On Top of the World: On Internet Friendships and Why Fandom Matters (The Adventures of Three Friends in Europe)

When I stepped inside Victor Hugo’s house a little over a week ago, it felt like a pilgrimage.

It felt like the culmination of the last 3+ years of my life, of every wonderful friendship cemented over a shared love of Hugo’s Les Miserables, a brick of a novel. This all started because of a 154-year-old book, its musical incarnation, the internet, and three twenty-something young women living across the world from one another.

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But I suppose first, I should rewind a bit.

Years before I ever thought about setting foot in Victor Hugo’s house, before I ever cracked open Les Mis or listened to the music, I was a 15-year old who’d just lost both of her parents within a few months of each other. That was when I discovered fandom in the first place, thanks to a friend who pointed me toward fanfiction.net while I stayed with her family when my dad was dying in the hospital, my mom unable to leave him for more than a day at a time. In the olden days, fandom and fic were spoken of in whispers, in secret, like we were supposed to feel ashamed of it. Everyone’s entitled to how they want to interact with fandom and whether or not they want to discuss it with non-fandom people, but I struggled with hiding something that was increasingly becoming a cornerstone of my life. Something, that in a sense, saved me in my deepest grief. That taught me how to be a writer. That taught me that writing was, in fact, the thing I loved most in the world. That gave me friends and a stronger sense of self. That opened up the world to adventures I didn’t anticipate.

As the years passed and I spent time in various fandoms, the mainstream started recognizing it, and in some ways that’s made things better; I’ve seen thought-provoking articles about fandom, and you can mention fanworks in a conversation more openly than in the past. But there are of course, plenty of detractors, and I’ve seen a large handful of articles lately criticizing fandom for being too demanding, for shipping weird pairs, for doing this and that and the other thing. A backlash, I suppose, for some of the positive attention fandom’s received in recent years, and the way creators now interact with fans, retweeting fanart and even reading fic. It’s something I could perhaps, ignore, but every time I see yet another piece by fandom detractors, every time I see the infamous it’s just fandom written again and again, I can’t help but feel my hackles rise. Because fandom’s been a community for me for over a decade, it’s been a place where I honed my creativity and made friends I cannot now imagine being without. It’s not just anything, to me. And I often feel as if people who don’t participate in fandom, who might call it strange that I’d travel across the world to meet people I encountered on the internet, don’t give fandom the credit it deserves. Sure, fandoms make mistakes, so does everyone, and that’s no reason to constantly berate an entire swath of people while writing asinine think pieces on the subject. And of all the fandoms I’ve been in, the Les Mis fandom has been the one that without it, my life would be very radically different.

I was a recently graduated Library and Information Science master’s student working at my first job, and during my studies for my comprehensive exam, fell in love with Les Miserables. A friend and I listened to the cast recording over and over again, and something about it got us through our last few months of school. I read the 1,400 page book. I saw the musical live. I saw the movie. And then, I fell headfirst into the fandom. It all began after the upswing in popularity Les Mis experienced after the release of the film in late 2012, when 24-year-old me decided to write a Les Mis fanfiction. I received a message one day from a girl my age in England, who wanted to podfic my story (which is sort of like audiobooks, but for fic). Messages turned into emails, emails turned into longer emails which turned into long voice recordings, which turned into Skype. She was finishing up a master’s degree herself, and we never let the time difference defeat us. She wrote fic too, and a few months later I got a message from another girl, also English, but living in New Zealand at the time, who was reading my fic and also wanted to know if I knew the friend I’d started talking to a few months previous, because she wanted to do a drawing based on something she’d written.

After that, it was history, even if the three of us couldn’t have been geographically further apart from each other. We formed a trio that sometimes defied the laws of time zones to stay up too late on Skype voice chat. I woke up to a trail of messages in Whatsapp because they were up before me. We wrote and drew and created things together. There’s a sort of domestic intimacy to a friendship where you don’t share physical space often. You learn when they wake up and when they go to sleep. You send pictures of every day happenings. You share a love of something dear to each of you, which makes getting to know each other simpler. And somehow, after a few months, I felt they knew me inside and out. Eventually, it worked out that each of them traveled here to see me, and I can count those days as some of my most joyous and the hugs the most memorable. But still, things hadn’t aligned for all three of us to be in the same physical space at the same time. Our friendship continued over the years, and Les Mis settled in as that thing pretty anyone would associate with me when asked. It changed my already shifting politics and pushed me into picking up activism again. It gave me a core group of friends in my very own DC, who are some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. It gave me friends up and down the eastern seaboard and across the US. So that when I go visit a city, there’s a friendly face. DC’s also served as a central meeting place for friends around the region, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet so many people in person. I made more international friends in Portugal and elsewhere. Some I’ve met in person and some I haven’t, but regardless, they’re each and every one of them my friends, no matter their state or their country or their time zone.

But still, my two English friends and I still hadn’t all three been in the same place, because money was tight and things simply hadn’t worked out.

Until finally, they did, and I found myself boarding a plane to England, always one of my favorite places, but now containing two of my favorite people. And a few hours after I landed, I was sitting in a cozy kitchen drinking tea with both of them. We spent several days in London, we sat in the Queen’s theater watching Les Mis together, grasping hands as the finale rang out over the room.

And then a few days later, we took the train to Paris.

And so we arrive back at Hugo’s house, which is now a museum dedicated to him.

It was strangely quiet as I walked out of the ticket area and into the hallway, the sounds of Paris fading beyond the windows. In no sense of the word was Victor Hugo a perfect person; I admire him, and his work has impacted my life in immeasurable ways, but sometimes I also want to flick him in the nose. But so it goes with favorite authors, because they too, are human. But flawed human being though he was, there was a certain sort of reverence when I stepped inside the first room of the house. I grinned at the serious looking bust and smiled at the notes running across the page of the Suite of Jean Prouvaire. I felt that reverence again when we visited the site of the barricade, and then again when I set foot inside Notre Dame, real history all mixed in the literature I so loved, and which has changed me irrevocably. Even a week later, I’m not sure I’ve managed to unpack it all properly.

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I took baggage with me on this trip, took a fear that perhaps I was not truly allowed to experience something so magnificent. It felt a bit like walking around surrounded by a glass case I couldn’t quite escape, even though I tried. But nothing stopped me from going. No one stopped me from going. There was no tragic event that took away my chance at the last moment. And it happened. All of it. I sensed the reality of it first when my two friends and I stood together on the sidewalk in the cool English afternoon, looking at each other with the same thought running through our minds:

Is this real??

It cemented itself a bit more as the three of us wandered through the National Maritime museum, fawning over period military coats and swords and ships. Then more as we wandered at twilight through Greenwich by the Thames.

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It gained color as we sat watching Les Mis, experiencing the very thing that brought us together.

Then as I stepped up the steps toward Sacre Couer in Paris, a couple of hours before we visited the Hugo museum, the sounds of Monmartre floating up behind me, the full reality struck me, appearing before me in sharp, vivid color. Paris was spread out like a vision in front of me beneath picture perfect sunny skies; the thing I’d dreamt of for so long was real, tangible, and so beautiful it stole my breath. I’d been to London in college, but Paris was always just out of my grasp, even if going there had lived in my mind since I was five or six. And not only was I there, but I was there with friends I’d met and kept under the most unlikely circumstances. The whole place thrummed with life and history and culture and mystery, like there was a story waiting for me around every corner. It was one of those life-changing moments, where everything shifts and the path forward looks brighter as your vision clears, when all the broken pieces inside you come together and form the person you were always were, but couldn’t quite reach.

As I looked out across the city, the two towers of Notre Dame just poking up from among the rest, lyrics from the Hunchback of Notre Dame Musical popped into my head:

Seeing life from the top of the world/Nothing needs fighting, and no one needs pity/Thanks for giving this moment to me/When just for a moment things stop/Here at the top of the world…look at you sitting on top of the world!

That moment is going to stay with me forever, and just as I sensed all the stories living on all the street corners in Paris, I also felt the one that led me there bursting in my chest and sending an unquenchable grin sliding across my face. The glass case broke, and I kicked the pieces that looked a little like stained glass over the edge of the cliff, the sun striking them as they fell, colorful and no doubt a part of my life, but no longer plaguing me in the present.

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As we walked by the blue-green of the Seine the next morning, as my friends flicked water at me from the fountain outside the National Gallery in London a couple of days later, and then as we all three hugged tightly goodbye before I left for the airport, I knew I’d be back, even as I held back the inevitable tears of already missing them. I decided right then there would be other trips, and new memories, and now I’m certain there will be. But I think something about this trip will always be particularly special, because there were so many firsts; the first time we were all three together after waiting so long, the first time I walked through Notre Dame after waiting since I was very small to go, the light streaming from the stained glass and into the shadows of the hushed cathedral, the first time I saw Les Mis in its original London staging, gasping when the spinning barricade turned, the light hitting Enjolras just so as the Bring Him Home reprise played, knowing the two friends next to me were feeling the same things.

There’s something special about forming friendships over a fandom, something that leaves a foundation which is difficult to destroy, no matter how far apart you might live, and no article complaining about fandom’s problems could ever convince me otherwise, because without it, my life wouldn’t even be close to the same.

So thank you, fandom. I’m raising a glass to you for all your flaws and beauties both.

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