The last day of the conference. Before 11 a.m. the lectures were all over. I wasn’t sure if I paid attention to them well. During the coffee break, I found out everybody I know was to leave the island immediately except for Ernst Jan. We went to see them off at the port in the middle of the day under the blazing hot sun. It was that laid-back kind of atmosphere that made my eyes half closed. All of a sudden, Ougustine came to hug us and went to join the line. Then I noticed the line moving and that signified the departure of my friends. I only managed to locate Elektra who called out to me, and Julie beside her. We hugged and kissed and bid farewell. It was so brief and there wasn’t any chance to say goodbye to anyone else that I hung out with. The next moment the port was empty, leaving me a bit bewildered- a feeling I had long time ago. I always find it hard to digest that friends who created and shared fond memories can just disappear from my life this easily. But I also realize for truly sociable people, it happens all the time and they don’t lament it.
Two hours later, Ernst Jan and I were sitting at Le Pelagos. After the Delft native introduced me to their rowing culture and their enormous civil engineering revolving around dikes, somehow we came to the topic of Israel’s conflict. I looked up at him when he used the word “aggression”, albeit in a careful tone as if that would irritate me. I did find it offensive as Israel never acts unprovoked (okay, minus that 1956 war). So far I had seen myself as a little ambassador of Israel to the world, ready to discuss any complex problems in an educated manner. But before I could make a statement, he said in the gentlest possible way – in a mosquito’s volume – that Farah was a refugee from Lebanon. I gasped and my mind went blank. But that was not all. Her house was destroyed when Israel invaded southern Lebanon. The whole family fled to Egypt where soon afterwards there was unrest and again they had to run away. Eventually they settled down in France. And now Farah lives in Australia where she did her research. For years she could not speak to an Israeli. When she met Israelis she got so angry that she felt like punching them in the face. Only a year ago she gradually overcame this.
As the story unfolded, the images of my limited interaction with Farah came rushing through my mind. I always introduce myself first and foremost as a student from Israel because I never like to present myself as being from China. Like most, Farah verified that this most-definitely Chinese looking person is not Israeli. But why in the world did I add, in the face of a Lebanese, that I like to pretend to be Israeli, only falling short of declaring myself as a self-appointed Israeli ambassador? I somewhat perceived a tip of the iceberg of my silliness when she naturally pursued: “Why do you like to pretend to be Israeli?” There was apparent underlying meaning pointing to her distaste towards Israel. But I chose to ignore her being uncomfortable and clumsily shrugged it off by saying “It’s just fun.” Now that I came to know what kind of bitter personal history she had had, I totally regret my insensitivity. Perhaps later on we got along well: the next day she told me how her nervousness before the presentation could be manifested in her shivering voice; in the afternoons we went to beaches together; during a coffee break I offered my condolence for her stolen bikini; the last morning I think she came to sit right in front of me at breakfast. But all this is perhaps due to me not being Israeli, and/or her being more mature.
I remember that miss universe incidence where the Israeli girl still in the army service cheerfully insisted in taking a selfie together with the Lebanese girl. I sneered at the narrow-mindedness of the Lebanese when it was reported that Miss Lebanon was harshly criticized for that photo. Back then, it again proved for me that only the Arab states perceive us as the enemy, refuse to accept coexistence and perpetrate the century long hostility, whereas we don’t hate anyone and just want to make peace. So when we come across someone from the other side, we lightly go up to them believing we should make friends with them and they should NOT have a problem in making friends with us. But for them, they could not take it lightly. No matter how legitimate a reason Israel has for launching the offensive, what happened on the ground were massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and large-scale displacement of the Lebanese population. Displacement, what a neutral sounding word! But now I suddenly see the substance in this word by relating it to a real person, whom I spoke with and respect. Sometimes our simple-mindedness, innocence, mixed with insensitivity can become stupidity. How can I blame those people for not ready to befriend us?
Ernst Jan asked me to imagine myself being in Farah’s situation. But I could not. I was already saddened and I knew I could not take it to place myself in her shoes. That would be too agonizing. For all these years, I have refused to see the real pictures of any human misfortune, be it the suffering of Gazans, the stories of our fallen soldiers, or the Holocaust. Therefore I love to read history books written by serious scholars. Largely devoid of emotion, I can stand reading numbers, which I forget in a millisecond, or words like displacement, casualty and death. And after reading the books, I believe I know what happened without having to undergo mental depression. But real pictures are indeed there. Sometimes they are just suddenly before your eyes without warning. In the future, I will still hide behind the texts. But this shock lesson indeed significantly influenced me towards giving more weight to the ordinary civilian on the other side when thinking about the conflict.
On a somewhat unrelated note, now I’m watching Sound! Euphonium. At first I was impatient with Kumiko’s subtle sense of guilt for Kosaka-san. I thought since she did nothing wrong and need not to apologize, then why the hanging around wanting to say something without knowing what to say? Now I understand this nuanced feeling. If I could retrieve my silliness and have acted more thoughtfully to Farah, I would. But even if I get to meet her again now, I have no idea what I should say.
In the conversation, Ernst Jan and I talked about a lot more than this point. There wasn’t any final conclusion or bad quarrels. I have no idea how I finished the white fish fillets while discussing something like that. But since this really is a travel log, I should mention that the fish of Le Pelagos, which lives up to its No.1 ranking on TripAdvisor, was really tasty. I totally enjoyed it with the artichoke side dish (again, how?). After the meaningful lunch, I saw my Dutch friend off. Now I was finally officially alone on this small Northern Mediterranean island.
Back in Hotel Les Medes, it felt nice to live in a “dignifying” place again. This time my room was more spacious and included a kitchen, which proved vital. Because for the next few days I was always out in the wild. Dining in restaurants was not an option even if I wanted to. So I stored my vegetables in the fridge and boiled eggs every day for my trips. Since the summer days in southern France is much longer, there was enough time to take a bath. The water of Gorges de Loup still lingering in mind, I easily decided the destination.
The sweet countryside road already became my old friend. This time I got to Gorges de Loup in half an hour and the westering sun was staring at me from outside the opening of the cleft. Only one couple was at the bottom. The girl sat at the edge and paddled the water with her legs. She sighed with delight, admiring the enchanting fluid of colors while I slipped into this huge bathtub in my entirety. It was indeed a bathtub. The sea anemones are the herbs; the seagulls are superior than the yellow plastic ducklings. The nice couple helped take pictures of me before they left me and the birds alone. Some birds rested on the rocks, some others swam around me. In our mutual understanding, we enjoyed the serenity while keeping a polite distance. I always had this inner voice urging me to swim far to feel how it’s like outside the gorge. But at some point, I consistently got frightened by the deepening color harboring unfathomable secrets. The waves there were higher, winds stronger, sunshine also seemed more dazzling – they all tried to push me back. Then I would be afraid and swam back towards the welcoming arms of the cliffs on two sides, towards the bosom of the mother land and take solace in the crystal clear cyan blue. I thus was driven back and forth for several rounds by the struggle of my yearning and fear, before the evening winds came to persuade me to go home.
Wearing bathing dress and wrapped in bath towel, I strolled through another route among the orchards, vineyards and olive groves. Again, I met almost no one. And I hummed in my heart to celebrate the joy of solitude in nature.