Archive | January, 2010

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).

What a way to start the weekend

15 Jan

Feeling restless and vengeful tonight for  numerous reasons. I promised myself that, in starting this blog, it would not turn into some sort of  confessional distended epic poem—conveniently hung out to dry online for anyone to see.  That stuff isn’t professional and it certainly isn’t very interesting. Suffice to say that I am un peu bouleversée this evening. 

I used my angry energy to finally clear the apartment of the junk that last year’s assistants left behind in their wake.  I cleared the kitchen of its extraneous pieces when I first arrived, so all that was left was everything else.  In the laundry closet, which I never use and where most of the crud seems to have gravitated:  a giant papier-mâché pinata horned head; Christmas ornaments and Joyeux Noël wrapping paper; a black vinyl handbag big enough to stuff a toddler into; an empty photo album; too many half-used candles and dead batteries to count; a broken floor lamp; two pairs of running shoes; and a mini step machine, still in its garish orange box, with a price tag reading “ASS  59,99.” 

I didn’t exactly enjoy myself, but at least I now can say that I directed my anger towards a productive end on what has been an otherwise unproductive and frustrating day.

My initial culture shock has worn off, and since coming back from Christmas vacation, I feel I have passed through an essential phase of adjustment — one that I recognize from but never quite reconciled with on my three-month sojourn in Ireland in 2007.   France no longer charms me as it used to.  Gone is the “idea” of France that I nourished since my elementary-school-John-Lennon-glasses years.  On the other hand, I appreciate this country much more than I did before living here.  This may be the closest I’ve come to real love in my life—real love must mean coming to terms with one’s disillusionments and still finding desire and reason enough to continue.


13 Jan

The two primary landmarks in my quaint French village are les tours, or the towers, a pair of dessicated stone behemoths that dominate the modest Saint Jean skyline.  I have observed in France that, even in the most miniscule of communities, the local tourist office — or, lacking one of those, the municipal council— produces a plethora of multi-lingual publications concerning the local patrimoine of the area — often very local, as in five hundred yards until, but not including, Monsieur Camembert’s westernmost cow pasture.  Even the smallest country bumpkin patches in this country have had some kind of say in French history (either that, or history has had an influence on them).

Les tours, Saint Jean d'Angély

According to the Histoire et Patrimoine brochure produced by the Saint Jean tourist office (l’office de tourisme),  there has been a church, or at least an attached holy significance, at the site since the fifth century CE.  Behind and entirely seperate from the towers are the vestiges of two flying buttresses and a chevet, or headpiece, of an earlier church attributed to the fifteenth century and destroyed in 1568 during the Wars of Religion. 

Flying buttress of the broken wing

Construction of the abbey associated with les tours began in 1741. And believe you me, this thing really was huge.  I feel like a snail on the road of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle when I stand underneath the arch of the would-be entrance (the historic route to the ancient pilgramage site in Spain passes through Saint Jean.  There are little gold shells all over France to mark its well-trodden meanderings).   Before the church could be completed, the French Revolution lit an ideological, social and literal fire across the entire country.  Everything traditional and Catholic and French was vilified, so the church was of course ransacked and burned to the ground, again.  The smoking  remants were converted into a jail…organized religion equals lifetime imprisonment?  A fitting transition, perhaps?


In 1899 the locals either came to their senses or were influenced by the mad ravings of concerned historians and finally restored what remained of the edifice.  When I look at the facade of the tours I cannot tell exactly what is older and what is newer, as in 100 years old new.  That must be a good thing. Today rain and moss are once again asserting their insinuating hold, but even in its decripit state I find les tours at once a magnificent relic of the past and a searingly relevant metaphor for the individual life.  They will forever remain unfinished, and yet they’re beautiful and endlessly intricate all the same.  What does fulfilled potential look like anyway?

eat this

11 Jan

I feel that I am falling short of my voice on this blog.  The niche of ‘teaching assistant in France’ has already been filled in blog world, much more technically and adeptly than I could ever hope to do.  See the Jennie en France link on the sidebar to connect to this past assistant’s blog and website on working, teaching and living in France.  Jennifer  has also made available a plentitude of tutorials for French and lots of other languages.  Although I have never met Jennifer, she has been my metaphorical lighthouse, illuminating the path as I grope my way over the urchin-clad rocks of this experience, even, and especially, before I arrived in France.

Speaking of lighthouses, this reminds me of a comment my friend Chris made sometime in April when we were sitting together outside the only carousel in Missoula, Montana:  “Don’t take this the wrong way…today, you look like a lighthouse.”  I still don’t know what he meant by that.

This is the thing about traveling:  you’re not stuck in a one-track rut, thinking only about the new place you’re in and new people and new tastes, smells, colors.  You’re also thinking about the past, and people from your past.  Living in a different culture so acutely sharpens your emotions and sensibilities, that forgotten memories snap together again with the help of entirely irrelevant triggers in your new environment.  But this time, you are reflecting on your past from an entirely different angle — from below, or around a corner, or through a sheet of green gelatin.  And this may nudge you into interpreting your past somewhat differently from how you were interpreting it before.  This is not to say that everything is suddenly clearer than before; far from it.  It’s just subtly, very softly, different.

My colleague and her family will be taking a roadtrip through the American Southwest in July.   This afternoon at her house, we leaned over a road map of the United States, running our errant pointer fingers across the paper in directions having nothing to do with the actual roads on the road map.  I showed them photos from my spring break trip last March to Moab and southern Colorado.  They asked if there was an REI in San Francisco and if food costs a lot more in the States (I said that it depends on what you eat…obviously, Reese’s peanut butter cups and ramen noodles are going to be cheaper than fresh produce every day).  I let them in on the “secret” about BLM lands—yes, you can camp anywhere you want in that orange blob—and couchsurfing.  Long live spendthrift travel.

I have stumbled across a couple links that I find fascinating for their focus:  edible art.  Food is like the the undiscovered medium in the fine arts world, the last frontier before we begin carving out virgin Brazilian rainforest in ornate patterns visible from the sky, in final protest against global warming.  This blogger, who happens to also be an assistant in France, creates, among other things, necklaces and earrings out of dried fruit.  The photography is excellently tactile.  Alicia Rios makes ‘edible representations’ for the public to enjoy both visually and gustatorily.  Her “Urbanophagy:  Eating the City” exhibit is backed by the intriguing premise that, Rios says, “we desire to devour our surroundings.”  Her culinary conquests include Melbourne, Madrid and London.

And finally, a photo from le marché aux puces (flea market) in Marseillan, France.  What does it make you think of?  Me:  bagpipes and the female as commodity.

La cuisine inconnue

8 Jan

My other new year’s resolution is to write more, including more frequent posts to this blog.  So while news may not be seen every single day on Casser des Oeufs, it will certainly come along more often than once a week.  There is a whole wonderful lot to experience and write about in France and too little time to digest and write it all.

Post-holiday winter is a tough time of the year, and copious amounts of good, heavy food are one of my methods for getting through it in one whole, unfrostbitten piece.  The French understand the importance of eating seasonally, and evidence of this is found in full delicious splendor at the marché.  Once the leaves fell about mid-November, strange tubular, whiskery and warty vegetables began to surface at the Saint Jean marché on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.  Well, maybe they just seemed strange to me because they were until recently nowhere to be found on my culinary radar.  But even in France, some vegetables really are classified as légumes anciens or légumes oubliés.  “Forgotten vegetables”…how’s that for an experimental theatre piece title?

A few delicacies to be found in the root cellars of history:  betteraves, like giant beets, slightly more bitter and a deep purple-crimson, sold either raw or cooked, the latter ready to be sliced up and tossed in a salad with goat cheese and walnuts.  You can also steam and eat the leaves, just like with beets.

Mâche looks like a character out of a Dr. Seuss book.   A winter green that tastes much richer and sweeter than lettuce or spinach, it can be eaten raw in a salad or steamed and served with regional seafood, like oysters or les noix de Saint-Jacques.

I’ve also been gulping down roasted panais, which look like stringy pallid-yellow carrots but taste like sweet potatoes.  You can put these in stews, salads, or just grill them with a splash of olive oil and salt and pepper.

You can still find tomatoes and lettuce in the dead of winter from some vendors.  But if I see even a splash of juicy red in a vendor’s stall, I generally amble off casually, politely in the other direction; chances are if they still have tomatoes after Christmas, the rest of their produce may also have suspect origins.  At least, that’s how I figure it so I can have an excuse to narrow down the choice of vendors, which even in Saint Jean is impressively vast.  Plus, my tastebuds have evolved to the point where a garden salad in February tastes slimy and musty, not at all a winter comfort food.   Or maybe my tastebuds have devolved — food in France is better, but worlds simpler than what I usually eat.  There’s less filler in everything, though you can of course find processed foods all over this country, it doesn’t cost you a lithe vegetarian’s arm and leg to buy fresh, healthy food.

And finally, one of my favorite hibernation delicacies:  la soupe à l’oignon.  It’s known as French onion soup elsewhere, but in France, why would you call it French?  I indulged over Christmas in an exquisite, particularly creamy bowl in Briançon high in the Hautes-Alpes with my friend E ; it was literally sending quivers of pleasure up and down my spine.  Since then, I have been trying to scare up my own perfect incarnation of this ambrosia  at home.  It’s temptingly simple to make — butter, onions, flour, milk, white wine, toasted baguette and cheese (I like emmenthal and sheep’s cheese) — but, I am coming to learn, is also an exercise in balance and intuition.

Excuse my accent, my mouth is full

7 Jan

Speaking French sometimes feels like I’m trying to manuever my tongue around a mouth crammed full of dry beans.  There are these things in French called back-rounded vowels, and though I’m now much better at hearing the difference between these and the regular front-rounded vowels — and even getting better at saying them — they can still throw me for a loop.

Today, talking with my French copain and the guy who waits at the Moroccan restaurant down the street, I was able to follow mere bits and pieces of the conversation.  They were talking about rock salt for icy sidewalks (it snowed yesterday, and since no one in Charente Maritime owns a shovel, everything froze overnight into lumpy impassable ice sheets), then jumped to Elvis Presley, and finally ended up at the music awards festival in Cannes.   I think.  It must have been a logical progression, I’m sure.  It’s bewildering — I understand nearly all the words, but without a context in which to place them, it’s like just listening to a stream of French with no underlying meaning.  And it doesn’t help that I still think in English, the language in which I write and occasionally reason with myself. I have had dreams in French, but how useful is a huge bowl of shrimp cooing “Quelle heure est-il?” after waking up?

After over three months, it mystifies me:  there are some conversations I can follow perfectly, and others where it’s still like I just got off the plane, but even without having taken five years of French lessons beforehand.  The difference, I believe, is in the slang.  That’s right, French slang.  It’s like the language that the geezers who wrote French dictionaries forgot to include.  There are dozens of useful resources, in print and online, to help one acclimate to the particular argot tongue.  If you’re of a studious inclination, this is the route for you. But if you, like me, enjoy complicating your life, you could instead choose to stagger your way through each day in France as if in a half-conscious fog of the chatter going on around you.  “Décoller” means to unstick, but it’s used in the sense of “should we take off now?”  Or “ça mange pas de pain,” more of a traditional expression than slang, but still often heard to mean ” it can’t hurt.”  In other words, no one will eat any of your precious baguette if you just give it a try.

An edible Yuletide log in France is called a “bouche de noël.”  To say “bouche” requires saying the English vowel “e,” as in “evil,” but instead of stretching your lips back over your teeth, round them towards the front in an “O” shape, as if giving someone a hammed-up kiss.  My students couldn’t get enough of making me repeat this word over and over:  “une bouche de noël, madame.”  “Buche?”  “Non, madame, bouche.” “Boooche?”  “Non, non, c’est pas ça.”  Hahaha; and any meagre level of authority I might have managed to build up in the past hour is up and gone out the window.

But then again, why should I want to be an authority figure with these students?  They live in France; they already have plenty of authority figures in their lives.  This is one of my few new year’s resolutions:  to make class more fun and interactive for the students, because amazingly enough, it’s better for me too this way.

This week I played “loaded question” with one of my classes.  I wrote a series of  questions for the students, who were divided into teams, to draw from and write answers to.  They then tried to match up each of their classmates with their respective responses.  Some of the questions were easy, like, “What’s your favorite city in France?”  Most had a slight edge to them:  “What would you do if you met Nicolas Sarkozy?”  “If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be?”  “What would you eat for 200 euro?”  In response to a question about waking up with whatever superpower one wanted, one student said that she would choose to stop time, in order to savor each moment as wholly as possible.

I can definitely relate to that wish.  My time here is already potentially half-over, as I haven’t bought my plane ticket back and am even now having to face the fact that I probably will not have enough money to stay much longer beyond the end of my contract.   To address this inconvenient truth, I have started scrimping even more on daily expenses in order to save a bigger percentage of my paycheck.  I also have put up ads for English lessons around town and at the high school.  Sometimes I wish I had paid attention when I was young, and had learned to bake from my mom, or fix cars and build houses, kitchen cabinets and other necessities from my dad.  But I was always buried in a book or otherwise wasting time.  Now I’m paying the price, in the form of not having any single practical skill aside from knowing how to speak English.   It’s ridiculous that I feel some unseen clock, biological or otherwise, ticking away at such a tragically young age.  But that’s what living in a foreign country — apart, perhaps, from a tropical island paradise — will do for you.  I am now much more conscious of how time truly does just fly by, gorgeous, intimate and impersonal.

Saint Jean, la grosse horloge

This January I anticipate much dreaming and scheming, and cooking.  February vacation might see me staying in Saint Jean, experimenting more intensely in the kitchen with French recipes, primarily quiche and chocolate-related food,  and finger tracing fantasy road trips on the maps of Italy and Spain, courtesy of AAA, tacked on my living room wall.  The Pyrénées, le Cinque Terre, Firenze, Corsica, Bretagne, Provence…just to mention a few of the places that I’d love to sink into and then casually, with a flick of my tire-bouchon, stop time.  Not for forever, just for long enough.

Christmas lights river, Saint Jean centre

Electric pigeon

Place du Tivoli, Saint Jean