A Simple Blueprint | Marta Orriols | Granta

A Simple Blueprint

Marta Orriols

Translated by Samantha Mateo

It’s made of clay, dating back to the eighth century bc. A Babylonian tablet that, according to what they say, is the oldest map known to man. It consists of a diagram that combines a central map and a description of seven mythical islands in the middle of the ocean connecting the earth to the heavens. While I wait for my connecting flight, I pass the time reading an article about how art depicts cartographies that challenge borders and geographic origins. The tablet’s age makes me think about the ancestral need to situate ourselves and how we have always placed things in fixed positions according to the cardinal directions. We know how to navigate lands, draw plans, forge paths, race cross-country, against the clock, and without pre-established routes. We even force ourselves to go through checkpoints marked on the map. We have the skills and the instruments. We know their mechanisms and measurements. We draw diagrams, calculate the distances, minimize the margin of error. We master cartography, yet despite everything, we go back and forth often in our lives, directionless.

I’ve never really known who I am, something that has never made me unhappy. I’ve had my convictions, intuitions, desires, moments of joy. In some ways, not knowing myself has defined me. I’ve never been sure of what to expect from myself, and I haven’t worried about it much either. Until now, I’ve always had the strength to pull myself out of pessimistic moments, which have luckily been few. But I’ve never known who I am. I’ve been searching for myself all my life.

Now, when I’ve lost everything that in some vague way defined me, I am returning. I do it now, when it feels like anxiety blurs the nights and days. I return hesitantly. I wouldn’t compare it to a heavy black cloud or say that I’m in a dark place. It’s not that I regret my life. It’s less precise than that: I’ve just lost my way. I could chalk it all up to the professional turmoil that, for the last few months, has taken control of me, altered every decision and led to personal repercussions that are starting to become clear as I go through security in this European airport. I could deny it, of course, and blame my return on her, on everything she’s rattled. If I try to give it a familiar name, like existential crisis, or identity crisis, or mid-life crisis, it becomes even bigger, more a part of something. But it’s me, I’m the one who’s lost myself. All the same, how do you find yourself again if you’ve never really known who you are?

It’s easy to leave the door open to the unknown, but when it’s the self that remains unexplored, it’s necessary to arm oneself with tools that are much more precise: tools that allow us to trace a map of the most intimate of geographies, the geography that marks where one person ends and another other begins. The journalist Leila Guerriero writes, in Spanish, ‘We look back with vertigo, ahead with curiosity, never sideways. And we continue on and on.’ What she doesn’t consider is the possibility of becoming trapped. What’s certain is that my family and friends will want answers. Are you coming back to stay? Are you leaving journalism behind? If they ask, and they will, I’ll tell them that my parents are getting older. I won’t be able to explain myself and blabber on about the need to put down roots, about the confusion, and about the strangeness of it all. Outside of work, it’s not always necessary to tell the whole truth. So, let’s just say my parents are getting older.

A less grueling way to travel from the East to the West is to fly out of Beirut with a layover in Istanbul. It was almost always my first option when visiting family and friends the last few years. I felt like this route blurred the differences at a pace that made it easier for me to adjust to each reality. Today, however, I’m making the trip by passing through France in order to avoid a proper farewell. I think it’s important to remind myself that this time it’s different, and to lie to myself, and to pretend that, even though I’m returning home, I’m leaving behind unresolved matters, even if they might be as small as Hansel and Gretel’s damn bread crumbs.

In Paris, the airport breathes with the anodyne order of the old continent. Beirut is just far enough away to turn this layover into a dress rehearsal: to do my hair and put on a little bit of make-up and make it seem like the havoc wreaked across my face only reflects the exhaustion of the move, of the weeks spent wrapping up my affairs, packing up physical and mental boxes. The terminal welcomes all of us who are passing through with the unmistakable air of a place that never sleeps. The passengers become shaky figures before the big floor-to-ceiling windows warmed by the sun. Anonymous men and women drag their suitcases along, looking for their gates, checking their passports. Some travel united by the tedium, and others with brand new hopes and dreams. There are hardened loners and workers who rush past, who miss flights, and arrive late to conferences being held on the other side of the planet. The crooked ties, the wrinkled clothing, the sagging shoulder pads. Strengths and weaknesses in transit, all on the path to some destination at this crossroads of human relationships, and the moving walkways that are always, always sure of where they are headed.

The terminal becomes the dressing room where I freshen up before going on stage in a few hours and performing the amateur comedy I feel will be my life going forward. But I won’t freshen up, I won’t. I’m too tired, and this time I’m traveling reluctantly. Besides, for me airports are a base camp, where I’ve never had to fake things. I’m faithful to few corners, but I’m loyal to airports. They fit me like a glove. I feel at home with the eternal waits, the dramatic time changes, the lost luggage. If I’m not in a hurry chasing after some news story, I welcome everything inconvenient in the eyes of the world as a good excuse to stay longer in this foster home, a shuttle to the unknown or the less familiar, to beginnings and endings.

As luck would have it, the loudspeakers in the terminal are calling for some passengers who should be boarding their flight to Rome. The Italian allusion provokes a pang of emotion. ‘Piedmontese, di Torino,’ you introduced yourself for the first time. Hopelessly you’re back inside me, drumming up feelings, reducing me to a teenager pushing on the accelerator. A ball of snakes, writhing inside, make me tap my feet nervously as I sit on the tall stool at the cafe bar. I watch the waiter. My tendency to look at things from a professional perspective along with my mental training to strike up conversations with strangers makes it impossible for me not to ask him if he’s from Paris, if he has noticed whether the airport is busier now that the holidays are approaching. He answers shyly, a tad surprised that someone would talk to him about something other than satisfying their hunger or thirst. I look at him openly, hoping he’ll give me an opportunity to explain something, but it doesn’t work. He diligently performs his job. His arms move gracefully around the coffee machine. He could conduct an orchestra, I think. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up and a dishcloth is tied to the belt of his apron. The dynamism he radiates while preparing orders is sustained as he places the white mug on the saucer in front of me. He looks at me and smiles. Talking to strangers always calms me down, but he doesn’t seem to notice that the journalist in me is lost, that she can’t find the words, how to say them. Even just this morning in the shower: if they ask, you won’t say a thing about this psychic tragicomedy or how you suddenly feel like it’s hard for you to write about fear, to analyze war, to find words that move people. My parents are getting older. Burn this phrase into your head if you need to. No one ever asks you anything here, excerpt if you’d like sugar, at the most. I could put an end to it all here then. End it now, at this point. Stay in a non-place and fly to another destination, reinvent myself, start over anew, but in the end, isn’t that what I’ve spent half my life doing? ‘No, sans sucre, merci.’ With my gaze fixed on the coffee, I try to cheer up, to remember that a whole new future awaits me. I try to breathe emotions into it, a pioneering spirit, but it’s like a used vehicle that I can’t even sell to myself. Instead, I tremble at the thought that everything I’m leaving behind will silently disappear into the dust of the past. Of course, my family is waiting for me. There’s also the matter of the new job, the friends, but when I think about it, I only feel a certain melancholy.

I should start sending out messages announcing that I’m already back in Europe. I try to open WhatsApp and greet my mother with a ‘Marhaba, habibti. I’m in Paris, nearly there.’ But there’s no use. Language is the soul of a place, and its sound the structure through which life runs. Over the last few years, I’ve added sounds from this side of the Mediterranean, splashes of Arabic, to my speech – small signals to avoid explaining that I kind of belonged there, that I wanted to belong there, that I was offering lexical tokens as gifts from the Middle East. It was an attempt to share what I loved: the place, the people, their traditions. I’ve established an intimate relationship between words and the way that I perceive the world. The amount of love in each letter. If only they knew. If only they could have felt the way I’d felt. Arabic. You also have to safeguard the language somehow. First it was my name from right to left with the limitless plasticity of the beautiful calligraphy, like the hairs of a baby, black, fine and curly. From right to left. It seemed strange until it was normal. It’s always like that. Everything is new until it isn’t. Who were you before you left? Here you’ll go from left to right. The moving walkway. You just have to follow them. Do a one-eighty. It starts with accepting that it’s easier to leave than to return.

It’s hard to believe that in the transience of the flight things have changed forever. I don’t want to overwhelm myself with this idea. I won’t accept that I’m returning until the plane has left a large scar etched across the sky. Now look at you! Let it go, just what you need, to play the poet. It’s too late to even turn this whole thing into a metaphor of some sort. I could just look back and say to myself that I’ve lived life to the fullest. I’d somehow justify moving back in with my parents at this age, now that I’m in Paris flashing my passport at the boarding gate. But there’s no turning back, and there’s no poetry. The only thing left is a feeling of disbelief and a knot in my stomach. It’s the concept of home itself. It seems strange returning to it, especially with this feeling of having never been there before. From afar, the idea of home can seem like a concrete unit, but as I get closer, it feels more like a place to settle the score with myself. Until a couple of hours ago, my home was the apartment in the Hamra neighborhood where I’ve lived all these years. Home was Beirut, the smell of za’atar wafting from the spice shop three blocks up the way, the urban decay with its grayness and sudden burst of color, always a shock of color, and the liveliness in a patio, in a new cafe, in a friendly smile. Where’d this impulse come from? The resolve to leave Beirut, to leave my job, my friends, to have let her escape even earlier than that. I had no clear reason. In fact, I had the feeling of having wrung out that stage of my life, of wanting to be sensible, and of voicing the exhaustion out loud, a feeling of discomfort with the way of carrying out journalism and with myself, my inability to put things in order, to understand myself, but did I need to return? I replay the speeches I’ve been giving myself these last few weeks, and they no longer seem so convincing. It’s as if, all of a sudden, at this moment, as I look for seat 14B on a plane that’ll take me to Barcelona, everything that I’ve told and repeated to myself were the result of a drunken stupor, and I’m paying the price with an unprecedented hangover.

The noise of the turbines and the landing gear fill the whole plane. The plane is readying itself, multiplying, and doing it all much larger and louder than I’d like. Next to me a corpulent man, wheezing, wants to exchange seats with a girl in the other row so he can sit next to his wife. He takes up all of my space, without consideration, even my personal space. I breathe my portion of the air, and ignore the fact that if I return home for good, I’ll be like the proverbial fish out of water, suffocated; it’s started already. He demands insistently in English, ‘My wife.’ He points to a old woman with tons of make-up on a couple of seats away, and then he pounds himself on the chest a couple of times. ‘She and I. Sit Together.’ The bare, functional English he uses has no connection to any real country. Neat and severe, the hostess intervenes, and the girl gives in, resigned, despite the fact that she’d settled and splayed magazines across her tray. The man stands up, causing my bag to fall to the floor. He doesn’t apologize, and I can’t avoid the site of his bare belly when he lifts his arms to grab something from the overhead compartment. It’s the girl’s turn now as she tries to squeeze in next to me, armed with a handbag, wireless headphones, and a bunch of magazines. I have to lift my legs onto the seat and hold on to my knees for a moment so that she can access the small window seat. She thanks me in a French that connects with an old and tired world. The reduced space, the discomfort, and the slight sweaty stench of the man leaving leads me to close my eyes for a beat. When the girl finally sits down, my bag falls to the floor again, and my notepad and cell phone fall out. They end up below the seat in front of me. ‘Pardon,’ she apologizes. I whip a smile from my sleeve. There’s a message on my phone and it’s from you. I’ve waited for it, imagined it for so long that I’m able to recognize your name even from the corner of my eye and in the half-darkness of the floor of an Air France plane, but a thousand of miles away I try to let ‘Valeria’ be another name, one that doesn’t contain the breadth of shared days. I fail on first attempt. I get a little dizzy picking up every Italian letter off the floor and turning on airplane mode as a shield, leaving the message unread. When you have stopped believing in love, heartbreak is a surprise.

I spy the French girl out the corner of my eye. With her belongings, she has made the space her own, and she seems absorbed in a serene universe. I feel cornered between the seats, and I page through the newspaper with a certain difficulty. In reference to her song ‘Faith Healer,’ the singer Julien Baker says in an interview, ‘I realized while writing this song that we not only self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, we also do it with relationships, with ideologies, with fanatical politics, with TV binges, and with isolation.’ I rip out the fragment of newspaper where she explains that there are many ways of feeling better, even if our decisions end up being harmful. I put it in my pocket. That’s it, I think. Isolate myself. Separate myself from everything and everyone for a good while.

When the plane finally takes off, a light rain begins to fall over Paris, streaking the windows with horizontal droplets. The city recedes into a drowsy sky. I hold out the hope that if I catch a glimpse of a bird, I’ll see the world appear in outline, simplified. The idea that everything below becomes a simple blueprint, a series of lines and volumes that make me think that things can be ordered, that I can succeed in making them function and become comprehensible, it all has an anesthetic effect on me, but today the clouds barely let me distinguish the sky from the earth. The feeling of that I deceive myself returns, the sense that I might be only a shadow of who I was the last time I was here.


Image © ray perezoso


Marta Orriols

Marta Orriols (1975) lives in Barcelona. Her debut was the short story collection Anatomia de les distàncies curtes (2016). Her first novel, Aprendre a parlar amb les plantes (2018), won the Omnium Cultural Prize for the best Catalan novel and has been translated into more than fifteen languages; the English translation, How to Talk to Plants, appeared in 2020. In 2020 she wrote Dolça introducció al caos and her latest novel La possibilitat de dir-ne casa (The Possibility of Calling it Home) published in January 2023. She is also an occasional contributor to the newspaper El País and her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, both in Catalan and translated into other languages.

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Translated by Samantha Mateo

Samantha Mateo is a translator from Chicago. She received an M.A. in Humanities from the University of Chicago, specializing in Catalan and translation studies.

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