A farewell to misguided dreams

School is starting tomorrow. I wouldn’t mind an extra month of summer, but I’m feeling far less anxious than the previous two years. Working part-time has been perfect for me: winters are still long, but I’ve finally found a way to stop yearning for a hypothetical future where the day job will at last be less stressful and miserable. For the first time in years, there is no ‘tomorrow’ needed to make today tolerable, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Looking back, I still wonder at how long it took me to realise that giving up research for good was the right choice. This is one truth that’s hard to look in the face: anytime you’re tempted to say that you’re moved by less superficial things than social status, think long and hard. Status is a complex thing. It’s a blend of little voices at the back of your mind, friends and former teachers and family and everyone who’s ever been moderately impressed by your abilities as a child and said you could aim high. I’m certain that if I talked with most of those people today, they would be adamant that they never asked me to dedicate years upon years to trying to carve out a niche for myself in the academic world. And yet. There’s everything you’re expected to go through if you don’t want to disappoint: top classes in high school, classes préparatoires later on, a unique French monstrosity where students are expected to take two gruelling years of extremely demanding lessons, the most common side effect being (aside from depression, of course) pre-formatted thought and intellectual snobbery parading as open-mindedness and analysis; then moving on to the university, idealising culture to an unhealthy level and perfecting the art of self-justification, to the point that you’re really convinced that you’re a better person than everybody else because you’ve read books, and that there is no higher calling than spending your life in literary circles, feeling like you’re going to change the system from the inside because you look down your nose at anybody who doesn’t study literature the way you do, though of course everybody feels the same. It’s very hard to unlearn all those things, because it makes such perfect sense. Everybody thinks that Culture Is Good. Everybody is impressed by people with big degrees. Then one day you look back, and you realise that you’ve just spent the past half decade focusing on nothing and no one but yourself. And there’s no amount of intellectual snobbery that can justify that.

One of the things people often seem to assume is that, as teachers, what we want from our job is intellectual challenge. But there’s one thing they miss: it’s a huge, daunting intellectual challenge to teach to a class of thirty where not two students have the same level. Not bring them through high school kicking and screaming, but actually showing them something they will be interested in and remember. Two years ago I made my students watch Bela Lugosi’s Dracula; this summer I received an e-mail from a former student who wanted to watch it again and didn’t remember the exact reference. This is hardly an impressive academic achievement. I won’t lie, it doesn’t feel like one. You wouldn’t parade it about like you would a prestigious publication. Yet it made my day. It takes time to learn to be proud of little moment like that, but it doesn’t take time to be happy about them. Happiness and pride are different thing. I don’t believe for a second that I’m some sort of ‘everyday hero’ because that doesn’t make sense: there are no heroes if everybody is one. And that’s all right. You don’t have to be a hero to do the right thing. In most situations, even, doing the right thing means refusing to be a hero. It takes an awful lot of self-centredness to be exceptional.

I know this sounds like someone trying too hard to convince herself that failing was a good thing after all. You only give ‘participation awards’ to those who lost, because those who won don’t need them. Perhaps that’s true; there’s no way around it. History is written by winners, by those who invented the concept of ‘winning’ in the first place. But when I see the sort of ‘winners’ we have to put up with — bankers running the country, academics fighting to the last to preserve an unjust school system that only gives a chance to the wealthy and connected, top managers defending their right to earn a hundred times as much as the average worker — I think that the only way of changing the system from the inside is to get rid of its dominant assumption: that you have to be part of the elite to do anything meaningful.


Burning bright

Fire season is raging.

One of the things that surprised me most in Québec was how careless people were about fire. They build fires in their gardens and let the embers sprinkle all around the fireplace without even checking where they fell. I never got completely used to it.

It’s the heartbreaking side of summers in Provence: everything burns. Forty hectares here. A couple of square kilometres there. Sometimes fires rage for weeks before they can put them out, and when they find the culprit, a pyromaniac fireman or just a careless driver tossing their cigarette butt through the window, it’s too late. One moment of littering like a jerk, and the next thing you know, half of the country has been destroyed.

Burnt forests still stand, sometimes. They may douse the fire before it is too late, and then the trunks stay here, blackened and dead, but sometimes tiny leaves start sprouting again, only a few days later. Not far away from here, the oaks have grown resistant to the fire over millenia. The piece of cork they use as a bottle stopper once evolved as a fireproof mantle for trees. In the Maures mountains, burned forests are still alive. You can touch the trunks years later and gather soot on your fingers, but the tree underneath is unscathed. Unfortunately, not all trees managed to find this trick.

We took our bikes for a ride around Aix today. In most places, the plateaus are covered by pines. Pines are fast-growing, and they are the first trees to colonise the empty space left by fires. But in some spots, you suddenly end up in unburnt forests. There, old white oaks still stand. Few things are as beautiful as an oak forest. White oakw grow hard, not tall. They are shaped like labyrinths. Even their bark is wrinkled, lacy, criss-crossed with ivy. They take centuries in the making.

I hope they are still there in a century or two.

Owl cries at night

There are two scops owls nesting near the villa in Hyères where we’ve just spent the past three weeks. Their cries at night sound like very regular, neat sounds like a practiced flutist blowing one perfect note in their instruments, always the same, every few seconds. You only hear the note grow louder or weaker as the owl flies about. There are two of them, one living further away and who sings with a slightly deeper note. I’ve never seen them at all, in all those years. The closest I’ve ever been was finding a regurgitated pellet full of tiny bones in the garden, once. Other than that, they’re as inconspicuous as the wind in the trees.

Friends of ours were staying with us for the weekend. As I chatted with one of them, I asked him if he had heard the owls at night.

‘Oh yes,’ he said, and laughed. ‘My girlfriend wanted to know what that beeping sound was!’

‘Huh. Beeping sound?’

‘Yeah. City girl.’

That’s when I realised that, to people who have never heard owls before, the sound must be confusing indeed, and perhaps not entirely pleasant. I still didn’t tell the owls about their ‘beeping’ voice. You never know. They might get offended.

Diomedes and Glaucos

In an episode of the Iliad, Achaean warrior Diomedes meets Trojan warrior Glaucos on the battlefield, and for some reason, they start comparing their ancestry (ten years of battling the same people, you’d think it might have been a good idea to start trying to talk to them, but well). That’s when they realise that Diomedes’s grandfather welcomed Glaucos’s grandfather in his home once, and as such, their families are bound by the laws of hospitality. They decide to be friends, swap their spears as a sign of recognition, and stop fighting for the rest of the war.

I went to my cousin’s wedding last weekend. In the past fifteen years, I must have seen her twice at most, though both times with great pleasure (she’s a lovely person with adorable children, so that helps). There, in Paris, I met with plenty of family members I had not seen for years, some I had met only once before in my life, some not at all. Yet all through the day, there was a permanent sense of recognition. Many people I spent the day with were virtually strangers, people I had last seen so long ago that I would never have recognised them if I had encountered them on the streets. But they didn’t act like strangers. We spent a long evening talking about everything, introducing ourselves, catching up and saying over and over how happy everyone was to be here. And in truth, everyone was happy.

I suppose that this is what family has always been for. There are close relatives, the ones we see or ring when we can. And then there’s a whole flock of cousins, great-aunts and all those people whose connection to you you’ll give up explaining after half a minute of ‘He’s my cousin’s husband’s sister’s fiancé — wait a minute — my cousin’s husband’s cousin’s fiancé — well, my cousin, of sorts, all right?’. Though you don’t share your life with those people, you still share something. It’s not a question of being close, or of knowing much about one another, because usually we don’t. It’s not a question of knowing if we actually like one another, because for a short while, there is something that makes us like one another anyway, and that thing is our knowledge of shared kinship. Being part of the same family means that every now and then, you have a great excuse to be kind and to be happy to spend time with complete strangers.

And whether or not we will meet again in the next twenty years, that’s a beautiful thing to have.

Plant brain

Did you know that trees can talk?

No, they don’t listen to Mozart, and you can’t make them grow taller by talking to them in soft voices. That’s superstition. The truth is far better: they talk in ways we don’t even imagine, without voices, without facial expressions. But they do communicate, in ways we’re only just starting to understand.

When you plant a tree in a pot, it will eventually stop to grow, even if you feed it fertiliser. Why? Don’t trees grow every year? Isn’t that a completely mindless process? Shouldn’t it keep growing until it fills all the space in the pot and then some more, and it starts choking itself to death? Except it won’t. Trees sense the limit of the space they have at their disposal, and will stop of their own accord. They won’t be happy, but they’ll make do, sometimes for years (the tropical fig in my living-room is giving me a nasty stare while I’m writing this, but then I can also sense the limits of the available space and I can’t give it a bigger pot. Sorry, fig). Have you ever wondered why trees grow full and lush when they stand alone in parks, but spindle-thin in a forest, as if they could somehow sense that if they grew as large as they could, they would all tangle together and hurt each other? That’s because they do sense it. And they’re polite. Men who sit on trains with their legs on each side of the wagon could take a lesson from trees.

When a fire starts, some trees can smell it. Cypresses will sense a catastrophe coming, but they know just what to do. They send all the aromatic molecules in their body into the air. That way, when the fire reaches them, it will only meet a bag of water which will be terribly hard ot burn through, as anyone who’s ever tried to start a fire using green wood can attest. But something even better happens. Fires travel in the same direction as the wind, which means that the cloud of molecules will sail ahead. When other cypresses pick it up, they will understand that this is a signal, and that they should get rid of all flamable components, too. As a result of being warned in advance, they will suffer even less damage than the first tree. Trees talk, and they do each other favours, too.

It’s funny how we talk about intelligence. When we talk about humans, we’re all about ‘understanding’, ‘reasoning’, ‘consciousness’, ‘invention’ and so on. When we talk about animals, and even more, plants, we’re still all about ‘instinct’, ‘automatism’, and chemicals and adaptive behaviours and so on. We humans think. The rest of the worlds mindlessly reproduces behaviours and processes that have helped species survive the ages. As if our own thoughts weren’t the result of mingling chemicals, too. As if everything in our bodies had somehow managed to be the result of an evolutionary process, except, for some reason, our intelligence. We’re the annoying special snowflakes of the world. And as a result, we feel it’s okay to slaughter everything else.

Don’t say anything bad about trees. One day, a complex evolutionary process will lead them to produce just the right concoction of chemicals to make them walk up to us on the tip of their roots, strangle us in our sleep and throw a massive party afterwards.

Marseilles by night, not at its greatest

A few days ago, I found myself stranded in Marseilles at night, after the bus I was supposed to take turned up full. Not a problem; I could always hop on a rented bike and make my way back to the train station. The streets were mostly empty of cars at that time, although lots of people were still leaving bars on foot. I couldn’t follow the traffic, and so I ended up fumbling a little to find where I was supposed to be riding, and that’s how (as I later discovered), I failed to notice the traffic light.

I rode about a hundred metres before a police car slowed down beside me. I didn’t realise they were stopping for me at first, and I just ignored them. It was only when the man on the passenger seat angrily shouted at me to stop that I realised there was a problem. Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea what it was.

‘What do you think I’m stopping you for?’ he shouted. ‘To look at your legs?’

He let me stand there completely puzzled for a couple of minutes before he deigned reveal that I had ridden straight through the red light – which I hadn’t seen, having come from the wrong side of the road. When it became obvious that I truly hadn’t seen it, he didn’t relent. I should have taken a taxi if I was in ‘that state’, he said. I was putting myself in danger, I deserved to be fined, and later at night when I took off my makeup (I wasn’t wearing any), I should really take the time to think about what I’d done. After a couple of minutes, I tried to cut him short by telling him that I had my wallet with me and was ready to pay the fine, since I’d obviously made a mistake. That was not what he wanted; he told me one more time how irresponsible I was, and then drove on.

I then cycled all the way to the train station, pausing at every light (as I always do, at least when I see them) and watching other cyclists gleefully ride on every time the light turned red. I missed my bus by just a couple of minutes and had to wait for half an hour before I could finally go home.

The part that annoyed me about this incident was not that this policeman stopped me. He was right to do so; I’d made an honest mistake, but it was still a mistake. I’m fine with the fact that he shouted, too, although I have absolutely no illusions about it – if I had been a man, I’m positive he would not have taken the risk of entering a shouting match. But what was the need to mention my legs? Or my (visibly non-existent) makeup? To imply that I was an irresponsible party girl who should take a taxi instead of riding home on her own? I’m quite certain that in this case, he would have done better to hand me a breathalyser. Instead I had to stand still and bow my head through five minutes of angry lecture that eventually made me miss my bus home.

I know that policemen are understaffed and that they put up with more aggressiveness than they should on a daily basis. The thing is, that’s the story of my life, too. I’m a teacher. I put up with bullshit all the time. Do I start shouting at students even when I don’t genuinely think they deserve punishment? No. I punish them when I need to and give them a friendly warning otherwise. And I certainly don’t humiliate them based on their gender.

I know that these people didn’t know about me. They don’t know that I’m one of few cyclists in the area who actually take the trouble of respecting traffic regulations, instead of acting like I’m some sort of cross between a pedestrian and a car and therefore I get a free pass everywhere. They don’t know I’ve grown up around here, and therefore I’m always careful whatever the lights look like, because I’ve seen so many drivers fail to heed them anyway. But still. I’m doing my best, all the time. One of the reasons I don’t want to drive is that someone has to use public transports, if we want to get rid of the dictature of cars one of these days. Very often, it’s a pain in the backside to wait for the bus or take a bike when it’s late at night and I’m tired, but I still do it. And I insist on going wherever I want at whatever hour I want precisely because I’m a woman and I’m tired to hearing that I shouldn’t be allowed to go out on my own because of my gender. And the one time I make a tiny mistake, what do I get? A humiliating dressing-down by strangers who call me a drunk bimbo and tell me I shouldn’t be allowed outside on my own, and who tell me I should shell out for a taxi, all because the city can’t be arsed to have enough fucking buses circulating at night.


Rappers on the bus

Got stuck in traffic yesterday, so badly that it took us an hour and a half to extirpate ourselves from Marseilles. Fifteen minutes after the ride started, two blokes behind me started chatting each other up. Well, chatting each other up in a ‘bro’ sort of way, I mean: becoming friends, all the while carefully mentionning their love of pretty girls just in case there was any ambiguity, in a way that reminded me of what so many women do when getting acquainted with a man–mentioning The Boyfriend as often as possible in case someone accused them of sending mixed signals after the first 94827 mentions went unnoticed.

Funny how so many men sound the same when trying to get into someone’s good graces. ‘Chatting up’ often amounts to a long, very long sales pitch. What they do now. What they’ve done. What they like. What they are like. There are questions interspersed in the middle of course, most of the times (after all, most men are reasonably competent when it comes to social interaction), but they’re not the focus of conversation. What they’re really here for is try and get out as much information about themselves as they possibly can. That’s how I learned that both these young men were rappers, that one of them MC’d for a crew with a name in the form of a disreputable pun about a famous landmark in Aix, that they both were very proud of drinking like fishes, partying like there’s no tomorrow and shagging like rabbits (but only girls, remember), that one came from the Alps and was recently back from Paris where partying had wrung him dry, that they loved travelling, especially to faraway, exotic places, that they wrote very deep shit, man, that they knew the value of keeping calm and carrying on even in the direst and most exhausting circumstances like their bus being late, and that one of them was performing this very night. I also leaned their names and the name of their crew, which I subsequently googled because I had nothing better to do (I considered adding one of them on Facebook just for giggles, but I’m not that stalkerish). They talked quite loud and, entertaining as the conversation was, I considered politely asking them to shut the fuck up at some point because I’d had a long day too, when one of them exclaimed–

‘Look! Over there! A rainbow! Crap, it’s behind the building, you’re going to miss it. No, no, it’s back! Look!’

And that’s how they started talking about how cool rainbows were and comparing the best rainbows they had seen in their lives in the most impressive locations. They still had the same teenage world-weary tones, but they were talking about rainbows. Just like that, they went from annoying to endearing. I suppose I’ve been spending too much time around teenagers…

That Internet being the wonderful thing it is, here’s what the first one’s music sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZLt5bJIz94