When I came back to Europe after a four-month winter break in Canada, my friend Charlie the Bikemonger posted something on his wall to let his friends in Belgium know that I would soon be coming their way. Then one of his friends (who now lives in France) passed the message on via his own facebook account, which is how eventually Cécile, a young woman living in Lille, in northern France, came to know about my project. She wrote to me about a tattoo that she’d been thinking about getting for a while, and graciously offered me a place to stay… so I delayed my trip into Belgium by a day and accepted this fellow cyclist’s invitation.
Cécile had two bicycles in her artsy apartment; a shiny and new bronze-coloured city bike that had just arrived the previous day, and the bent remains of a bicycle that she’d bought for 10 Euros in a thrift shop four years earlier, and had loved ever since. Unfortunately, the bike had been crushed by a drunk driver while it was parked in the center of town, and there was no way the frame could be repaired. Thus it came to be that the new bike was bought to replace the old one; but it was clear which one was Cécile’s true love…
She’d originally picked up the second-hand bicycle for her boyfriend, but when she started working as a bike courier in Paris, she started using it herself. Her bond with the bike grew over time, and eventually her boyfriend conceded that it should be hers. One night at pub quiz, one of the questions was about who had won a certain hotdog eating competition, the answer to which was Joey Chestnut. Cécile’s boyfriend commented on how good a name this would be for the beloved bicycle, and just like that, Cécile’s wheels had a name.
Fast-forward through her courier days, a big cycling trip to Berlin and countless hours riding around the city… And now Cécile is mourning the loss of her faithful companion, so much so that she wanted to commemorate her sentiments for the bike with her first tattoo. Not wanting to do something too obvious, we settled on a twig from a chestnut tree, and went with a drawing I’d done to imitate the style of old-fashioned botanical drawings. It was a subtle and elegant allusion to the special bicycle.
Once we were done, we sat down in Cécile’s living room to relax and chat some more, and we got to talking about something else that stood out in the young woman’s apartment (aside from the cool wall art and the pretty bikes); namely a scattering of retro-looking dolls, one of which was perched up on a shelf in the kitchen, while another sat leaning against a pile of books. There was also a section of a doll house sitting somewhat conspicuously on the windowsill.
As it turns out, Cécile is one of those girls who, like so many others, used to play with dolls as a child. But where most of us have long since left our dolls behind – we’ve sold them in garage sales, tucked them away in time-capsules, or simply thrown them in the trash – Cécile found a way to keep dolls in her life even in her adult years. Most of us have seen the movie Amélie, in which a garden gnome is taken on flights around the world and photographed in front of iconic landmarks. And in the last decade, a lot of people have done something similar with their own inanimate companions; stuffed animals, figurines, puppets or whatever else they felt inclined to bring along in their carry-ons. Well, Cécile has been doing this all along; dolls were a part of her life as a child, and have continued to be so through the years, without interruption.
When she was a child, her favourite doll was a gymnastics Barbie that was a delight to play with because she was so flexible. At about age 18, Cécile gave her doll a series of botched-up haircuts, each one meant to correct the previous one, until finally the long blonde-haired Barbie was no more. Instead, the doll was given a new name to go with her new look; this was the birth of Gloria, and she was all punk with her dark eye makeup and her short, spiky green hair.
Sadly, on the ride home from a late night out when Cécile was in university, Gloria fell out of the rear pannier of her bicycle somewhere along the way and was never seen again… And just as Joey Chestnut would be replaced by a new bike later in Cécile’s life, so too did the loss of Gloria lead to the adoption of a new doll. The new doll wasn’t really new at all, though, as it had belonged to Cécile’s mother when she was a child. But Cécile made her all her own anyway, giving her a new look and even a new name: Tesla.
Since then, Tesla has been everywhere with Cécile. She’s had her own facebook account for almost a decade and has been photographed all over the place. As Cécile has pointed out, facebook and the internet in general are great tools when it comes to breathing life into a doll. Suddenly, via photos and status updates, inanimate objects (a bit like newborn babies or people’s pets) can be given fictitious personalities and express opinions and feelings, while in ‘real-life’ settings this would be impossible.
A few years ago, while surfing the net and looking for other people who incorporated dolls in their day-to-day life, Cécile came upon a doll named the ‘Traveling Man’ on a website called wearesmall.com. His owner is an American who was blogging about the Traveling Man’s adventures. Cécile promptly sent him a message to invite the doll to come to France for a while. She told his owner she’d take him around with her to visit the region, take some pictures, and then send news about the doll’s travels back along with the doll itself after the visit.
She brought the doll along with her (and Tesla, of course) to China, Indonesia, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and all the way to Berlin on their long cycling trip. Through it all she kept in touch with the Traveling Man’s owner, who soon got the sense that Cécile was growing quite fond of her little guest. It’s now been two years since the Travelling Man first came to France, and it looks like he might be staying with Cécile for good.
She will be sending news to his former owner soon, however, despite the fact that it seems like he may have moved on. (There haven’t been any new blog posts for a while now…) For the Traveling Man went and got himself a tattoo from The Travelling Tattoo Artist, and that’s big news even for a little plastic guy!