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Memory is an unreliable narrator (Provence part two)

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

I flicked through the pages intrigued, a bemused smile of disbelief creeping across my face.

Who WAS this girl?

She worked convivially alongside the other volunteers all day in the sunshine, sat up late chatting and laughing, went for moonlit swims while the Mistral rattled through dark swishy pines, then got up at the crack of dawn for breakfast duty. She hopped on the bus into Aix-en-Provence on her jour de congé to meet a student friend, dozed off in a nightclub then picnicked by the stream the next day. She came home from an evening out to find a single red rose on her pillow. Her roommates, smiling groggily, informed her the giver had climbed up from the patio, through the window to leave it there - the same boy they’d thrown, fully dressed, into the pool a few nights before.

To be honest, whoever she was, I felt a little envious of her: this 20-year-old on the cusp of everything. She seemed to have both friends and strangers going out of their way for her. I don’t recall myself ever feeling as loved as she clearly was at that age.

I read on. She went shopping in the flea market for vintage dresses with one friend and for evening runs with another.

I’m sorry… What?

Evening runs? In one of the hottest places I ever lived? Whoever this girl was, she had obviously hijacked my journal and written all these details in, this dream of a month.

Except…she hadn’t. It was all there in my handwriting. Indisputable evidence even though I couldn’t quite believe it. Whole chunks were a complete surprise to me, as if I were reading a stranger’s journal, learning things for the first time. But, mingled in with what I was pretty sure were the words of an imposter, was the litmus paper of things I did remember. And gradually, squinting with concentration to remember some of the hazier memories, I began to believe the other ones too. This girl, this charmed life, could it really have been me? Reading this mish-mash of memories and lost moments in sequence, I saw the events - and myself - through the eyepiece of distance. I saw how very, very, good a thing I had.

Memory is an unreliable narrator at times. When I think of Provence, I always default to the homesickness of that first visit or the fun longer stint as a student in Aix a few years later, with all the highs and lows of being a foreigner in another’s city. My memories of this place are so glued to those two long trips and it was only after writing my last post about that late teen awkwardness that I stumbled upon this journal, with all its unearthed stories.

Because between those two significant and lengthy visits, there was this other one: I went back one summer to work: a month tagged onto the end of my other plans. I had been au-pairing in the south west of France – a beautiful and awkward experience which left me with some residual trouble-of-the-heart as I continued my summer plans, first to visit friends in Madrid and Barcelona and finally here, to finish my summer in Provence.

Of course, I do have that trip stored away in my memory. It’s in a small compartment labelled ‘Oh and I did this too’. An also-ran. I was a little distracted by events earlier in the summer and there was a feeling of heading for autumn. I was about to restart university after making a bad choice the previous year. I was excited, a little nervous. All these things raced around my head - past and future - past and future.

So, if you asked me about that month, I would rattle off a few key memories. It was good. It wasn’t life-changingly amazing and it wasn’t difficult. I slotted back in with the confidence of someone who knows the ropes.

But reading this old journal left me speechless and for an entire day afterwards I floated on the decades-postponed feeling of being loved. As I read about kindnesses I scarcely remembered, I suddenly clicked: this time had been a gift.

The thing is, sometimes we repeat one memory in our mind for so long that eventually it becomes all we can remember. We think that’s ‘the thing’ and somehow forget everything else. We miss all the good.

I picked up the journal again, my eyes drinking in details as I reached the final week, a leaving do at the centre and an evening out in Aix with my closest French friend from my first stint there. When a misunderstanding about lifts meant I would be on my own for over an hour, near midnight, Karine insisted I call her friend who lived nearby.

Oh yes, these things seem totally normal when you’re 20 – calling a complete stranger at 10pm on a weeknight and asking them to hang out with you. However, according to my journal, I did just that; and, as I stood at the call box with a handful of francs, it seems this girl wasn’t fazed either, ‘Sure! Meet at the Palais de Justice in ten minutes?’ She took me back to her tiny studio where we drank coffee and exchanged life stories until my lift arrived.

There is nothing earth shattering here. And yet there is. Because when I think back to that phase of my life, I don’t normally associate it with being the kind of person who got that much care and attention.

It felt like the big reveal at the end of a film when you suddenly get to see the whole story. It reminded me of the importance of journalling, recording our lives, but also of the need to be open to new perspectives, seeing the bigger picture, seeing ourselves as others see us and having the flexibility not to get stuck in one mindset.

Because sometimes we remember things selectively. We put them in a compartment in our mind that tells us how to feel about them when they pop to the surface, but maybe that compartment was the wrong one?

And I realise this is a bad habit of mine. I get stuck in a difficult memory and forget the redemption that followed. As a crucial aside, I certainly don’t mean that anyone should doubt the things they really do remember. There are times when things are so bad that there is genuinely no rosy memory to soften the edges. But here I allowed myself to miss a whole month’s worth of golden memories simply because I had a different soundtrack playing on loop.

I forgot so much, but what I do remember is that several years later, a close friend saw a photo of me during that time, beaming in a bundle of friends.

“Wow, where was THAT?” she asked, “You look so happy!”

I took a closer look at the girl in the picture, her face glowing, “Hmmm, I suppose I was.”

And now, it makes perfect sense.


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