Most of us never wanted to settle down and start a career. The Village gave us the unique opportunity to create a new mythos of ourselves and we had the space to be and do anything we dreamed of. We didn't have to have anything figured out (until we departed).
But the question everyone was asking each other when they arrived in the mornings was:
Who are you?
And then as time passed, in the evenings by the fire the question reflected back on in flickers: Who am I? Who will I become after this? Where am I really from? After tonight? Tomorrow.
In the Village, I didn't know anymore.
I decided to try out several characters.
Roland from—Dublin, no Montreal. Actor? Scientist?
I started a notebook to keep track of each persona. Sometimes people would catch me (I had no idea what province Montreal was in or who was Prime Minister or how to act). I'd say in the morning meetings, Hi I'm Alain from Texas, or Dylan from Minnesota depending on the week, and the people who knew me already would laugh (they were in on it and very supportive of my identity crisis). The desire to no longer contain a reference point grew and grew. Looking back, I wasn't very creative with the names or places, but perhaps I chose those because I really wanted it to be believable.
What I noticed during this time of compulsive-self-invention is that people would talk about me in a story, and then the name, place, and description of me would be off, my signifier became a confusing element to my existence—that the only way to refer to me was by describing my physical appearance.
“Who? Oh, you mean that guy from Canada. No, who’s that?” I heard someone say, with me right in the circle. I had achieved weekly anonymity, and I never had to repeat myself for introductions. This logic of course had many faults and oftentimes would blow up in my face. Some people eventually figured it out and became curious enough to further discuss who I was.
One Wednesday, Selim was talking about me to some new volunteers. His English and French were both progressing quickly.
“Yeah, Henry is from California! Can you believe it?”
“Who? John? We all thought he was Canadian.”
“I thought he was Irish.”
I walked up and said "Hey what's going on?"
“You have to tell them! This is getting out of control, I can't keep this up for you.” Selim said and laughed.
"Ah yeah? Hm. Alright. Well it was good while it lasted. Hi, I'm actually Henry from California." I said reaching to shake hands.
"Well, good, glad we agree on who you are. Let's get back to work?" Selim said.
I think Selim was enjoying himself more. I saw him smiling under the hair net, in his sporty-city wear covered in flour. He was incredibly skilled at baking cakes. He was so good in the kitchen, that some of the other long term volunteers had a love-hate relationship with him. They wanted a chance at cooking because as everyone knows being in the kitchen was by far the best option workwise, but they also loved his cooking so much.
He began making a habit of inviting me out onto the patio for a smoke break, between chef and sous chef. One day he handed me a camel, and then grabbed my shoulder and said, “Smoke, Henri, smoke!” He kept smiling at me weirdly.
“You like the camel mmmmmmmm very good, very good!” he said, and patted my shoulder. “Yes Henri, it’s so nice out, n’est pas? Ça va bien? Oui ça va!” Selim said, emphasizing the French pronunciation of Henri. He was sober though his words sounded as if he was drunk. He grabbed Ocelot, the Village wild outdoor pet cat who was constantly twitching. Ocelot hated being picked up. Selim stroked her hard and said, “Such good Ocelot, love me? Oui, love me cat.” Ocelot made herself tense and stuck out her claws into Selim’s arm and pivoted magically to jump away. Selim pretended like that didn’t happen.
“Henri, Henri, Henri, I like that name. Je m'appelle Hen-ri," he said holding his collar.
"Haha, what's got into your munchies?" I said.
"What is munchies, I don't get it? Never mind that, I am going crazy here. Too much time in one place,” he said.
“Well, let’s go out next weekend. Oui?” I said.
“I made a mistake. There is a big trouble with lasagna,” he said.
“I can’t really tell you.”
“It’s embarrassing. This will ruin me!” he said as he grabbed my shirt collar.
“Come on, I’m sure it will be delicious, you’re such a critic of your own cooking, everybody says you’re the best, you’re the go-to chef here. Even if it’s terrible, it will be alright man, try to relax a little, we can always eat leftovers.”
“No, no, no not this time. So big fuck up, I fuck up,” he said. Then the wooden door with a broken bug screen swung open.
“Selim! The lasagnas!” Anais yelled, waving him to get in there.
He handed me his cigarette and put on his hairnet and ran inside. I figured I’d give the kitchen some space and go set up the picnic tables. It was finally warm enough to eat outside. I did five or so trips from the large cubby that took up the entire wall of the Hôtellerie to the tables in the front garden. I set sixty-seven plates, all of different colours, makes, and sizes, and sixty-seven cups of different plastics on the picnic tables. But as I set the last cup down, I heard a loud bark then I saw Ocelot running faster than I've ever seen a cat run. Two giant dogs were trailing just a few meters behind. Ocelot's hind legs pumped the ground like a rabbit. I heard Sarah yell at the top of her lungs, “No!!!! Stop!!!!” but there was nothing to be done.
After many figure eights, jukes, and fake outs, Ocelot ran straight up a tree, narrowly escaping a vicious bite by the alpha dog. She perched up in the tree like a scared squirrel, the dogs barked and jumped up to the first branch with their paws scraping tree trunk. Sarah was furious and yelling at the owner of the two dogs who were there for a week-long herbal medicine workshop. The person didn’t seem to care or think that their dogs were a problem, despite their aggression. Meanwhile, Ocelot was panting in the tree, looking dazed down at the snarls. She began a weak hiss that had a tired air, the dogs wouldn’t go away. Sarah’s yelling had no effect.
The lunch bell dinged, and the dog owner made a simple whistle and the dogs immediately lost interest and began running towards the picnic tables. I can see poor Ocelot shaking.
At the tables we started with a salad entrée, and someone dared me that I couldn’t fit inside the sureau tree.
“In that hole? You don't think I can fit. Mais bien sûr, of course I can, just you watch,” I said taking off my sweater.
I proceeded to climb into the hollow interior of the sureau tree. I was able to stand straight up inside it as if I was in a vertical tomb. My arms constricted and compressed into the slowly rotting inner wood. I could not get out. “Ahh, help I can’t get out of the tree!” I must have said, I don’t remember.
Everyone was laughing and saying that I lost the bet if I can’t get out on my own. I was terrified the tree would close in on me like a venus fly trap. Are the number of ridiculous things that I do determined by the people that I spend time with? Would I have done that on my own accord, alone?
It felt cool and calm inside the tree trunk, and a bizarre tangibility of its energy possessed my body as I calmed down waiting for them to get the ladder to get me out. Like walking through a ghost who could read your mind and hear every thought that emits signal out your ears. I could feel the tree sensing even the inner tiny thoughts squirming underneath the main monologues. This tree now knew something deep about who I was, but it remained a terrifying mystery to me, like I wasn't supposed to be in there.
The bugs were slowly crawling out of the pores of the inner bark and coming onto me as if I was now perfectly livable real estate. And I must have been a hot commodity because after a few minutes I had hundreds of bugs on me, spring was here after all and they were not afraid.
Finally, I saw Nicolas’ hands above me in the light come down to grab my shoulders, like the hands of God. They looked golden, and violet, with a silver filter. The inside of a tree has a different darkness than a cave or a bedroom alone at night. I heard the damped laughter of sixty some odd people, and Nicolas included. His hands firmly grabbed my shoulders and he easily plucked me out of the tree. I sat my legs down on the edge for a second and caught my breath. Everyone applauded and cheered. I climbed down the ladder and waved at them all like Hudini.
I was so itchy from all the bugs I couldn’t sit down to eat. I looked up at the volunteer house and Selim was standing at the doorway on the stairs that overlooked the picnic area. I couldn't tell if he was amused or upset. I wondered why he's just looking like that...
Shit the lasagna!
I totally forgot.
There I was sitting by the picnic tables with twigs in my hair and bugs in my pants and Selim was running back to the kitchen freaking out and laughing at the same time. Was he going to silently serve the potential Kitchen-Team-Career-Ending product of our rag-tag team's fruitless labours in hope that no one noticed?
From the top of the stairs, he made an announcement in Turkish that no one understood as if he had to say something out of his own conscious, but he didn’t actually want anyone to comprehend his ordeal. He ran back inside. Three lasagnas botched was hard to come back from in the volunteering world. It could take a whole week to blow over. I couldn't bear to watch them being served.
Legend has it that the lasagnas that day were inflamed about a foot high. They just kept rising and rising, even after they were out of the oven—he had mistaken the baking soda for salt. And he liked to put a lot of salt.
I came back down from my room after the workday and made hot cocoa and sat on the old sofa in the Hotelerie. Selim walked in and asked how was getting stuck in the tree?
"Oh, yeah. Sorry about that," I said. "I lost the bet anyway on a stupid technicality."
"Well, at least it distracted everyone from the catastrophe," he said in a somber tone.
He let me know that the Dishes Team had left a load for me since I lost the bet and all.
I never did see the lasagna, just the metal pan it was made in and the burnt remains.
I scrubbed and scrubbed the burnt bottom layer that stuck. "Let it soak," someone said in passing, but I wanted it off that pan. A heavy presence that last layer. Soap and scrub and rinse forever. It was getting late, and after nine o'clock the dishes seem to tower over you as if they were spirited onto your aura with the single purpose of ruining your plans. Just as the evening seemed lost, the Sage walked in and began to help.
“Aw you don’t need to do that, this is on me,” I said.
“What are friends for?” he said.
As the soapy mound grew and grew and the evening hours ticked away, the Sage and I felt delirious. We began to sing songs in a dinosaur voice.
"MUuahah rowawawar! Muah muah muah rowwwowww."
"Hey, how was the lasagna?"
"How was it? Like a delicious Italian cake," the Sage said and went "Roooowwwwwaar" as he tapped my shoulder with a soapy spatula like a fairy.
With the magical chemistry aloft, we managed to recruit two more people to help us with the dishes even with our annoying prehistoric groaning. Anais and Sarah joined in, and we all four sang together incomprehensible dino lyrics. And the dishes began to dwindle and we started to work on scrubbing the kitchen floor. A cacophony of pots and pans, soap and bubbles, scrubbing, singing and dinosaur calls were echoing throughout the kitchen. There was a kind of nocturne delirium, an inexplicable cleaning madness, that I have only seen a few times in my life.
Selim came into the kitchen, utterly confused as to what was happening, we all stopped for a second and looked at him, it got really quiet, the music in the background paused as if we were waiting for a sad Michelin Star Chef to give his farewell speech. And he yells, “Parti düzenlemek!” which I think means Party on!
"Muwaaawwww Rurawwaaarrr" he sang.