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May. 5th, 2018

Nesting season

A few days ago, we had an unusual guest while having lunch on the balcony. A robin perched right next to us with insect legs dangling from its bill, and watched us without moving for a while. I didn't move, either (I was sitting under the jasmine, next to the wall), and so we just faced each other for a few minutes. Eventually, it swallowed its prey and moved under a clump of leaves while I wasn't looking. I thought it had left and got up; a mistake, since I ended up frightening it and it flew right into the flat. To add insult to injury, it spent the next few minutes trying to fly away through a closed window... but eventually found the way, and left.

We saw it again the next couple of days, peering at us from the opening of a small bird shelter we put up on the wall, in the jasmine. Then we saw it come and go, often with insects or slugs in its bill. And then, as we were giving the bedroom a fresh coat of paint during a nesting season of our own... my boyfriend noticed unusual activity in the bird shelter.

Turns out that a pair of robins had actually built a nest there. Since these birds are amazing at discretion, we hadn't noticed anything until the chicks were so big they almost crowded each other out of the shelter; at that point, however, they had to stick their heads out to demand food, and we could see three or four of them vying for their parents' attention, with a loud rattling cry. That was just three days ago... and this morning, we found that one of them had fallen on the balcony. We just closed the door and did nothing (picking up fallen chicks does more harm than good, as it's quite normal for juveniles to fall off the nest), and indeed, a quick glance revealed that the nest was empty. They had all flown away.

We saw them again a couple of times, stretching their wings and chirping for their parents. In a few days, they won't come back to say hello. It's a harsh life out there for young robins, and it's not unusual for an entire brood to die before they've reached adulthood. I only hope they find the way to the nest while they still need it. If they make it, there will be fresh butter and dried worms waiting for them on the balcony this winter.

Feb. 26th, 2018

Tell-a-fairy-tale day: Nettles

Once upon a time there was a king who had been blessed with seven sons, one for each year of marriage. His wife was pregnant again, and his happiness could not have been greater. Eight sons! Soon, eight young men to send out as ambassadors, to go to war for him, marry princesses from distant kingdoms… The king liked to entertain visions of their grand future. But too much rumination can lead you down strange paths. Seven gifted, ambitious young men vying for their father’s favour. Seven who might soon get ideas. Many a brother had been poisoned by another in a scramble for the throne. Many a father…
Overnight the father’s pride turned to anguish. In ten years his oldest son would be eighteen, and he barely forty, much too young to relinquish the throne to an ambitious young wolf. And what if his brothers backed him? What if the old king had no choice but flee or die, as his kingdom descended into chaos?
Please, he prayed, let this not be another son. Let this child be a girl. Girls are pliable; I’ll marry her to a young man of my choosing, competent, but not too ambitious. My grandchildren will be my heirs, and by the time they’re grown, I’ll be too old to reign anyway. Please, let fate give me a girl.
Whether fate obliged or he just got lucky is anyone’s guess. But soon after that a baby girl was born. There was great celebration and merriment in the palace, and on the seventh day of feasting, the king, who’d had a cup too many, stood up and declared:
‘By the gods, I solemnly do swear: from this day this little girl shall become my first and only heir! My sons shall be my sons no more, and this little princess shall bear the future king! All hail!’
The guests coughed and looked at each other in shock. The queen threw herself at his feet, begging and pleading, and at last the king realised that he had spoken too fast; but he had taken the gods as witness, and could not go back on his word. The queen left the banquet sobbing, to gather the young boys in her arms and carry them out of the castle.
‘My poor boys, you cannot stay,’ she said. ‘You are not the king’s sons anymore. Neither he nor I can protect you. Anywhere would be safer than this place.’
She closed her eyes and thought hard about what to do next. Seven young boys, alone in the woods, would be dead within a month. But she knew of someone who might help: an old witch, who rarely spoke to anyone except in curses. She took her sons with her. When she came back to the castle, she was alone. But her eyes were dry, and she never mentioned the boys again.
The princess grew up alone, unaware that she’d had brothers once. She played with the servants’ children in the palace, and became known for her good, caring nature. The king doted on her and was already sending portraits to faraway lands, unbeknownst to her, hoping to secure a husband he might bend to his will. But the gods were fickle, and perhaps he had managed to annoy them for good, by demanding they bear witness to an unjust oath. One day, the princess disappeared from the palace. All the soldiers and hunters sent to the forest to find her couldn’t bring her back.
What had become of the girl? Well, she had noticed a chaffinch gathering twigs for its nest, and followed it into the forest. There she had scrambled across a path of blueberries, eating until her hands and face were blue with sticky juice. Then she had followed a rabbit’s trail. Then… night fell, and she had no idea where she was.
This could had gone very badly for her, if, at that moment, she had not noticed a light between the trees. She got closer, and lo! There was a little house, with smoke coming out of the chimney and the smell of roasted parsnips drifting around. She only hesitated for a moment: everybody knew there were witches living in the woods, but their homes smelled of enticing things like cakes and toffee, not vegetables. She knocked on the door.
Everything fell silent. Then a voice from inside: ‘Who goes there?’ Then another: ‘Brother, be quiet! Do you want to give us away?’ Emboldened, the princess called: ‘Please, would you let me in? I’m lost and I’m hungry, and…’ she had nothing to offer, but hearing only men’s voices inside, she soon figured out a solution: ‘I can clean up your house if you like. I help servants do it at times. Would that do?’
The door opened. Behind it, a young man, a year or two older than her, peered as she gave a blueberry-stained grin. Something about him looked eerily familiar.
‘I won’t be any trouble,’ she said. ‘I can sleep by the chimney. Thank you so much for letting me in.’
Now she was completely reassured. Little men living together in the forest were supposed to be harmless, as long as you didn’t mind sweeping their doorstep. There were seven of them, all dressed in rags; the oldest in his early twenties. But in spite of the austere surrounding and the air of uncivilised ruggedness about them, she instantly found herself drawn to that little house, with those silent, gaping men watching her come in as if she was an envoy from the heavens…
‘Holy crap,’ the eldest said. ‘You’re our little sister!’
Now it was the princess’s turn to gape.
‘Good sir, you must be mistaken,’ she said. ‘I’ve never had any brothers. In fact, I’m…’ she paused, not knowing if they would believe her.
‘The king’s daughter, we know,’ the man said. ‘The sister we’ve all been banished for.’
His voice was hard, but as he told her the whole story and her eyes filled with tears, it softened. None of it was her fault, they knew.
‘But how did you survive, all alone in the forest?’ she asked.
‘By the help of a witch,’ her brother said. ‘At our mother’s request, she changed us into wild swans. Swans are hardier than little boys. It’s not much of a life, but it saved us. We become men again for one day every year, long enough to remember who we are. Tomorrow we will become swans again.’
‘Tomorrow? But that cannot be! I’ve only met you, how can I lose you so soon?’
Her brother shook his head, sadly.
‘We wish it could be otherwise, too. We’re men now. We’re not helpless. But the witch’s spell is potent, and cannot be broken. Go back to the palace, little sister, and come visit us next year. It’s a comfort to know you’ve acknowledged us. You were just a baby. None of it is your fault.’
‘My fault or not, I can’t lose you like this!’ She started to cry, and her brothers’ best efforts couldn’t console her. The next morning, she woke up with puffy eyes and an aching head, just in time to see seven swans fly out of the window.
Enough crying, she thought. I have to go back to the castle and demand an explanation. But just as she thought of her father, pictures came back to her mind. His hollow cheeks, perpetual sadness, the way his voice broke when he told her she would marry one day and he would have a son at last. Her father had been a fool, a well-meaning, short-sighted, incompetent one. She pitied him now, but she knew he would be unable to do anything. If she wanted a solution, she would have to find it herself.
And only one person could help her. She set out through the forest, and in the daylight, followed the rabbit’s tracks again, through the blueberry patch and out of the forest. But instead of going back to the castle, she headed towards the village, where a little hut still stood, as it had fifteen years before.
She knocked on the door. ‘Go away!’ was the first answer. She called: ‘Old mother, I want my brothers back. You helped survive for fifteen years. Please help me turn them back into men!’
At that, the door opened. ‘My my,’ said the old woman. ‘You do look like your brothers.’
The princess came in. Inside, it smelled of smoke and unwashed socks.
‘Unfortunately it was a very potent spell,’ the witch said. ‘One can’t do anything less when the gods have been called as witnesses. There might be something. But it will cost you.’
‘I can always clean your house,’ the princess said, a little too eager. The witch frowned.
‘My house is clean enough,’ she replied, dryly. ‘And this is not the sort of cost I’m talking about. Though of course, you’ve lived a pampered life. A little cleaning sounds like a big deal to you, doesn’t it?’
That stung, but the princess didn’t say anything.
‘I’m talking about years of work,’ the witch said. ‘When such harm has been done, it takes great sacrifices to undo it. And it all falls on you.’
‘But I never asked my father to do this!’ the princess blurted out.
‘No, you didn’t. But willing or not, you enjoyed the wealth of the palace and the attentions of the court all to yourself. It was done for you, and as such, it’s your responsibility. But what you really want is merely to show the world how good your intentions are…’
‘Stop it. I want a solution. I’ll do what it takes. Just tell me.’
The witch shrugged.
‘Fine. If you want to undo the spell, you will have seven years to weave seven shirts out of nettles. And you cannot say a word in those seven years. If a single sound comes out of your mouth, your brothers will remain swans forever.’
‘Nettles?’
‘That’s right.’
‘But… you can’t make cloth out of nettles. They sting. They’re…’ The withering glare the witch shot her told her she was saying something stupid, though she had no idea what. ‘Nettle shirts. All right. But can you at least show me how?’
‘They taught you how to spin and weave, didn’t they?’
‘Not really. There was that legend about what happened to princesses who got too close to spinning wheels, and…’
The witch muttered under her breath, something that sounded like ‘hopeless’.
‘I’ve told you what you need to know. Now do it, or don’t. If you speak a single word from now on, your brothers are doomed.’
And the old woman opened the door. The princess had no choice but nod, clamping her lips shut, and leave.
How does one make cloth out of nettles? she wondered in despair. She wandered all day around the village. Then a pungent smell, like rot, caught her nose. She looked ahead, and in a pond, she saw bunches of flowers, left there to decay in the sun.
Why would someone leave flowers to rot? she wondered. But a while after, a woman came to the pond, felt the stalks between her fingers, and took some of them home with her. The princess followed from afar. The woman stopped before her house, broke up the stalks and extracted long strips of stringy material. Then she combed them together, tied the end to a spindle, and started spinning.
The princess watched her with widening eyes. In a couple of hours, what she had first taken for rotting refuse had been turned into a spool of thread. So that was how you made fabric out of plants! She went out to the fields where the sheep grazed, and where she knew she would find paths lined with thick walls of nettles. Tearing strips from her dress to make gloves, she gathered a huge bunch of green, stinging stalks, and found a spot of the river where the waters quieted down.
Her first batch of nettles she left too long in the water, and they rotted to fragments. The second batch she didn’t leave long enough, and the fibres shattered in her hands. The third batch she got just right. She took a comb from her hair to card the fibres, stuck a piece of wood in an apple so she could spin it with a flick of her wrist, and made her first length of thread. None of it was easy. It took her more trips to the village to observe the women spinning flax in front of their homes before she figured out a way to make thread that wouldn’t break. Days had elapsed at this point. She ate blueberries and scraps from refuse piles, and she was perpetually hungry. One day she spotted soldiers from the castle, looking for her. She had to leave. She gathered her thread and her makeshift spindle, and set out on the roads of the kingdom.
Days passed, then weeks. What had felt at first like an impossible task started to make sense. She could now pick out the best nettles, leave them to ret just long enough, and she had made a better spindle, carving wood to a perfect shape with a sharp stone. At first she begged for scraps, but eventually, she figured out how to make fire, fashion a pot from clay she had gathered in the hills, and boil nettle leaves into soup. She grew leaned, stronger. When she met people, she smiled and curtsied, but kept her mouth tightly shut. Soon everyone around the country knew about the dumb beggar-girl, who was always pleasant to everyone, always willing to help old women carry firewood around and lending a hand in exchange for a little bread. Once or twice, she met people from the palace, asking about the lost princess. They didn’t recognise her and wished her a good day as she walked away, silently smiling.
After a while she learned how to make fine, silky thread from the best nettle fibres. She fashioned a loom, using stones to weight down warp threads. Her first bit of cloth was plain, but smooth to the touch, and when she pictured her brothers wearing their shirts and turning back into humans, her eyes filled with tears. There was so much work to do.
In autumn, she gathered acorns to make flour, leaving them in the river next to her retting nettles until they lost their bitterness. She dug up burdock roots and dried blueberries for the winter. She made a little hut with woven branches and clay to withstand the cold days. Her arms were strong now, and could carry firewood over miles. Women from the village came once or twice, admiring the fineness of her nettle thread and badgering her for her secret, but she just smiled and shook her head. She bartered a few spools for sewing needles, scissors and a thimble, and by the end of the winter, she had sewn her first shirt.
Four years passed. At nineteen, her body was lean and her face dirty, but she carried herself with the upright stance of a queen. And so fate decided it was time for another twist. One day a prince rode through the woods, and stopped at her door for a drink of water. He was mightily surprised when the occupant of the place turned out to be a smiling, confident young woman! He thanked her and rode back to the palace, unaware that from then on, he would be unable to take his thoughts away from her.
But as days went by, he reached a decision. He went back to the hut, got down on his knees, and asked the maiden to marry him. She looked at him up and down, remembered the many nights when she had gone to sleep exhausted and so lonely, and nodded, once, with a smile.
They were married the next day, in secret, then he brought her back to the castle. His mother was less than pleased, but the old king was ill, and she would soon depend on her son if she wished to live her old days as a respected dowager, so she welcomed her daughter-in-law with a tight smile. She did asked what the young bride wanted to do with that spindle and those four nettle shirts she seemed to treasure like jewels, but the young woman didn’t speak. And so her life carried on, unchanged in most ways, completely different in others. She was pleased with her husband; years of living on her own in the forest had washed out any hint of shyness left in her, and though she couldn’t speak, she make sure he knew how to please her. He was glad to comply, and delighted by this mysterious, silent bride, even though he yearned for the sound of her voice.
Now this queen had made a fortune shipping in fine silk and cotton from remote lands. Her castle was the wealthiest around, but there had been a price to pay. The common folks, those unable to afford silk and cotton, had to pay exorbitant taxes for simple woven goods; that was how the queen convinced people in the city that her silks were a better bargain than plain hemp and linen. Few people now bothered to learn how to spin flax. They resigned themselves to wearing expensive cloth, and as the custom settled, didn’t grumble about it anymore.
The servants were very surprised to see what the younger queen could do. The cloth she made was so fine and smooth no one would have believed it came from humble stinging plants. Young girls came to watch her work, and soon you could see them with spindles of their own, gathering nettles by the roads and leaving them in pools to ret. In a year, some of them wore their own skirts, made of clumsy, plain material, and paraded with pride through the castle. The queen mother was less than pleased with this. But her son was so taken with his wife that she said nothing.
After a while, however, she heard disquieting reports. People grumbled when it came to buying her overpriced fabrics, and pointed out that they could get nettles for free. She stormed into her daughter-in-law’s room, but all her yelling got her was a shrug and apologetic smile. When she tried to toss the spindle out of the window, however, the young woman stood up. She wrestled the spindle from her grasp with unnatural strength, grabbed her by the arm and threw her out, banging the door shut behind her.
That was the last straw. The queen began complaining to her son.
‘Have you never had the sense to wonder where that woman came from? And how come she never speaks?’
‘She cannot, Mother,’ her son said.
‘Cannot speak? She doesn’t even grunt! And this spinning, all day, when she should be taking care of her household? My son, you’ve brought a witch into my home!’
‘Nonsense, Mother. What harm has she done?’
The queen soon realised that there was nothing to gain this way. But she had another plan.
Soon, people in her pay were roaming through villages and towns, talking about the young queen, and how strange it was that she never spoke, and her obsession with nettles. They talked and talked, until some started to agree. Wasn’t it unnatural, that a woman should have survived alone in the forest, without the help of her fellow man? And she didn’t even care for fine silks! It’s all well and good for people to disdain luxury, but wasn’t she rubbing it in the faces of honest folks who might have liked to live in a castle like she did? One person said the word ‘witch’, then two, then three. The queen mother heard the reports, and finally relaxed. Soon she would be rid of this young upstart who was hurting her business with her homemade nettle cloth.
Halfway through the seventh and final year, heralds announced through the streets that the young queen was pregnant. Her husband was overjoyed, and his wife, as usual, only smiled, happiness overflowing from her eyes. Months went past. She rode through exhaustion and nausea without a complaint, and kept spinning. When time came to deliver her baby, she had made enough cloth for a seventh shirt. Anxiety and joy battled in her heart. This was a dangerous time for a woman; what if she never got to save her brothers? She clung to that thought, scary as it was, because it was still less scary than the one looming beneath—what if my life ends here, and I’ve spent it in silence, meaningless as an ant’s?
But when the time to give birth came, the midwives only marvelled at her strength and bravery, when she delivered her baby without a single sound of pain. A lovely girl, as healthy as she hoped. She blinked through tears, then smiled as hard as she could, so she would not inadvertently start sobbing and break her vow. Her husband cried his soul out. Beside him, his mother watched and offered tight-lipped congratulations.
And then fate tipped the scales once more. The midwifes left, and told everyone that the young queen had not once cried in pain, not even cooed when her daughter was born. There was not a doubt left. How could anyone but a witch behave so unnaturally? As she sewed the last shirt together, the young queen heard shouts below her walls. She was still spent from the birth and did not think of leaving. That was how, when the queen mother opened the gates to let the mob in, she was trapped in her bedroom, with no one to defend her but her husband, who was pushed aside by rebellious guards.
She only had time to gather all six shirts, and the unfinished seventh one. She didn’t resist when they dragged her out, until they threw up on top of a pyre, to the shouts of ‘Witch!’ She crawled down, was pushed up again. Not now, she thought. Not so close. And then it occurred to her that there was a way out. She could plead for her life, explain everything. Her brothers would be lost. But she would be saved, and live happily with her husband and daughter.
She screwed her mouth shut and did not say a word.
But when the flames touched the pyre, a wind rose from the horizon, and the silhouettes of seven great swans flew down towards the castle. Stumbling and coughing, the young queen stood up on the pyre and threw the shirts, one by one, into the wind. They caught the wings of the swans as they swooped down. But no swan landed on the ground. Instead, seven young men stumbled to their feet, naked save for a plain shirt of nettle cloth. The youngest one still had a tuft of feathers on his shoulder, where the seam had remained unfinished to the last.
What happened afterwards is a longer story, but makes a shorter tale. The young queen welcomed her brothers with shrieks of joy, confusing everyone and moving some to tears, which was all they needed to change their colours and douse the pyre. The mob left after a moment of embarrassment. The young queen and her brothers ran into the palace where they kissed and hugged everyone, propriety be damned, and then there was a long, unpleasant explanation between the queen and the queen mother. No banishment ensued, only a heavy fine (which the dowager was more than wealthy enough to pay), which was set aside to fund a school for young girls. The brothers feasted in the palace for a while, then asked their sister to build them a little house near the forest, where they could carry on with the life they had led for twenty years. The young queen kept spinning nettles and carrying firewood, and taught her daughter to do the same, along with other girls from the surroundings. She even taught her husband, because he was a good, brave man who knew that there was no greater wealth than what comes out of an honest worker’s hands.
And everyone lived happily ever after.
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Dec. 17th, 2017

Overheard

On the bus, in mid-afternoon, two men in their early twenties:

'A hundred thousand? Man, it won't last. You have that money in your pocket, you spend it, that's just how it works. It's not so much. I knew this guy, he ended up with two hundred thousand, they were gone in a month. Partying, cars... You just have to spend it.' (don't know if they were Narcos fans or real drug dealers. I'd guess the former)

******

Another bus, righteous-looking old lady blurting out to her neighbour, in the middle of nowhere:

'I don't understand why there aren't more people who commit suicide!'

*****

In class (I heard whispers while I was talking and stopped for a second, the words rang loud and clear in the silence):

'I tell you, he's not circumcised!'

*****

In the street at night, walking back home, a man on his phone:

'I wouldn't lie to you. Who do you think I am? I'm not like that. I don't lie. (pause) Yeah, well, to the cops, yes, I lie. In court, all right, I lie. But not when it's important. Not to you.'

*****

In class again; I was asking them for examples of stereotypes and one of them had just given me 'Black people like chicken':

'Aw, that's not a stereotype. Chicken is SO good. Oh my god. The thighs? They're so, so good. Crap, I'm hungry.'

*****

The bus again, a couple of very proper old ladies, disapprovingly watching a group of shrieking teenage girls on the pavement:

'Girls today! They're louder than boys. It's incredible. You know they even go after boys these days? Boys don't go after them, they don't!'

(fifty years after the sexual revolution... glad they finally caught up)

Dec. 6th, 2017

Snow day...

Snow on Saturday, the sort that occurs here once in a decade: enough to cover stray bits of grass, blanket roads and blur vision. A whole morning of it, falling thick and fast. The usual dark green, bright blue and white of the countryside turned to pale blues and greys, with orange-yellow leaves from white oaks poking through, and the dark criss-cross of branches. Snow on roads, silence where cars usually zoom by. Children laughing and tumbling from their sleds, the ones they normally save for the winter holidays in the Alps. The mountain in the distance, blue-white and imposing.

As soon as the first light of the sun poked through the clouds, it started melting, little sounds like rain, poking holes in the white blanket on the side of the road. By mid-afternoon, there were just a few centimetres left on the pavement, white patches in the branches of the trees. An anomaly that quickly went away. The next few mornings, the thawed snow had hardened to brittle sheets in places, glittering with early morning lights.

By the late afternoon, there was no snow left in the streets of the city centre. A man with a heavy white beard was sitting down in a corner, singing Johnny Cash songs about New Orleans. He had a nice voice, and good rhythm, and I remembered walking through the streets of New Orleans in March once, relishing the warm wind through the trees after the winter had lingered too long in Québec. The wind in the city was still icy, though mild by Québec standards. When I gave the singer money, he thanked me with a heavy foreign accent. I wonder if he actually came from somewhere near New Orleans.

Nov. 26th, 2017

A night at the opera

I wasn't familiar with Thomas Adès's opera The Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Bunuel's film of the same name. Now I am, thanks to a live broadcast in our local cinema of a representation at the Met. Let's just say it was... educational.

I have no idea whether this is a good work or not. I know nothing about contemporary opera, save for the fact that it doesn't appeal to me much. But sometimes the quality of a work of art becomes a secondary consideration. In fact, this was three hours of wondering whether the entire thing was an elaborate joke, and if so, whether it would be time to get offended at some point.

Bunuel's film was (like many films of his) a satire of the bourgeoisie, who cannot lift a finger without the help of their servants and end up dying of hunger in their own dining room. And that's how you find yourself in a cinema with the finest specimens of the bourgeoisie of Aix, lawyers, doctors and the like, drinking champagne during the intermission and making little noises of appreciation while watching performers make fun of the very class they are part of. What was this pretending to be? The elite making fun of themselves while carrying on exactly like before, with their champagne and exclusive evenings? Or a sophisticated joke at the expense of what's left of communism today? During the intermission, an ecstatic journalist interviewed the author while stage hands carried accessories around, which made the whole performance all the more ironic; I don't know how much stage hands get paid at the Met, but regardless, I'm not sure how you can pretend to make a committed point about the bourgeoisie when you're parading in front of the camera while other people carry things around right behind you. And here was everybody fawning over the cleverness of the writing and direction, as if there was anything about the representation that wasn't laughably cynical.

I'm not offended because someone disrespected Bunuel's ideals. Tempting as it's always been, I've never embraced communist ideals for good. But if there's one thing I'd embrace even less willingly, it's the idea that we need a bourgeois elite gathering in operas, drinking champagne and pretending they've all deserved their high status and they have every right to rule our world. Nobody's interested in watching those people pretend to be self-aware and socially conscious, if we're going to keep sacrificing our well-being, our privacy, our atmosphere, what is left of our biodiversity and our sleep to their wealth.

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Nov. 16th, 2017

Te recuerdo, Amanda

Just because I feel like it...

I remember you, Amanda,
In the street after the rain
Running towards the factory where Manuel worked
The grin on your face
The rain in your hair
And nothing else mattered
Now you could be with him a little
With him
Just for five minutes
Life is eternal in just five minutes
Here comes the siren
They are back to work
And you, you’re walking
Bathing the street in your light
In those five minutes… you bloom

I remember you, Amanda,

In the street after the rain
Running towards the factory where Manuel worked
The grin on your face
The rain in your hair
And nothing else mattered
Now you could be with him a little
With him
Who went to the mountains
Who never did anything wrong, he just went to the mountains
And in five minutes
Everything was shattered
Here comes the siren
Back to work, again
Save for those who never came back
Among them Manuel

I remember you, Amanda,

In the street after the rain
Running towards the factory where Manuel worked...

With apologies to Victor Jara for the translation... But this song has spent a lot of time in my head lately, as I struggled to find a suitable ending for the story it inspired. From the comments I've received, there are few traces of the song left inside the story. Perhaps the connexion is only clear in my brain, the way that happens in dreams.

Translating words is a different way of savouring them, a form of intimate communication hidden within language itself. There can be whole stories lying inside a mistranslation, and even more in the seemingly perfect irruption of the right word springing into your mind, like another voice coming to life inside yours. Some people say there is no translation that doesn't betray its source. Strange, then, that it doesn't feel like betrayal--rather, it feels like an uncertain way of reaching out without words, coming closer and closer until you reach the impassable gap at the end of the way, like the emptiness that separates two atoms.

Only there is no emptiness in that gap, only a wealth of stories waiting to make that connexion between worlds, in spite of everything.

Nov. 14th, 2017

A classroom in permaculture

Tuesdays are interesting this year. Six hours of teaching in a row (in two-hour sessions, no less) are something you approach with caution. Especially when your students are the enthusiastic-but-rambunctious variety. I am now home between my cat and a cup of tea; I've just considered sitting at the piano and singing a little, before my vocal folds politely asked me where the fuck that ridiculous idea came from. (Not that I shout at students--I don't, and neither should anybody who values their sanity and their efficiency--but keeping your voice slightly raised six hours in a row to allow people to hear you over the constant brouhaha doesn't do wonders for your throat)

Today I tasked my students with walking around the classroom to interview each other about texts they'd read. As I watched them and tried to keep them from getting unfocused, squealing or doodling on the whiteboard instead of working, I wondered what other people might think, walking into this classroom. In those moments when the noise goes up and I'm painfully aware that some students are taking the exercise as an excuse to check their mobile phones, I like to think I'm organising a controlled mess for their greater benefit, but in reality, I just hope it's not a plain mess, full stop. I suspect many teachers have secret nightmares about being 'that' teacher, the one that hasn't mastered the subtle art of controlling a classroom and everybody makes fun of behind their back.

Then it occured to me that for a very long time, we've viewed classrooms in the same way we viewed agriculture. Everything has to be neatly tilled, organised in rows, carefully weeded. Never mind if you're slowly killing the soil beneath. Never mind if you're coming to rely on expedients, pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser, for short-term results that will leave the field more barren than it was before. It looks pretty and ordered and it brings reliable, measurable results, and that's all that counts.

In many way, the same goes in a traditional classroom. Everyone is neatly ordered in rows. You weed out bad behaviour by applying punishment without regard for individual situations. You carefully water your students with lessons, and in case of exam emergency, you apply a liberal dose of fertiliser in the form of intensive, exam-focused cramming. It won't produce any long-term results, but your students will get good grades and that's all you want: a nice, steady, measurable result you can boast. Some students thrive in it, too. A little like those bright smooth tomatoes that taste like paper thrive in traditional agriculture. Yes, my analogy is getting out of control. You can't stop me.

And then there is permaculture: plant seeds, let everything grow wild, drop hedgehog food every now and then until they notice the slugs, try to achieve a nice ecosystem that will take care of itself until you only have to reap the fruit of your absence of work. You probably won't get steady results: aubergines this year, peppers the next. You'll probably mess up a significant number of times, because every field is different. You may have to take out the weeds every now and then if they get out of control, sow new seeds, bring water or straw, make compost. There's still work to do, and lots of figuring out, and a fair share of luck on any given day. But you'll get results, and more importantly, they will last. You won't leave a barren soil after you've sold all your beautiful straight carrots. Your field will take care of itself.

Teaching may have a lot in common with permaculture after all. Not the bit about your garden growing into a bountiful Eden by itself while you watch from afar like a benevolent god. I mean, maybe I'll do that in a decade or so (I wish). For now I'm talking about the figuring out bit. Sowing ideas and hoping they'll germinate. Trying to control all the energy that is there and steer it in a productive direction. Getting insanely frustrated on some days, and being ridiculously proud when my students do something without my help, the way your gardening enthusiast friends are when they show you the three misshapen cherry tomatoes they managed to grow all by themselves for the first time. Realising that a good ecosystem doesn't need a gardener and that all the energy and intelligence was already there before I came around; I'm just here to make sure that the weeds don't take over (and by weeds, I mean tiredness, lack of focus and those blasted mobile phones everyone gets trapped by when they're not looking), and cheer when they present me with a bit of knowledge I didn't put in there.

Of course, just like farmers sometimes work in fields already contaminated by chemicals, we have to make do with an age-old system that would be more convenient to navigate if we taught the old-fashioned way. A classroom in permaculture can be exhausting. I understand while some university professors still insist on the good old lecture, while everybody silently takes notes. It's like taking a holiday. Those of us who want to attempt new ideas have to cope with a system that wasn't made for us. Thirty students in a classroom--that's two minutes you can give to any one student in a given period. The same number of hours teachers have always taught, with twice the work managing your lessons. Spending half of the year telling students that what really counts is learning new things, and the other half giving them bad marks for failing to achieve the standards for their age group, even when they've made tremendous progress. Having to cope with unrealistic end-of-the-year goals, and ending up taking the good old fertiliser (aka cramming) out of the cupboard because that's the only thing that will pass them.

I'm still getting my misshapen but priceless cherry tomatoes more often than not. It's worth every bit of the hard work.

Now excuse me while I go pour myself a drink. It was a great day, but God. Six hours.

Oct. 20th, 2017

Good deeds

A now-familiar sight in front of the train station: volunteers hand out foodstuffs to a crowd, queuing in the morning chill on Saturday mornings, on the square between the stairs leading to the station and the walls of my school. On week days, it's people coming out of the bus, dressed for work, getting started with their day as the sun finishes to rise. But on Saturday, real business starts.

Behind the crowd, there are usually two or three people standing with their hands in their pockets, and a display full of copies of The Watchtower and booklets about the real message of the Bible. They don't do much. They don't annoy passers-by. They just stand there, spending their free time waiting for people who might be ready to hear the message of their faith, while others spend their free time giving out bread and tins of food.

I can't help being a little uncomfortable every time I see them. I hear religion is about being good. It's very strange to see people who care enough about that to spend their early mornings talking about God with strangers, but who still stand by with their hands in their pockets while others take care of giving basic necessities to those who need them. You'd think there's a great opportunity to be virtuous waiting right in front of them. Is it so much more important to give religious booklets to strangers?

Obviously, I'm in no place to judge. I don't spend my mornings there myself, although I do try to make myself useful in other ways, when I can. I suppose religion merely confuses me. Do people really think so differently when they've made a place for God in their head? I'm certain there's a very good explanation for all those things I don't understand.

Still, this is Marseilles. There are so many things here that seem more urgent than whether people believe in God.

Oct. 8th, 2017

How to reuse old tights

I often wear skirts, including in winter, and so far I've been unable to find tights that lasted longer than a few weeks. Having to buy a few new pairs of tights every winter is aggravating enough, but what really bothers me is what to do with the old, worn-out ones. I try to make them last as long as I can, using nail polish to keeptiny holes from developing into ladders and sewing up tears when I can and never buying tights made of thin material, but no matter what I do, I end up with piles of unusable tights every year.

Since I don't like throwing things away, here are a few things I've found I could do with them:


  • Rags for cleaning windows and dusting furniture. They work just as well as any other rag; the downside is that you only need one or two for that purpose...

  • Stuffing for toys. Knitted animals make great gifts for children (or grown-ups, on occasions...), and bigger toys require a lot of stuffing. Old tights remain rather soft, unlike cotton fabric, for instance, which makes harder stuffing.

  • Knitting material: this is a bit more time-consuming, but it can come in handy depending on what you need to make. You just have to spread out the legs of the tights and make horizontal cuts about 1 or 2 cm apart, as if you wanted to cut your tights into rings, stopping 2 cm from the edge. You'll end up with rings of fabric that are all stuck together. Now, instead of finishing the cut and ending up with a detached ring, make a series of diagonal cuts between your rings. This way, you'll end up with a long strip of material can be used for knitting or crocheting. You can use it to make bathroom mats, bags, or just about anything where elasticity would be helpful. Just remember, when you cut the rings, to keep them relatively wide, as the fabric will roll up upon itself and end up much thinner than it appears at first.

  • Bandages for poultices: okay, not everybody needs poultices on a daily basis, but I've recently been told to use green clay as a natural remedy to ward off knee pains. You need a bandage to hold the clay in place, and an old, clean pair of tights can do the trick: it's elastic, so it's comfortable enough and stays in place correctly. Don't use tights to bind open wounds, of course, but as long as you don't have to worry about using sterile material, this works perfectly well.

  • Elastic bands: simply cut a ring out of your tights and use it as needed. It won't work if you need a small band, but the upside is that you can adjust the strength by cutting a more or less wide ring. Also, when knitting elaborate colourwork (okay, I'm a little obsessed with knitting, don't judge me), you can use a 15 cm-wide section to wrap around the balls of yarn you're not currently using. It will keep them from unravelling and getting tangled.

If you have any other uses I haven't thought of, all suggestions are welcome!

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Sep. 7th, 2017

Found in translation

Last week I unexpectedly ended up live translating an interview with a contemporary author at my local bookshop. The talks were quite fascinating; Anna Hope has a great way of talking about her books and inspirations, and it was lovely to have her family in the audience chiming in with extra details every now and then. For a first-ever experience in live translation, this could hadly have gone any better.

After the talk ended, an elderly lady came up to me from within the audience.

'I must really thank you,' she said. 'I don't speak a word of English. I would have been lost without your translation.' Then she beamed. 'You know I attend every single talk here. I love books. Books taught me everything, because, I say it with pride, I've never been to school at all!'

She thanked me again and we parted ways.

And just like that, she didn't just make my day; she made the whole week.

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