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.

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.