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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.


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.

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.

Ugly things in France

5 Dec

Today is a dreary one in Charente – Maritime, and as I’ve been wanting for a long time to do something about dispelling some of the American myths about France, I figure today is as good a day as any to do so. 

The majority of people I know, once they learned I was going to be spending 7 months in France, immediately found it fit to regal me with their preconceived notions of what life in France surely must be like:  slow, sweet, delicious, romantic, historically and aesthetically fascinating.  Predictably, all the facets of French life that tourists, in their sheltered portable bubble of expensive, enchanting, typically superficial impressions, experience. 

Any French person will be glad to correct this misconception:  la vie en rose isn’t always lavender, coffee and kisses.  Between Sarkozy, taxes, les grèves (strikes), and paperwork for everything, down to buying a cauliflower at the marché (there are receipts for everything in France), life in France is pretty much just as annoying, boring, what have you as anywhere else.  To be sure, I have had my fair share of wonderful moments here ; but there are certainly some days when I wish I were back in Missoula, back in Bozeman, back in Yellowstone, where I understand the subtleties of the language, understand the street signs, and understand how the health system works (or doesn’t work, to be more accurate).

On that note, here’s a short photo essay on ugly things in France…I promise to post another essay on typically charming things in France, fairly soon…

Stunted, overly and incorrectly pruned trees in La Rochelle.

You can find this tragedy all over France:  philosophically, I’m sure it could relate to the warped relationship between man and nature, with the former yearning beyond all reason to control the latter. 

I took an urban forestry class last semester in Missoula, so now know that, when trees look like this, clubfeet and all, they may as well be dead…they’re ridden with disease, surely, and have been forever denied the ability to grow in a normal and healthy way…all because some French arborist thought it looked pretty.  An innocuous act :  “C’est juste pour faire joli.”  It’s just to make pretty.

I don’t think I need to explain the horror of this eyesore.  Apparently some kind of war memorial; why must history, even ugly history, be memorialized in ugly ways?


And just down the road from the most hideous war memorial in the world, a typical find in France:  advertisements on the sides of potentially historic, ancient buildings.  Granted, this house is nothing special in Saint Jean, let alone France.  But it’s old, it’s pretty…and look, a lovely neon advert for the French equivalent of Super Walmart on its side.  This is what   comes from having too much of a good thing:  we fail to appreciate it.

In addition, ugly things I didn’t take pictures of but which are  nevertheless extremely offensive to one or more of the five (six, seven) senses:

There are funeral homes everywhere.  Yes, it’s forward thinking and frugal, even considerate to others, to plan one’s own death — but a little depressing?  In Saint Jean, which has a population of about 8,000, I’ve counted at least three funeral homes already.

Perfumed toilet paper in various colors.  Mandarin spice is orange ; creamy yellow is vanilla ; powder blue is ‘marine,’ which I assume has something to do with the ocean.  There is also unscented toilet paper; you can choose between pink and green.  I do not like pink toilet paper; something about this concept seems perverse to me.  But for some reason, it’s much more expensive to buy plain white toilet paper here.  So I have found myself obliged to overcome my bias and buy the pink kind.

And finally, dog shit.  I would not deign to take a photo for this one.  I leave it to your imagination.  The rumours were all true.

Where I’m coming from

4 Dec

Having almost finished my undergraduate degree in history, I made the decision to take a year off from being a student and trade in the gloomy familiarity of Missoula, Montana winters for somewhere, anywhere…in France. I was posted as a high school English assistant in the small town of Saint-Jean-d’Angély in Charente-Maritime, a sleepy department at the northern edge of southwest France. It is from this lost corner that I write my observations and reflections on French places, French people, their language, their culture, and assorted experiences that defy categorization.

My blog title was inspired by the French proverb: “On ne fait pas une omelette sans casser des oeufs” — translated, “One cannot make an omelette without breaking some eggs.” In short, one cannot create something without first destroying something else. I destroy lots of things in my life — exercise regimes, relationships, writing projects I finally deem insincere or self-indulgent, my own personality. But I find this destruction to be, ironically, incredibly refreshing and nourishing. I could more aptly say that, rather than destroying myself, I am constantly recreating myself, reforging my life according to new influences and new people in it. Dramatically speaking.