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.

Advertisements

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.

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

Digging up lasagna

Quarter to ten in the morning; we’ve just arrived in front of a neat wooden fence, at the foot of a slightly run-down, unsusprisingly hideous 1970’s building nested between two motorways, in one of the least attractive parts of the city. There are three or four people already there. We apologise for being early.

‘Oh no, not at all! Come on in. You must be Cécile… Cristo…?’

Introductions are made as we take in the little haven we’ve just walked into. Straw and mulch cover the ground; vegetables and flowers grow everywhere in tidy little bunches, although rarely in rows. Permaculture is the keyword here. A pergola has been built near the wicket gate, but the trumpet vines still barely grow high enough to cover the main posts, let alone provide some real shade. At ten o’clock in the morning, we’re already sweating.

We all gather around a table with coffee and biscuits, and introductions begin, everyone explaining what we’re doing in this little haven, the shared garden of Lou Grillet, a subsidised housing complex. Some leave nearby and come everyday to tend their little plot of land, others supervise gardens in other places and have come for a chat, others, like me, are complete novices wishoug to set up their own garden one day. When my turn comes, I explain that I don’t have the slightest idea how to do it (I don’t disclose that so far, my greatest gardening success has been to keep a little sage bush for almost a whole year without seeing it die), or where to do it for that matter, the only sizeable piece of land in my neighbourhood being reputedly unavailable, but I want to try anyway and I have three million questions (the lady in charge soberly tells me that three million is a lot, but if I start now, yes, she will answer them all).

And questions we all have. The morning is a fascinating moment, especially for someone with absolutely everything to learn: how people made the garden together, with successes and failures, the bumps along the way, and we end up digging up all over the place to make a water-retention system using buried wood, and to build a lasagna of cardboard, wood, freshly-cut grass, compost, earth and straw (in that order: it’s a sophisticated device used to filter the pollution out of the groud you will plant your crops on, and retain water as well). We all sit together for lunch and share approximately five tons of food between the twenty-or-so of us. We exchange addresses, tricks for making homemade mint cordial and telling wild spinach apart from poisonous mini-tomato-something (nobody was sure what that particular plant was, only that it’s a solanacea, and that it makes fruit that look like tiny tomatoes and are extremely toxic, so I’m going with killer-mini-tomato for the time being). We rub on litres of sunscreen and taste omelettes made from chards grown in the garden. Above all, we talk.

The people who have come to the meeting are mostly women. And I notice a very special thing: everybody waits for their turn to talk, without needing anyone to remind them that they’ve been taking up a lot of space in the discussion and now it’s time to listen to others. Opinions are voiced, ideas exchanged, but no one talks louder than the others, no one tries to drown others in their knowledge. When time comes to take up spades and garden forks to break up the ground, women start digging without making a fuss. All right, a couple of jokes are exchanged when it becomes apparent that only women are digging while men watch, but they soon stop. The men go back to ripping out weeds and wheeling them to the compost heap, the rest get to work on the lasagna. And that’s all. No pathetic jokes about men and women and football and shopping. No one taking the load out of anyone else’s hands because it’s ‘too heavy’ for them. No awkwardness. Everything seems taken straight out of a little feminist paradise.

I have no idea why that is. All right, perhaps I do have an idea, maybe a silly one but I’ll say it anyway. Sometimes there are things that men and women will do differently, because of their bodies of because they’ve been taught to, and then that will be the object of endless attention and comments, about men being stronger or women being better at noticing things, and it will be established that there has to be a gender difference. Sometimes there are things that men and women can do exactly as well as each other, like video games or playing flamenco guitar, and then some men will feel threatened and won’t rest until they’ve managed to harass every woman out of their playground, and what could have been an enjoyable activity for everyone becomes a boys’ club for absolutely no good reason. But perhaps you can’t harass women out of a garden. First of all, more often than not, women are the ones building it. Secondly, those beans won’t grow themselves, and if it’s a woman telling you how to water them so they stop dying, you can’t really afford to pretend she’s not entitled to knowing how things work. Thirdly, if her plot overflows with produce while you struggle to get a single ripe tomato, maybe it’s just going to become obvious to everyone that she knows what she’s doing.

Or maybe this is simply because gardening is one of those very necessary, and yet entirely disregarded activities that we’re taught have no value because they don’t make money. We disregard housework because most of the time it’s not paid for, even though taking care of the house is essential to our sanity if not our direct survival. What society disregards it has left to women. Growing vegetables for the family’s everyday use brings no money either, it might as well be just another kind of housework, to be done while the men take care of important things. Yet when you sit in a garden nested between two motorways, in a drab, unappealing part of town, and you realise that you feel like you’re taking a lungful of fresh air in the countryside and that makes you want to smile so hard it hurts, you suddenly see that, in the most litteral sense of the phrase, gardening has just changed a part of the word.

Am I dreaming, or are we just now understanding that things that are not bought have the most power?

The last butterflies

Cycling around Aix is a breath of fresh air, on so many more levels than the litteral one. The fields alternate with groves of pines and white oaks, there are few sounds aside from birds, and one just has to glance at the side of the road to see more plants than in a whole week working in Marseilles. Then there are the smells, too, those smells of early summer you could spend hours picking apart: wet leaves, drier leaves, earth, elderflowers, rosemary, wheat fields. One hour out there and it feels like the part of you that got the best workout was not your legs, but your brain. There is so much going on: a jay taking flight from a cherry tree, a bid of prey soaring up with a snake in its talons, willow pollen tormenting your eyes, the sweet, sudden smell of elderflowers, unknown plants pricking at your legs, roots working their way under the roads and making them bumpy, the temptation to snach almonds from a branch leaning out of a garden, tiny streams that would barely have registered as rivulets back in Québec, but that are dignified with a name and a signpost here, the red assault of a cluster of poppies, your whole body feeling the change when you leave the side of the field and enter the drier regions of pine woods, with their dry warmth and deep aromatic scent, the changing silhouettes of trees, sinuous for oaks, straight for pines, mangled for plane trees, bushy for elders…

There is an ongoing debate about whether spending your time on a computer is likely to make you less intelligent in the long run, and I’m not going to voice an opinion on it, but I wonder if we are not missing something crucial from that debate. The point is, perhaps spending your time online may allow you to reach more information, or perhaps it only allows you to memorise paths to that information and cripples your capacity to remember things by yourself, I have no idea. But what about all the information that cannot be found online? The smells, the feelings, and the dizzying diversity that remains there even though we have done an awe-inspiring job so far at destroying as much as you can? Half of the butterflies are now gone from European fields. Yet when you cycle through the countryside for a couple of hours, you come across half a dozen species, at least. There is more diversity in the last of the butterflies than in what the average person browses online in a week–and for that matter, in what could be found in most libraries of the world. There is a certain type of knowledge we have learned to conveive as all-important, and that is knowledge that can be expressed through words on a page. I’m not denying the importance of that knowledge. But what about all the information we are depriving our brains of, the sound of a lizard in the grass, the prickly touch of weeds, the way the smells change in the spring?

I recently read about a species of ants that evolved to live underground, then came back to the surface after a few thousand years. While living underground, their brains adapted to their new conditions. But they did not simply become different; they became atrophied. Life underground is much simpler than life overground. There is almost no light, there are fewer sounds, the touches and smells are mostly all the same. With so little information to process, brains can become lazy. They simply stop being ready for an overload of information that will never come.

We couldn’t turn into ants underground, could we? I hope not. I hope that there is something I’ve failed to notice in the videos and online conversations my student spend their lives following on their smartphones. I sincerely hope so, because if there’s not, our descendants will know the fate of the ants underground. Their brains will be shut to the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. And so much will be lost to us.

Autumn leaves, winter comes in

Canadian French and how it’s regarded is still fascinating to me. It must take a particular amount of entitlement and colonising mindset to pronounce a whole dialect ‘incorrect’ or ‘not proper French’, even when an extremely vast number of the turns of phrase in that dialect would in fact be considered downright literary in France. ‘L’hiver s’en vient‘ (winter is coming) is one of my favourite, for purely random reasons. In France you would find it in poetry, not in everyday speech.

The leaves are almost all gone. One funny thing you discover when living in a continental climate is how strong its influence was on the conception of time, weather and seasons. The picture books I had as a child showed four long seasons, with the landscape dramatically changing between them (there was an audio book based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which was particularly nice, and which depicted them as the four suitors wooing Planet Earth, all as different from each other as you could imagine): pastel colours in spring, strong vibrant colours in summer, oranges and browns in autumn, bluish-white in winter. It was all very lovely, but it had so little to do with what actually happened outside my home. In Provence, spring and autumn exist, but they’re somewhat perfunctory. The flowers on the trees last for a few weeks, and there is much that doesn’t change at all in the hills (there is not nearly enough water for plants to afford new leaves every year). In autumn, the leaves on the deciduous trees wither, dry and fall off without much ceremony; it’s all over in a few weeks as well, and then it’s time to get out the winter coats (the sort of coats that made my friends in Québec laugh uncontrollably when I told them that was what I intended to wear all winter). Summers are green and dry and hot, winters are green and dry and… well, what we define as cold anyway. There is no bluish-white, and autumn just adds a touch of brown in some places. Since it’s still a temperate place, I could draw parallels with what I read. But it never was quite exactly the same. I just assumed that life never looks as neat and colourful as it does in books and left it at that.

So it took me moving to Québec to understand what they really meant by the four seasons. Autumn has been red, and yellow, and orange, all bright light and fluttering leaves that took all the time they needed to change colour, then fall off. It’s not just a question of species either: even trees that are rather common in Aix changed much more softly and quietly here. This summer, the plants burst all over the place, taking all the space they could in the few months they had to thrive. Spring was slow as well, with flowers peeking under the snow and buds swelling little by little on the branches. It feels a bit strange to realise that I did not understand what the deal was about the seasons until my late twenties.

Now autumn is moving on, with rain and fog and all-around depressing weather. The cats upstairs kick up a party with the Halloween decorations every night at around 5 am, but since they’ve both been through a lot of stressful vet stuff recently, it’s only fair to let them play. I’ve bought earplugs instead, which don’t do much, because I hate sleeping with stuff in my ears and so instead of waking up before dawn, now I just plainly don’t go to sleep. Never mind that though, Halloween will be gone in a couple of days, and I still have to do my First Ever Halloween party and general distribution of sweets to the children of the neighbourhood, which is more important than cats partying at indecent hours.

Also, I’m hungry. All the time. I’ve decided to lose a dozen pounds, because I was tired of looking at myself in the mirror and being reminded every time of how my PhD was so stressful I tried to eat the pressure off and only ended up putting on weight and feeling worse. Since my eating habits are fairly healthy already and anyway I’m not big on complicated diets (to me, they sound more like a good way to add a load of unnecessary control and pressure to your daily life), I’ve just decided to take about one third off my normal portions, and keep exercising regularly so my body won’t assume that it can tuck into my muscles to make up for the lack of calories. It works, obviously. It also means I’m constantly hungry and thinking about food, even when I go to bed or finish eating. But the strangest thing about it is that it actually feels good. Hunger is uncomfortable, but I feel more motivated and enthusiastic than I have in weeks. I don’t even get cravings. I don’t get tired of it. I can’t wait to go back to a normal eating schedule, but at the same time, I just feel good, even with the lack of sleep and of daylight and the rain. Maybe I’ll keep doing that in the future: not permanently of course, but I might give myself a week of half-fasting every now and then, just to get my mood up.

Maybe it will even get me through the winter.

Today in the rain

While walking towards my mother’s home, another pedestrian and I had to step aside for a car. The other guy called from under his umbrella:

‘Excuse me? Isn’t this a pedestrian street?’

‘A pedestrian street?’

‘I’m asking you, yes. I don’t know about it. Is it pedestrian or not?’

‘Not that I’m aware of. I don’t even think it’s semi-pedestrian. Cars drive here all the time.’

‘Semi-pedestrian? Could you explain what that means, please? I’ve been living in the city for three years and I’ve never heard that.’

‘Well, some streets are closed to cars altogether, and some let drivers in if they have a badge. You can get a badge if you live there, or something. That’s why you’ll see some cars, but not all the time.’

He nodded very slowly, and started to smile.

‘I see,’ he said. ‘So, all those cars… They were driving me crazy, but I see. All right.’

Then he smiled more decidedly.

‘Thanks a lot,’ he said. ‘You don’t realise it, but you’ve juste made my life a lot better.’

He had rather intense eyes, and an unusual pronunciation. I wonder what he’d just realised that I hadn’t.