Girl meets boy part II: The excellent adventures of the shiny salmon

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“I miss you.”

“You too. I’m so happy you called.”

“How are you doing?”

“I’m good, it’s 5am and I’m talking to a pretty girl on Skype. So I’m good.”

“Aw, you’re sweet.”

“So, how’s the job hunt going?”

“I still have no job.”

“Just be an artist.”

“I wish.”

“What have you been applying for?”

“Everything. Nothing. Five things…in two weeks. It’s not that much. Yesterday I applied to be a travel agent.”

He burst out laughing.

“Fuck you!”

“I’m sorry. It’s just, that’s pretty funny. But what about the temping?”

“Oh, I got my final warning.”

“What for?”

“I can’t sleep again, not at night. The manager caught me napping at my desk because I was so tired. I’m screwed if they fire me. You have to call me every night before bed to help me sleep, ok?”

“Sure. Do you want a story now?”

“What about?”

“Ok, this one’s called, uhm, The Excellent Adventures of the Shiny Salmon.”

“Of course it is. So where did you meet this shiny shaman? Sorry, salmon.”

“In Amsterdam.”

“They have salmon in Amsterdam?”

“They do when you’re on LSD.”

“Ha! Is this a true story?”

“It is the true story of my dreams.”

“Of course it is. Tell me.”

“Ok. So one September there was a shiny salmon. It was time to leap up the waterfall to food and safety with all the other salmon, but he could feel it in his fins, he just wasn’t ready.

‘There’s so much I’ve still to explore downstream,’ He told him mum. ‘I heard from this koi about a pool downriver that lights up with bioluminescence under the full moon, and all the snails around do a moon dance under the stars. Oh mum, I want to do a moon dance! I want to catch a ride on the back of a pink dolphin and be tickled by strange, glowing moss. I want to taste the inky plankton who live on the edge of the creeping waterlilies a thousand miles away, and to hear the sweet songs of the Narwhal Symphony Orchestra up north. I want to live, mum. I can’t go upstream, not yet.’

Him mum kissed him on the gill and said, ‘I love you and want you to find meaning in your life, but just know that you won’t be so young anymore when you eventually do come to climb the waterfall, and you’ll have none of your friends around to encourage you up to the top. Even if you do make it back up, we’ll seem different to you. You’ll seem different to us. Our bonds will change, and you might find the peace and security of a regular salmon’s life difficult to settle back into. You’ll miss the open seas, but you’ll also feel envious of your cousins who have begun to lay eggs with other salmon.’

The shiny salmon began to cry. ‘I love you mum.’

‘I know, shiny salmon. I love you too.’

With that, she kissed him goodbye and flipped up the stream.

For years, the shiny salmon had the time of his life exploring the world’s rivers and oceans. He danced with the most beautiful cod he’d ever seen to the song of a thousand Narwhals. He tried hallucinogenic seaweed with a group of dazed plankton, splashed on the backs of friendly pink dolphins in the Yangtze, and at a snowy hot spring in Japan, learned how macaques live and vowed to bring such mammalian acts of physical care back to his own community.

He spent a summer drifting along Turkey’s rivers, getting massages from garra rufa fish until he grew thoroughly fed up with exploring, bored of being alone, scared of growing complacent at all the places he’d been. He missed his mum and his salmon friends, was sick to death of all those dumb, gurgling spider crabs who got in his face and whose language he just couldn’t grasp no matter how hard he tried. He was tired of falling in love with the wrong fish and the wrong mermaids on the wrong side of the world. It was time to go home.

But when he made his last flip to the top of the waterfall where all his friends and family lived, his mum didn’t even recognise him. After all, shiny salmon was now half blind from the muddy waters of the Yangtze, and was still recovering from swallowing black oil in the warm seas off Mexico. His cousins shunned him, told him they didn’t need his help finding food. He was just too full of dangerous talk of how salmon should really, really live like monkeys. He was just too weird.

Tinkering around, bored, one day, shiny salmon discovered that if he mixed local dragonfly legs with a little algae, it tasted just like the shrimp he remembered from his nights spent dancing and feasting off the Jamaican coast. He cooked up a big dinner for his old friends, cousins, and mum.

‘That was the best meal I’ve ever had,’ whispered his old friend, Sarah, kissing him on the fin. And little by little, he began to see the beauty of staying in one place, of living life slowly.

What I’m trying to say is, if you love life upstream, love feeding and laying eggs and growing chubby with your friends, then that’s beautiful. But it’s ok that it’s taken you a little while to climb that waterfall. It’s ok that your life upstream isn’t quite there yet, and that you’re a little envious of your friends who are now way ahead of you. It’s ok, because you did what was right for you, and things will come together. Do see what I’m trying to say?”

“I’m the salmon.”

“Something will come up. We’re hopefully going to live a long time, ’til we’re 80 or maybe even 90. A gap year or three is still just a few percent of your life, and you’ve had a great life. You’re a great artist. And I’m no guru, but it pays to travel when you’re young and limber and too sweet to be cynical.”

“You’re right. I’m going to approach some galleries today.”

“Night night, sweetheart.”

“Night night, and thank you.”

“What for?”

“Just, you stop me from feeling like a ghost girl.”

“A ghost girl?”

“It’s just nice to talk to someone once in a while, to feel less invisible.”

“I know. I know. Sweet dreams.”

Girl meets boy.

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“You know, I’ve never slept more than four hours in a night, not since I was a kid.”

“You’re kidding. But why are your eyes so pretty? Shouldn’t they be puffed-up and blue black like you’ve just been in a punch up?”

“I’ll punch you in a minute. I don’t know. My eyes hurt a lot. Like there’s matches and fluff and not enough tears in there.”

“Why can’t you sleep?”

“I’m not sure. Just never have. I never feel totally energized. Sure I smile and all those things, but I always feel a little faded. Like there is a nice, warm bed in the back of my head, and it’s pulling me away from conversations towards it. That’s why I’m so shy.”

“I wouldn’t describe you as shy.”

“I am, inside. Just, everyone has all this energy around me, extroverts like you. And it’s like their loudness and jokes and need for people pushes me into a little cold heap, and that’s when I dream of books and bed and want to go home where I won’t be judged. You ever feel that way?”

“Sure. You slept fine as a kid?”

“Yeh, up until I was around fourteen. I’m not sure why. Now I face bedtime with relief and dread, equal parts. I’m happy for the silence, scared for the next eight hours spent tossing around in the dark. The thing is, I slept well last night.”

“Really?”

“Yeh. I don’t know why.”

“That’s amazing. Uhm, you think it’s because I was there?”

“Maybe, we’ll have to test it again tonight.” She smiled.

Ratting out Banksy in the West Bank

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Israel / The West Bank

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Sweaty and flecked with dust on the edge of Bethlehem, I rounded a blind corner of the concrete wall dividing Israel and the West Bank,

“Lady no, don’t go there alone.”

A bearded sea lion of a man strode past the stream of boys selling fruit and Coca-Cola at the holy town’s frenetic checkpoint. I stopped scrambling among the rubble where I had been photographing the murals, the restaurant menus, the angry swear words scribbled across concrete.

“What are you looking for?” He asked, shielding his eyes from the sun.

I was looking for Banksy. Back at high school in Scotland in 2005, I first saw the 425 mile-long wall featured in a glossy Sunday spread about the street artist. Parts of the story stuck with me, such as when an armed Israeli soldier came up to Banksy as he graffitied part of the wall:

Soldier: What the f*** are you doing?

Banksy: You’ll have to wait until it’s finished.

Soldier: Safety’s off.

Being young and foolish, that dark glamour excited me. I thought Banksy must be powerful and mad and brave. I told the man.

“Ah, I know Banksy. I’m Khaled, I have a taxi. Great price with me. Come.”

The price Khaled offered was too high, but it was my last day in the West Bank and no other Palestinian I had asked had heard of the Bristolian. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Banksy’s work bears no resemblance to Palestinian culture, his work is very much for Western eyes. Take the stencil of a boy and girl peeling back the separation wall — it shows a very Thomas Cook ideal of paradise, a palm-fringed tropical beach with the children painted in the style of a British seaside postcard from the 1930s.

We hopped into Khaled’s taxi and drove away from the bustling checkpoint, past miles of graffiti which scars the wall red, black and green — the colours of the Palestinian flag. More candyfloss offerings came from international artists like Blu who don’t live behind a wall, but get to travel the world. The concrete was covered in colour, the work of hundreds of people. Had everyone with a spray can been held up at gunpoint, like Banksy said happened to him?

First stop — Banksy’s Dove of Peace and his picture of a little girl frisking a soldier. But this was not the separation wall. This was the side of a souvenir store facing one of the town’s main hotels.

Banksy said he painted the wall to encourage tourists to Palestine. In Bethlehem, there are coach loads of moneyed tourists holding on to one another in shuffling tour groups. They’re shuttled in from Jerusalem each day to view the birthplace of Jesus, then swiftly taken back to their Israeli hotels and air-conditioned restaurants. Not that I can judge, being driven past the locals’ crammed minibuses in a private taxi, because paying a driver 10 quid an hour meant nothing to me.

Point is, tourist dollars are rarely spent within the West Bank — everything is included in the tour price at the Israeli travel agents’. And the idea of anyone visiting the West Bank with the main purpose of viewing Banksy’s work is a joke, especially when he may have exaggerated the dangers of being in West Bank by saying that he was held up at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers. If there were fewer scaremonger stories like Banksy’s, visitors would be more likely to visit the West Bank independently, giving more money to the struggling economy.

We got back in the taxi and drove along hot sandstone streets to the outskirts of town. Khaled stopped the car and we looked out to the Negev desert and the modern condos of Har Gilo, a Jewish settlement just over the wall. The wall here was bare of paint, and all the more ugly for it. Here it wasn’t disguised as “the world’s longest gallery of free speech and bad art” (Banksy). It showed the wall for what it really is — an apartheid among the olive groves, scooping up Palestinian land and aqueducts, dividing communities, businesses, schools, crops and families into 16 isolated enclaves.

We continued driving for a while, talking about Khaled’s son who was a medical student at Manchester University, before stopping abruptly at a quiet petrol station. Confused, I followed Khaled’s instructions and we went round the side of the building.

On the side of the wall was one of Banksy’s most famous paintings, a man violently throwing a bunch of flowers. The picture that helped sell about a quarter of a million copies of Banksy’s coffee table book, Wall and Peace, RRP £20, is a mural on the side of a dusty petrol station. Some wall.

Khaled said, “I can’t understand why you want to see this. Why does this man like Israel?”

“He doesn’t.” I spluttered, “He likes Palestine.”

“Then why does he draw us as rats?” He said, referring to Banksy’s stencil of rats catapulting stones. “We are proud people.”

To the locals who know of him, based on his artwork it can seem like Banksy is insinuating Palestinians are rodents. Not cool, especially when children in the West Bank have reportedly been killed by soldiers for throwing stones. It’s understandable that Banksy’s rat stencil was long ago erased by Palestinians. Due to his work being painted over, today it looks like there are only three Banksy pictures remaining in the West Bank. That’s not much of a tour if Banksy’s intention really was to encourage visitors to the West Bank. That’s not much to look at if you want to see more than a painting on the side of a petrol station, the side of a souvenir store.

The Banksy artwork which angered locals the most was of a donkey (representing Palestine) showing its papers to an Israeli soldier. Calling someone a donkey can be highly offensive in Arab countries.

“We are not small people,” continued Khaled, “Why is Palestine the stupid donkey?”

Stupid donkey. Couldn’t cultural sensitivity have been part of Banksy’s work, while still appealing to his Western audience?

Travel is scary.

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Travel is scary because it forces you to look at yourself. Travel means you can no longer say, “If only I had the time to write that book, to become the photographer I want to be.” Now you have all the time in the world, and if the words and pictures still don’t come, you’re going to start feeling pretty uncomfortable.