Still Life Sunday: The Sound of the Ocean

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26 The Sound of the Ocean

”Write about your favorite childhood holiday!”

I glance up from my notebook where I’ve been doodling cute animals and old-school road trip cars for the past fifteen minutes to see if my teacher in her colorful clothes and sunny demeanor is serious. She is.

“Come on, go for it”, she says, smiling reassuringly. A photo of a palm beach is reflected on the whiteboard. “Surely you all have a pleasant vacation memory stored somewhere inside your mind. Write about that vacation, the excited feelings for all exotic, the smell of good food, the wonder of all the new things you saw!”

I glance to my sides to see how other people feel about this writing exercise. To my surprise, they seem excited: a warm, happy expression on several faces, a pen ready in hand to start writing. As the teacher urges us to begin, the others hunch down over their notepads and start combining words into sentences. I, however, keep my gaze forward.

I try to think of something, anything vacation-related but nothing comes to mind.

“You have twenty minutes!”

Twenty minutes feel like an eternity when you have nothing to write about. I suppress a sigh and lower my gaze back down to the doodles on the page. If it were an option, I’d do nothing for the following minutes except maybe doodle some more, but unfortunately it isn’t an alternative. The teacher wants us to return the paper on our vacation memories in the end of the class.

It’s not that I’ve travelled and it’s not that I don’t remember anything from those travels. But I don’t have a favorite vacation, per se – because all the vacations were the same. To the same island in the Canary, to the same family hotel with two swimming pools and a gigantic breakfast buffet with chocolate croissants and with the same group: my family and no one else.

I glance at the timer the teacher has projected on the whiteboard. Fifteen minutes left.

The thing is, nothing special happened during those vacations. My mother only wanted to lie in the sun and read books, take a break from the realities of life and her work. My sister wanted to swim in the pool. My father didn’t enjoy the sun very much so he stayed mostly inside our hotel room, listening to Elvis on a portable cd-player. So, I just wandered around, sometimes swimming, sometimes reading, asking for money to run to the local shop on the other side of the street to buy ice cream.

Ten minutes left. Crap. A feel a slightly panicked tremble as my hand clenches the pen I’m holding. If I don’t start writing soon, I might fail this class. As sunny as our teacher is with her colorful clothes and white Pepsodent smile, she’s also extremely strict about how she wants her students to perform.

Suddenly, a memory comes to me. It’s from my family’s very first trip to the Canary Islands, some twenty years back. I almost sigh in relief, bend down over my notebook and start scribbling feverishly, putting down the words faster than they come to my head.

In Tenerife, with only a few days left before we would leave to travel back home, I became friends with this girl from Denmark. She was sweet and kind with a long, blonde braid and blue eyes, like a true Scandinavian. We went on imagined adventures together, searching for secrets and mysterious cats around the hotel area, avoiding our parents who, we decided, were dangerous prison guards searching for us.

The last day, after only a few days of adventures, she gave me the most beautiful seashell. It was light-colored and reminded me of her. I wondered why she wanted to give it to me – maybe it was a sign of trust and true friendship but as we could barely communicate with each other, I couldn’t ask.

With a combination of sign language and some Danish words, she told me to press the seashell against my ear and hear the sounds of the ocean. I did and she watched me do it. I only heard a quiet, ambient sound that didn’t resemble an ocean in any way, but I smiled and told her it sounded amazing, just like a real ocean. She seemed extremely satisfied which made me happy despite my tiny lie.

However, when she left to eat lunch with her family, I hid the seashell in the playground sand. I can’t explain why, but I did it. I left it there and went to pack my things, to have one last lunch at the hotel bar where all the workers knew some words of my mother tongue, before we would leave.

And just as I can’t explain why I hid the seashell, I can’t explain why I in the last minute went to the playground to get it back, to take it with me back home. Luckily, it was still there. I cleaned it from the tiny, irritating sand pebbles, and put it in my pocket to take it with me back home.

“Time’s up! Return your writings on my desk now, please!”

Nineteen years later, I still have the shell. It sits on my bookshelf, and sometimes I put it against my ear to listen to the sounds of the hollow arc. It doesn’t sound like the ocean. But I’d like to know why the Danish girl thought it did.

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