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.


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.

Ripples in the sunset

Walking on the Old Port back from my flamenco lesson threw me back to the last time I saw my brother in person: the same milky water with the bare hint of motion of the ships, the same smell of tar, but none of the hugs and tears and receding violin as the ship sailed away. Six months already, and more to come. My brother is in Brazil now, just back on the ship after exploring the Amazonian forest. Here, the first rains of autumn are already coming, although as always, summer clings as long as it can.

They did meet with whales, eventually. But the only one that collided with their ship was a newborn calf which had just emerged from a cloud of blood in the water, and it swam away unhurt. Although the hull is painted bright red, it must still look like a mother whale, somehow. That is a sight I would like to see before I die.

Last time I dreamed of my brother, we were walking together on an iced-over bridge, hanging over a cold, white torrent. I stayed safely inside of the railing, but he stepped outside on the ice with his camera, to get a better picture of the deathly cold landscape. I kept walking, afraid that he would lose his footing, and panicked when I heard the loud crack of ice falling off the bridge and into the river. But when I looked up, I saw that my brother had safely reached the bank, and was taking pictures of the ice in the water.

A new life

The thing about not blogging for a long time is that it becomes harder and harder to come back to your blog after a while, because there are so many things you want to say and you have no idea which one to say first. So as the saying goes, I’m just going to spit everything out on the carpet and let you sort it out. Ready?


The Marseilles high school I now teach in is situated in an old building with no corridors, where every classroom opens directly on the playground. It is right next to the bus station, which is pleasant enough, because I already have an hour-long bus ride to get there. It also means we have to keep the windows closed in class because the noise soon becomes unbearable, which, in turns, means a few minutes of negociation with the students approximately every day. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, many students prefer to keep their coats in class and leave all the windows open, energy savings be damned. Go figure.

I’m not a novice teacher, but so far this job is the most intense I’ve had. Most of the students are really nice people, but they are not exactly the most organised I’ve had, either. When you try to break up an argument between two students in the middle of the class about one of them alledgedly tossing the other one’s pen on the ground on purpose, only to turn around and see that another student is doubled up in pain in a corner because he’s got up without your authorisation and managed to smash a sensitive part of his anatomy on a table corner in the process, you discover a whole new set of directions life can take you in. I’m glad I’ve ended up there. Exhausted, but lucky.


There has been a Halloween party in my appartment building. I’ve finally decided I’m not that fond of Halloween. There’s an element of false conviviality that bothers me. We got a note pasted on the front door, saying ‘Remember to buy sweets for Halloween!’ without so much as a please or smiley face. If we chose to give out sweets, we’d have to buy individually wrapped ones so that parents won’t have to worry we’re evil child poisoners; we’d see the thildren for all of thirty seconds; and then if we were lucky, they’d forget about us instead of forming an opinion of us on the basis of whether we’ve been generous or stingy. I’ll pass, thanks. I’d love to have a celebration where we get to do something for the children in the neighbourhood, like a giant collective birthday party or something, but giving out industrial crap while parents will worry I might just be a danger to their children is not my idea of fun. There must be some much more interesting celebrations to import from abroad.


And then there were the attacks.

My students were terrified. I don’t know if they still are. Being right next to a major train and bus station logically means that we’re next to the sort of place that could be targetted. I’m not scared, personally, and even if I felt a little uncomfortable when I learned that Daesh was demanding of their French followers that they withdraw their children from schools and murder the teachers, it didn’t last. First, the fact is that there have been as many aborted attacks as successful ones, and even the ones that were carried out were far less lethal than they could have been given the circumstances. Second, it’s no use being scared, I’m going to work anyway. I’m not leaving my students alone with maniacs.


Winter is coming for good. There has been frost in the grass and everything. I had not waited to gather the olives from my dad’s garden, as I thought that it wouldn’t freeze until January anyway (apparently, olives are betst gathered after the first frost), but I might have after all. Today we gathered olives in my mum’s garden, to take to the mill and make oil. We don’t have that much practice gathering olives, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to climb up into the tree, the best way to shake the branches to make the olives fall, and how not to step on the cat in the process (he was incredibly excited with the whole operation, and ended up playing with the fallen olives and mewing happily). I wonder what the oil will taste like…


It occured to me lately that one implication of the theory of parallel universes branching everytime a situation can have several possible outcomes is that in the end, we can’t die.

Our consciousness is one. If we hit a situation where we might very well die by accident and just as well survive, our consciousness will be erased in one universe and survive in the other. The universe where we die stops existing for us, but we still live on in the other ones. Consequently, by definition, we only exist in the universes where nothing fatal happened to us. Consequently, we will go on, forever, or at least until whatever limit nature has set past which human life cannot continue. By this theory, we should all live past one hundred and twenty or so. Other people may die around us. We, however, will live on in whichever universes we got the luckiest.

I’m just playing with thoughts, of course. I don’t actually believe this. At least I think I don’t, or I wouldn’t have much of a survival instinct left. Now I’ve thought of it, however, I still have to decide whether that’s incredibly optimistic or heart-breakingly tragic.


What I do know is this: getting up at six every morning and getting on the bus at half past six is not fun at all, but at half past six in the morning, for a few weeks, Venus, Mars and Jupiter waited there together with the moon, almost perfectly aligned in the East, to give the early risers some courage. And that was beautiful.

Life in research, or: Why I’m probably going to quit it and so should everybody else

In two weeks, my penultimate stay in Québec will end. I’m happy I’m going back home, although there are plenty of things I’m going to miss: my friends here, first; my housemates’ surviving cat; the cheerfulness of the city centre; that sort of things. I have no idea when I’ll come back, or if I ever will. I hope I will.

I’m also seriously considering giving up research at the moment. It’s been a long, arduous process, first accepting that I might well never make it, and then, little by little, realising it might actually be a good thing. Besides, I’ve been a researcher for the past six years. That doesn’t exactly count as an unfulfilled wish.

There are many reasons why I’ve come to this acceptance, and even more reasons why I’ve long resisted it. I think the first reason part of me just wants to give up is: it can be a frightful amount of work, and let’s face it, it’s not actually useful to anyone but myself. Everybody knows that politics plays a huge part in research life, right? Okay, now square that. And square it again. Now you’re getting a better idea of the order of magnitude we’re talking about here. It’s not just about being friends with the right people. It’s about your work itself: calculating what’s going be successful and when, realising that your research has to be sexy before it is useful (that’s why people have such trouble publishing replications of previous experiments, or experiments that yielded no results: tremendously useful as they are, they just don’t sound as good as nice, new significant results). It’s also a matter of calibrating the minimal amount of effort that can go into making a publishable project, meaning that most published results have very little actual usefulness, and nearly all articles end with suggestions for further research: what matters is not to get usable results out there, but to get results published so it looks good on your CV, period. In the end, twice as much effort goes into calculating what’s going to be profitable for your career as goes into furthering your work. You don’t have a choice. That’s how you get people to fund you. By necessity, it’s an awfully self-centred occupation. And I’ve had it with self-centred.

The second reason is that research is an incredibly unethical system. When I came to Canada, I knew that things worked quite differently from France, and I expected them to suck less. I was wrong. Here’s the thing: research in France sucks because there’s no funding, graduate students are unpaid and university professors generally don’t give a shit about them, tenure is automatic, meaning that once you get a job, you can’t be fired unless you rape a student in public while screaming ‘Heil Hitler!’, meaning that many people soon just realise that they can easily get away with not doing research at all and getting paid all the same. I’m not kidding. It’s that bad. But in Canada, I discovered the one thing I didn’t expect to learn: the North American system sucks even worth. Students are paid all right; but they are basically hired as cheap labour. Professors who hire students to work in their lab know fully well that their students don’t stand a chance when it comes to applying for positions later on. They hire them all the same, not to give them a chance to get a career, but because it’s cheaper than hiring research assistants, and you can pressure them to work 60 hours a week for the same salary. I’m not in that situation, luckily: my own boss hires very few students, and our career is one of his priorities. I’m eternally thankful for that. I’m also aware that this is overwhelmingly not how the system works.

So, using students as cheap labour and then discarding them is bad enough. The system is also woefully inefficient. Students come and go, meaning that on occasion, whole sets of results end up lost somewhere in a computer, after the student who gathered the data left and nobody cared to pick up the study after them. People constantly have to be taught how to do basic things, often with poor results. Once postdocs manage to get a position as professors, they don’t actually do much research anymore. They supervise research from their students, but more than anything, they’re busy asking for funding and calibrating their entire publication strategy around it, a fact that has often been decried as slowly killing research. I can only agree. What I said earlier, that publishing research was more about looking good than about furthering knowledge? That’s because if you don’t look good, you don’t get funds. Which basically means that in the end, the people who actually know how to do research because they spent years as students and postdocs don’t actually do research so much as grant writing; the real research is done by students who often don’t know how to do it; and a professor’s real job is managing his lab’s funds and hiring people, in short, it’s a managerial job for which they haven’t been trained. It’s utterly absurd, a huge waste of money, of people’s time and lives (we’re counting years here, not months), and a monstrously exploitative system. Even shorter, it sucks all sorts of unsavoury genitals.

Which is why I’m seriously questioning if I still want to be a part of it. If it’s a choice between embracing the French system, with its utter cynicism and rewarded laziness, or trying to steer things towards the North American system which goes wrong in approximately all the places it can go wrong, maybe I’ll be better off teaching children how to spell their names in English.

At least I’ll get to publish a book on zombies. And I’ve survived two Canadian winters and met some truly great people here. In the end, maybe I should take this, thank life and go on my way.

Working, living

So there are two things I’ve figured out, in all this time I was too busy working to do much of anything else including thinking.

Whatever happens, two things, then, will have absolute precedence over my work and career: I won’t ruin my health on account of my job, and I won’t let myself become a jerk.

The first is quite straightforward. Working is supposed to help you make money, which you’re going to use to meet your basic living needs. Ruining your health over your work completely defeats the purpose (I should note that I am fortunate enough to live in a country where it is possible to make a living wage without jeopardising your health, and I don’t intend to spit in my soup, as we say in France). But there’s something else: I don’t believe that, in a just society, anyone should be asked to risk their health for their job. That’s just inhuman. And I’m not going to contribute to a system where it’s normal to expect people to go without sleep, eat crap and give up exercising until their own body gives up on them. So I’ll get my full nights of sleep, eat my veggies and pulses and if I need to take time off work to exercise, I will (I’ve got a pair of ruined knees to mend after all). And I won’t ever expect anyone to do any less for their bodies.

I would have made a long list of other priorities, like family, friends in need, and all that jazz. But then I realised that it all falls under the same banner. I don’t want to become the kind of person who stops interacting with their family on account of work, has no time to check on friends, no energy for any cause whatsoever and generally assumes that they already make enough efforts as it is and won’t lift a finger for anything not career-related. The thing is, too much work does that to people. And I do realise that sometimes people have families to support, and in some countries, working too much can be a necessity when minimum wages are treated like a joke, and I think this is tragic, because too much work is bad for you. In countries privileged enough to give you a choice, working too much means that you’re deliberately choosing to close your mind. People have varying tolerance levels to being over-worked, but there comes a point when anyone can start feeling that they’re doing their share already, and they won’t give a cent to any good cause, they’ll ignore people asking for help, they won’t lift a finger to reduce their environmental impact, because that would be asking too much of them. But really, the only ‘effort’ they are making is to advance their career–their whole lives are centred on doing things for themselves and no one else. Some people call hard work a virtue; in modern societies where you can afford to not work too hard, I thing this is nonsense. Too much work is not a good thing, it won’t make you a better person and save for some rather specific jobs, it won’t help anyone but you. And if you don’t have time for anything or anyone but yourself (and that includes treating any moment you spend with your spouse or children like a big favour you’re doing to them), then I do believe you qualify as a jerk. And I don’t want to become one.

Because let’s be honest: sometimes your job allows you to make a significant contribution, and sometimes… well, it’s not so obvious. I’m not saying what I do is useless, even though I can’t exactly say researching virtual worlds is quite the same as changing the real world order to eradicate poverty or something. It’s just not useful enough to justify sacrificing everything to it. And so far I’ve made enough sacrifices, not of myself, but of others. I’ve fucked up my environmental footprint by making three yearly return journeys over the Atlantic and giving up organic food. I give money to a couple of organisations, but I’ve done nothing myself except clicking a few buttons now and then to say that I disagree with stuff. I’ve left my family in France and asked my boyfriend to wait while I took care of my professional advancement. That’s enough of it. When I’m back in France for good, it will be high time to stop cutting myself endless slack under any pretext I can find.

So this is it. If anyone sees me ranting here about how I’m too good to pay taxes, watch my environmental impact or dedicate some of my precious time to my family and friends, feel free to send me a virtual kick in the backside.

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.