MINIBABE | Lockdown Walk Melissa Chemam

Arnolfini Writer in Residence, freelance journalist/reporter, radio producer and writer, Melissa Chemam shares with us her stories around walking in Bristol.

Water Once Washed Away My Pain, Now I See That It Also Liberated Me From Fears…

From the very first day I came to Bristol, I developed a strong attachment to the areas along the Floating Harbour…

After my nocturnal arrival, I walked into town the next morning for interviews, from Stokes Croft to Clifton then the city centre. On the second evening I arrived at Pero’s Bridge and the Arnolfini for the In Between Time Festival. I almost didn’t need to look at a map, as I felt that the city’s shape was naturally leading from the hills to the harbour. After a week, the Watershed and the Arnolfini had become both landmarks and headquarters for me. I knew I would have to come again.

Since then, walking in Bristol has been my only way to travel in town.

By the end of March 2020 however, as for everyone in here, in the country, in Europe and in most of the world, my outdoor activities came to a standstill. The epidemic that most of us (and myself, at first) had tried to overlook put the whole world under arrest.

And our lives changed, mine included.

We were suddenly faced with a choice: to keep on going out and jeopardising lives, or to abandon what we loved the most to protect our selves and others. Whether our job, our businesses, our friends or our favourite hobbies…

Like all lecturers, I could no longer teach in person to “my” students. As a freelance reporter, I could no longer work and investigate or interview people. As a citizen, I could no longer walk everywhere, no longer participate in the joys of Bristol’s great art and theatre scenes.

Living away from my hometown of Paris, the hardest part for me is that I cannot help my mother, alone in her social housing, and can’t be of any support to my sister, a doctor in an intensive care unit. Compared to their solitude and burden, I know I’m extremely lucky… Online teaching has been put into place, and I can keep on practicing journalism online and through my writing.

Sitting in my room in a shared house, what I’ve learned so far from this health crisis and lockdown is a valuable lesson: I have finally overcome my fear of loneliness… Because, for years, like so many people, I had dreaded solitude, but I could not admit it.

I’ve lived abroad a good 8 years. In Prague, Miami, London, Nairobi, then in Bangui in Central Africa, often days felt a long stream of loneliness. Or I felt estranged among the local citizens. I loved reporting but couldn’t feel that I belonged. Some nights I couldn’t even sleep. When posted in Bangui, for a mission with the World Food Programme, we were never allowed to go out alone, or to travel outside of a UN car… And we had a curfew. It was by far the worst lockdown I ever lived through. My family feared the risk of civil war; I was more afraid of being alone for so many hours in the soulless room I was put in… But I didn’t mention it.

In Bristol, over the past five years, I’ve finally learned to overcome that fear of solitude, a fear deeper for me than others.

I came here to write a book, my oldest and dearest dream, and that could not be done in a multitude; it had to be a solitary activity, after the magnetic and fascinating moments of reportage and interviewing. In and out of Bristol, somehow, the city cured me of my fear… I can witness this nowadays: the lockdown is not painful for me.

I believe that my cure was strongly linked to my walks along the Harbourside, alone, near water. I think about the magic of that cure, and must admit the proximity of water really calms me. Does it do the same to you?

In many forms of European symbolism, from pagan mythology to poetry, water is seen as an embodiment of emotion, but also of purification and healing. Purification of emotions, perhaps… I had already had this experience in Miami, when after a month of hard work took time to plunge in the ocean, a 20-minute walk away from my building.

For me it became even more real one day in January 2016, while in Bristol. Before a short trip to Dublin, I stopped on the Harbourside for a special ritual, to try and recover from a loss that had been haunted me for years. I wrote final words of goodbye on a piece of paper, burned it and threw the ashes into the water. I let my ghost depart and probably then slowly began to conquer solitude, progressively feeling liberated.

Crises, slowly, gradually, force us to overcome our limitations.

I know we’re living through the deepest crisis Europe has known since 1945, and I know how hard it is for many people. But personally, I focus on the fact that we’ll get through this, and we can learn from this. I’m hoping we’ll sooner or later have multiple occasions to make our world, our country, our city, better places – cleaner, more respectful of the environment, less marred by inequality. If we take the time to slow down and reflect on our human mistakes so far, we may get there, eventually.

I now live in Southville. I don’t live alone, my housemates are amazing and that helps tremendously. My heart goes to the ones left alone in their flat, like my mother, my fest friend, and many thousands of others. But walking alone along one part or another of Bristol’s Harbourside has become an almost-daily personal ritual.

The light at dusk especially amazes me, as well as the beauty of the Marina, the quietness of the Baltic Wharf, the view on the Underfall Yard, the loveliness of Hannover and Capricorn Quays under this gorgeous sunny weather, of the whole area around Bathurst Basin and Redcliffe Bridge. The Floating Harbour has become my sanctuary, in my delectable lonesome strolls, a symbol of my inner upmost happiness, in harmony with the sound of the birds, the smiles of some of my fellow walkers, the beauty of the flowers, the general calmness of the area. Whatever happens, politically or socially.

And hopefully, for those of us still in pain and afraid, my story will be of some help to move towards more peaceful territories, to overcome fears, alone but, in a way, together too.

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