Memorious is excited to introduce our new column, “In Memoriam,” in which a writer pays tribute to the memory of something or someone now gone. For our first post, fiction writer and poet David Ebenbach tackles the complexities of (that’s right) Fuck Whale.
Do you know the story of Brigadoon? It’s a movie, actually, and the way it goes is that two Americans wandering through Scotland happen across a town called Brigadoon, a magical town that appears once every hundred years and only for a single day, after which it disappears again.
Fuck Whale was sort of like that.
When I was a junior in college I spent a semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. My reasons for choosing Strasbourg were vague and, in retrospect, not extremely compelling. Number one: I felt that, as a college student, I was expected to study abroad. Number two: I had some knowledge of French. (Specifically, I had studied it in high school but not at all since, which meant that I couldn’t speak the language, and my recognition skills were such that I could usually recognize whether a person was speaking French or not, but didn’t know what they were saying.) Number three: my Ohio college ran a study abroad program in Strasbourg.
So, I went, and, although I found good friends among my fellow students, I was still mopey and homesick pretty much the entire time. For most of my life, I had lived in one place—the inner-city neighborhood of West Philadelphia—and so even Ohio had been foreign to me; Strasbourg was another planet. Plus I was very, very, broke. In order to save money that semester I skipped so many meals (and the student meals were only like two dollars each, somehow) that I lost ten pounds. Plus I was actively pining, because I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman who did not, I think, realize that we were in a relationship at all.
Well, I tried to keep myself busy. I did a lot of journal-writing that semester, and I also took a lot of pictures. In particular, I took pictures of graffiti. I think the graffiti reassured this West Philly kid in the same way that a beautiful mountain range would have reassured a person from, what, Colorado? Maybe. It was familiar, is my point.
There was great graffiti in Strasbourg. Some of it was stenciled and layered and actively beautiful, but the bare-bones freehand stuff was pretty charming, too. Most of the graffiti was in French, of course, like “Quand on est mort, on peut difficilement se beurrer une tartine” (i.e., “When one is dead, it is difficult to butter toast”) and “FAITES CACA PARTOUT” (“Make caca everywhere”). So, that was good motivation for me to learn French. But there was also a little graffiti in English, such as in one half of this mini-debate about public transportation that I found on a wall:
“NON AU TRAMWAY!” (“No to the Tramway!”)
“Tramway it is a better machine.”
So, public discourse across linguistic barriers. Even better, at one point that semester, when I was in an underground tunnel in Berlin, I came across “WEST PHILLY 89” written on one wall.
But nothing beat Fuck Whale. Or, I should say: “FUCK WHALE,” spray-painted freehand in black letters on a wall somewhere in the center of Strasbourg. But I mean it when I say “somewhere”—I didn’t seem to be able to find that wall on purpose. I would search and search through all the weird zigzag streets and not find it, especially when I wanted to show one of my friends in the study abroad program. But then, when I particularly needed it (say, on an especially homesick night), I would stumble across Fuck Whale. Out of nowhere, there it would be, like Brigadoon.
It was always a reassuring sight, even though (or maybe because) I didn’t know what the thing meant. Was it an expletive? (e.g., after hitting thumb with hammer: “Fuck whale!”) Or was it advice? Was it a smackdown of a particular whale? Was it actually a species that I’d never heard of? Who knew? Fuck Whale was a beautiful graffiti mystery.
One thing I felt sure of: Whoever had spray-painted those words had what is commonly called joie de vivre (i.e., “not homesick”). I wanted joie de vivre, too. And if I couldn’t have it (I couldn’t), I wanted to be near it, spray-painted on a wall.
And so the semester went like that. I wrote in my journal; I traveled a little bit, as cheaply as possible; I skipped meals; I checked my mailbox constantly for letters from the woman I probably wasn’t dating; I took pictures; the city of Strasbourg moved from winter to spring; I learned some French. And eventually I did figure out where Fuck Whale was. I could get to it reliably when I wanted to. By then—the end of the semester—it was like visiting a former teacher for new wisdom. Though actually the wisdom was always the same:
FUCK WHALE, it would say.
TOTALLY, I would say in return.
In the end, I survived that semester, of course. I returned to the United States with enthusiasm (joie?) that was only slightly dampened by two initial encounters: one with an angry customs official, who was incredulous that I’d spent a semester in France because, if I’d wanted to learn French, I should have done it in America since “we’ve got better schools,” and then my first sighting of a t-shirt with the English language on it, which read Hangin’ and Bangin’. But anyway I made it, and I got on with my life. I was still pretty mopey (i.e., “mild depression that would ultimately respond nicely to therapy and some helpful pills”), but I was mopey at home, and that was nice.
I have thought of Fuck Whale from time to time over the ensuing years. I still don’t know what it means. I still love it. And when, recently, a student of mine told me she was about
to spend a semester abroad in Strasbourg, of course I told her to look for Fuck Whale. But then she got back and told me she had never been able to find it.
More than twenty years has gone by since my own semester abroad, so the most likely thing is that someone has blasted the words off that wall. But I like to think that Fuck Whale has only temporarily vanished. That it will reappear one day, if ever there is someone wandering through that city, lost and glum, someone who’s missing something undefinable but crucial, someone who really needs it.
David Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. His fiction collections include Between Camelots (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Into the Wilderness. He has also published poetry collections, We Were the People Who Moved and Autogeography, and a collection of essays, The Artist’s Torah. He’s the Fiction Vice President at Washington Writers’ Publishing House and the blog editor at AGNI. His new fiction collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is out now from the University of Massachusetts Press.