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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.