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Dec. 2nd, 2016

Marseilles

I arrived at the bus station after a rather crappy morning (even if I've got used to it, giving my students a thorough dressing-down is still not my thing), intent on enjoying a long peaceful week-end away from school. There was a very dapper elderly gentleman waiting for the bus with a cigar in his hand--carefully combed white hair, curled moustache, long dark jacket over a suit, shiny shoes, the very picture of old-school elegance. A rare sight at the bus station, and in many parts of this city as well.

As I walked by him, he started muttering to himself--

'Fuck the son of a bitch, I've been waiting for five fucking minutes! Motherfucker!'

Marseilles...

Nov. 16th, 2016

Three days in Transylvania

I said the past couple of weeks had been stressful. They were; but there also were some very good things, the best of which probably was discovering Transylvania with my students. It's too bad my students discovered very little of it (they were attending a scholarly programme, and only had time to gaze at the landscape through the windows. Thankfully, I was free during this time, and could roam the moutains all I wanted, or at least, the little part of the mountains that was accessible while wearing a skirt and city shoes.

Like most people who were fed an early diet of vampire stories, I pictured Transylvania as a dark, forbidding place, with vertiginous mountains full of rocky crags. Now I know... it looks exactly like that. Except that, at the top of one of these mountains, there is a huge cross that is lit up at night, giving you the impression of an extremely creepy cross of fire hanging in the sky over your head. Also, dogs seem to howl almost continuously, there are very few people, and when you do meet someone on the street, they either ignore or glare at you, because apparently, Romania is one of those countries where it's not usual to smile to strangers.

What I mean by this is, of course it's beautiful.

Going there in the middle of autumn meant that the top of the mountains was dusted with snow, while most of the slopes were covered in orange and dark green, beech woods mixing with spruce. I managed to find a path to a waterfall in the forest. It had this combination of natural beauty and decaying infrastructure you sometimes find in countries that are just starting to develop tourism: the fall used to produce (or still produces, I don't know) electricity for the village below, and there wer concrete pipes running among dry leaves down to the river. On the deserted skiing slopes, mushrooms grew in rings. They looked like the very toxic ones that grow at home. I left them alone and only picked wild mint for tea.

The village itself had an air of faded grandeur. There is a small castle somewhere, built by a nobleman in the 1900's as a holiday home. Many houses are very pretty, with carved wood and bright colours. Many more, however, are for sale. Perhaps it's not so surprising: climate change has been hard for skiing resorts all over Europe, after all. There  were few guests in the hostel we stayed at. It was very quiet at night. You could have wondered if all the crucifixes on the walls (one of which was lit up at night and glowed red) were to ward off vampires, or just for company.

Here is the first thing I saw when getting off the train:



Now, it would have been perfect if the three songs playing in my head all this time had not been this one, this and this (one because it mentions a German soldier in Bucarest, the second because it's the most infamous Romanian export of the 21st century barring horse meat in lasagna, and the third, I suppose, because it randomly features the word Transylvania at some point). Who said our species had a natural sense of aesthetics?

Nov. 11th, 2016

We need to wake up.

You all know how it looks like for the world; here is what it looks like from the little spot where I'm currently sitting, sandwiched between a computer and a cat. In the middle of a rahter stressful couple of weeks, including a hectic shcool trip, two attacks on our students right in front of the school, and my knee acting up again to the point that I can't even go to work and have to stay at home craddling my computer and swallowing morphine, Donald Trump was elected.

We're not the people for whom it should be a problem. After all, this is happening across the ocean, isn't it? And this was a democratic election where people expressed their wishes for their country as they're supposed to, and I'm the first one to rant when people lash out against the politics of other countries without being aware of all the aspects of the situation (that's why I was extremely annoyed when foreign blogs reacted to the Charlie Hebdo attacks by merely stating that it was very sad but then again these people were racist jerks). But it's a bit different when you're talking about the most powerful country in the world. Like it or not, what happens in the US can influence places very far outside the US. In Europe, the baffling trend of looking up to the USA as a model of economic success is still continuing (apparently, there are some people who consider that a country can be 'successful' with less-than-stellar rates of poverty, inequality or infant death). And I don't want France to start deriving inspiration from a country led by Trump, believe me.

There is no question that this election will be a blow for the entire world. First, our environment does not have boundaries. If Trump decides that it's off with natural reserves and climate-protecting measures, then it is. I hate to point it out, but there it is: the USA already is among the world's major polluters. If the whole world lived like the average US citizen, we would need four or five planets the size of Earth to make ends meet. That's one of the highest rates of the planet (twice that of Europe, and Europeans are most definitely not an example when it comes to sobriety), and there's no use trying to blind ourselves by pointing to China and India. If, instead of taking radical steps to curb resource overconsumption, the US government decides to let every business run wild, we're screwed. Every single one of us.

Of course, Trump's isolationism could reassure us, from a strictly selfish standpoint. After all, it could bring an end to the negotiations on TTIP, the free-exchange treaty that has been looming over our heads for years, and which threatens to force us to bring European health regulations down to US standards, essentially destroying our agriculture in the process (as if European agriculture needed more destroying after all it's been through in the past fifty years), and imposing private tribunals to judge whether or not a country should be able to raise its minimum wage if it makes private companies lose money (a thing that's already happening all over the world). The thing is, Trump is not alone, and I don't think his friends from big businesses will let go of TTIP that easily. So I don't have much hope on that front. And I would much, much rather see Europe reject TTIP on democratic grounds (for example, after acknowledging that an overwhelming majority of the population is firmly against it) than see it go through the window decause a half-illiterate populist said so.

Plus, as my boyfriend says, it's extremely worrying to see that Trump is planning to withdraw from the Middle-East and at the same time increase the army's budget. If he's not going to engage in any more wars, what on earth does he need that big army for?

Now I'm worried for another reason. Trump did it. He showed that it was possible. And we have a similar threat hanging over our heads in France, as well. The National Front, our own brand of bigoted populists, have been on the rise. If Trump won, we can't assume we're safe from the Le Pen family. We can't hide our heads in the sand anymore.

There is no other way to put it: I'm disgusted. Utterly, sincerely revolted. I understand that there are many people out there who are out of patience with the 'system' (whatever they mean by that), and who want to shove traditional politicians out of the window, with their little nepotic games and appalling lack of awareness of what the average person's life is like. But neither Trump nor the Le Pen family are any different: they're wealthy people who have lost touch with reality decades ago, just like the rest of our reviled politicians. They are millionaires posing as 'normal people'. Unbelievable as it is, it worked. Unbelievable as it is, people can see a billionaire who doesn't pay his taxes and a political dynasty as outsiders and underdogs who will bring some honesty back into the political system. I'd love to feel genuine compassion for these voters, I truly would. I just can't. Not because of a class thing, not because I think they're below me, but simply because I refuse to think they're that clueless. I refuse to think that they are just poor sheep who were fooled into believing that the wolf with the funny hat was in fact a shepherd. We're talking about adult voters here. Whatever helplessness and frustration you feel in your daily life, I simply cannot believe that anyone can be fooled into thinking that a billionaire understands their daily concerns and will pay attention to them. No--what I believe is that, for many people, voting for either Trump or the National Front is a way to make sure that other people will be more miserable than they currently are themselves. Whether they admit it or not, it's a way of heeding the countless dehumanising discourses that have been put out and making sure that the rabble of the world, whatever it is, will get what's coming to them. I'm not even sure it's supposed to make things better; as this elderly man on the bus put it the other day, it could be just a way to 'have a good laugh'.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to some voters. Perhaps I'm letting my own anger and disgust get the better of me, I don't know. The thing is, I don't even want to try anymore. However bleak your life, nobody has a right to make other people miserable just to feel better. Now more than ever, it is our collective responsibility to do something about the situation we are in. And that 'something' is not voting for the most inept politicians out there just to see urban liberals pout. Let's pull our collective head out our arse. The world needs it.

Nov. 6th, 2016

Another day at work

Two days ago, a student was stabbed in front of my school.

Fortunately, the wound was not too serious. Given that he was stabbed in the back of the thigh, it was quite a relief. One of my colleagues and I had just gone out for sandwiches. We did not see the whole fight, but we heard a cry (well, she heard it; it seems my brain doesn't even register individual sounds in Marseilles anymore), and there he was, clutching his bleeding thigh and walking supported by two guys I didn't know. There was blood all over the place, on the ground and walls of the school. That's hardly the worst part.

The two guys were yelling at passers-by who dared to stop, including those who tried to take out their phone to call for help. They slapped one across the face, and it's lucky it happened to be one wise enough to walk away without letting the situation escalate, otherwise we would have had a fight on our hands on top of things. Perhaps they didn't dare yell at teachers, however, because they let us phone an ambulance while other people from the school struggled to keep the situation under control. Eventually, they started to walk away. We had to wave at the ambulance from afar so they could catch up with them. And all the while, they yelled at people not to call the police, not to call the boy's parents, or anyone else--and they were so busy doing that they didn't once check on their mate. The only thing I can think of is that the boy was very lucky the knife didn't reach his femoral artery. With that kind of escort, be would have bled to death before anyone managed to reach him.

I've registered to take a first aid class in a couple of weeks. I've meant to do it for years; now I don't see how I could pospone it anymore. Next time, the wound could be far more severe. There could be no one around with a charged phone. But if there is a next time, there's one thing I won't know how to handle: two screaming bastards who don't want an ambulance called in case the police arrives as well. How do you go about fixing that? First aid is all well and good, but sometimes what one needs is training in dealing with bleeding arseholes--and I don't mean the medical kind.

On Friday evening, my boyfriend and I watched a recent Homeland episode, which included a character yelling at people because he didn't want to be taken to a hospital so as not to call attention to himself. How do we get rid of that culture, that still tells people that it's best to handle things yourself without drawing the attention of the authorities? I'm quite aware that these boys didn't make a fuss because they got the idea on TV. I understand they must have been in a difficult situation in the first place (I'm only guessing, as we're not certain what caused the fight in the first place). Still, ideas don't come out of nowhere. It's bad enough that some people are so scared of the police they will do anything to avoid them. Should we really add a layer of heroic TV characters fixing things on their own?

Yesterday we had dinner with friends. We met some of their new colleagues there, and I mentioned the incident at some point. Some of them reacted with horror. Some of them acted blasé, saying that if they didn't want an ambulance, there was no point in trying to call one anyway. I didn't argue, even thought that was one of the silliest things I heard all week. It was obvious that for them, the incident had no reality. It was just another way to show their jaded and cynical side to the world, to show they weren't put off by mentions of teenagers getting stabbed in front of their blood. Well, not to sound self-important, but as far as I'm concerned, I wasn't put off even though the blood dripped on the ground right in front of me. And I'm still horrified. How can you make it a point of pride to be jaded about that sort of thing? How could I, when I now know that next time, I might be the one who has to put pressure on a knife wound before it bleeds out?

And when, holy fucking when, will people stop thinking it's manly to act like violence is just a normal fact of life we have to deal with and shut up?

Oct. 27th, 2016

Why I stopped watching The Walking Dead

I stopped two years ago, in fact, halfway through season 5, after discovering I didn't care much anymore about what happened to characters, since killing them for shock value was more important to the showrunners than bothering with an actual arc. Then I heard of the premiere of season 7 two days ago, and decided once and for all not to give the show a second chance.

I know character death is something I talk about a lot, because I do not like the things this trend says about our current culture. We don't explore violence; instead, we revel in the idea that we can stomach it, and thus simply express that violence is a normal fact of life that real men/winners/survivors (choose favourite option) can deal with while the rest of us losers cannot. For obvious reasons, I think that in the present time, internalising that violence is a normal fact of life and not something to be fought and rejected seems like the worst possible option to me. We don't need to 'stomach' violence. We need to end it. I think people who get the luxury of watching TV from the depth of their couch could at least try to remember that.

Now, the people in charge of The Walking Dead apparently realised that random character death was getting a little tiresome, what with this technique being all over the place on television these days. So they took it one step further and... BOOM! They killed two characters! Including one fan favourite from the first season! I can't believed they dared! All taboos are broken, oh-my-god-what-is-happening!

All sarcasm aside, here's another big problem I have with that type of particularly shocking moments on TV: they put the viewer in a bind. You can't possibly say you enjoyed it (although it would be a rather funny article to read). But you can't use it to disparage the episode either, because then, your opinion is automatically worthless: either you're speaking from hurt feelings because you liked that character and you're sad to see them go (in which case, you have no critical sense), or you're dismissing the violence as gratuitous and tasteless and will get sniggered at (what are you, a seventy-year-old church-going grandmother?). The one correct thing to say is: I'm shattered, I'm grieving, but this means that the show is able to give me such a strong emotional response and I'm so grateful and impressed (unless it's a strong female character and you're running a feminist media--but then you'll complain about the particulars of who died, not the death itself).

As far as I'm concerned, making viewers feel a strong emotional response from seeing a favourite character die is 1. not art (here's the recipe: introduce character, momentarily do your actual job as an artist by making viewers care for them, kill character without bothering to wrap up their arc in a satisfying way), 2. not particularly interesting since the emotional response is always the same, 3. I don't know, abusive? Seriously, the only reson we keep inflicting that on ourselves is that we'd sound like wussies if we admitted we don't in fact enjoy it. It's like children in the playground pretending they're just thrilled to do something painful or disgusting because they don't want to give up before the other does. I understand that sometimes, art is not something you enjoy. I understand it may be necessary to hurt your audience because there is no easy or pleasant way to put what you have to say. But if the message is not worth it (and I think it's not), if the way to present it is always the same, and if we don't even get to fucking enjoy ourselves, then why are we still doing it? I mean, we've accepted TV shows as a valid art form, so why keep doing this thing where we pretend we like what they do to us just so the other children in the playground won't call us wimps?

I won't go back to watching The Walking Dead, or any other show with a similar philosophy. However, if you find a show that manages to create a suspenseful, emotional rollercoaster without getting anyone killed or otherwise resorting to basic tragedy, I'd love to know.

Oct. 19th, 2016

Chats with strangers

Last time at a book festival, we were waiting for the next talks in a café, enjoying a bit of sun in the middle of a rainy week (this is that week when all the year's rain falls at the same time in a few days, after months of drough). An elderly gentleman came to sit at the next table, ordered lunch and started talking to us about the writer we had come to see. It became obvious after a little while that he mainly wanted to talk, not have an actual conversation, so I slipped in Polite Smile And Monosyllabic Answers mode and we just talked about the weather for a while. He told us how he used to be the head of a department of the university, perfunctorily asked us if we had studied in Aix and then proceeded to explain what it was like to head an academic department, how most people there were jerks and how young people don't really learn anything with the internet today, and worried that the gentleman over there looked gay, although of course he had nothing against gay people, but still. It lasted for about half an hour before he either ran out of things to say or got tired, and left to browse the books on display.  We didn't meet him again afterwards.

The moral of the story:

Whatever brilliant career you dedicate your life to, remember that one day, you'll become that little old man or lady who starts chats with random strangers in public places and gets indulgent smiles along with a sympathetic ear.

And that's quite enough of an ambition in life.

Sep. 30th, 2016

All my differences

Today, on the bus, I heard an old song by Jean-Jacques Goldman. You probably haven't heard of him if you're not French. Goldmann was (still is, although he doesn't sing much anymore) a famous singer in the eighties and nineties, famous for writing songs about tolerance and exclusion. I didn't quite enjoy his music as a teenager. I thought his lyrics were cutesy and his singing awful (to be fair, I haven't changed my mind about the latter), and his preoccupation with universal love and brotherhood was cliché at best. Fifteen-year-old me craved more mature themes, like unrequited love, existential despair or premature death. You get the picture.

It's hard to imagine nowadays that tolerance was once such a common topic in France that it felt like a tired cliché. The eighties had seen the birth of both the National Front and the antiracist movement, and in the nineties, antiracism was well on its way to becoming the dominant opinion in some parts of French society. Yes, it was clumsy and well-meaningly ignorant at times. I remember scoffing at an educational comic book about 'racism', which bundled all possible forms of discrimination under the word. It nonetheless had some insightful stiries, some of which I still remember, but at the time, it was just one more example of the ubiquitous and somewhat messy way we were educated about the evils of discrimination. Meanwhile the National Front gathered more and more supporters, but you could still safely assume that the person you were talking with was just about as disgusted with Jean-Marie Le Pen, its leader, as you were yourself. Good times.

I'm not sure when it started to change. In 2002, Le Pen landed the second place at the presidential election. Protests were staged across the whole country by people who couldn't imagine we would even consider electing a man famous for his horrid brand of racism and antisemitism. Perhaps that took it one step too far. I started hearing classmates saying that after all, Le Pen was just another candidate, this was a democratic election and people had a right to vote for him, and after all not all of his ideas were bad. That's when I discovered I had classmates my age who believed in bringing back the death penalty or kicking out foreigners suspected of sponging off French welfare. Perhaps they were right on one thing: public protests were taking it too far. Because in the years that followed, supporters of the National Front grew more and more defensive. Under the pretext of being shamed and silenced at every turn, they grew more vocal, to the point that expressiong racist ideas in public started being seen as a courageous move by some. 'Saying out loud what the rest of us think for ourselves' became a popular motto. Apparently, a larger-than-expected part of the population believed that 'what the rest of us think for themselves' involved nasty things about foreigners, women and LGBT people.

Now, about one quarter of the population in the area where I live and vote support the National Front in local elections. The terrifying thing is that you can no longer assume that people you've just met are on your side in this fight. Because yes, I think it's a fight. I don't think of the Le Pen dynasty as regular candidates. I don't think of their ideas as democratic. I really, really don't think it's all right to spout out racist, sexist or homophobic crap in public. The scary part is that it makes me feel old. It makes me feel like a product of a bygone time when people really wanted to root out prejudice from our society, and really thought we light make it.

It makes me feel like listening to Goldman songs. What would my teenage self think of me...

Sep. 28th, 2016

After being invaded

After giving it some thought, we finally watched the latest Michael Moore film, Where to Invade Next. I was a bit sceptical at first: the premise sounded like a marketting ploy to appeal to European audiences by showing them how wonderful they are and bashing the USA in the process (after all, I understand that Moore is already far more popular in Europe than in the US, and that sort of strategy might make sense). I'm quite glad we went after all. Yes, the movie relied on a lot of over-simplifications. Yes, it left out some very embarrassing details (it's great to praise the German system where people only have to work 36 hours per week for a decent salary, but it's a shame the movie didn't mention that Germany doesn't have rules on minimum wages and that some businesses, like slaughterhouses, run thanks to foreign workers who are paid one euro per hour or so), and it didn't teach us all that much about Europe, but our politicians have been trying to adopt a more American brand of organisation for years, including giving up on free social security and university, and that's terrifying. Even assuming that this movie was in fact mostly directed at the European market, I think it's a great idea to remind Europeans every now and then that we shouldn't spit on the social advances our grandparents fought so hard for.

One part that got our hair to stand on end was the bit about sexual education in France. Things must really, really look bad in your country if you start to think of France as an example of country that does sex ed right. I mean, of course we don't have that whole abstinence crap, thank God. But, really, is that something big enough to make us proud? It's sex ed. Not knitting ed, not watching-TV-while-texting ed, not mushroom-picking ed. Of course you should talk about sex, focusing sex ed on abstinence makes about as much sense as having a math class teach that numbers are useless and why don't we cook toad-in-the-hole instead. So we haven't descended to this level of absurdity yet, fair enough. Aside from that, things are far from good-looking. There may be one sex-ed class per year in most schools. The focus is still overwhelmingly on preventing teen pregnancy and STDs; we still have a way to go before teaching about consent and pleasure becomes the norm (apparently, rape is not serious enough to teach young boys to refrain from assaulting their girlfriends even if they feel like it). Most mature concepts are tackled when students are already fifteen or sixteen, which feels extremely absurd to me, given that the age of consent in France is 15. Basically, you are not considered mature enough to talk about things before you're considered mature enough to do them. And that makes us an example to follow? If Moore is right about the US, then the situation over there must be really dire.

The part about gender equality in Iceland made us smile. It's funny to hear that women should be put in more positions of power because they're more compassionate than men and have a less selfish and more pacifist outlook on life. In 2016, it's really strange to hear that women are so much better than men, and I'm not a fan of these approaches at all, since they seem to imply that you'd need a justification to put women in positions of power (I mean, other than the fact that they exist and they're human). But when you think about it, perhaps things are not that one-sided. Perhaps a society where men and women are real equals is bound to be more compassionate and pacifist, through the simple fact that when you don't allow yourself to disregard and dehumanise half of your population, you're bound to think more carefully about how your actions affect others. If we got used to treating absolutely everyone around us like human beings, maybe we would do many things very differently. We'd think twice about hammering on how we deserve certain things, because we would realise that if we deserve to have them, it means other people don't. We'd have a different outlook on war or punishment, because there's no way we'd think it's the only way to deal with 'those people': there would be no such thing as 'those people', there would only be us. Maybe our capacity for dehumanisation wouldn't be so endless if we weren't taught from birth that there are at least two very different groups of people that shouldn't be treated in the same way.

Naive and all, this film was still worth seeing.

Sep. 14th, 2016

Ripples in the sunset

Walking on the Old Port back from my flamenco lesson threw me back to the last time I saw my brother in person: the same milky water with the bare hint of motion of the ships, the same smell of tar, but none of the hugs and tears and receding violin as the ship sailed away. Six months already, and more to come. My brother is in Brazil now, just back on the ship after exploring the Amazonian forest. Here, the first rains of autumn are already coming, although as always, summer clings as long as it can.

They did meet with whales, eventually. But the only one that collided with their ship was a newborn calf which had just emerged from a cloud of blood in the water, and it swam away unhurt. Although the hull is painted bright red, it must still look like a mother whale, somehow. That is a sight I would like to see before I die.

Last time I dreamed of my brother, we were walking together on an iced-over bridge, hanging over a cold, white torrent. I stayed safely inside of the railing, but he stepped outside on the ice with his camera, to get a better picture of the deathly cold landscape. I kept walking, afraid that he would lose his footing, and panicked when I heard the loud crack of ice falling off the bridge and into the river. But when I looked up, I saw that my brother had safely reached the bank, and was taking pictures of the ice in the water.

Sep. 10th, 2016

Back to school

Summer is over: mornings and late evenings actually feel a little chilly now (lace-shawl-chilly, not jumper-chilly). Also, we're back to work.

In the first week of school, students are, as a rule, uncharacteristically nice. So far I would be tempted to say that mine are abnormaly so. They are smiling, polite, they raise their hands before speaking, hardly ever speak out of turn, and with the exception of one particularly challenging group, they've been making faster progress than I'm used to. If it goes on like this, this year is going to feel like a holiday.

Marseilles is its usual stinky self. The smell of piss in the stairs leading to the bus station is a bit overpowering. At the same time, dirt, eviscerated rats crushed under passing cars and litter dotting the streets are such a normal part of life here that I struggle to imagine it as a clean city. I don't mean I wouldn't like it to be clean. 'Gritty' is not something I particularly value, and I'm certain Marseilles would manage to remain fascinating even if you could walk through its streets for half an hour without stepping into something nasty, being almost run over by a car or getting cat-called by someone with too much alcohol in his system.

So many things we haven't tried. I avoid the bakery across from the bus station even if they make delicious, extremely cheap pizzas, and have since I tried eating at the counter and saw sparrows happily feeding off the pizza slices with their little feet firmly planted in their food (has no one ever told them it's rude to put your feet on the table, I wonder?). Now, however, I'd rather see sparrows defiling my prospective pizza than no sparrows at all, as sparrows slowly disappear from our cities. Maybe we could install pizza counters in the streets with nesting boxes underneath, so sparrows will find shelter and food. I'd love to work in a city with sparrows and redstarts sharing terraces with humans at cafés, and gulls keeping to the port instead of coming to feed off food leftovers tossed on the street by people who don't care what the city looks like. Although if gulls find themselves out of work cleaning off the streets, they could always be taught to swoop from the sky on people who let their dogs crap in random places and give them the scare of their life. Maybe we could also place buckets in strategic spots so that human waste can be processed for nitrogen fertiliser, instead of, well, going to waste (if people insist on viewing the city as a giant public toilet, why not make the most of it). We can always grow rosemary or mint nearby. As for the cat-calls, perhaps we could train actual cats to respond and come rub themselves frantically in the legs of anyone trying to annoy a woman in the public space, long enough to give the woman time to escape if she wants to (of course we'd have to build extensive cat shelters in every underground station, but I'd love to pet a cat while I wait for public transports).

Didn't we say we were going to imagine solutions?

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