Friday, November 9, 2012

The knife sharpener

Once a year, when the weather gets cold, a small man of indeterminate age knocks at our door. He is not a prepossessing person. His black watch cap is too small, his weathered blue parka is too large, he has fewer teeth than nature intended, and he is clutching a handful of knives, poorly concealed in a plastic bag. “Need anything sharpened?” he asks.

The first year he came I only gave him two little Opinels, in case he decided not to come back. But he did, and now I wait for him, and I hand him all the knives and scissors I can find, and he spirits them off for ten or fifteen minutes, and when he brings them back they are sharper than when they were new.

His name is Jean-Baptiste, and he likes to travel. Not for the scenery, because one village is just like another, but for the people. He likes to talk to people. Alba is just like any other place, for example, but it stands out in his head because the people here have a sort of a cultivated way of talking. I ask if he enjoys that, and he says no, it is tiresome. 

Toulon is where Jean-Baptiste was born and it is the place he names when asked where he’s from; Le Teil, down the road from Alba, is where his six kids live; and if he had his druthers he’d settle down in a town he calls Ameragues, which I have never heard of and cannot find on any map. He assures me it is calm and restful there. He spends most of the year on the road, in a little caravan hooked to the back of his truck. Every six months or so his truck breaks down and he plies his trade on foot until he’s raised enough for repairs.

Sharpening knives is what he does, but poetry is what he is. He likes poetry because it is beautiful, direct, and natural: it just comes to him, just like that, an inexplicable gift. He doesn’t write it down – doesn’t know how to write – but once the poetry is in his head it stays there, and he carries it with him.

I ask him what it’s like to be a Gypsy in France today, since Gypsies are in the news all the time over here; French policy and public sentiment have been particularly angry and inhospitable to them in the past few years. I ask if things have gotten harder, if he encounters any distrust or hostility, and he is very tolerant of my question and its boring lack of imagination. Lightly, he says that there are all kinds of Gypsy, then finishes his coffee, stands up, and leaves me with a battery of sharp knives and a poem about a rose.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In other news

Exotic, art-nouveau-inspired decorations are starting to sprout in our house, and Julien has completed the brick wall in our future living room.

Our future kitchen.
Our future living room.

The flashing and waterproofing on the terrace are complete, and Julien just laid the tiles (you can see one of them on the far left) that will go under the big bay window.

The end may still be a ways away, but it is in sight!!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Circle games: la rentrée and la vogue

France has five seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and La Rentrée. 
Our neighbor's grape harvesting machine emerges from its shed.

La rentrée means “the return,” and refers to the period during which economic, educational, and professional activities start up again after the summer holidays.  

La rentrée is a nebulous, liminal time.  In Alba you know it has begun when the food stands outnumber the souvenir stands at the Sunday market, and you can find a seat on the terrace of the café at 11am. That following week you see the vintners drag their harvesting equipment out of the sheds and barns, and the pharmacy marks the sunscreen for clearance. 

The rentrée is something of a relief, because it’s tiresome to wait in line at the grocery store while a tourist in flip-flops buys the last carton of your favorite ice cream to take back to a camper that’s parked in your spot in the parking lot of La Roche. It’s also a bit sad, because you know that life is about to get much colder, and much quieter. 

The rentrée is a fleeting season, which ends as soon as the air starts to smell of fermenting grapes and the sycamore leaves take on a silvery sheen. It’s then that a troupe of white, unmarked trucks inches into our village like a silent invasion of furniture deliverymen, filling up all the parking spaces and blocking the views of the houses on main street. If you peer beneath the trailers’ flaps, which are half-lifted to let in the light, you’ll see they’re not actually full of furniture, but rather of carnival people lining up rows of stuffed animals, BB guns, lava lamps, beach balls, and toasters; filling gambling machines with piles of glittering tokens, tubs of plastic ducks with water, and frying vats with grease; and unfolding machines for people to whirl and spin and bump around in. The occasion of this invasion is the vogue, also known as the fête votive. 

Vogues are a traditional event in our corner of southeastern France, and their two names indicate their two purposes: fête votive because they celebrate a village’s patron saint (votive from the verb vouer, to promise, to vow, to devote, to consecrate), and vogue because they are organized for the benefit of a village’s youth (a vogue describes the forward motion of a boat, made through the coordinated effort of multiple rowers). Long ago, vogues helped raise pocket money for the young men departing for their military service; now they’re a kind of going-away ritual for the kids who graduated high school earlier in the year. Each year’s crop of eighteen-year-olds raises money by going door-to-door selling pogne, a sweet, eggy bread flavored with orange flower water, and then, during the vogue, by selling drinks at the buvette. For that one weekend, Alba is transformed into a glittering array of frivolities, and though adults and children frequent the vogue, too, it truly belongs to the teenagers. It’s their last interlude of giddy freedom before the rentrée and adulthood begin.

During the day, a vogue offers various ways to demonstrate strength and skill, ranging from bumper cars and petanque competitions to donkey races and tractor pulls. After 9pm, you’ll notice that it’s difficult to move your limbs at a normal pace, because the air is laden with a mixture of fry grease and sexual tension. The official drink of the vogue is marquisette, a mixture of white wine, rum or vodka, carbonated lemonade, and chopped up citrus fruit. As the night wears on and you drink more and more of it, someone is sure to remind you that the vats of marquisette are mixed by foot, and someone else is sure to tell you a story of an unsavory thing that took place in the marquisette vats the year of their vogue.

Each village’s vogue takes place on a different date in the summer, and Alba’s is the last of the season in our region. Even though it’s a festival of departure, in many ways it is really a celebration of eternal return: no matter how many years you are away from home, when you come back again, the fête votive will be the same. The same families of carnies return every year with the same stands and the same rides. On the carousels, children grab at the same pompoms their parents grabbed at a generation ago. When the disco balls come out at night, the songs, with few exceptions – I Told the Witch Doctor is now played in a dance remix – are the same as they always were, too.

Alba’s vogue is one of the region’s more sedate ones, but it is still a raucous, unruly event: it lasts into the wee hours of the morning, and when day breaks the village is full of stink and debris. Flowerpots get broken, trash gets strewn, people urinate in unseemly places. Half the village flees the weekend the vogue comes to town, and last year the town council voted to move the whole thing to an unpaved parking lot outside the village. But though you might be able to displace it or flee from it, the vogue in Alba isn’t a phenomenon you can escape. 

Love it or hate it, behind the brash music and the flashy lights and the cloying sweetness of the marquisette, the vogue in Alba is the ultimate symbol of the rentrée, the ever-recurring return: the grapes will ripen and be picked, the last of the blackberries will harden on their canes, the figs will soften and fall to the ground, and children will head to school on Monday with memories of merry-go-rounds whirling in their heads. And this year’s crop of eighteen-year-olds will start rowing toward adulthood knowing that wherever the vogue’s forward motion takes them, there will always be another rentrée, and another vogue. For them this was the year everything was different, and next year it will be exactly the same.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sad words: faire son deuil

August 21 was the seventh anniversary of the passing of my stepfather, Robert Moog, who was what the French would call "mon papa de coeur" (my "heart-father"). This is in memory of him.
Deuil comes from the Latin dolor. Until the fifteenth century it signified the pain caused by a death. After that it began to refer to the outward signs of grief. In the 19th century, when mourning was all the rage, the expression “faire son deuil” was born. Now it means to go through the grieving process, to mourn someone or something, to resign oneself to loss. Pop psychology has overused the phrase to the point that it now borders on tacky: “faire son deuil” is something people do for junked cars, no-good relationships, and full fat milk in your coffee.

Nevertheless, it’s a verbal phrase I’m quite attached to, because I find it so expressive. It seems much truer to life than its English equivalent. In English you are “grieving,” or “in mourning.” Outside certain religious traditions, it is a nebulous state with no beginning our end. “Faire son deuil,” on the other hand, uses the active verb faire, “to do,” and the possessive “son:” it is yours to do, and no one can tell you how or where or when. It is your grief, not anyone else’s. In my synaesthetic head the word deuil is the color of violets and cream and egg yolks, opaque, mottled like a bruise, and more or less cubical. Doing your grief is a real puzzle, exponentially harder than the melted Rubik’s cube I see when I say the word.
When my husband Julien and I came back to Alba after the death of my beloved stepfather (the man who drove me to school, fixed my breakfast, and sat up with me at night when I was sick), I was at the outer edge of all the grief I had to do. Scenes from his illness flickered constantly in my head. From time to time one of them would pop into sharp focus and wreck my attempts to get on with life. I recoiled when those scenes appeared; I did not want to remember my father with sunken cheeks and strangely livid skin, a man so full of life stricken flat by a tentacular brain tumor. But I was afraid to ignore them, for fear that if I let go of them, all my memories of him would float away, too. I felt exhausted and confused, whacking and tapping and tugging at the Rubik’s cube of my grief.
The week after we came home was the fête votive (more on that next week), and though I didn’t much feel like partying, Julien and I went out for a late-night stroll around the village to take in the flashing lights and have a drink with friends. We stood around the plane trees by the buvette (which is what the French call anything outdoors that sells things to drink), and I tried to enjoy myself. I watched the crowd and felt oppressed by the hard sides and sharp corners and ugly complexities of my new deuil, angry that no one else could even see it. And then a childhood friend of Julien’s leaned over to me. Under cover of many drinks and a particularly loud disco song, he said, “I know what you’ve been going through. We’re all thinking of you.” 

 And that right there is one of the great advantages living in a village where everyone knows you. People actually can see your funky Rubik’s cube of grief. They know you’re working on it. That this feels comforting may seem counter-intuitive, given how intensely private grief is, and given that one of its hardest corners is how exposed and vulnerable it can make you feel.
I mentioned this seeming contradiction to a friend of ours whose baby had died in utero in the last weeks of her pregnancy, and whose grace with her own giant Rubik’s cube of grief was immense. “Mmm,” she said, putting her hand over her mouth and shaking her head the way some women do when they are recalling a thing for which words do not come easily. “The first time I left Alba I thought I would collapse,” she told me. “I went to get my hair cut in Montélimar and suddenly realized that no one in the hair salon knew. I almost bolted. In Alba, I could forget my shoes or start crying in the middle of the grocery store and I knew it was fine – I didn’t have to explain myself.”
“But wasn’t it a relief,” I asked her, “being in a place where no one was inspecting you for signs of falling apart?”
“I thought so,” she said. “I thought it would feel good to get away and not be me for a few hours, to stop being the woman who’d just lost her baby.” She shook her head. “But when I got to that hair salon, and realized it was invisible,” she trailed off. “How do you even describe it?” 
How do you? It may be your grief, but it turns out that the long puzzle is a little easier when everyone knows it’s there.
Grateful thanks to Daniel Stolle for permission to use his illustrations. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A rare word: conjurer

You probably know the joke about the Jewish Robinson Crusoe who, showing his rescuers around the island, points to the two synagogues he has built.
“Why two?” they ask, and he replies, “This is the one I pray in, and this is the one I would never set foot in.”
Alba has two cafés. There is the café everyone goes to, and the café no one ever sets foot in. The café no one goes to has a checkered past. Years ago, no one went there because it was a hangout for members of the extreme right. Then it was bought and cleaned up by a nice respectable couple but no one went there because before it had been a hangout for members of the extreme right. The nice respectable couple sold the place to a man who acquired a reputation that involved stabbing, which tends to drive off your clientele. Recently it changed hands again, but no one goes there now because why go to a café that was once owned by an alleged stabber when you could go to the perfectly good café you’ve always gone to on the other end of the village? 
The café everyone goes to is called the Bar du Château. Recently they got a new awning and we all noticed it was actually called the Café du Château, but everyone still calls it “le bar.”
The bar is owned and run by two brothers, Alain and Serge. Cafés and bars in rural France are purely utilitarian, they serve a social function in the same way the post office and the bakery do, and the décor in the Bar du Château reflects that: there is a zinc-topped bar, some wooden chairs and tables, a linoleum floor, and a room in the back with a pool table. The lights in the back room only go on for special occasions, so if you feel like playing pool, you have to do it in the dark. The beauty in the bar is on the terrace, which is shaded by four sycamores that were pruned by Alain and Serge’s father so their branches would grow into one another to form a living canopy.
But I’m not actually here to tell you about the bar. I’m here to tell you about the time I baked a chicken à l’etouffé and scalded myself as I pulled the dish out of the oven. The backs of my fingers swelled with ugly white blisters the size of dimes. I ran to the pharmacy, and the pharmacist gave me some cream and bandages and told me to watch out for infection. “It's going to leave a scar,” she warned me.
“We should go to the bar,” Julien said, when I came home and related this to him. “I should have thought of it sooner – they can conjure it for you.”
The word conjurer is nearly a thousand years old, and you won't find the definition that I'm about to give you in the dictionary. Most French people have never heard of it, and indeed the verb “to conjure” has mostly gone out of use in the land of the Enlightenment. If you employ it these days, it’s probably because your exasperation has risen to a fever pitch and you find yourself in a lather of erudition: you can conjure someone not to park in front of the mailbox, for example, or to quit interrupting you, or to leave the toilet seat down.
But at the Café du Château, or, more precisely, in Alain and Serge’s family, the word means something else, and has for generations. When Julien and I got there the day I burned myself, Julien held my bandaged hand out for Alain to see, and Alain pointed to his oldest brother, who never said much and is now long gone. “Come into the light,” he instructed. He took my hand in his and gently unwrapped the bandages. “You should have come sooner,” he told me. “You should have come right away. Does it hurt?”
I nodded.
Still holding my hand, he circled his thumb above the burnt skin, moving his lips almost imperceptibly. “There,” he said, when he had finished. “You’ll feel better in a few minutes.”
“Should I put the bandage back on?” I asked. “The pharmacist said I’ll have a scar.”
Alain’s brother shook his head. “You should have come sooner,” he said again. “But I don’t think so.”
He let go of my hand and walked back to his seat at the far end of the bar. I called out a thank you, but he didn’t reply.
Within a few hours, the blisters were gone, and by the end of the day my hand didn’t hurt anymore.
Alba doesn’t have any synagogues, and attendance at its little church has been dropping steadily since the mid-nineteenth century. Signs of the sacred are few and far between in our village, but if you’re looking for succor, I recommend the bar where everyone goes. Since my own adventure with the oven I have seen conjuring help burns from chemicals, radiation, scalding, sunshine, and chemotherapy. And even if your skin is unscathed, a cold drink on that shady terrace at the end of a hot August day is enough to soothe even the most scorched of spirits.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sour grapes

Grapes grow everywhere here.
In early August the grapes hide from the harsh sun
rolling out over the vineyards every morning.
Snug in the shade of their thick leaves
they're rounded, not yet ready,
packed in tight clusters,
pendant, sightless, tart.
Later, the taste of them will be good:
dusky and sweet, with lightly bitter seeds.
You can steal a few from along the road
when the time comes.
They're not grown for eating of course,
not for your teeth to bite
through the dusty, honey-sweet skin,
not for you to brace your tongue
against the tempting, puckery sour.
All these grapes will be trampled down to their hints,
to swigs and swallows, to berry, oak, and flower.
In the summer I feel great kinship with those grapes,
sitting with my dusty feet, my shiny, muddy mind:
someone spray me down, let me ripen on the knobby vines.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Le Cacophonium

Alba may not have an ATM or a dentist, and cell phone reception here is spotty, but for all time we will be able to boast that we were one of the first villages in France ever to be visited by the Cacophonium.

The Cacophonium (or "Le Cacophonium," as it is called in French) was invented by a lady named Céline, requires four square meters of floor space, and seats a half dozen children under the age of six. A turn costs €1.50, in exchange for which you get a zinc-plated 2” washer to slide on and off your fingers, slip into your pocket, or twirl around your thumb while you wait.

When it’s your turn to ride, you take your pick: you can climb into an old cello that has been rebuilt into a sort of a swan, sit tight in the body of a bass drum that’s gripped in the pincers of a tambourine-playing crab, straddle a harp in the shape of a whale, or take a ride on a steed made of old wind instruments.

Once everyone has clambered on, Céline begins to pedal, for Le Cacophonium is not just any merry-go-round made of recycled musical instruments and shaded by a big black café umbrella: it’s bicycle-powered by its inventor, a slender lady in a polka-dot dress and a top hat.
As a child, Céline dreamed of being a clown.
She watched the circus on television every chance she got, and whenever she had to pick something to dress up as, she picked a clown.
When she grew up she went to circus school, became a professional musician and juggler, and joined the circus.

That was before she had children, back when she liked to sit quietly in the morning with a cup of tea and honey.
Once her children came along, she gave up on tea and quiet mornings and began looking around for a project that mixed clowning, music, and motherhood.

It was then she had the idea of the Cacophonium.
At first, she imagined a carousel mounted on the back of a fantastical bull that would make farting noises as it went around -
she figured children would appreciate the resulting "caca-phonie."

As her idea evolved, she thought of a tuba (official name, "euphonium") and of the merry chaos of noise her invention would make, and settled on "cacophonium" - perhaps someday every orchestra in the land will include a child-and-bicycle-powered cacophonium in its ranks.

Upon seeing it for the first time, one man smiled and said, “If that’s what happens to my old bugle when I die, that’s fine with me.”

Going around and around and around, says Céline, is the basis for all childhood magic, and she loves to see the wonder on children’s faces when they first lay eyes on her invention.

Once they’ve climbed aboard, she begins pedaling and extends an old trumpet to her passengers; the children drop their zinc-plated washers into the mouth of the trumpet as they whiz by. The next time around she hands out musical instruments for them to play as they move, in addition to the noises they can make by pulling levers and pushing pedals on the carousel animals.

Originally, Céline had wanted to play saxophone while she pedaled, but between collecting tokens, dangling a velveteen fish on a fishing rod for some lucky child to catch, and squirting cool water on her passengers, she realized she didn’t have enough hands for the sax. Eventually, she’d like to have the carousel make music as she pedals, but for now she’s content to watch children watching the world fly by.

If you’re the right age at the right time, you can catch a ride on the Cacophonium this fall at the Féstival de la Basse Cour in Nîmes or the Art’Pantin Marionette Festival in Vergèze.

Images courtesy of the gracious lady herself, and Le Cacophonium/La Compagne du Bastringue.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some thoughts on math, or why I'll never be an efficient waitress

My time in France has included two stints as a waitress, once in Paris, and once in Alba. In both places, the owners were my dear friends, and in both places, they teased me mercilessly about how slow I was at doing the checks, and how often I made mistakes.

They were right, and I was terrible, but I would like to take this opportunity to say that my problem was not mathematical, it was synesthetical.

People accept as a general truth that a nice thing about numbers is their universality.
And I am here to tell you, friends: that is one cruel misstatement of reality.

As a general rule, there's little difference in my head between French and English:
In both I can dream, swear, ruminate, babytalk, argue, bake, bargain, joke, gossip, and tease.

But hell if I can do math.

As long as I live, I will never be able get my head around the idea that
seven times eight (pictured up top)
and sept fois huit (pictured below)
both come out to 56.
How is that possible??
It will never, ever make sense to me.

Right there is the real reason I am self-employed: I can take all the time I need to make sure that cinquante-six and fifty-six really are the same thing. As you can see from the calculations pictured above, I'm still dubious.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

French vocabulary no. 5: SUBLIME

The French language is fond of things sublime in a way that English never is. Maybe it is the influence of the Protestant ethic on our collective unconscious, but in English, we tend to keep a damper on our enthusiasm for things “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” If the adjective is kept in the shadows, the verb is nearly nonexistent: these days, chemists are the only English-speakers who get to sublime things, and unless you’re in psychoanalysis you probably don’t have much opportunity to sublimate, either. Whereas the French are always looking for ways to sublimer – everything from their fingernails to their pool parties.

Perhaps the French are comfortable with the sublime because they know it lives just a step away from the ridiculous (indeed, it was Napoleon himself who discovered the pair’s official headquarters, in an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Moscow). Here in Alba, we devote an entire week each summer to mixing the two, as you can see from the photograph to your left, which was taken from our kitchen window. 


During the Alba circus festival, the streets are garlanded with red ribbons, and our hamlet is transformed, quite literally, into a theater. My husband has shut down the worksite in honor of the festivities; otherwise, it would be overrun with tourists, too. 

Just the other day, Julien surprised a Dutchman wandering around the lower floor of our house and snapping pictures. Luckily, the man knew just what to say when Julien asked what he was doing. 

“Excusez-moi!” the man exclaimed, 
“Mais c’est –” he waved his hand to take in Julien’s poured concrete staircase, the curve of the dining room wall, the soft gray of the hemp insulation on the walls, and the sunlight pouring into our future bay window – “c’est SU-BLIME.”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Slippery words: goûter, doudou, and pique

 My husband, as I mentioned in an earlier post, once expressed his theory that language would eventually be boiled down to a single, highly expressive syllable, which he predicted would be bah. These are things you think about when you live in a bilingual household. Hard as you try, the one language begins to make incursions into the other; compression and spillage are inevitable.
This happens for a number of reasons. Some words get folded into your vocabulary because they are cultural institutions: goûter is not the same as "teatime," nor is it quite an "afternoon snack." My grandmother fed me goûters, never snacks, and that’s what they will always be to me. With other words, it’s because there’s no translation quite as convenient as the original: there's no good catch-all in English for doudou, the soft security objects children carry around and sleep with (blanky and teddy are rough translations, but they're too specific). If you have ever wondered why the French don’t make sense it’s because there’s no way to say that in French, although there is a growing movement in favor of “faire du sens.”
And then there are words that are just too tempting, too wonderfully versatile, to confine to just one language: "Ça pique!" is a good example. Its connotations are both positive and negative; among other things it can be spicy, prickly, pinchy, tickly, stabby, pokey, rancid, or bubbly; it may refer to a pepper, a beard, a cactus, a crawdad, a fork, a toothpick, a mosquito, a bed of nettles, a carbonated beverage, or bad wine.
Naturally, when our daughter was born I wondered how she would adapt to the separation and the spillage of bilingualism, how she’d deal with the cultural, the versatile, and the irreplaceable. Would she discover peekytoe crabs and think they are named that because their toes can pinch you? Would she be traumatized to discover that doudou, when you pronounce it with an American accent, becomes smelly and distasteful? 
So far, it’s hard to tell. She has a roughly equal number of words in French and English, which, right from the start, she acquired more or less at the same time – bain and bath, banane and banana, biberon and bottle: all of these she has boiled down to a single, highly expressive syllable, which, just as my husband predicted, is “bah.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

An indispensable writing tool

I love marbles. They are pleasant to hold and they make a good noise when you rattle them around. They look like they are made of pure color, compressed and contained beneath a tiny, shiny surface. They are totally unassuming in their beauty, modest infant moons, perfect little planets. When you find one on the sidewalk it is as if you have stumbled upon a pocket-sized replica of the world, or the residue of a magic spell. And - if you have synaesthesia - they are ideal for arranging your thoughts.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Steadfast friends: the tonneau killer and the pince-monseigneur

The Trappou is only one of many interesting characters in our new house.

To the right, for example,
is our pince-monseigneur.
He weighs about thirty-five pounds
and if you are feeling blue or are tired of sitting and typing words at a desk, you can just mosey on over and pick him up and snip yourself a piece of iron or so.

Pince-monseigneur means "pinch-my-master" and was originally used to designate a cat's claw of the type burglars used to force locks, but our pincher is very well-behaved and far too busy clipping metal for reinforced concrete structures and helping frazzled translators let off steam to engage in any kind of criminal activity.

To your left as you walk in our front door is a rough-and-tumble character known on the street as "Tonneau Killer."

Julien picked him up at the dump, and while at first glance he seems like a ferocious and desperate receptacle, he is actually a very humble, very generous, very self-deprecating rain barrel.

The Tonneau family has a long and storied past: there are the illustrious wine containers, the shelters for merchants and public writers, the horse-drawn conveyances, and some distant cousins in professional swimming (the little flip you do to change directions when you get to the end of a lap is a Tonneau) but they have fallen on hard times, so we try to be discreet with Tonneau Killer (TK or Tony for short) about his past.

In addition to acting as our doorman, TK keeps an eye on our rockpile, helps Julien wash his tools, and trades fashion advice with the Trappou. And if ever the pince-monseigneur gets any ideas, TK will be on hand to talk him out of it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The suspense is over.

All this week, you've been thinking,

That is normal.
There is,
as far as I know,
only one Trappou in the world,

and it lives under our house.

Probably, you had decided that
a Trappou is a saddish kind of lizard,
one that belches fire
and then feels embarrassed about it,
and worries about its weight,
and hates to dance in public.

That is not the case.

Our Trappou's full name is "La Rue du Trappou."
People who know it just call it "Le Trappou."
But its origins are a mystery.

In 19th century Lyon, the word "trabouler" meant
"to perambulate, to walk through,"
and the little covered passageways
that connect Lyon's medieval streets to one another
are called "traboules."
We amble through the Trappou quite regularly,
as it connects (the only) two
streets in La Roche,
and is the fastest way to get to our favorite neighbors' house.
My husband, not ambling, has pushed all the building materials for our house
through the Trappou on a little wheeled platform.

So maybe our Trappou was attempting to give itself
city airs, but got tripped up by the spelling.

Then again, the French adjective "trappu"
means "short and stout" which is quite an apt
description of our Trappou, and of the size you have to be to fit in it comfortably.
Trappu, if you were wondering (I know you were)
comes from the old French "trappe,"
which means "short and crude,"
and before you get any ideas, I'll just point out that this is probably
a deformation of the old French "tarpe"
which means "big fat paw" or "big fat hand."
Anyway, don't tell that to our friend the lizard.
He's already worried about so many things.

Monday, February 13, 2012

All manner of wild beasts

The French language is fond of many things.

Among them:

technical-sounding terms

Run-of-the-mill illnesses are a good example of this.

In English, my silence last week was due to
a stomach bug and a bad cold.

In French, I was afflicted with a gastro-entérite and a rhinopharyngite;

or, for short, I went to bed with a gastro and a rhino.

Either way, I'm in fine fettle now and almost ready to tell you about an exciting creature called
The Trappou.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Tricks of the trade

My grandfather was a translator and interpreter, too.

He worked for the United Nations and the International War Crimes Tribunal (in this picture you can see him at the Nuremberg trials; he's the third interpreter from the left).

He used to be the most punctilious person I knew.

He penciled corrections into the margins of his books
and drove me crazy when he'd pause a conversation to go look something up in the dictionary.

Now, he suffers from senile dementia,
and the pauses in our conversations
are longer
than the conversations themselves.
He no longer looks things up,
and he can't remember how to hold a pencil.

A few months ago, my mother cleaned out his apartment and gave me some of those dictionaries he used to drive me crazy with,
including the Historical Dictionary of the French Language
in its bright red case.
(Now of course, in large part due to my grandfather, I have developed my own punctilious dictionary obsession.)
When I set it on my desk, beside my other reference books, I wondered why on earth my grandfather had put little plastic flaps at the bottom of each volume.

They looked ugly, and I planned to remove them.
Then I sat down to work and reached for the dictionary,
at which point I understood that the flaps made it easy to flip the volumes in and out of their case - something I do all the time when I'm working.

Every time I see those flaps, I am moved in a dozen different ways. My grandfather may seem lost to me when I sit with him in the nursing home, but even now, he's got a few tricks left up his sleeve. No matter how far gone the people you love may seem, there's usually something left to learn from them if you look.

(Nuremberg photo credit: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Faux ami no. 3: Scotch and Scotch

If you look up “tape” in a bilingual dictionary it will tell you that the French say “ruban adhésif,” but if you ever find yourself in a situation like the one below, it’s good to know that’s not the word they use in real life.
The first time I ever stayed in my grandparents’ house in La Roche, my grandfather warned me to watch out for shady characters.
It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I was going to spend six weeks in La Roche with my friends Matt and Harry, and whoever else happened to wander through (Alba may be in the boonies, but you’d be surprised). The weeks went by and we didn’t see any shady characters, and I forgot all about my grandfather’s warning until one night Harry came into the kitchen and whispered to me that there were two people standing in the street with blackface on.
I was doing the dishes and wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. “What did you say?” I shut off the water and turned to face him. “Why are you whispering?”
“There are two people standing in the street with blackface on,” he repeated.
He nodded. “Down below the window. They have on black robes, they’re holding spears, they’ve got bones tucked into their belts, and they’re wearing blackface.”
“Yes. Bones in their belts. Like some kind of tribal thing or something. Also knives. They’re stuck in the belts, too. They look like steak knives.”
Harry is a great raconteur, and I suspected him of pulling my leg, but steak knives seemed like the kind of detail you wouldn’t make up. “Are they druids?” I asked. I abandoned the dishes. “You’re making this up.”
“Why would I be making it up?” he asked. “People in the street with blackface? How would I even have thought of that?”
“How could you not be making it up?” I countered. “Blackface and robes and spears?”
“They asked me if I had any Scotch.”
“Any what?”
Du scotch.” He imitated their accent.
“Why would they want Scotch? Are they drunk? Is it for some kind of ritual?”
Harry shrugged. “Ask them yourself.”
I remembered my grandfather’s warning. “Do they seem dangerous?”

Harry shrugged again. “Not really.”

I crept out of the kitchen and up to the window in the front room and peeked out. There were, as Harry had promised, two men in blackface leaning against the rampart walls below the house. The green streetlight cast eerie shadows over their faces, and their pale, knobby knees peeped out from knee-length black tunics tied at the waist with a piece of rope, which gleamed a little when the men moved. The steak knives, tied to their rope belts with string, were smudged with red.
It took me a second to realize that tunics were made from large plastic trash bags. Along with the knife, each man had a cardboard cutout of a bone stuck in the front of his belt. They also each had cardboard-tipped spears, one of which had lost its tip. I gave up hiding and stuck my head out the window to get a better look.
The one with the broken spear saw me. He waved hello. “Excusez-moi, est-ce-que vous auriez du Scotch, par hazard ?
Matt had come over to the window, as well. “I don’t think we should give them any alcohol,” he whispered.
“For your spear?” I yelled down, and they nodded.
“Scotch like Scotch tape,” I said to Matt and Harry, in English. Someone went and found a roll of tape and we tossed it down to them.
The three of us stood at the window and watched them try and fix the cardboard point back onto the end of the spear handle. It wasn’t going very well. Even with several layers of scotch, the point flopped in a manner not really befitting a spear. It was a hot night, and their blackface was getting smeary from the exertion.
We got tired of being squished up at the window, and we went back out onto the terrace. “I want dessert,” Matt said. “Is there any more of that pudding?”
“Nope. Harry and I finished it yesterday.”
“We have Nutella,” I suggested. “And white wine.”
We agreed this would do in a pinch, and Harry went inside to fetch it. When he came back, he went and peered over the side of the terrace. He waved politely. “Ask them if they want some wine,” he said to me.
“Wine,” Matt said. “Wine –– why don’t you ask them what the hell they’re doing in our street at ten o’clock at night in blackface, for God’s sake.”

I sidled over to the terrace wall and looked down. They waved. “Want some wine?” I asked.

“Not with the kids,” said Droopy Spear.
“We’ve got to be in good shape for the kids,” Pointy Spear agreed.
I turned back to Matt and Harry. “They can’t drink because they’ve got to wait for the kids.”
“Are they going to do some human sacrifice?” Harry inquired.
I turned back to the guys in the street. “What kids?”
“At the summer camp in Aubignas,” Droopy Spear explained. “We always bring the kids over to Alba and do a scavenger hunt with them.”
I related this to Matt and Harry.

“Ask them when their Birth of a Nation reenactment is,” Matt said.

“A scavenger hunt in costume?” I asked, not sure how to broach the whole blackface issue.
“You know, an African princess gets kidnapped, and the kids have to go all over Alba and la Roche and ask questions, to find out who did it,” said Pointy Spear, as if he were going over the rules of Simon Says with a mental patient.
“We’re the king’s guards,” Droopy Spear added. “They can only ask us yes or no questions.”
We heard footsteps clattering down the street, and Droopy Spear hid the Scotch tape and snapped to attention. A group of kids and with a bored-looking counselor straggled to stop in front of the guards, and we ducked behind the wall of the terrace.
“Those aren’t real bones,” a kid said.
“QUIET!” Droopy Spear thundered. “WHO GOES THERE?”
The kids giggled. “Where’s the princess?”
“You may ask yes or no questions.”
“Why is there blood on your knife?”
“You may ask yes or no questions,” pointy spear repeated.
“Where is the king?”
“You may––”
“Remember, the king’s dead, we just found out,” the bored counselor reminded them.

“Ask them since when it’s okay to wear blackface,” said Matt.
“That’s not a yes or no question,” Harry pointed out.

“Is the princess with you?”
“Have you seen the princess today?”
Droopy spear cleared his throat.
It shall ever thus be told
what some bad men will do for gold.
The king is dead, the princess gone,
In this plot she is a pawn.
Before the young girl’s life’s cut short,
Look for her inside the fort.
Silence. "What is that supposed to mean?”
“The fort,” the counselor sighed. Silence. She pointed up the hill. “You know, like a castle,” she added.
The kids clattered off towards Alba’s castle. Before we had time to say anything else, Droopy Spear and Pointy Spear had packed up their arsenal, shouted goodbye, and disappeared into the shadows beyond the rampart walls.
I have lived in Alba on and off for many years now, and though I have encountered more than a few scorpions, I never saw those two young men again. So if ever you’re in the Ardèche and you run across someone in blackface, would you do me a favor and ask for my tape back? And please, for the sake of the kids, don’t give them anything to drink.

Friday, January 20, 2012

French vocabulary no. 4: the boonies

In English you’d say Alba was in the boonies.

In French you might say it was paumé. Paumé comes from the word for "palm"
and it took a while for it to mean what it does today:
in 1290 (around when our hamlet first appears on the historical record)
it meant laying your hand on the bible to swear to something;
by 1649 (which is probably around when the foundations of our house were laid)
I guess people were getting a little vehement about their swears
and paumé came to mean slapping.
Two centuries later and slapping had become grabbing -
in 1815 you could "palm" (catch) someone red-handed.
But in 1489, thanks to François Villon
(who was probably keenly aware
of how slippery swearing can be)
"paumé" also came to mean "lost."

Paumé is not the only way we have of saying we live in the boonies.

French has lots of words for little villages like ours, perhaps because there are so many of them.
Patelin, which makes a green and orange sound in the mouth, jolly and plump,
is the most affectionate.
Bled, which was brought back to France by colonial troops stationed in North Africa,
is usually paired with paumé to mean a place in the middle of nowhere,
though mon bled can also be a way of saying “back home.”
Perpète (from perpetuity) was once slang for a life sentence,
but it bled (sorry, no pun intended)
over into spatial infinity,
so when someone lives in perpète
you know it will take a while to get to their house.

And from there we come to whole collection of made-up places that sound far off when you roll them off your tongue: going to Perpète-les-Oies or Pétaouchnok means going to a place that is inconveniently far from everything.

Once, my husband and I stopped to buy a postcard in the tiny village of
Sospel (pictured bottom right), which sits perched on a mountainside
on a twisty, windy road
battered by wind and snow
in the middle, of, well, nowhere.
"Where do you come from?" asked the lady selling the postcards.
"Alba la Romaine," we told her.
"My god," she cried. "I've been there. How can you stand to live in such an isolated place?"

Which goes to show that like everything else,
boonies are in the eye of the beholder.

Friday, January 13, 2012

It's cold enough to crack a stone

That's what they say when it's very cold here (geler à pierre fendre).

It is cold,
but it's my husband,
not the cold,
been doing the rock cracking around here.
(In French, rock cracking
- casser des cailloux -
is an idiomatic expression for
working hard.)
To the right, you can see where he,
rock cracking all the way,
has exposed
the backbone of our back room,
the summit of the vaulted cellar upon which
this half of the house is built.

Someday soon, it will be the living room.

Since you can't get a car down our street,
once the rocks are cracked,
rock cracking all the way,
my husband hauls everything out in buckets.

Other good French expressions involving rocks are "sad as a stone" and "bald as a stone,"
but they,
thank goodness,
do not apply here.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What do you see in 583?

The photo to the right shows you the colors that appear in my head when I think about the number 583.

Nabokov called it "colored hearing."
Most people nowadays call it synaesthesia,
which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the
"production, from a sense-impression of one kind,
of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of another kind." Right.

This is how I would explain it:

When I hear a sound, I see a color.
When I do mental math, I add colors together to get other colors.
When I smell cinnamon sticks, I see swirls of peacock blue and violet. (If you are wondering, cinnamon powder is paler; it includes terra cotta, yellow, and peach tones.)
When I taste a rice cake, it is pale blue marbled with pink and gray.

My synaesthesia is particularly strong when it comes to words. To spell the word "house" I do not think "h-o-u-s-e," I see, "fir green-transparent-pale gray-yellow-pale orange," and write that down.
But I don't like the word "house" much, since that color combination isn't too attractive. Furthermore, since my synaesthesia includes scent and texture, the word "house" trails an unpleasant smell produced by the combination of the yellow "s" and the green "h" - a musty, slightly acidic tang, like a lunchbox you left in the trunk overnight. For look and smell I prefer the scent and color of the French "maison." But for texture, "house" is smoother and more pleasant than "maison," which is warm and sticky.

I therefore find certain words totally intolerable, and others irrationally pleasing. The word "chalumeau" (French for blowtorch) makes me quite giddy, the way you might react to tasting an ethereal bonbon (see illustration). The word "stagflation," on the other hand, evokes in me the same nausea you might feel when scraping something putrid off the bottom of your shoe (I will spare you an illustration). I can barely stand to look at it on the page.

I only realized synaesthesia was a "condition" after stumbling on an article about it in a magazine - before that I thought that everyone's brains worked that way. To be honest, I still have trouble believing that they don't. So you tell me: does your brain work like mine? What does the number 583 evoke to you?