I first came across circular structure back at school. The teacher was a certain Miss Murphy – a Scouse dyslexic with a first class degree from Oxford who was always passionate and encouraging. I was a little in awe of her. If I remember rightly the text, from an exam anthology, was called The Train From Rhodesia. Perhaps ironically, I don’t remember how it starts or ends, but I’m guessing the circular structure involved the platform and the train. Anyway, I remember seeing for the first time that, even though our lives travel in linear order from beginning to end, things have a habit of cycling round, patterning and repeating.
Perhaps this is how I’ve ended up in Lisbon. There is port. Beautiful tawny port. There are olives. I have tap water (very important given I’ve been on an Air-Portugal-inspired diet of coffee and red wine since I left Manchester). Most importantly there is atmosphere. This is pretty good going for a holiday-by-accident, courtesy of TAP offering me a super-cheap return flight from Manchester to Dakar provided I spend 25 hours here en-route.
It’s at this point that it strikes me I’ve hardly travelled alone in Europe: Yes, there were family holidays. But I seem to have reserved backpacks and hostels for further afield. This is actually rather fun: the Lisbon I’ve been to by boat as a child with family revisited by plane decades later. It’s wistful, exciting, repetitive, and new: all at once. Circular structure.
I’ve already spoken and read some French. This is because I have a Togolese novel in my hand luggage, and there’s two French girls at the hostel. French will always be a language that smells and tastes of Africa: France, for me, is rather an irrelevant entity in relation to how I hear and speak the French language. It seems bizarre to think that, only yesterday morning I dropped a close French-Canadian friend at university in Sheffield, and now I read African French and speak Occidental French in Lisbon. Even more bizarre, and wistful, to think that on Monday I will be speaking French in northern Senegal with one of my friends who I credit with teaching me much of the French I know. Eleven years since I first set foot in the West African nation, and five years since I last visited, I find myself, and my French language, back en-route to Dakar, now able to view it through the lenses of anthropology and trips to other Francophone African countries; lenses I gained only subsequently. Circular structure.
There are other wistful and emotional objects and places in my circular story, too. I think of one of my anthropology tutors, for whom his relationship with his dog is somehow a shaping influence on his anthropological thoughts. I think of our family dog – Millie, alive (or perhaps only just dead) last time I visited Senegal in 2012. I think of my own graduation from having a family pet to having my own pet. I think of meeting my tutor’s dachshund, in 2014, to meeting my sister’s dachshund this year: She, too, having graduated from child-of-pet-owner to adult-pet-owner. I think of how spending the last couple of days watching my sister care for an animal with the same tenacity and gentleness as my mother did has somehow brought all three of us closer together.
Senegal and pets are therefore bizarrely related as circular loci that emotionally trigger my own wistful reflection on past, present, and future. What will I tell my Senegalese friends about the last five years? Will I look the same to them, or different? Will they look the same to me, or different? Perhaps both. What will we have remembered and forgotten? What will have changed, and what will be exactly the same?
I should probably re-read The Train From Rhodesia. The story may or may not be how I’ve remembered. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. In any case, the patterning and repetition of African and European places, the French language, dogs, journeys, and writing triggers a complex, fragile and beautiful set of emotions vulnerable to interpretation, creativity, and corruption at the coal-face of my own memory.
It’s time I went to bed.