A little Italia

21 Jul

After finishing up my teaching gig in France, I traveled through north and central Italy for a bit.  In Firenze, I met a man who told me that writing in the moment is a much different process from writing out of memory.   It creates a different kind of art. Not better, or worse, only different–memory allows us to mold to a certain extent our stories.  We can change our stories, and in the process, change ourselves.

I was very tired when traveling through Italy.   I didn’t do much writing, though there are several lucid and brightly detailed impressions that remain with me that were never recorded.  The scant traces I did write are like sloughed skin, so fragile and untrue they now seem to the form of what really happened.

I remember fields of poppies from the train window on the way out of Bologna, a woman with a pink backpack standing beside two nuns at the station in some small town.

The blinding white heat of climbing in the hills above le Cinque Terre–walking through the high villages that are still small—smaller than their notable touristed neighbors below—buzzing with insects and sun, the lunar green of the vineyards and the sea gloaming below.

Florence.  Oil paints, Louis Armstrong, sparkling red wine, ricotta with honey.  Mirrors, clocks, a cool respite in an otherwise unbelievable day.

Rome.  Friend from Corsica meets friend from Montana– the ever-giving fountains, the gray heat and clouds, running through the streets, thinking I’m crazy to be running through Rome, of all places.

Lucca.  An ivory church tower at dusk, olives and cold lasagna from an alimentari, eaten at the feet of that church.  Murals of lapis lazuli, ripe cherries and their pits, a red Porsche, twisting hill roads lit up by headlights.  Indulgence, indifference.

When I was a kid, Italy existed for me as France did–a place I explored in my dreams, romantic, ancient, sumptuous.  A place where reality, where who I was in reality, didn’t apply.  How is one allowed to feel indifferent in Italy? Well, I did.  I wanted nothing typical.  Days washed over me, ran through me, like so many waves.  It’s not that I didn’t care–I just was tired of looking for something that, as I’d learned in France, didn’t exist.  Instead I found something more honest.

Manarola, Italy. Population < 500.


la france en poésie

6 May

The French written tradition unfolds at the intersection of  tongue-in-cheek irony, sometimes playful, sometimes stinging, profound melancholy, very graphic humor, and always pierced by a keen sensitivity to what is beautiful.

Reading French literature and poetry as a foreigner muddles the text’s clarity — often just a question of missing vocabulary.  Yet the sounds alone of the words, even absent the precise content, make reading a very pleasurable activity.   When I’m sick and blocked up, it’s more difficult to concentrate on the text’s meaning.  But its sound and form remain, its essential physicality on the page and the tongue, which is enough.

The following is from a popular French poet of the last century, Jacques Prévert:


Quel jour sommes-nous

Nous sommes tous les jours

Mon amie

Nous sommes toute la vie

Mon amour

Nous nous aimons et nous vivons

Nous vivons et nous nous aimons

Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que la vie

Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que le jour

Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que l’amour.

Bonding moments with the French

22 Feb

In the classroom

We are playing exquisite corpse, a group drawing game.

Sulky teenage student: What point does this serve for learning English?
Me: None. I thought you guys might want to not work for a change.
Student: (appreciating irony of statement, laughs uproariously)

We are writing and performing short dialogues between a waiter and a customer in an American pizza parlor.

Student (as waiter):  And would you desire a coffee after your pizza meal?

Student (as customer):  Yes.  Please make mine zucchini-less.

In and around Saint Jean

C:  We’re going to eat some cakes.  You like that?

P:  Paris—the most beautiful city in all the world, and maybe the most beautiful in all France.

C:  (in front of the perpetually broken copy machine in the staff room)  I just kick it hard when it’s not working.

On the train

Man sitting across from me:   My apartment in Bordeaux just burned down, but normally I fight bulls in the Basque country.

Woman with high-pitched, metronomic voice:  (at her mobile)  Hallo?…Hallo?…Hallo?…HaLLO?… (this just after realizing we were on the wrong train, headed far away from our intended destination)

SNCF woman*: Saintes. Ici, Saintes. (jingle cue:  dum Da duh DA dum)

SNCF woman: Arles.  Ici, Arles.

SNCF woman:  L’enfer.  Ici, votre enfer à vous.  Attention au débarquement.  (“Hell.  Here, your own personal hell.  Watch your step on descending.”)

*Her name is Simone Hérault.   She is interviewed, in French, on the SNCF site.  I was amazed to find that she is actually a real person who exists, and not a callous robot created to blithely announce that all departing trains are to be delayed for the next 5 years…merci pour votre comprehension.

my bread and butter

20 Feb

Le pain.  No, it isn’t pain—in French, pain is la douleur. Le pain is bread, the staff of life in the country of the boulangerie and the pâtisserie, of flour and moulin (mill), of warm yeasty havens on biting winter mornings.

This particular loaf was bought at the marché this morning.  I snagged it from a popular stall after shuffling along after a line of scarf-swaddled matrons  carting their chariots, the little market-going trolleys ubiquitous in France.   Pain au levain de noisettes.  Sourdough hazelnut bread.  Even the name is intriguing, in both languages — not overly sweet, textured with the symmetry of ‘pain’ and ‘levain,’ then again in ‘sourdough.’  And the whistling pleasure of the ‘noizzz,’ just before the ‘ettes’ snaps the thing to a close.

The taste weighs subtly on the tongue, harboring just enough hazel sweetness to balance out  the rough smokiness of the feu au bois that it was baked in.  The dense interior is porous, shining and taut.  Yet the body of it yields, like leaves under your feet.  The crust is thin and dark, crispy, like the sunbaked crust of the earth.  The roasted hazelnuts even cast shadows on the crust.

Following the advice of another blogger, I also picked up a slab of real beurre cru, raw (read unpasteurized, baby) butter, from a fromagerie, to attain complete harmonization.

France has a national standard for its signature bread, la baguette.  I jumped on wikipedia after noticing what looked like the title to a legislative bill on the side of my baguette bag.  Since 1993, une baguette à la tradition française may only contain the following four ingredients if it wants to merit its own name:  flour, water, yeast, salt.  Don’t worry:  plenty of other breads, including many baguettes, contain lots  of other additives, colors and numbers.  But that a “traditional” no-nonsense French baguette even exists, is testament enough to the French fondness for simplicity, even underneath all the other complications of French life.

Bread — so important that it too has been centralized, à la française.  From one French friend in Lyon:  “There must always be bread on the table.  Otherwise, something is missing—I can’t say what exactly.  Without bread, I leave hungry, even if I’ve eaten.”

Oh mon pain, je t’aime.

La mer

18 Feb

Took the midday train to Royan, a coastal town erroneously bombed by Allied forces in the winter of 1945—an accident that razed the town and killed 1,200 people—and afterwards reconstructed as part of an “experiment” in urban infrastructure.  The restoration of Royan was deemed a huge success in terms of both functionality and aesthetics.  Personally found the town, though impressively surreal, just moche à pleurer (“ugly enough to cry”):  the church resembles a clunky spaceship; palm trees and cedars grow awkwardly and artifically side by side; the whole centre ville has this weird suburban 2001 Space Odyssey feel about it.  While pride in regeneration after catastrophe is right and beautiful, it’s just too bad that the regeneration had to occur in the 1950s.

Then there was the ocean, the thing that mattered.  Watched the tide come in, slow and brown and hulking, hunkered against the wind on a blue and white striped bench, listening to Georges Brassens’ gullet croon  “Les Copains d’Abord” on the radio.  It’s a song about men and boats, so it fit the day well.

You can’t eat the oysters or clams.  There are lots of things you can’t do on the many beaches in Royan, the small rocky coves and more generous swaths of sand spotting the long walkway along the water.  There is unsupervised swimming a little bit farther up.   Considered it, but swimming in the ocean in February is fun only with company.

A Martian landscape, gray and incomprehensible, unseasonably strewn with strange exercise machines placed in random spots along the path — wet balance beams, mounted wheels to spin in circles, and hilariously, ellipticals.  The houses, or maybe summer vacation retreats, had names like ‘La Lanterne’ and ‘Coupe Vente.’

Found a municipal memorial dedicated to the theme of humor:  savoir rire, c’est savoir vivre.  Knowing how to laugh is knowing how to live.  Noted for future reference.

C’est psychologique

14 Feb

Sunday, monday.  7, 8 février.


Porous white buildings looming in crepescular light.  Lit windows in neoclassic shadows.

Stairs to the gare, to the cathedral, staircased hills, angular water, old port.

Pigeon split open on the sidewalk, flushed wet and pink.

Stained asphalt, spices, kebabs, industrial chocolate biscuits “à l’artisan,”

une noisette et un p’tit crème.

Sketchbook, children in a crooked parade at the fountain.

La Méditerranée, green and clear, dark beards of algae, cupped by white rocks and ochre hills.

In the city longing for the country but in summertime,

April sea in winter,

running to catch the bus, sun fever and déjà vu—

“ça existe pas, c’est psychologique”—

hunger pangs, lingerie ads.

Running for the métro, running for the gare,

right ticket, wrong train, long detour home

All dried out and water everywhere.

Les vacances, j’adooooore

13 Feb

Saturday, 6 février.

Carpooled from Saintes to Nîmes,  nursing  a February stomachache and halfway succeeding in communicating with the driver, a man whom I never had met nor ever will meet again.   He got me across France for 30 euros, and I couldn’t have asked for more. The perfect relationship — cheap and finite. You find a lot of these while traveling.  We talked about vineyards, plumbing (his profession) and the giant windmills, éoliennes, strewn across the rugged hills between Toulouse and Narbonne.  We also passed a gorgeous nuclear power plant that fuels a good part of southwest France.

Arrived in Nîmes, bought a train ticket for the last 20 minutes to Arles — which I needn’t have done, as the conductor didn’t even come through the cars to check — and finally arrived at the apartment of my French friend, la Corse (she is from Corsica).  I hauled my backpack up a narrow winding stone staircase, feeling like a less delicate version of Alice in a French wonderland.  I knocked on two doors, including a closet, before realizing there was an additional terrace where the last two apartments were located.

After a deep evening catnap, la Corse, her boyfriend and I walked along the wind-scoured stone embankment of the Rhône, a muscular river that runs from Lyon down to the Bouche de Rhône region, translated “mouth of the Rhône,” where it surrenders to the Mediterranean.  On the steps of a cathederal turned concert hall were two dozen or more musicians in winter coats and scarves, brandishing trombones, oboes, and a fiddle with a trumpet flute welded to its neck — through some ingenious feat of engineering, the bow, when pulled across the fiddle strings, actually produced a sound resembling that of a brass instrument being strangled to death. “C’est la fanfare,” la Corse explained to me, referring to the spectacle as a whole.

Saw French people eating sushi stuffed with red meat and cheese.  Could not stomach the thought of touching it.  I think the winter may be getting to me.

Why selfishness is important

4 Feb

What a shame that we have so few selfish artists left.   Anymore, artists of even the most modest repute declare their selfless dedication to some grander public good.  Bono, to think of an obvious example.  All the  indie artists with whiny identical voices who generously contribute to nonprofit albums for the latest natural or human rights disaster to hit the papers — a disaster which, along their music, will  pass within the month from public consciousness.  The trend is positively feeding off our “recent” environmental crisis, along with the wars and global economic panic turned dispair.  A pressure is building in that invisible bubble known as society, mainstream media, or whatever you want to call it:  if an artist continues undisrupted in his or her work, he or she will be dismissed as frivolous at best, reviled as selfish and inhumane at worst.  Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet…but the roots are there, flourishing underneath us.  We are earnestly striving to extricate the age-old tradition of navel-gazing, purportedly for the sake of our wellbeing…no, for our sheer survival.

But that’s just it — art is selfishness.  No artist is truly in element without that delicious torment of an abounding ego that never, thankfully, quite realizes itself.  The fruits of civilization — visual arts, literature, music, dance — are born from a mélange of observation of surroundings and ensuing self-reflection.  If we lose selfishness, we lose what is beautiful.  Love of course is important.  But love isn’t what makes art.  It is selfish people in love, or who at least think or thought they were in love, who finally are the creators.

I just returned from my second viewing of Gainsbourg:  Une Vie Héroïque, the freshly-sorted half-biography, two-halves fairy tale of one of France’s most celebrated progeny of the twentieth century.  To call Serge Gainsbourg’s life “heroic” seems inappropriate at first glance.  But the more I think of it, the more I see that our use of the term “heroic” has been haplessly entangled with implications of morality and literal sainthood.  A hero is not always moral, generous, or concerned for others.  A hero may not even be nice.  A hero is someone admired by others, remembered for their work, even — and especially — if their work embraces and finally transcends their personal imperfections.

The epoch of artist veneration has passed.  Now it seems we esteem artists not by how beautiful or true their words are, but by their degree of involvement and concern with others, as demonstrated by the content of their art.  We still define heros by their contribution, though now the requirement for contribution is much more rigidly defined than it used to be.  Contribution must correspond first to the needs of others and society; then, if there’s room, an artist can talk about him or herself.   For those select few who persist in not giving a damn what others want, it’s a rough, lonely and thankless road — hey, turns out that’s how artists have lived since forever, until recently that is.

Selfish artists are in danger of extinction.  Let us save them.

Why I like Hemingway

22 Jan

Living at the high school often feels like living in a goldfish bowl.  I love it because it’s cheap; I hate it because I don’t like living where I work.   It is a recurring pattern with the jobs I decide to take —Yellowstone, the farm in California— the requisite of living at or not far from the workplace.  What does this say about my priorities in life?  More importantly, about my apparent willingness to sacrifice my priorities for a little bit of moolah?

There are over 1000 students at this school, and about ten percent of them live on campus during the week.  It isn’t a lot, but I can definitely tell the difference when they’re gone.  Some students are pleasant to me, a few are obnoxious (“La biciCLETTE!” is often howled when I am spotted on my powder blue Motobecane that I picked up for a whopping eight euro).  Most are mercifully indifferent.

When it comes to my writing of late, I have been ramming my head into a brick wall.  Not that that’s anything new, but here in France, where day-to-day communication remains enough to drain me of energy sometimes, it feels even more difficult than usual.  I have never believed a person when they claim that writing just “flows” for them.  A beautiful, natural, liberating flow.  Like Hemingway said, you have to develop your own built-in bullshit detector.  But amidst all the days when you are stuck, surely there must one or two when things finally loosen up a bit, when your horrible story idea turns out to have a saving grace, when finding the right word takes a mere ten tries instead of twenty.  Thinking about writing, reading about other people writing, do not help.  The only thing that helps is to do it.

When I need tough love, I go to Hemingway.  His reassurance is not a soft and beguiling kind; it is honest, direct, searing.  Sometimes egotistical, but hey, all artists have inflated egos when it comes down to it.  Even the insecure ones.  Especially the insecure ones. I wonder if Hemingway would have blogged, or if he would have dismissed it as a navel-gazing distraction.

A Moveable Feast is, not surprisingly, one of my Papa Hem favorites.  It’s actually a collection of short stories, portraits of his life in Paris after the First World War.  I love that the stories are in nothing resembling any chronological order, though an innate kind of order they certainly have.  That it was never finished is part of its appeal. This summer before leaving Bozeman, I had the luck to be in town for a reading of the newly revised edition at a local bookstore by Patrick and Sean Hemingway, the writer’s son and grandson respectively.  It was a truly laid-back and entertaining couple of hours, though I can’t say that it really cleared up any of the much-disputed myth surrounding the man.  If anything the myth was simply perpetuated—as all good myths should be.

That A Moveable Feast was written in retrospect, years after Hemingway’s years in Paris, is a memorial to the power of memory.  Especially  when traveling, I sometimes suffer the pressure to be a sponge —“must be a sponge, must be a sponge”—filing away every experience and person as if everything is of equal importance and merit.  Time has a way of filtering our memories, sifting through the drab and the menial to leave what we have actually deemed important for whatever personal reasons.  It’s not always the big things that I remember; in fact, most of my memories are of unexpectedly small things.  I do take notes when I travel, not to record my every waking hour, but to place markers on memories that I feel will be important later on, either for writing or just for my own pleasure.  Sometimes the two go hand in hand.  This is rare, though, as I feel I’ve yet to reach a level of writing where I can seamlessly integrate my own experiences into a story that ostensibly has nothing to do with me.  I don’t want to completely conceal my presence in my writing, I want to express it in a way that is consistent with the story I want to tell.

Body thought

20 Jan

Le français…

Le panais (featured légume oublié a couple posts ago) = parsnip.  Who knew?  Anyone?  I excuse myself, because they’re not exactly standard fare back in the States.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten parsnips before; and turnips I’ve had, but only once, at a pre-Thanksgiving haggis dinner in Cork, Ireland, with a side of Robert Burns read by a Scotswoman with a Midlands lilt.

les combles = the small windows on the top floor of old bourgeois houses.  The femme de menage would live on this top floor in her modest chambre de bonne.  This woman of all domestic trades was also known as a bonne femme, or “good woman.”  So she did basically everything, and was awarded with the privilege of being “good.”

par le bouche à l’oreille = by word of mouth, literally “by the mouth to the ear”…most effective technique for scaring up conversation students in Saint Jean.  I did think like a French person, and plastered my diminutive neon ads at some boulangeries (bakeries)…the only establishments open of a Sunday here in la profonde campagne.

et les Français.

I watched the American cult classic Freaks (1932) for the first time in a stage du film (stage = training session or workshop) with other language teachers at the high school.   Think tensely divided circus community meets love triangle meets sweet gruesome revenge; no wonder we’re studying this film, the students will relate perfectly to the melodrama.  In seriousness, it was good, and though I’d never heard of this film before coming to France, the French are unabashed cinophiles and quite possibly know more about movies than any other culture on the planet (as they well should, it was two French brothers who invented cinéma over 100 years ago).  Cinéma is like the unwritten curriculum that every French child receives, along with opening huîtres (oysters) and bottles of wine.  And thank goodness, because all of these things make for great conservation topics.

Olga Baclanova in Freaks as Cleopatra, the trapeze artist who got what was coming to her.

This film also makes a great thematic hinge for discussing our simultaneous fascination and repulsion when it comes to physical abnormalities.  What about disease, or even just run of the mill colds and flus?  I need to get my hands on Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, though to be honest, I’m looking for a more uplifting author for my bedtime reading.  In France I am more aware of my body than ever before in my life, ten times more aware than I was when living in health-freak Missoula (I like to talk about that town as if I’m never going back there).  So when something is thrown off-balance by diet, sleep patterns, stress, my environment or the people around me, I notice, and usually remedy, the matter much more quickly.

The French are not squeamish when it comes to talking about every body part external and internal, body parts of animals and in turn of their dinner, illnesses and the detailed symptoms they’re suffering, sex, and of course personal definitions of beauty and hideousness concerning people and everything that people create.   On a sabbatical from my own culture, the latter now reveals itself from the outside as only superficially savvy and concerned about moderation, quality indulgment, and overall well-being: physical, spiritual and mental.  Maybe it’s the vacation getting to my head, or maybe the food that is actually food.  But when it comes to my body, I would much prefer to know too much rather than too little; and though it would be a gross generalization to say that all French care about their personal health, the body  seems to carry much more cultural import here.  Maybe it’s because of the health system; it’s fun going to the doctor when it’s free, right? (Note:  I did wait at urgent care over an hour.   “Urgent” is all relative).