Thursday, December 8, 2011

A hole in the universe

At the age of eight,
while seated at an outdoor dinner party,
I discovered a hole in the universe.

My mother,
busy talking to the other guests at our table,
had not noticed me
sorting the red bell peppers
out of my tabbouleh
and pushing them neatly to the edge of my plate, so she did not make me finish them.

Pleased with this small victory, I quietly ate around my abandoned pepper bits, then
settled in for the Long Wait for Dessert,
daydreaming and drowsy,
lulled by a full stomach and the grownups' chatter.

And then something happened.

One of my red bell pepper bits began to move.

In the blink of an eye,
it had slipped off my plate,
scuttled across the dinner table,
slid down the tablecloth,
and disappeared.

It would be understating things
to say I was astonished.

A great wind had blown through my life.
I remember feeling quite grave:
I was going to have to reconsider everything I know about the world.
Also, my mother and I were vegetarian, and
I wondered what we were going to eat from now on.

I felt a little excited. If bell pepper bits could walk,
then the world must be brimming with hidden talents.

I looked up to see if anyone else had noticed
this dramatic turn of events,
and noticed a family friend
fiddling with his laser pointer,
whose bell-pepper-red light was now dancing across the back of someone's chair.

My disappointment was leavened by the arrival of chocolate cake.

But I have always treasured that moment,
that tiny sliver of time in which
my world turned upside down.
I have never forgotten what powerful magic
is misunderstanding
and what marvelous and unlikely holes it can rip in our realities.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pictures in words, needles in haystacks, and the price of a suntan

If you have ever done archival research, you know
that it can be a bit like
searching for a needle in a haystack.
(which, by the way, the French do, too, though they prefer
to look for their needles in bales, not stacks, of hay:
chercher une aiguille dans une botte de foin)

I would even argue that haystacks (or bales)
are easier than archives:
although the pen is mightier than the sword,
it's hard to prick your finger on a word.

Most of the people who generated all that paper disappeared without
ever suspecting that the things
they were scratching out on those pages would be preserved in a heavy box
and trundled from dim shelf to dim research carrel
by people wearing cotton gloves.

And thank goodness they never suspected:
the most unsuspecting of their pen scratches
are the unexpected pinpricks that keep you awake as you work,
winking reminders that the past isn't always a blur,
that boredom has ever been the same
and that no matter how dusty and dry the task,
we all enjoy a bit of whimsy.

This doodle was drawn by a list-maker in Tunisia
at the turn of the last century.

And speaking of mysterious words (see my last post),
his list is full of them:
1 suntan, 1 khodfu, and 1 chasuch
will set you back 3,360 francs.

I'm sure such glittering treasures are worth the money,
but the legs on that officer are really priceless.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

All that glitters

When I was a child, I thought a "chester of doors" was a complex and wonderful construction that promised to open the way to a million new worlds. I can still feel that magical possibility when I write those words, even though it's been years since I figured out that a chest of drawers was merely where my socks and undershirts lived. And I still love the mysterious glamor of a word or phrase whose meaning is completely obscure to you, whether it is because you have misheard it, have no idea of the context, or simply don't know.

When your job is words, these moments become rarer and rarer, though technical terms do afford a certain pleasure: how lovely, the moments I spent imagining that "pléochroïque" was the era of rainbow-colored dinosaurs, rather than a crystallographic term. Charming, the few seconds I dreamed of "calandreuses," which in my mind ought to mean ladies who make calendars. (They're actually a kind of leather embossing press.)

That is why I am so grateful to the fashion world. Just one fashion event can give you enough of these mysterious phrases to last a lifetime. My favorite of them all, the one I carry with me happy in the knowledge that it will never be elucidated, is one I picked up at a Lanvin runway show I attended last year. I was working for an agency whose job it was to transcribe and translate post-show interviews, which are so esoteric they require an eyewitness to make any sense of them at all.

Seeing a runway show in real life is kind of like seeing the Tour de France in real life: an immense amount of hype and chaos for something that is over in a flash. After the show, it was my job to push through the crowd to listen to the press conference. As I was pushing I saw two men who looked like they'd been dressed by André 3000 from Outkast. For all I know, they may have been André 3000 from Outkast. In any case, as I pushed, I heard one of them say to the other,

"Yeah, I need to get some more, though. It's like all my diamonds are falling out."

I have turned this phrase over in my mind a million times, and it never looses its sheen. What must it feel like when all one's diamonds fall out? Sometimes I think it must be a chilly, shivery sensation, not entirely unpleasant. Other times I imagine it's painful, like those awful dreams where your teeth get wobbly and you can't keep them in your mouth. And what could you get more of that would keep them in place? How many diamonds do you need to have before you casually can say the words "all my diamonds"? Three? Seventeen? How big do they need to be? Oh, the possibilities are endless.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Rain has been a major preoccupation this week in Alba: we’ve had nearly a foot of it.
Il pleut: it’s come down hard – in buckets, you’d say in both English and French. It’s been pouring, as we say – or raining spouts, as they say. (Il pleut des trombes) The French find it amusing that we English speakers complain it’s raining cats and dogs; I hope you find it amusing that here in France it rains ropes (des cordes), and, if things get really bad, it comes down like a cow pisses (comme vache qui pisse).
Over the past week we’ve had it in ropes and buckets and cats and cows. In a village full of farmers and broken down old houses, you feel torn between happy for the crops and sad for all the cooped-up stonemasons, and of course irritated you left your laundry out on the line.
But then on Friday morning we woke up and began to feel nervous. We live right next to the River Escoutay, which, on most days is barely more than a cheerful trickle. But early Friday morning there was a lull in the rain, and we realized the roaring we heard was the Escoutay. It rose and rose. On Saturday night, my husband filled up sand bags for my mother-in-law, who lives on the ground floor and didn’t sleep much listening out for the river to stop roaring and begin to clank, which is how you know it has rolled all its rocks right up into to the back yard and is about to flood your kitchen.
Luckily, the river subsided, and the rain died back down to a drizzle (which the French describe in diminutives of il pleut, as if we were saying “it’s rain-ish-ing” – il pleuvine, il pleuviote, il pleuvasse).
Lying in bed with the sound of those drops falling and falling on our skylights has made me realize how much country living is full of listening for rain; it has made me nostalgic for a French expression that died away as we and our language have drained out of the countryside and flooded into cities, with their clothes dryers and indoor jobs.
The expression is ecoute-s’il-pleut (listen-if-it’s-raining). It was what people would call a river like the Escoutay that runs slow and lazy until it roars up into your back yard, or a mill that didn’t work too well in the dry seasons. By extension, it was used to describe the a kind of lazy person who sat around waiting for a stroke of luck, or who was too busy listening for the rain to get out and get anything done. Or someone like me, who’s waiting for the sun to come so she can get those wet clothes in off the line.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

French vocabulary nos. 2 and 3: faux ami and quid pro quo

Translated literally, faux ami means “false friend”:
it’s a word you ought to be able to snap like a Lego
out of English
and into French
(or vice versa)
but you can’t.
One false friend that still occasionally trips me up is “isolation,”
which means “insulation” and not “isolation.”
If, when describing Alba to a Frenchman, you mention the "isolation," he may start thinking about
fiberglass versus cellulose and thermal coefficients
as you try to conjure a solitary village perched on a hill, looking out over endless rows of grapevines.
Of course, insulation can be a confusing topic even when you’re not worried about translation –
or maybe I should say that translation can be a problem even within a language.
I’m thinking of what the French call a quid pro quo, which, as it happens, is another example of a faux ami.
In Latin, quid pro quo means “this for that.”
In English, it denotes a tit-for-tat exchange.
In French, it is what tends to occur when you bring together the two main populations of Alba,
the good ol’ boy set
and the organic-crunchy-yuppie set.
At a recent party, we overheard Rafael,
who is a builder,
with Daniel, who quit his office job to move to the country and build straw bale houses.
“Straw bales are the future,” Daniel enthused. “Have you read much about them?”
“Not sure exactly you’d need to read about them,” said Rafael.
“That’s how I feel,” Daniel exclaimed. “It’s what’s so great – they’re just intuitive.”
“I guess so,” said Rafael.
“The only thing you really need to know about straw bales,” Daniel observed, taking a gulp of his artisanal beer, “is that you have to be careful not to pack them too tightly.”
Rafael poured himself another pastis. “Uh-huh,” he said.
“Because if you pack them too tightly,” Daniel went on, “the straw gets crushed, and then you lose the hollow part in the stem that holds the air, and it’s not as effective.”
Rafael took a long, thoughtful sip of pastis. “Well I wouldn’t worry too much,” he said. “You know, you bale it, you roll it, you stack it, I don’t think your animals are gonna be that picky – if it’s straw, they’ll eat it.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Densest Object in the World

Today it is time for a cautionary tale about a little detail that might trip you up as you toggle between numbers in French and English.
Once upon a time, shortly after I moved to France for good to live with the man I would later marry, the postman delivered a little blue envelope to our house. It contained a blue, handwritten square of paper with the following information on it:
I arrived: March 31, 2005 at 11:30pm
I weigh: 3,650 kg
I measure: 52 cm
You may visit me on Sunday, April 9, between 9am and noon.
There was no signature. It was some kind of party invitation, but who would have a party on a Sunday morning?
And who would couch the invitation as a riddle?
I had never heard of anything that dense.
Was it an asteroid?
Surely I would have heard of an asteroid landing near our village. It would have made a big hole, too.
Besides, only quarks and stuff are dense like that. You can’t even see them.
This is ridiculous, I thought.
No one is going to come to their party.
I tossed the invitation on the table and forgot about it until my husband came home. “Any mail?” he asked.
“Just this stupid riddle,” I said, handing him the blue piece of paper. As I passed it to him, I noticed there was something on the back of it. It was a picture of a newborn baby, whose birth his parents and grandparents were very happy to announce.
“Ah, Fred had his baby,” Julien said, tossing the birth announcement back on the table. “I guess we should buy them a present. What do you mean, riddle?”
And that is why you should never forget that the French use commas where Americans use decimal points, and vice versa.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The world's most powerful word

My husband and I used to have an ongoing argument about the merits of French versus the merits of English. “Come on,” I would tell him. “English is so much more descriptive. The language of Shakespeare. There’s so much more you can say.”
“That’s because Shakespeare went around inventing words,” he’d scoff.
“But that’s exactly my point,” I’d counter. “Look how many more words English has than French.”
He pooh-poohed this. “Toothbrush, flatiron, hamstring, fairytale - it’s just because you count compound words. That’s cheating.”
“Serendipity, retch, doodle,” I parried. “Or how about silly? Your language doesn’t have a word for silly, for God’s sake.”
“But that doesn’t stop us from being silly. Or describing it. We’re simply more efficient. We do more with less. Eventually, we’ll have reduced the whole of French down to a single, extremely expressive syllable. Like bah.
My husband may actually be right about this, but he’s got the wrong syllable. If I had to bet on French boiling down to one syllable I’d bet on doux, which, might be the most versatile word I know.
This one little word can mean:
soft (in texture or in sound)
Imagine a language in which your baby’s hair, your lover’s gaze, the weather this afternoon, the pace at which you’re getting things done, the way you woke up, the breakfast you ate, the volume of the radio, your cat’s nap, and a million other things can all be described with a single word. Double it into two syllables – doudou – and it becomes your child’s security blanket, a nickname for your lover, a way to describe a cuddly person. Roll it over your tongue a few times and it fancies up into douillet, adding coziness and luxuriance to the mix.
Doux is so shy and unassuming, and yet so powerful. If the meek shall inherit the earth and language is slowly distilling itself down into a single super-syllable, let this be the one.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Never a dull moment

While looking around for a good translation for the French verb "deciller" (which, literally, means "to make someone regain his lucidity") I learned that "ciller" means "to sew shut the eyelids of a bird of prey for training purposes." (The little guy to your right does not approve.)

And there, again, is the tragedy of translation - no matter how I translate that word (which occurs in the context of a book about social dialogue in the EU), the connotation of a falcon with its eyes sewn shut will be lost forever.

My only comfort is that it's such a rare word in French that I think the nuance is lost on most French readers, too...

Monday, October 10, 2011

French vocabulary no. 1: La Recup'

Récuperer is the verb with which you regain possession, use, or enjoyment of something spent, lost, left, lent, or entrusted to someone else. Like its English colleague, recuperate, it comes from the Latin: re – back – and capere – take. It comes to the rescue, gives you time off to compensate for hours worked overtime, neutralizes potentially opposed ideas, and heals the sick and injured. Most of all, it gives new life to objects that would otherwise go in the trash. The French language has subjected this verb to its own treatment and made it into a noun to describe and categorize both the things you have recovered, reclaimed, or rescued: la récup’. La récup’ is a also a pastime, a calling, a matter of pride.
This makes Alba’s dump quite the hotspot. The village employs someone whose official job it is to make sure you toss your trash in the right place. Unofficially – but much more importantly in the eyes of the village – she keeps an eye out for anything that can be récupéré. If you are a real regular, you can place orders with her, and she will keep an eye out for the things you need. Going to the dump is an event in and of itself, and quite often you come back with as much stuff as you went to throw away.
Even businesses in Alba participate in la récup’. When I waitressed at La Petite Chaumière, La Roche’s only restaurant, people recuperated dry bread for their horses; we kept all our wine corks for someone who made cork insulation, and we saved all our bottle caps for reasons I have yet to understand. The butcher will set aside the plastic buckets he orders olives and mayonnaise in if you are looking for free containers, and Charlie, who raises goats and sells their cheese at the market, will save the whey to wash your face in if you ask him. I recently phoned Marco, our grocer, to ask if he had any fresh cilantro, and he exclaimed, “You should have called five minutes ago! I just threw it out. You want me to fish it out of the garbage for you?”
“Sure,” I said. “Si tu penses que je peux la récuperer – if you think I can rescue any of it.”
“It’s on the top,” he assured me.
“I’ll be right there.”
Transposed into English, an epicerie would be spicery - a place that sells spices. Epiceries have existed since the middle ages, when they actually sold only spices. They evolved into dry-goods stores in the 19th century, and now an epicerie is a small grocery store. In the city, an epicerie is like a bodega, a place you go when you forgot something at the real grocery store, but in a village, it’s all you’ve got. Alba has two of them. They both have actual titles, but everyone refers to them as the epicerie d’en bas and the epicerie d’en haut, the grocery store down there and the grocery store up there. The grocery store down there has a dull, oversanitized feel to it, and though the owners are nice, almost no one goes there unless the grocery store up there is closed. The grocery store up there is a tiny cavern crammed with just about everything you could possibly ever need, from cotton balls and kitty litter to organic hair conditioner, locally grown heirloom tomatoes, even fresh cilantro. It is cool, dimly lit, and twice as long as it is wide. The checkout counter is beside the door, and there is nearly always a traffic jam in front of it. To get in you have to jostle past tourists picking out postcards, children gazing longingly at the toy shelf, and grandmas at the register waiting for Marco or Béatrice, the owners, to loosen a jar lid for them or count out their change.
When I arrived Marco was issuing instructions to a customer on how to fry the tiny spring artichokes he had in from a farmer in the Vaucluse. The line was backed up all the way to the produce bins. I caught his eye and he handed me a bundle of damp paper towel. “I sorted it out for you and rinsed it off,” he said with a wink. “Good as new.”
When I got home I heard a jingling from our neighbor’s terrace, which forms a bridge over the street between her house and ours. “Yoo-hoo,” she called down. “You want a toy for your baby?” She shook a large yellow and red ball with a bell trapped inside of it, and it jingled again.
“Sure,” I said, and she tossed it down to me. I fingered a place where the plastic had broken in just the right shape for Estelle to put in her mouth and cut herself.
“It came with the cathouse,” she told me. “Wash it before you use it.”
By Alba standards, at least compared to some, I am not a real recuperator. I freely admit that I threw our neighbor’s broken cat toy out.
Our friend Silvann, on the other hand, is a pro. When Julien and I bought our house (you talk about something that needs recuperating), he took Julien to the dump to celebrate. They returned with two sinks for our house, one for the kitchen and one to recycle into a vessel sink for the bathroom. Silvann had collected an array of items, including some chairs for his garden, a wall-mounted sculpture of cherubim playing around a fountain, and a metal funerary urn.
“Who would throw out a funerary urn?” I wondered.
“Well, once you scatter the ashes, what are you going to do, keep it on top of your television?” Silvann pointed out.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“I’ll find a use for it,” he said, with a dreamy look.
That afternoon, we all went to the trou de Saint Jean to go swimming. A trou is a hole; in the Ardèche there is no need to specify it is a swimming hole. The path to the river was lined with blackberry cane spilling down the hillside in treacherous curtains and prickly tufts of dark purplish green, brimming with ripe fruit. On the way back from our swim we were all hungry, and straggled out along the path to eat the berries, the adults holding up the children so they could reach the fat and juicy ones higher up.
I don’t know whether it was too many blackberries, or the hot sun and the cold water, or way Françoise and Silvann’s van swayed and clattered on the mountain, but suddenly, out of the lazy August afternoon silence, Jaëlle, their seven-year-old daughter, called out that she was going to be sick. We all scrambled for a receptacle, or even a towel, and just like that, la récup came to the rescue, and Silvann found a use for his funerary urn.

Photos: this may look like a pile of rubble, but it is full of stones that we sorted out for Julien to use when he added height to the streetside facade. (Can you see where the new part of the wall begins?)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

it poured this weekend, the figs have all burst from the humidity, and I'm hunting around for just the right story to tell...

Monday, July 18, 2011

When in Rome

A little over a thousand years ago, the Romans chased Alba's inhabitants off of their little hill and across the River Escoutay. They built an outpost of their empire on the plain below the village, which became a thriving city, with a forum, luxurious homes, a temple, baths, and a 3,000-seat theater.

No one knows why the Roman city disappeared and Alba's inhabitants moved back up onto their hill; nor can anyone say just how long it took for the earth to swallow up the old city. We do know that once it had been lost, it took centuries to find again.

The theater was excavated and partially restored in the mid-twentieth century. Now, every summer, the Alba circus festival hosts shows there. On long summer evenings, there's no need for lights - the theater was designed so that the sun fills it with soft light without blinding the players. The acoustics are grand, as long as they remember to chase the frogs out of the canal that runs behind the stage before the show starts.

Saturday night, seated on giant volcanic stones warmed all day by the sun, while we waited for La Compagnie XY to perform their acrobatic show "Le Grand C," we wondered what it must have been like when the theater was more than a majestic ghost of its former self, when the stands were covered and the canal played host to miniature naval battles. But when the acrobats sped nimbly onto the stage and began to scale, swing, spin, and toss each other against a backdrop of sunset and vineyards, the hour of pure grace more than made up for all that time had swallowed up.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Big Top

Yes, that is a circus tent in our back yard.

I hope your weekend is as full of adventure as ours promises to be...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Happy Bastille Day

Here in France we call it La Fête Nationale, or just July 14.
And so you know, it doesn't actually commemorate the taking of the Bastille.
It actually commemorates the Fête de la Fédération,
which was organized on July 14, 1790
to commemorate the taking of the Bastille.
On that day, King Louis XVI swore allegiance
to the Nation and the Constitution.
We don't have a king anymore,
and we've changed constitutions a few times since then,
but the French didn't want their national holiday to commemorate violence.
So instead we have a holiday that commemorates a holiday that commemorates violence.
I know, I know. We may not like violence over here, but you know what we do like?

Julien and I celebrated by hauling 700 kg of concrete to pour reinforcements for the doorway of the master bedroom in our house. Then we swore allegiance to each other over lunch, and took a nap.

Pictured above: Minus, our worksite safety inspector, and the bathroom doorway, standing in for the bedroom doorway (not available for photos) to show you what it looks like when you pour reinforced concrete in the wall of an extremely elderly house.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Words, words, words

Friends, it's been a while.
We've had a baby, moved to the Ardèche, and bought a house to restore. I've started work on a new book.
I hereby announce that I will be keeping you apprised of the progress of our house, and of my musings about words, and possibly of the vicissitudes and lassitudes (as Romain Gary once said) of life in the country. Stay tuned...

Here's the new house, which is very, very old.