Monthly Archives: October 2010

“Only the children are flattening their noses against the windowpanes”

“Good morning,” said the little prince.

“Good morning,” said the railway switchman.

“What do you do here?” the little prince asked.

“I sort out travelers, in bundles of a thousand,” said the switchman. “I send off the trains that carry them: now to the right, now to the left.”

And a brilliantly lighted express train shook the switchman’s cabin as it rushed by with a roar like thunder.

“They are in a great hurry,” said the little prince. “What are they looking for?”

“Not even the locomotive engineer knows that,” said the switchman.

And a second brilliantly lighted express thundered by, in the opposite direction.

“Are they coming back already?” demanded the little prince.

“These are not the same ones,” said the switchman. “It is an exchange.”

“Were they not satisfied where they were?” asked the little prince.

“No one is ever satisfied where he is,” said the switchman.

And they heard the roaring thunder of a third brilliantly lighted express.

“Are they pursuing the first travelers?” demanded the little prince.

“They are pursuing nothing at all,” said the switchman. “They are asleep in there, or if they are not asleep they are yawning. Only the children are flattening their noses against the windowpanes.”

“Only the children know what they are looking for,” said the little prince.

October 27, 2010. 18:00

On the road again between Dijon and Chatillon, my nose crammed between the pages of a book I’ve half finished and half understood.  It’s in French and, having relinquished the goal of complete comprehension, I’m studying the words themselves, searching for images.  But the light is bad in the bus and a baby is crying behind me and the book is in French.

I look up from my front row seat, through the bus’s big screen windshield.  We’re coming up on Chanceaux, one of a

google images

dozen little villages on this route.  As we pass through, I look over my shoulder at the steeple of the Catholic Church– the highest point from any perspective.  Surrounded by pastures of white and beige Charolais cattle, I imagine that this village, this road, hosted horse-drawn buggies, and — before that — cavaliers tout simples when my country was still just a star in the sky. The remains of stone walls line our narrow way, alternating with perfectly-aligned 250 year old Burgundian Plane trees.  Brown and green fields spread for kilometers in all directions, a patchwork quilt covering the rolling hills.

This is the last time I will see the sunset on this beautiful road until spring.  On Saturday, “European Summer Time” (our Daylight Savings Time) ends.  I put the place marker in my book and close it definitively.  My nose takes up new residence “against the windowpane.”

As the sun continues to descend, even the driver becomes distracted by the scene over his left shoulder.  I notice him glancing out the window from time to time.  Is he relishing his last 6:30 sunset too?  Does he see what I see?

Staring into the orange sky, I let my mind run away with the “trompe-l’oeil” before me.  No longer a sunset, but a vast beach stretches just over the horizon.  A long, skinny cloud stretches like Cape Cod into the water, obliterating my depth perception as it connects land and sky. The fading light turns other fluffy clouds blue along the tops of the hills — like fog along the beach.  I could be on California’s Highway 101, looking out over the Pacific Ocean.  Landlocked in Burgundy, today I could walk to the waves.

The bus descends into a valley and stops at St. Marc-sur-Seine.  Impatient to rise above the ridge, I stare out at the hills.  The bus huffs and puffs, switching gears as it labors up, up, up.   Finally we emerge on the other side, but the light is different now.  The purple hue has faded to gray along the side of the road and the beach is a dissolving image, an old photograph on a wall opposite a window.

The dim yellow lights of Buncey appear straight ahead like fireflies in the dusk.  One stop from Chatillon. And tomorrow is my birthday.

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Repeat after me: Trick or Treat

“Trick or tweeee.”

“Trick or treat,” I repeated, lowering myself to eye level with Jeanne.  I watched her lips. “Trick or…tweat,” she said, laboring over the “r” but arriving at the end this time with a “t.”

“Trrrrreat.”  My “r” sounded like the combination of a dog’s growl and the catch of a car engine.

Jeanne’s little blue eyes stared at my lips.  Hidden behind the cracked classroom door, I held the key to her concentration in my hand — literally.

The golden plastic bag rustled in her hands as she squirmed excitedly before trying again. “Trick or…trrrrrreeee…n,” she smiled.

Close enough.

Stifling my giggle, I plunked a piece of candy in her bag.  “Happy Halloween,” I said.  Jeanne returned to her seat, I closed the door, and up came Hugo for his lesson.

Because Halloween is a typically Anglo-American holiday, the English teachers at my primary school take the opportunity to organize several lessons around the theme, teaching words the kids will probably never use in everyday conversation, like witch and vampire and jack-o-lantern.  But there is more than just vocabulary to teaching English, and if Halloween makes it more fun to learn to pronounce the “a” in “black” and “cat,” c’est deja quelque chose.

Since pronunciation is sometimes more important (and more difficult) than the apprehension of vocabulary, it shouldn’t have surprised me that none of the teachers mention trick-or-treating.  It’s one thing for the kids to repeat it, and another for the adults to propose it.  The phrase is a downright tongue-twister for the teachers too.  From start to finish it repeats the purely American “r” sound along with the strong “t” at the end.  The French tendency is to say, “Twick or twee,” but after having all nine of my classes play at trick or treating I realized that the possibilities for variation are endless.

What better way to practice such difficult sounds than to bribe my students with a treat if they would fall for my trick?

Standing in the hall outside the classroom, I waited for each student to knock individually at the door, candy sack in hand, and repeat “trick or treat” as many times as necessary to earn a piece of Halloween candy.

My plan worked.  Much to my delight, no one realized how hard they were trying and everyone enjoyed a (usually forbidden) piece of candy — as one little boy recounted to another at recess — “right in the middle of class!”

“So, you are buying your students’ love,” Nicolas teased me when I bragged about my success.

“No! I’m sharing the cultural experience of Halloween with my students and rewarding their efforts. You try saying ‘Trick or Treat,'” I smiled.

(He can say it very well, by the way.)

My life in Images: Le week end dernier a l’ancien abbaye du val des choues.
Once upon a time an abbey devoted to the “Order of the Val des Choues,” mostly destroyed during the French Revolution, these days back to life as the Hunting Museum of the Cote d’Or.  Home to about 150 hounds and a herd of hunting horses…and lots of deer antlers and boar heads.

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My life in images: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

On the road from Beaune, direction Dijon.

Every season hath its pleasures;
Spring may boast her flowery prime,
Yet the vineyard’s ruby treasures
Brighten Autumn’s sob’rer time.
— Thomas Moore

Salon du pains, vins, fromages. Beaune, 17 October 2010

“Delicious autumn!  My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”  –George Eliot

Clos du Vougeot

 

“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.”  –Stanley Horowitz

The connoisseur

 

Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was is not and never again will be; what is is change.  –Edwin Way Teale

Beaune

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” –Albert Camus

Language Assistants outside Notre Dame (Beaune)

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Filed under Adventure, Food, Miscellaneous, Photography, Wine

A visit from my brother — through Sufjan and music

“Sufjan Stevens is incredible.”  It was a hot day in Kentucky a few summers back and my brother and I were driving the back roads on our way home from I don’t remember where — one of those rare moments we shared in the car, just the two of us.  I had put in a mix CD I hoped he’d think was cool, and I didn’t even know that Sufjan Stevens was the artist, but the song was one of my favorites on the mix.  It surprised me that Bryce liked it.  “To Be Alone With You” is a mellow song with a blatantly Christian vibe — a far cry from the upbeat and worldly rhythms of his favorite Third Eye Blind.

I’d swim across Lake Michigan
I’d sell my shoes
I’d give my body to be back again
In the rest of the room
To be alone with you…

I didn’t say I didn’t know who Sufjan was. I didn’t ask if he thought the song was about Jesus.  I listened, without reply, to the words of the song and my brother sitting next to me as we drove down Wolfpen Branch.

You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me
To be alone with me
To be alone with me
You went up on a tree…

Wolf Pen Branch Mill (courier-journal.com)

Around the bends in the road, in and out of the light that permeated what we used to refer to as the umbrella of trees, Bryce and I rode in silence together.  Would I have appreciated this moment more if I knew  his life would come to an end before we could spend another summer together?

I don’t think so.

To be alone with me
You went up on a tree

I’ve never known a man who loved me.

This morning I read a Sufjan Stevens interview in which he talks about his new album, The Age of Adz, and about God.  I was less interested in hearing about his less mellow, heavily experimental new songs but the end of the interview held my attention, especially Stevens’ definition of the Church. When Jeremy Allen of The Quietus quite honestly admits his own troubles with “Protestant Guilt,”  fear of hell, fear of Chritianity, Stevens’ response enlightens:

Sufjan Stevens by The Quietus

“The church is an institution and it’s incredibly corrupt obviously, but that’s because it’s full of dysfunctional people and people who are hurt and battered and abused. It’s very normal in any institution to have that kind of level of dysfunction. That’s unfortunate. I find it very difficult, I find church culture very difficult you know; I think a lot of churches now are just fundamentally flawed. But that’s true for any institution you know, that’s true for education, universities and it’s definitely true for corporations because of greed, and I think part of faith is having to be reconciled with a flawed community. But the principles, I don’t think the principles have changed. They can get skewed and they can get abused and dogma can reign supreme, but I think the fundamentals, it’s really just about love. Loving God and loving your neighbour and giving up everything for God. The principles of that, the basis of that is very pure and life changing.”

Cool.

And when Allen suggests that “the Church” wasn’t always about the building but more about the people:

“I mean it’s weird. What’s the basis of Christianity? It’s really a meal, it’s communion right? It’s the Eucharist. That’s it, it’s the sharing a meal with your neighbours and what is that meal? It’s the body and blood of Christ. Basically God offering himself up to you as nutrition. Haha, that’s pretty weird. It’s pretty weird if you think about that, that’s the basis of your faith. You know, God is supplying a kind of refreshment and food for a meal. Everything else is just accessories and it’s vital of course, baptism and marriage, and there’s always the sacraments and praying and the Holy Spirit and all this stuff but really fundamentally it’s just about a meal.”

And later, about the mystery of faith, I almost cried.  Thank you, Sufjan Stevens!

“It’s the most important thing to me really but it’s also really important I don’t get too caught up in it. There’s a necessity for casualness, you know, because I think fear and anxiety are not elements in faith. And I think doubt is important and questioning and all that. I think there’s been too much made from fear and condemnation to manipulate people. I think that’s an atrocity really.”

I know my brother knew the song was about Jesus, but I’m so glad I didn’t ask.  I was always preaching to him, always reminding him to pay attention to right and wrong.  But he knew.  He just never got so caught up in faith that he let fear and anxiety touch him, as it has me.  He embodied the “casualness” that Stevens describes, along with a little doubt and questioning that comes with growing up.  But he had faith. And in the silence of moments passed together, he taught me lessons that only now begin to surface.

I’d swim across lake Michigan. I’d sell my shoes. I’d give my body to be back again. In the rest of the room. To be alone with you.

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Filed under Bryce, Cool Characters, Home, Inspiration, Kentucky, Unconventional Wisdom

Liberty, Equality, Strikes

“The protests have been largely peaceful, but clashes between high school students and the police have resulted in injuries and burned cars in the past few days. Students and young people have only recently bolstered demonstrations, and the government is concerned their participation could lead to more radical confrontations.”

Thursday October 14, Gare de Dijon. My first full week of classes completed, I push my way off the train and through the crowd waiting to board.  My eyes are fixed on the sign above the stairs: sortie. I don’t see the people who bump into me and I only whisper an inaudible “pardon” to those I push.  I am tired.

Down the stairs.  Into the station. Up the stairs. Into the light. The crowd disperses.  Some plod northwest, briefcases in hand, toward Avenue Victor Hugo, others straight ahead, toward Centre Ville.  I am not paying attention and suddenly I’m caught between two police officers who block the way to Place Darcy. “Pas par là, pas par là,” they repeat, forgetting to tell me which way I can go.  I sidestep and take up my normal route again.

But my nose starts to tingle and my eyes begin to water and only then do I realize what is going on.  Up the road, a curtain of smoke clouds the street and people rush in all directions, scarves pulled up around their noses.  There’s a fire!?  A teenage girl runs in front of me and doubles over, coughing.  Her friend offers her scarf.

“But Mr. Sarkozy has shown no sign of abandoning his plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 — a measure designed to pay for pensions at a time when, across Europe, ageing populations depend on ever fewer young people to finance social safety nets with their taxes.”

My friend Sara is an assistant at the high school level.  Last Friday she led a class in which half of the desks were empty. “Why are your classmates striking?” she asked.

“They don’t want to be in class,” said one of her students.

“Is that true of everyone?”

“No,” countered another lycéen. “Some people actually are fighting for their retirement, even if it is far in the future.”

Sara was bold enough to ask, “Does anyone realize that by the time you reach retirement, there won’t be money to finance your pensions if the reform doesn’t pass?”

The panic to "faire le plein" (Sunday)

“The national railroad authority announced cancellations of around half its high-speed and normal services on Tuesday…The authority said support for the strike among railroad workers seemed to be running at around 30 percent compared to 40 percent for the previous stoppage a week ago.”

Tuesday October 19.  I leave three hours early for work today, to catch the only train running before my first class.  I wait an hour and a half after my last class to catch one of the few trains back to Dijon.

As I get off the train I hear whistles ahead.  Down the stairs…up the stairs…I see the police. I smell the smoke.  I tuck my chin into my coat and continue through the crowd and on toward Place Darcy.

–Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal and New York Times coverage of the strike.

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I woke up in Kentucky

A few mornings ago, before I opened my eyes, I breathed in the smell of fall in Kentucky.  Crunchy pin oak leaves mingle with newly cut grass; a cool, dry breeze dispels the summer humidity; wet saddle pads hang in the barn aisle to dry, releasing the sweet scent of leather and horse sweat.  This is autumn for me.

I kept my eyes shut.

Breathing in deeply — and this time consciously — I nursed the memory hidden curiously in my nose.  Fresh hay.  Musty sweaters.  Bonfires.  S’mores. Dinners on the porch — sans mosquitoes.  Sweet potato fries.

Timer and I, Moncada Horse Trials, 1999 (See Mom, Kate, Claire watching in background.)

I thought of being little again and riding Entertain the Time, my big red horse, down into the woods with Ivan, our German Shepherd.  It was like I was there.  I could smell the wet ground under Timer’s hooves.  I could see the steep trail Dad and Bryce had cleared — ten years ago?! — with chainsaw and “weed whip.”  I could feel my hamstrings stretching, my heels sinking down in the stirrups, hugging my shiny chestnut as he descended the hill toward the creek.

Was it a flashback?  Homesickness? Happiness?  I’m not sure.  But it’s been five years since I have been home for fall in Kentucky.  For my birthday.  For Dad’s annual pictures on the fence.  For the smell that is so familiar I can almost bring it here, to my little studio in Dijon.

Now I know for certain — more than I ever did when I was in college — that no matter where I go, or how long I am there, there will never be any place as much like home to me as Kentucky. Especially in the fall.

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To teach is to continue one’s education (Proverb a la Emily)

“Good morning, Class.  Are you ready?”  I fidget in my miniature desk chair.  Madame M hears the appropriate reply, in the affirmative, in English, and launches into song.

My name is Rejane, Rejane, Rejane,
My name is Rejane, and who are you?

I smile as the boy Madame points to tries to repeat the verse in its entirety.  “Mmmmhhh,” he hums.  But Madame interrupts him, saying sweetly, “just say your name.”

“Thomas,” he replies.

His name is Thomas, Thomas, Thomas,
His name is Thomas, and who are you? …

I scribble the verse down in my notes, adding in the margin the words,  “For help memorizing ‘my name is.'”

Yesterday was my second and last day of “formation” before I begin assisting in my own classrooms on Monday.  The other Cote d’Or primary assistants and I sat at the back of fabulous Madame M’s classes, taking notes and absorbing ideas. Sometime between breakfast and our Nespresso coffee break I realized that this year is going to be as much of a learning experience for me as it will be for the enfants I’ll teach.

Some assistants have teaching experience.  Some majored in education.  I have a new friend with a degree in teaching English as a second language.  For me, however, this type of teaching will be completely new (I almost said foreign).  I have never sung my name before a captive audience of dozens of children.  I have never  designed games that test specific linguistic competencies and ingrain certain verbal habits.  I have never had to explain that “his” is different from “is” and the “h” must be pronounced strongly enough to make a tissue flutter when held in front of one’s mouth.

I have never before realized what hard work it is to be a good teacher.

Something tells me this won’t be the last time I confirm my discovery.

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