Split Habitus 

A week spent in a southern French surf town

July 7, 2023
Biarritz, France
Beachgoers at Cote des Basques 

  Last month, I was in Biarritz, France, which is a small beach town on the coast of western France, directly opposite of Marseille. It reminded me so much of Sydney, where I grew up. 

Firstly, the coastline was uncannily, freakishly similar to Sydney’s. There are a string of beaches connected by dramatic cliffs, small coves and inlets that lead to the next, and a walking path that leads you along it. Similarly, in Sydney, there’s the famous Bondi to Bronte Coastal walk, a 2.3km path against the cliff. They look exactly the same, down to the angles you view the beaches from on the walk, and the rock formations that dot the coastline. It felt like I was looking at the school project of the higher being who made the world as if they were playing Rollercoaster Tycoon, hit a J, got real lazy and just decided to copy and paste an entire coastline instead. 

Secondly, it’s super duper white. Jill and I hit up a random gallery opening that we were handed a flyer to on the street, and we ended up being the only people to A) buy art from that opening and B) take advantage of the tattoos being offered downstairs (this is a week after I announced to anyone who would listen that I was no longer getting tattoos because of my psoriasis). We missed dinner completely and ended up yakking it up with some expats who had moved to Biarritz from Boston after years of going back and forth. They were trying to convince me to move by describing how safe the town was, how everyone knew everyone else. 

The guy I spoke to has a teenager daughter, and said that he barely worries about her because she can’t really get away with anything when everyone in town basically knows her and can surveil her ass 24/7. These people were white, the gallery owners were white, most of the patrons of that event were white. When I hear someone cite ‘safety’ as the major drawcard to live somewhere, it feels like a dog whistle for ’not diverse’ Biarritz is beautiful, and it’s safe, and it’s so homogenous, in the way that certain parts of Sydney feel. 

The third reason it reminded me of Sydney is the water. Biarritz is known as the town that brought surfing to Europe, and Jill and I stayed right on Côte des Basques, the most famous surfing beach, at a surf lodge called Hotel Carlina. Same gorgeous ocean stretching into infinity, same salty stinging feeling in my eyeballs, same washing sand out of my crevices days after. I took the kid’s bunk bed room which faced the ocean. Every night I’d fall asleep and every morning I’d wake to the sound of waves crashing against the stone wall at high tide. 

There’s something jarring about the moment you realize your relationship with a thing has changed because of time and age. There’s a quote I just heard on that Prime show The Summer I Turned Pretty. Summer's the same. We're the ones who are changing.

Some things are obvious—like loud clubs in Koreatown with bad music, long lines and mean door people. That used to feel like the possibility of an adventure at 22. Now at 30, it feels like punishment. I’d rather be at home. What I realized in Biarritz is that my upward shift into socioeconomic mobility has completely shifted my relationship with the ocean.

When I was in my mid-20s, I went back to Sydney over the Christmas break and met up with an old friend of mine who had friends who lived in the Eastern Suburbs (the more affluent beach-adjacent neighborhoods). My family is from an hour west from that, deep in the heart of immigrant Sydney, past all the landmark and cliches that come to mind when you think of Australia. 


Where I grew up, in the Western Suburbs, there were barely any white people, especially ones that had blue eyes, blonde hair and a proclivity to surf. My schoolmates and neighbors were primarily Lebanese, Macedonian, Vietnamese and Korean, and my neighborhood was defined by loud, customized cars low to the ground and bass-heavy sound systems that would thump past our house in a swell of noise and movement.

There’s a specific culture I grew up in colloquially known as “Westie”. It’s a specific accent, style, type of car, way of speaking that betrayed your affiliation with an area of Sydney that was known for its immigrant demographic. The Wikipedia article says that “Westie became a rhetorical device to designate the other Sydney: spatially, culturally and economically different from the more prosperous and privileged Sydneysiders of the North, East and South.”

    So, back to this day with my friend and her friend. It was a beautiful, blue-skied beach day, and I tagged along to go shopping with them. At some point, we walked past Bondi Beach, which was rammed with people. My friend’s friend said, “It’s probably all tourists and Westies”. Before I had time to react, my friend laughed at the comment and said “true”. 

I watched them talk derisively about the type of people on the beach below them. People who were passé enough in their eyes, to visit the most popular beach on a nice day. They grouped Westies (people like me) with tourists—people who were not from here. Outsiders, foreigners, losers. 

On most days, where I’m from in Sydney is so beyond any reference familiar to people I meet in New York that it just doesn’t matter. I’m just from Sydney. That’s it. In my teen years and in moments like this, where I’m from feels like hailing from a foreign land, a second version of Sydney that is filled with Vietnamese grocery stores where my dad trades the quail eggs he breeds in his backyard for pho and bun bo hue ingredients. A version of Sydney that is far from the water. Going to the beach was a special occasion growing up. It required preparation and travel - it was a day trip to a place that other people got to live in. A version that I only got to visit. A version that for me as a teenager, represented ample opportunity and access, a way of speaking and inhabiting the world that I would never ever pass in.

More than ten years later, I still don’t live on the beach, but I belong to the hoards of freelancers and upwardly mobile childless remote workers who depart for beaches in Europe, in the Caribbean, in Florida, seemingly whenever we want. Right now, I’m writing this on my balcony at a resort in Barbados, waiting for my passport and new visa to be returned to me so I can continue flying around and living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A lot has changed.

In Biarritz, I woke up with the ocean in my ears and spent my days impulsively buying art, going to fancy restaurants, floating on my back in the salty water thinking about how strange it was to be able to take something like the ocean for granted. 

Despite that, even now, at 30, the worlds that I now inhabit can bring up the same feelings of alienation I felt back then. It doesn’t matter what I do, the person I am now, my experiences or my income level. There’s always going to be a part of me that feels like it’s from a second version of the world that others get to confidently inhabit. It feels normal until all of a sudden I look around and realize I’m still somewhere inside, the Westie who is just visiting. 

I wonder if people can smell it on me, this otherness. I’ve felt in some ways like I’ve been cosplaying being part of this world. On the outside, I definitely look the part.

I am so lucky to have met incredible people who have made me feel as though I am a part of them, that I am cut from the same cloth, where the background track playing in a loop about class and otherness in my head gets muted to the point of imperceptibility. These days, I feel more and more like I belong rather than not - for all intents and purposes, the reason that girl that day in Sydney was comfortable making fun of ‘tourists and Westies’ in front of me was because she thought I was one of them, that I wasn’t like the people she was speaking to. 

There’s a term in sociology called ‘Split Habitus’, which describes the phenomenon of having one set of ‘habits’ or a mindset associated with growing up in certain economic classes, and then having those ways of being directly come into conflict with the behaviors and ways of seeing the world associated with a different, higher economic class. The two modes of being end up having to co-exist and navigate the existence of each other — two opposing ways of being — existing in the same body. Some days I can honor both parts with peace and acceptance, and on other days traveling through paradise, I feel like I’m playing a part I can never get used to.

This life is nothing I could have ever imagined for myself, and being by the ocean tends to stir that up the most. This feeling sends me into a spiral, but I’m also deeply grateful for it. I hope that never lose sight of what a miracle it is to be able to float in the ocean and feel the sun on my skin. To marvel at how places can be the same, and notice how different I am as the person who is just visiting.