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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.



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?

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


Joyeux Noël

23 Dec

France is in full Christmas swing — that is to say, everyone is on vacation or wishing they were.  I have to say, it’s great craic being a teaching assistant.  I work twelve hours a week, not including lesson planning, and get two weeks of paid vacation about every two months.  I wish this were my real life.

I am spending Christmas with my friend and her family in Gap, a smallish city in the Hautes-Alpes region of Provence.  The air is bracingly cold and dry, just like home.   After the cushy rolling hills and flatness of Poitou-Charentes, it is at once a relief and a nostalgic pinch to be in the mountains again.  There isn’t much snow, but we may try to go skiing or snowshoeing this week anyway.

To get here, I had to effectively traverse all of France from west to east.  If you can cross a country in a day, then I think you are justified in calling it a small one.  All the same, it’s an entire day of traveling.  I got a free ride most of the way from the high school’s proviseur-adjoint (vice-principal).  We left Saint Jean around 9 am, barreling south down the autoroute past Bordeaux and Toulouse, where the sun made a half-hearted but beautiful appearance.  We stopped to eat our sandwiches and imbibe un vin chaud (hot spiced wine) in Carcassonne, a small town known for its fortified center, complete with brooding gothic church and medieval castle.  One of those  postcard images that bubbles up when thinking of France from afar — my colleagues laughed at me, again, when I told them of how ardently I wished to see Carcassonne.  “All the Americans want to see Carcassonne.  Why?  Why?  We don’t understand.”  Reply:  Because it’s a castle and wicked awesome and there’s no possible way of seeing something like that in the States, unless you go to Disneyland.  That’s why.

We drove on through the pouring rain past Montpellier and Nimes to Avignon, where I was disposed of at the station to await my Gap-bound train.  It snowed about three fingers worth all over France this past week, and the event has brought the country to a crashing halt.  Since all railroads lead to Paris, trains are being delayed and cancelled all over like some cheesy apocalypse Christmas movie.  Luckily, Gap is on the regional train line — le TER, a slower and smaller version of le TGV, where most of the delays are happening— so I passed under the radar this time around.   I had an hour to wait in a small rainy village south of Valence, so had a pint in the bar of a hotel next to la gare (which was painted a cheery canary yellow).  I listened to French men talk about soccer, learned a new expression for cheers, “à la ventre,” and was earnestly beseeched to please come back if I was ever in town again, because “we’re here most every night.  There’s nowhere else to go.”  When it rains hard in France, there’s a delightful expression to describe the weather:  “C’est les vaches qui pissent.”  It’s the cows that piss.  I prefer this more colorful version to the English one about cats and dogs.

I will post photos as soon as I get back to Saint Jean, because I forgot my camera cord at home.  Same goes for the Christmas photos of Saint Jean and Gap both.  In typical Lindsay fashion, I managed to send only about a third of my Christmas postcards — the “I’m thinking of you…economically” option — on time.  So these are forthcoming as well.

Joyeux Noël and Bonne Année — Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Bienvenue à Saint Jean. Tu es maintenant perdu.

18 Nov

When French people ask me what exactly I’m doing here in France, I am obliged to explain to them the enigma that is Saint-Jean-d’Angély.  As every third town in this country starts with the two words “Saint Jean,” and no one outside a fifty or even thirty kilometer circumference could guess which Saint Jean I’m referring to, I always hasten to add to my explanation, “On est un peu perdu,” an expression which translates as, “we (we being the inhabitants of Saint Jean, or Angériens, as we and no one else call ourselves) are a little lost.” 

In other words, Saint Jean is in the middle of nowhere.  In a place as small as France, all distance is relative; but generally speaking, the French don’t move too far.  This deep-seated habit is changing, thanks to daily or weekly commutes on the part of teachers, SNCF employees (SNCF is an acronym for the nationalized train system…a fascinating beast which I intend to explore later on),  and many others, and young French people who relocate to Paris or even farther abroad for work.   It is due to its people’s tendency for immobility, however, to which is owed the rich and gape-worthy patrimoine  (patrimony) of France.  When people move all over their country, restlessly, endlessly, pointlessly, from one coast to the other, how will they ever have the time and energy to establish a sense of identity intrinsically linked with any one place and moreover, with their family’s and even ancestors’ history in said place?  I am sure no average American under the age of 40 has any idea what I’m referring to.

Observed advantage number one of living in France (not that I’m at all setting myself up to compare life in France and the United States — but it’s always nice to have a frame of reference, in case I ever do decide to uproot permanently from the American West) :  one has the opportunity to develop a profound, subtle knowledge of a very small, very particular, and sometimes very peculiar, place.  As a side effect, one may actually approach knowing oneself.  Isn’t there an entire field of study concerned specifically with the relationship between identity and place?  The University of Montana certainly has more than its fair share of alternative, earthily-titled classes that would suggest so.  But in all fairness, in our society’s current state of instability and uncertainty, the value of consistency and self-knowledge — of a consistent self-knowledge — may soon be coming back into vogue.

Although Saint Jean may be ” un peu perdue,” someone living here (as long as that someone has fortified French blood running strong through their veins)  may not necessarily be lost at all.