait. He is not the Australian. He is the Brit from the first night who encouraged me to find the WiFi connection, and I eventually did. This coffee is old. Perhaps la matron de can bring me a fresh pot.... Yes. I asked. I hate to be a problem, but the coffee was so good yesterday. Ellen, this is not a 4-star restaurant, you know. But the coffee was bad and I know they make good coffee... Dave wouldn't have done it, but Dave isn't here! :) Okay. Got coffee. Thanked the woman for it. Now I have some time to write, so...
Aihne walking through the medieval hall—
I got a chill. I wanted to run out of the Bayeux cathedral last night. I had seen so many stone walls. I felt I didn't belong here. Unlike the Mont Saint-Michel, which invites the tourist trade, this cathedral is still very private. No entry fee, but votive candles everywhere. I did not feel comfortable making an offering there—mine would not be a religious one, but spiritual, as in celebrating the seeking and finding. Outside, the church is so old and grim. The city is preserving it as an historical site. I wondered why. Then I walked inside. The windows were gorgeous. Such starkness and beauty all in one place. Perpetual sorrows—
Churches wouldn't be Aihne's primary research, but she is quite interested in abbeys, particularly the Abbey at Fontevraud. So the images: the gloom, the high transepts and the hollow echoes that become glorious chant from the choir at other times. It all goes to the same thing: the cloistered life, religious or not. Living away from the large community in a smaller one where contemplation is not only encouraged but one of the few activities open to a woman of high birth who had been retired by society. But I get ahead of myself. That is the next chapter of my journey. At Saumur, I will see the Abbey de Fontevraud.
Time traveling. I can understand how disjoint it must be. You don't speak the language exactly, at least in Aihne's case. She has studied linguistic remnants of the language and knows how it probably sounded based on modern romance and Germanic languages. She will refine it as she goes. Get by on her wits. I understand not knowing if your message is getting through. Are you going to get what you asked for—what you thought you asked for? Or something entirely different? Of course, unlike Aihne, I'm a tourist. There is a courtesy extended to strangers who come to visit a country. We are (mostly) forgiven our ignorance. Time travelers walk among the people incognito. I am looking at present-day ruins of medieval sites instead of living in them as new structures along with medieval contemporaries like Aihne is. And Aihne is going back to a time and place in which strangers posed much more likely threats than in western civilization today.
Aihne must be thinking, "Will people regard me as other and run me out of town? Will they trust me or suspect me? So what if they suspect me? Will they act on the suspicion?" That would be problematic. You'd have to smooth things over, faking it. That would be the only way to do it. Constantly smiling when you are talking. Pretending to be helpless or very much like it. (In some ways Aihne and I are both helpless.) Play up the helplessness in some cases. In others, be tougher, stronger, even magical. With men, I suppose, always demur, but calculate carefully so that you do not play it too far. With women, show yourself to be more inept than they, but a hard worker and eager to learn. Puts them on a higher footing than you and they will trust more. Act in trust—prove your trustfulness by doing what you said or indicated you would.
So ends the journal entry from that Friday morning before I set off on my 5 1/2-hour journey from Bayeux to Saumur and encountered adventures that pushed me further into the unknown realms of space and time travel.