Archive | February, 2010

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.