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October 2016



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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?

Aug. 24th, 2016

Get naked. It's an order.

Since the latest terrorist attacks have been driving much of France crazy, we seem to wait every week for the newest controversy, outrageous statement or ridiculous debate, with varying degrees of anxiety. In the past two weeks, some seaside towns have decided to take a completely unnecessary and possibly quite illegal step, as you've probably read in international media: they have forbidden bathers to wear burkini, a type of swimwear used by some Muslim women to hide their bodies while they bathe.

My first reaction was to feel a little bit more exhausted than usual. I'm not the target of those regulations, I'm not part of a religious minority, and I won't pretend I'm the victim of anything here. But I still have to live in this country. Most of my students are Muslims. Part of what makes my job so complicated is the wedge that these politics are driving, day after day, between 'people like me' and 'people like them'. I'm using quotation marks because that's how my students see it. I'm not part of their world, so why should they listen to me? Once again, I have to thank some clueless politicians for making my job a little bit harder. Great. I can't way for the first school days.

I want to be completely honest about one thing, even though it may not be the safest admission to make. I have very little sympathy for women who insist on dressing 'modestly'. I think women's modesty is a very loaded issue, and I don't feel very comfortable around people who insist that coverig your body is a sign of moral virtue. What does it mean, then--am I a bad person for not wanting to hide my body? I'm certain that lots of people would reply that obviously, women who cover themselves up do not do it for or against me, they do it for their own personal reasons and it has no implications about my personal virtue or lack thereof. They would certainly be right, although that doesn't make me more comfortable. When I walk around Marseilles, I get more or less unpleasant comments from men on a regular basis. The idea that I deserve less respect because I wear short skirts doesn't seem so foreign to them. That's why I'm not comfortable around people who parade female modesty as a sign of virtue. Like it or not, it does impact my life.

But there's one thing this does not change: I'd rather have a real conversation about this, rather than see people toss humiliating regulations around. I know I'll never get to discuss the implications of female modesty and the presence of the female body in the public space with my students, because one question will always come back to pollute the debate: if women should be able to wear whatever they want without being judged, why are religious clothes prohibited? And I know I can't answer that question, becuse there's no good answer. Yes, France is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion, and yet some religions should not be seen in public... Also, I don't believe that the purpose of law is to make people comfortable, and it's certainly not to make me comfortable. I'm fine with being uncomfortable as long as I can discuss why. The only thing we've gained is that now, there will be no discussion. Only hurt.

There's another thing. Earlier this year, I considered shopping for a burkini myself. Not for religious reasons, but for a very simple practical one: my skin is extremely fair, burns very easily, and I want to stop using sunscreen on the beach as much as possible, because sunscreen is very damaging for marine wildlife (just imagine that blanket of clouds that blocks out all sunlight in The Matrix, only the blanket is made of sunscreen particles diluted in the water--you get the idea). I didn't, because burkinis are not form-fitting and I assumed it would be a pain in the arse to swim around wearing one. But there was one thing I couldn't help noticing: apparently, when you're on the beach, you're supposed to be as naked as possible. Long-sleeved swimwear is almost non-existant, and I found nothing that could cover my legs. Seriously, am I the only person in this continent whose skin is prone to burning? If I want to take a swim while protecting my skin, what is the fucking problem with that?

It's summer. Go naked. Wear a bikini even if you're a little girl with no breasts. Bare your legs even if you're a self-conscious teenager who'd rather stay in her bedroom. If you can't be bothered to shave, face the judgement that will inevitably come, you don't simply have the option of wearing something on top of your unsightly legs. Groom that skin cancer or hide in the shade, there's no alternative for you. It sucks. A lot. That's why I raised an eyebrow today, when reading an article by a famous French (female) polemist, who argued that yes, of course banning burkinis is probably illegal, but that's a shame because 'people go to the beach to relax, not to collide head first with other people's convictions or ideologies'. Fair enough, but who are these mysterious 'people'? Apparently not women who would like to wear burkinis, because they will definitely have to confront other people's ideologies (and have to disrobe) instead of just being able to enjoy a nice day in the sun. Not people like me either, because life's a bitch and now it makes me so sad to put on sunscreen and realise how I'm contributing to killing off the sea I love more than so many things in the world, and so I don't always get to relax either. It must be nice to feel so important you imagine that the purpose of your society's laws and organisation must be to help you relax. Don't worry, the police are here to make sure that just the right people are publicly humiliated and that 'other people's convictions' won't hurt your nice day on the beach.

Jul. 11th, 2016

(no subject)

In the Mediterranean, there are special kinds of reefs covered in long, tough leaves called posidonia. From above, they look like waving pillows, or particularly coarse hair. From further away, they make wide, dark spots on the sea floor. Underwater, they look like prairies, with myriads of grazing fish.

Posidonia are the Amazon of the Mediterranea sea floor. Stumbling on a reef underwater feels like crashing a party. Coloured fish swim all around you, others burrow in the sand and dry leaves, waving their barbels and tails, others flee in schools when they see you approach. Starfish and anemones make bright spots on the bottom. Clams as wide as two hands gape at you, covered in hair-like seaweed. Every now and then an octopus hides from sight. If the sun is bright above you, its rays will make milky curtains in the water. It's an exceptional sight, a few dozen metres away from the beach.

I can't really explain why, however, but for a few years now, the thought of swimming over posidonia has filled me with dread. If I feel long leaves brushing my legs as I swim by, I feel close to panicking. Especially if they're really close, which makes no sense because if the water is so shallow, there would be absolutely no risk of drowning, and stepping on posidonia is much like stepping on a bed of dry leaves in the forest. And yet, somehow, they're frightening. Not just to me, either: I was a little relieved to discover that a lot of people I know share this fear. Why, I have no idea.

So I recently decided to fight the fear, put on a snorkel and diving mask, and go swimming above the reefs. And it was wonderful. I stopped there for a moment, trying not to disturb the fish, hearing nothing but my breath amplified by the mask, watching schools of fish swim all around me, paying no attention at all. The sun was high in the sky and the water crystal-clear. It was beautiful, peaceful beyond saying. And yet... I still felt ill at ease. I swam away and came back every now and then, so I wouldn't stay for too long above the sea grass.

There is something about those reefs which cannot make one entirely comfortable. However warm the water, however long you spend getting acquainted with breams and giant clams, this is not your home. You're not truly supposed to be there and you know it. You're disturbing something, and you're only safe as long as that something tolerates you. This is not your geography, not even your geometry. Spend too long swimming from reef to reef and you won't know where you are. Well, you will know if you raise your head above the water, but once it's down again, you've crossed the line back into that world that isn't yours. There are no sounds aside from your breath, no feelings except from the water, and as for sight, you have to choose between the familiar surface, or the depths of the sea. It is beautiful, beyond compare. But it is not your home.
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Jun. 29th, 2016

Doghouse in the tree

I met my neighbours (mother and daughter) juste outside our building a little while ago. I was trying to set up a nest box for blue tits in the chestnut tree just under our window. Because I like blue tits and also why not. So, my neighbours saw me perched in a precarious position on a tiny stool (somehow evolution failed to calculate that I would end up being one metre sixty and that's really not practical when tits refuse to nest in places lower than two metres).

Their very natural reaction was to lose it. But they're too polite to show it, so they just watched me with aghast faces.

'You shouldn't do that, you know,' the mother said. 'We don't mind, but people are going to be very unhappy.'

'They have no reason to be. And then if someone really dislikes it, I'll take it down.'

'It's going to attract pigeons.'

'The hole is tiny. It's for blue tits. Pigeons won't even notice it.'

'It's very... visible.'

'Once the leaves have finished growing, nobody will see a thing, I promise.'

'Well, if you must. But people are going to disagree. You know how people are around here.'

Side note: I just love it when someone uses 'people' as an excuse for telling you off while trying not to sound too close-minded. 'People' are such bastards.

The daughter watched me with obvious disapproval, while I did my best not to land on my backside with a massive nest box embedded in my chest (did you know how heavy these things are? Because bloody hell, they are heavy).

'Well, I think it's very big,' she said with pursed lips. 'And I say that if people start doing whatever they want around here, then I'll just come down and put my dog's house up in the tree, and let's see what people will say!'

So here's the moral of the story:

You know the famous 'slippery slope' argument? Aka. when people tell you that if you take some ever so slightly progressive steps in society, then everything is going to magically descend into chaos because there will be no limits anymore, and that's why doing something perfectly logical and reasonable like allowing everyone to marry whoever they like (or hanging a nest box in a tree that's regularly visited by birds) is for some reason going to cause people to do all sorts of ugly things like committing incest and starting the apocalypse that will wipe out mankind?

As far as I'm concerned, this argument is now known as the 'doghouse in the tree' argument.

And if you're curious about what became of the nest box: it's still there, but I put it up too late and no bird took residence in it yet. In any case, incredibly enough... 'people' have failed to complain.

Jun. 16th, 2016

Creatures by the side of the road

Recently I came across a number of beasts I had not, or rarely, seen before. They were all somewhere by the side of a road. They were all striking enough to pause.

A badger, its black fur bristly and coarse.

A grass snake, probably a Montpellier snake, its back greenish and glistening, almost a metre long.

A green lizard with sparkling scales.

A rare species of kestrel (unless I misidentified it).

A boar.

It could be a lovely thing: so many creatures living next to us, in so little space. It could be wonderful, if three of these five creatures had not been dead. The badger was probably poisoned; its tongue hung out of its mouth, but it bore no trace of wound on its body. The grass snake's head had been either run over or smashed with a bottle (there were fragments of broken glass around it). The lizard was crushed on the side of the road.

Of course they would be dead. It's a road. It's noisy, and it's dangerous. I suppose most animals steer clear of it, and that's why the dead ones are easier to spot. Humans should probably steer clear of it too; last time we went biking, we narrowly escaped being hit by a careening Prsche, whose owner probably wanted to prove the already fairly solid point that people who drive expensive cars tend to be slightly more despicable than the rest of the population (but since this has been scientifically proven already, I'm not sure what killing us would have accomplished). Still, its a bit depressing to find yourself face to face with just how murderous the things that allow us to move faster are. Killing something every now and then is unavoidable. That's the toll we have to pay for... um... being able to afford living forty-five minutes away from work but at least you have a house with a swimming pool?

Jun. 11th, 2016

Last school day

Getting off the bus in Marseilles, very late for work, I heard voices call me from the other side of the street: 'Madame! Madame!' Turning around, I saw a group of students waving at me, the very same students I was supposed to be in class with at that moment. They were smiling and waving happily. I suppose I wasn't such an appalling teacher to them, even though adjusting to high school was a massive challenge...

We exchanged news. I congratulated some of them on the documentaries they shot for their cinema class. We talked very little about the upcoming baccalauréat, which they will be thinking about soon enough. We didn't mention the fact that all of us were supposed to be in class together; it was the last day of the school year after all. It made me smile to remember that the exact same thing happened to me during the last year of high school--I was taking a walk in the city during a history class, when I was greeted by none other that my history teacher, which triggered a very short moment of panic ('Oh crap, he's caught me skipping class--Wait a minute, what is he doing here?'). I left them to go to school, where, in a completely unsusprising turn, I spent the rest of the day in front of a computer, waiting for students who I suppose comfortably sat out Ramadan at home.

They're right. It was much too warm to study anyway.

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