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



I arrived at the bus station after a rather crappy morning (even if I’ve got used to it, giving my students a thorough dressing-down is still not my thing), intent on enjoying a long peaceful week-end away from school. There was a very dapper elderly gentleman waiting for the bus with a cigar in his hand–carefully combed white hair, curled moustache, long dark jacket over a suit, shiny shoes, the very picture of old-school elegance. A rare sight at the bus station, and in many parts of this city as well.

As I walked by him, he started muttering to himself–

‘Fuck the son of a bitch, I’ve been waiting for five fucking minutes! Motherfucker!’


Chats with strangers

Last time at a book festival, we were waiting for the next talks in a café, enjoying a bit of sun in the middle of a rainy week (this is that week when all the year’s rain falls at the same time in a few days, after months of drough). An elderly gentleman came to sit at the next table, ordered lunch and started talking to us about the writer we had come to see. It became obvious after a little while that he mainly wanted to talk, not have an actual conversation, so I slipped in Polite Smile And Monosyllabic Answers mode and we just talked about the weather for a while. He told us how he used to be the head of a department of the university, perfunctorily asked us if we had studied in Aix and then proceeded to explain what it was like to head an academic department, how most people there were jerks and how young people don’t really learn anything with the internet today, and worried that the gentleman over there looked gay, although of course he had nothing against gay people, but still. It lasted for about half an hour before he either ran out of things to say or got tired, and left to browse the books on display.  We didn’t meet him again afterwards.

The moral of the story:

Whatever brilliant career you dedicate your life to, remember that one day, you’ll become that little old man or lady who starts chats with random strangers in public places and gets indulgent smiles along with a sympathetic ear.

And that’s quite enough of an ambition in life.

Doghouse in the tree

I met my neighbours (mother and daughter) juste outside our building a little while ago. I was trying to set up a nest box for blue tits in the chestnut tree just under our window. Because I like blue tits and also why not. So, my neighbours saw me perched in a precarious position on a tiny stool (somehow evolution failed to calculate that I would end up being one metre sixty and that’s really not practical when tits refuse to nest in places lower than two metres).

Their very natural reaction was to lose it. But they’re too polite to show it, so they just watched me with aghast faces.

‘You shouldn’t do that, you know,’ the mother said. ‘We don’t mind, but people are going to be very unhappy.’

‘They have no reason to be. And then if someone really dislikes it, I’ll take it down.’

‘It’s going to attract pigeons.’

‘The hole is tiny. It’s for blue tits. Pigeons won’t even notice it.’

‘It’s very… visible.’

‘Once the leaves have finished growing, nobody will see a thing, I promise.’

‘Well, if you must. But people are going to disagree. You know how people are around here.’

Side note: I just love it when someone uses ‘people’ as an excuse for telling you off while trying not to sound too close-minded. ‘People’ are such bastards.

The daughter watched me with obvious disapproval, while I did my best not to land on my backside with a massive nest box embedded in my chest (did you know how heavy these things are? Because bloody hell, they are heavy).

‘Well, I think it’s very big,’ she said with pursed lips. ‘And I say that if people start doing whatever they want around here, then I’ll just come down and put my dog’s house up in the tree, and let’s see what people will say!’

So here’s the moral of the story:

You know the famous ‘slippery slope’ argument? Aka. when people tell you that if you take some ever so slightly progressive steps in society, then everything is going to magically descend into chaos because there will be no limits anymore, and that’s why doing something perfectly logical and reasonable like allowing everyone to marry whoever they like (or hanging a nest box in a tree that’s regularly visited by birds) is for some reason going to cause people to do all sorts of ugly things like committing incest and starting the apocalypse that will wipe out mankind?

As far as I’m concerned, this argument is now known as the ‘doghouse in the tree’ argument.

And if you’re curious about what became of the nest box: it’s still there, but I put it up too late and no bird took residence in it yet. In any case, incredibly enough… ‘people’ have failed to complain.


Back in France, running into my neighbour (a girl about my age who lives downstairs with her parents and brother) and her mum, who were trimming the rosebushes below the windows:

‘Helloooo!’ she trills. ‘Coming back from a walk, are you? Lovely day! Say, I had a question to ask. You’re not pregnant, aren’t you?’

‘Um, no?’

‘I knew it! It’s Hélène from the other building, she was convinced you were pregnant after meeting you last night. I said you weren’t, but she really thought you were. But you’re not!’

‘Well, no, I’m not,’ I said, a bit more tersely than before. ‘You can give her my thanks, though. Well, it was nice seeing you.’

‘I knew it I knew it! She was really convinced, you know. She said, Are you sure she’s not pregnant, because her tummy’s peeking out and all! But I said no. Ooooh, she really stepped in it this time, didn’t she?’

‘Um. Yes. Nice seeing you. Give Hélène my regards next time you’re discussing my tummy.’

‘Wow, she really stepped in it. Don’t worry, anyway, I’m not talking to her anymore. She said she would watch over my dog, and she didn’t even do it! Can you imagine that? Mum! Hélène stepped in it big time, she really thought Cécile was pregnant, but I was right, she’s not!’

Her mum turned towards me. ‘Don’t pay attention,’ she said. ‘People around here can be such gossips.’

Point well made, my dear. Point well made.

(funny how much easier it is to feel confident about your body shape when people don’t actually spend ten minutes explaining you how your belly fat makes everyone think you’re pregnant. Well. I just need to get a less stressful and more physically active job in the next couple of days, I suppose. Easy as pie.)

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.


The girl who lived across the street from us had a dozen cats in her tiny flat. They lounged on the windows, chased each other and sometimes they fell. Four storeys, straight into a busy street. Amazingly enough, none was ever killed.

She also played the violin. I liked hearing her from the open window, and that's how we started to talk together, and eventually to swap music. We said we'd play duets at some point. We never came around to.

Before we left to live in Wales, she gave all her cats away and became a nun in Marseilles. She gave us her address on a piece of paper that was lost in the move. I wonder what became of her.


A while ago, I met my next-door neighbour in the stairs. He was smoking something, which dropped from his hands right in front of me. I picked it up and handed it back to him. He looked uneasy, and laughed.

'Yeah, uh, it's not exactly a cigarette,' he said.

I don't know why he had to be so embarrassed about that. The smell gave him away months ago.


Three guys live together in a flat on the corner of the street. They have a Guy Fawkes mask pasted on their window pane so that everybody can see. Obviously, they have political consciousness. They're activists, and they care.

Their particular brand of activism consists in putting the speakers of their CD player on the window sill, and blasting very loud indie music out into the street. Alternatively, they all sit together on the window (it's not a large window, and it looks very crowded), and they call out to the passers-by. Or they play the guitar and sing, very loud, the same two choruses they can play.

It's fine by me, although working from my home I'd sometimes like to be able to listen to my own music and not the one they decided I should listen to, thank you very much. But it makes me wonder: does blaring out your identity for everyone to hear (because that's really what music is about, isn't it) achieve anything at all, or is it just an elaborate scheme to avoid getting into the dangerous stuff, like breaking into nuclear plants like the folks at Greenpeace have done on a regular basis for years, or robbing food from the supermarkets to distribute to the poor like Spanish folks do in high-unemployment areas?

Unfortunately, I understand that as a rhetorical question.