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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.


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).

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