Sunday, April 29, 2007

Where the sun don't shine

Last Saturday our theater group met for an all day rehearsal. Our performance is about one month away and our once a week rehearsal schedule rapidly closing in on opening night. I have what you might call a petite apparition, actually two. So while some members of our group are busy learning their lines, it took me about a half hour to get mine down.

Having down theater for years and having had some very large roles, I've come to appreciate the character bits. With a large role, especially in community theater, you're a bit like a pack mule lugging lines around the stage looking for a place to put them down (and sometimes hoping that someone else will indeed pick them up). It's fun to have quality stage time, to immerse yourself in a project that can take all you have to offer and more, but a small role allows you to spit and polish and perfect it. It's easy to see how character actors end up sometimes upstaging leading role players.
Anyway, it's all for fun, and I have to say that everyone else here seems to be involved for exactly that same reason. I've detected no signs of egomania or diva syndrome. It's funny but the polarities of attitudes towards curricular and extra-curricular activities seem quite reversed between the U.S. and France. In America there's nothing extra about extra-curricular activities; rather, they are serious undertakings. One could argue, and on occasion I have, that curricular matters are often times secondary to extra-curricular ones.
Saturday was interesting too because of the way my French friends approach the whole thing. Pot luck is the rule here, no sending out for pizza or dashing off in separate cars for fast food. People came loaded with cakes, casseroles, baguettes, drinks, cheeses, salades and even bottles of wine. We began rehearsal at about 10:30 and at about 12:30 we broke for lunch. Since the weather was great we set up tables outside and ate together. The teachers all sat at one end the table so as to share the wine. When I remarked how this wine thing could never happen in America without a teacher getting fired and a student being suspended one of my favorite colleagues, Pierre, looked at me and in deadpan delivery said, "Yes, in America wine is forbidden on campus but not guns."
I smiled but and pretended to scold him for scoring cheap political points, pointing out the obvious flaws in his assertion. He laughed.

Two hours later, we had cleared the table and set to work once again on the play.
The piece we're doing is actually a collection of comic scenes and vignettes loosely connected in theme, very loosely. One of the scenes I'm in is a paticularly bawdy send up of the neoclassical French tragedy Phedre. A girl named Juliette plays Phedre, a libidinous queen with illicit designs on her naive and hapless son-in-law Hippolyte. Juliette who is one of my students is an extremely bright and exquisitely funny girl. Everytime her scene is rehearsed on stage everyone else stops what they're doing in order to watch her say the most degrading and shameful things while vampishly stalking poor Hippolyte from one end of the stage to the other. Her performance makes you cringe and laugh at the same time.

As for me, I appear in the beginning of the scene, a puffed up poet, who is told in no uncertain terms by the queen exactly where he can put his latest script. A polite version would be something along the lines of "where the sun don't shine." I telll her that she'll always be able to brag about how she told off her English teacher in public, in front of paying customers no less!
Juliette has received no small amount of ribbing over her role, and also she has laughingly worried out loud about her grandparents coming to the play.
Another feature of theater here is that teachers work and play side by side with students. It is the one shining example I've been able to find (I'm sure there are others) where teachers and students bond outside of the classroom setting.

There are four teachers, five counting me, involved. Some of them are quite accomplished, all of them are risk takers, which in my book counts for everything. Pierre in particular has a unerring sense of committing unintentionally funny acts on stage...he is almost always funny and almost never for the reasons he might suppose. Love the guy.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Teaching in Europe and Elsewhere

Enseigner en Europe et ailleurs.
That was the title of the worskshop I attended last week in Mont de Marsan, a town in the department of Les Landes to the south of us. I was one of two teachers invited to speak to a group of about 25 teachers on the subject of the different school systems. The other was a German woman who, like me, is completing an exchange in France though not with Fulbright. The keynote presentation in the morning was given by a Mr. Cassou, a mathematics teacher, who shared with us a graph heavy powerpoint presentation on the major models of European school systems.
Cassou organizes Western European school systems into four categories. The bell weather countries for each category are: Sweden, England, Germany, and Spain. Since his audience was French (excepting me and the German lady, of course) he tended to couch his remarks in reference to French practices which afforded me a very interesting perspective into how the French educational professionals themselves are engaging the subject of comparative educational practices and reforms.
Before I get into specifics, I think it's important to underscore the extent to which the French (and I presume other EU countries) are invested in developing a European perspective. The phenomenon of the EU seems to have triggered a vigorous exchange, not only of goods and labor, but of ideas and perspectives. While individual countries remain attached to their own particular institutions and/or traditions, they are unable to ignore the examples or the data coming from their neighbor countries. The EU has made it possible for member countries to begin to compare and contrast their practices in ways that avoid the apples and oranges problem. More and more, you see practices and policies framed in a context of what has been tried where, what has worked here but not there, and why. This does not mean that national identities and national institutions are disappearing necessarily but there is clearly a dynamic at work here that is subjecting practices to a different kind of scrutiny.
The biggest surprise of the morning for me was learning about Sweden. Try a few of these facts on for size...
  • Swedish high schools are locally controlled
  • There is no national curriculum nor are there any national exit exams.
  • Emphasis is placed on Swedish, Mathematics, and English.
  • The core themes animating Swedish schools are, civic responsibility, technology, and interdisciplinary studies.
  • Compulsory education goes to age 16.
  • School days are short, ending in the early afternoon at which point students participate in cultural activities such as sports and arts.
  • All students receive the same diploma.
  • Diplomas are acquired by earning credits for individual courses.
  • Credits are a function of time and competence.
  • No grades are issued up to the age 16.
  • Evaluations are individualized and descriptive and they are accompanied one of the following three characterizations: acceptable, very good, excellent.
One of things that distinguishes the Swedish system from the French system is that in Sweden there is no "redoublement", which is the practice of forcing students to repeat an entire year's worth of studies - think of redoublement as the nucleur version of failure. In Sweden (as in the U.S) you pass or fail individual courses.
At the age of 16, students select from 15 different orientations for further studies and might not surprise you to learn that the work of John Dewey is influential in Sweden.
As always, one must be wary of making comparisons without taking into account the cultural context in which these school systems are situated. Everyone here in France seems to accept the proposition that the school day here is too long, or at least too repetitive. But the issue of the school day is not just an educational issue. It is a social issue insofar as it also impacts such things as child care. A very high percentage of mothers work full time in France. The current design of the school day is instrumental in facilitating this arrangement. Therefore, any change in the length of the school day, no matter how sound it might be pedagogically or developmentally for the children has to be weighed against other social considerations as well.
The other three systems interested me less perhaps they resembled more or less the one I'm currently working in, especially Spain and Germany. England's system is perhaps noteworthy for having made a massive change in the direction of centralized planning and national curriculum at the same time it is embroiled in controversies about evaluating schools and engaging private entities in designing national exams and even sometimes in taking over failing schools. Another English quirk is the existence of a parallel and extremely exclusive and expensive system of private schools which in many ways seems beyond the purview of national governance.
It so happened that at the school where this workshop took place there was an American girl doing an exchange. She was 19, her French was good. She spoke to the teachers about her experience. When they asked her about her impressions of school in France she focused on the very two things I would have expected...the rigor and the lack of variety or elective offerings. It was serendipitous, her appearance, since I had planned on saying a few things about the student perspective on life in the high school.
I talked about the life of an American teacher, the phenomenon of multiple certifications, the frequency of extra-curricular assignments, the problem of burn-out, the involvement of parents and the relationship with students. I also talked about the diploma as a symbol of socialization as much as scolarisation.
When my German colleague spoke she prefaced her comments by saying how much she loved living in France and how difficult it had been to secure a French exchange partner. Apparently there about ten German candidates for every one French candidate. Then she began speaking about teaching here. She characterized the practices she found in France as "magistrale" which is to say, didactic and primarily lecture, drill and practice. She noted a lack of group work or of oral participation. By contrast, she suggested that pedagogical practices in Germany were mandated to be varied and diverse. I watched the room as she made these comments. People seemed to hear them in respectful silence though I couldn't help but wonder if they felt a bit defensive about her comments. I'm not sure how many opportunities she has had to observe French teachers in action so as to make such observations...they are plausible perhaps but not the whole story, I don't think.
One last anecdote... during a lunch break yesterday I spoke to Jean who teaches German and by all accounts is one of the very best teachers at our high school in Andernos. I asked him if he had ever done an exchange in Germany. He shook his head and said, "I wouldn't do an exchange in Germany."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Two reasons. First, the students there are unbelievable...out of control, they don't listen, they do whatever they like. Second, teachers there spend 25 hours per week in class. Here I have 13 hours a week. An exchange makes no sense to me."
When you put it like that, I guess it doesn't to me either.

100 Girls

Adam Gallardo, one of our friends who has been here visiting us, is a writer who produces alternative comic books or graphic novels. He collaborates with graphic artists, one in Barcelona for example, another in Canada. His series 100 Girls has been published and now has a French version in translation.
Adam volunteered to visit one of my classes and talk about his work. For me it was a no brainer....comic books (they call them bande dessinées or BDs here) are very big. If you go into a bookstore in France you will invariably find a significant section devoted to comic books. They come in a wide variety of genres and target an equally wide range of demographics from little kids to adults. Adam's work is more for the teen and up audience, I think.
Adam came along with his wife, Melissa, who works for the Salem newspaper The Statesman Journal were she produces video clips for their web site. She also produces a local cable access television show that reviews independent films. She is also Adam's most enthusiastic promoter, one of Beth's best friends, and she studied French in university.
We decided to photocopy a two page spread from his book (you can see the kid in the foreground looking at his copy) and do a series of activities that culminated with them attempting French versions of Adam's work.
We started by generating a list of BDs that the students read as children and/or still read today. You can see the list in the background of the photo. We got the expected titles like Tintin, Lucky Luke, Gaston Lagaffe, Asterix and Obelix...I wonder how many Americans know that the Smurfs were actually a French creation, originally called Les Schtroumpfs?
Then Adam gave them an overview of the larger story in order to put the excerpt in context. Then we answered questions about vocabulary....words like "heck" and "freaked out" were examples of the kinds of questions they had.
Then we enlisted a couple of kids in doing an oral reading of the excerpt. Adam and I followed that with an oral reading of our own. We then let them get started on the their translations. To wrap up, we had a discussion of the place occupied by BDs in French culture and whether or not they were taken seriously as an art form. While there were a couple of kids who were strong advocates for the form most of the them saw the BD as just for fun. Adam and Melissa suggested three graphic novels that are examples of comics having evolve into something far more than entertainment, Maus by Art Spiegelman which treats the subject of the Holocaust, Joe Sacco's Palestine which is a first person account of a visit to Gaza and other occupied territorities, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi which is the coming of age story of a young girl in Iran and, according to Wikipedia, is required reading for cadets at West Point University.
Later I plan on bringing in the professional French version of Adam's work so that they can compare their own work to it.
It's nice to trot out genuine real life writers and creative types for students...not everyday that they come from the other side of the Atlantic.
Thanks Adam and Missy.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Go escargot!

In a year of benchmarks and firsts here are two more for our kids. Tess pried out and ate her very first escargot. She had a second one just to prove it was no fluke.

Later that evening, Colm tried his hand at fondu....several times. Gerard instructed the kids on a cute little custom relating to eating fondu...if you lose the bread in the fondu pot then you have to get down on all fours on the floor, hop around and croak like a frog. Everyone was too hungry to get down from the table, instead we just said "Ribbit." and kept on eating.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Caves, castles, and catches

Here's the Renault Trafic diesel van we rented...nice rig. It handled the nine of us comfortably with plenty of room for our stuff.

On the way to the Dordogne we stopped in St. Emillion where we had a picnic lunch in a small out of the way garden below the walls of the city.

We also tasted some St. Emillion wine. Adam and Missy ordered a case of wine to be sent home and the proprietor threw in a free bottle for our picnic was very good!
We really got the most out of this trip. During our two and a half days there, we went to Sarlat and strolled about the town. This was were I got my new hat.

We visited two castles, Beynac and Castlenaud. The former was loyal to the French during the 100 years War, the latter was the English stronghold in this area.

They had a pretty good view of each other for the duration. During our tour of Beynac we were shown how in the kitchen and dining hall they suspended food and babies from hooks in the ceiling to protect them from rats. They even had to hang up their crossbows to protect the strings from being gnawed in two.

We also visited three prehistoric caves, Lascaux, Font du Gaume, and Rouffignac. Each one was amazing in a completely different way. The first contained artistic images that were so fully realized that you might have thought you were in a contemporary art gallery, the second was an amazingly closeup and creepily dark look at original cave paintings set deep within a twisting narrow cave that had us all feeling as though we had descended into some netherworld where images danced to flickering candlelight, and rock forms played tricks with your eyes, here bulging, there hollowing out suggesting bison's bellies, heads, horns etc...the third cave was enormous and featured a little train which transported you far down into the cave. This cave had been discovered in the fifteenth century. We say graffitti dated 1770! I'm not sure why that is so memorable to me when the cave paintings themselves go back many millenia.
Tucked in between these cave visits we also managed to lunch in Les Eyzies in the public gardens and then take in a great musuem there...La Musee de Prehistoire. For anyone interested in learning about prehistory and seeing skeletal remains and reconstitutions of extinct speicies as well as aritifacts and tools this museum has it all. Everything is very accessible and user friendly, perhaps a little too accessible. This exhibit of a bison, an animal which once roamed the continent and which is depicted in many dozens of cave paintings in the Dordogne, is enclosed in plexiglass but the top is completely open to the air. I was standing next to this particulary bison when I heard Colm counting "One, two, three!!"
I turned just in time to see, Sparkle Rose, his stuffed unicorn sailing up into the air in an arc that was destined to terminate in the airspace directly above the bison exhibit.
Instinctively, I reached up and, like a third baseman snagging a soft liner, turned certain trouble into a routine put out.

Abbeye Cadouin

When I told a colleague of mine that we were returning to the Dordogne for a weekend, he suggested that we stay at a hostel in Cadouin. It is called the Abbaye de Cadouin. It is a medeival structure that was and still is a cloister. It is surrounded by a tiny village and sits in the countryside about a half hour from Sarlat and several caves and castles in the area.

The weather was actually hot...I broke down and bought a genuine panama hat (made in Ecuador).
We were nine strong, three couples and three children. We rented a room with five bunk beds. It was a spare but perfectly amiable set up for sleeping.

Breakfast was served in the dining hall between eight and nine. Since the second fell on Missy's birthday, we prepared a feast in the communal kitchen and ate in the courtyard.

The cake came out after the sun had gone down.

After it was all over, Jerry, Adam and I repaired to the kitchen to do dishes.

I would seriously recommend this place to anyone thinking of spending any number of nights in the Dordogne.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Can you say democracy?

The answer: 84 %
The question: What percentage of eligible French voters cast ballots in Sunday's presidential elections?

The answer: 12
The question: How many candidates were on the ballot.

The answer: The old fashioned person and on paper.
The question: How did they vote?

A pox on our house

I apologize for this post sounding like current events. In fact everything contained here is a few days old...

When we put Colm to bed a week ago Sunday night we noticed a few red spots on his upper torso. By morning it was obvious that he had chicken pox (varicelle). He had to have gotten it at school a week earlier. Normally it would have been no big deal as this is one of those things you hope to get out of the way in early childhood so that the kid has immunity and never has to worry about it again, but in this case the timing was unfortunate. First off, Tess had been required to get a vaccination for school so chances were that she wouldn't be able to take advantage of the this opportunity.

Secondly, this was the week we were expecting two sets of visitors. The first two, Adam and Missy, were due to arrive Monday evening. Their plan is stay for nine days. The second group comprised ofTanya, Jerry and their six month old baby, Gage, are already in Paris and are arriving here on Thursday!
All nine of us have planned an excursion to the Dordogne for the weekend. We've rented a large dormitory style room in an ancient abbey in Cadouin which is near Sarlat. Our friends have moved heaven and earth to get here and to do this trip to see castles and caves with us...and now Colm has the chicken pox. We leave a voice mail for Jerry and Tanya informing them of our situation. Hopefully all may still be well.
Monday night Colm is having a hard time with the itching. We've clipped his finger nails and given him a bath with baking soda...he looks awful. Fortunately he doesn't really know this. Beth goes to pick up Adam and Missy at eight o'clock. It's great to see them, they slip into our house and our routine as easily as a pair of old slippers. Adam has brought his Mac laptop which means that we are treated to wedding photos. Our kitchen counter has a bit of the Mac vs PC look to it.

Tuesday morning Colm is fully covered now and is being tortured by the desire to scratch his back, his ears, his groin. On the recommendation of our neighbor Beth purchased a medication called primalan at the's supposed to relieve itching. The best antidote seems to he holding him. I'm glad I have this time off from work to do that. Colm repeats over and over again that it still itches...
Beth and Tess go out with Adam and Missy and tour the area.
Colm and I watch a video, he naps a little and then I give him an afternoon bath. Tuesday night Colm sleeps pretty well.
Wednesday morning Colm wakes up chipper, he looks a sight but he's not complaining of itching. His spots are hardening and scabbing over which means he is nearing the end or maybe even past the point of being contagious....we're keeping our fingers crossed.

I get a call from our kids' school. They're wondering where Colm and Tess are. Vacation for the little ones is over but we're keeping our kids for the rest of the week...I had forgotten to call the school and tell them. I mention the chickenpox and the director tells me that it has hit other children in the school as there's one mystery solved anyway.
Wednesday afternoon the sun breaks out and we decide to haul everyone to the beach, Colm included. It seems to be a real tonic for him although I don't know if getting buried in the sand qualifies as a homeopathic treatment for chicken pox or not.

Wednesday evening comes and goes and still no complaints from Colm about itching.
Jerry calls from Paris. Unless I mistook him, I think I heard him compain about it being too hot in Paris...I think, what the...
He says, I hope you've got some clouds down there.
Not a chance, I say. You're bringing the sunshine with you.
Then I give him the chickenpox update.
Are we cancelling, he asks.
No, I say, are you?
No, though maybe we'll sleep in the back yard.
I laugh a bit nervously at the joke - hoping that's what it is. I tell him that I think that by the time they arrive Colm may be past the contagious phase. Even if he is contagious, I tell Jerry, healthy nursing babies of six months or older like Gage are not likely to get it or will usually only get mild versions of it, plus by the times symptoms arrived they would be back in the states...according to what I've read anyway.
I listen to myself and wonder if any of this sounds remotely like consolation to them.
Jerry's phone connection goes pieces on us and we have to quit with the plan intact...Thursday evening I will pick up them up at the train station in Bordeaux. The next day, we will pick up a rented van and all nine of us will leave for two nights and three days in the Dordogne...then I have to go back to work.
Thursday morning Colm is scabbing's a brilliant day, Beth is doing yoga beside the pool. I'm pondering the question - can we, should we, take our charming little biological weapon out into the unsuspecting public? Somehow the idea that we'll be staying in an ancient abbey and touring castles and prehistoric caves puts me in mind of the plague. People will look at Colm and be alarmed regardless of whether he is contagious or not.
I suppose one of the defining moments will occur this evening when Tanya and Jerry lay eyes on poor, scabby, pimply Colm. What will their body language tell us? wait and see...
Thursday evening I drove to Bordeaux to pick up our friends. I left early in the expectation of rush hour traffic and nonexistant traffic...both expectations were fulfilled. Miraculously, however, I scored a spot only twenty yards from the spot I had chosen as our meeting point. I went into the station, got a cup of coffee and waited for the train. I decided to try to intercept them on the platform as they disembarcked the train. I stationed myself midway between the two ends of the's a long train but then again Jerry is tall and carrying a baby. I figure that I have a good chance of spotting him. The passengers get off, I look up and down. No sign of them anywhere. I'm a little worried that they either didn't get off the train or that they weren't even on it. I head for the meeting point but there's nobody there. I call Beth to let her know the situation. I then begin sweeping the station. I stop a couple of security types and give them a description. I go to the information desk and do the same thing.
Finally I go to the welcome desk where the announcements are broadcast. The man there listens rather half heartedly to my story. Takes down Jerry's name and then broadcasts a call in French. "jairree aahhrmoan au bureau d'accueil s'il vous plait." I tell the man that there is little chance my friends could have understood that (I don't tell him that he probably couldn't have recognized his own name)...I ask him, can we broadcast in English please? He looks a bit put out and then asks me if I want to do it. I can't tell if he's being sarcastic but I jump at the chance. I take the microphone and in my best high school intercom voice I page Jerry to the information desk, not the welcome desk (accueil). I can tell that the man is nonplussed by my choice but I explain to him that Jerry knows what "information" means and looks like whereas "accueil" means nothing to him. More frowns and shrugs. I thank him and sprint for the information desk about fifty yards away. As I am crossing an open space I spot Jerry across the station. We make eye contact, mystery solved, friends found. We share a laugh about hearing my voice on the loudspeaker. Jerry reveals that they'd lost the paper with all the releveant information, rendezvous point, phone numbers etc... and had simply headed to the front entrance. We collect the family, snap a photo of Gage in his French hour later they're in the bosom of our home.
Friday I get up early to go get the rental van...we're going, Colm is doing much better even if he still looks like something of the Michael Jackson Thriller video. I get to the airport and discover that I don't have my driver's point of fact, I discover that I haven't been carrying my driver's license since we arrived in France. So.... I drive home (30 minutes each way). The whole idea of my leaving early was to help our large group get on the road at a decent hour...oh well, it's obviously time to dial up that Zen state of mind. We're off for the Dordogne.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Michel barre le bateau

Sunday we were invited by the parents of my exchange partner, Cecile, to spend the day at their vacation home in Cap Ferret. The plan was to show up at high tide, and go out on an excursion by boat to the Ile aux Oiseaux (Island of Birds), come back home and then have have dinner with the family.
We are welcomed into the bosom of the family by Cecile's father, Michel, and her mother, Annicke. In rapid succession we are introduced to their two sons, Simon and Mathieu, there is also Anne-Sophie, one of their three daughters (two of them being absent), the spouses and of course the five grandchildren... a veritable colonie de vacances. Tess and Colm have already slipped away to make reconnoiter the toy situation and the prospects for playmates. Literally within five minutes of my arrival, I am already fielding questions about school systems in America and France. There is in this family, I can see, a very lively streak of intellectual curiosity.
As is tradition here, the house has a name. It is christened SusanMonnette. She was built by Cecile's great-great grandfather, who used to come to the penninsula from Bordeaux to hunt. Back then near the turn of the twentieth century, there were no roads, no electrical power, no water. All of that has changed now and one has to use one's imagination to see this house in different surroundings.

Michel spent his boyhood vacations here, learning to sail little boats like this one, learning the tides and the idiosyncracies of the bassin channels, fishing, crawling over the time went on and this place became discovered and developed it all changed...but the most dramatic changes have only occured in the last decade or so. Now there is little land left to develop and the economic pressures on real estate prices have pushed prices into the stratosphere. Now the penninsula hosts an odd melange of people who are forced into close physical proximity but who seldom rub elbows with one another, from the oyster fisherman and artisan types whose quaint little cabins are now protected by government concessions which forbid their being sold or rented but which can be passed on to family members, to the nouveaux riches from Bordeaux and Paris whose estates advertise wealth, luxury, and privilege. You see it reflected in the models of cars which travel into the Cap, the Jaguars and the Porches. In between there are folks like Michel whose attachments to the penninsula extend back through generations even though their visits to this place are confined to vacations (confined is perhaps a misleading term since for French funtionaries, there are ample vacations). I suppose Cape Cod is something like this.
Michel has a boat. He bought and restored one of the traditional oyster boats of the bassin. It's called a pinasse. It many other things, the pinasse has become a pleasure boat, a collector's fancy. It navigates the waters of the bassin and does not venture out into the more turbulent and tricky waters where the ocean tides enter.
The pinasse floats just twenty or thiry meters away from the terrace where I engaged in conversation with various family members. I notice that a certain level of physical activity has commenced to buzz about us. And then Thomas, one of the grandchildren, an endearing sixteen year old with earnest brown eyes, brings me an armful of life jackets to try on the little ones. The tide is rising, and, as they say, it waits for no man. About ten of us are going. People come and go, it is a bit like mounting an expeditions, there are last minute questios about clothing, glasses, etc... we bundle up as the weather which was forecast to be sunny definitely portends other things.
Cecile's husband, Gerard has graciously volunteered as a kind of emissary smoothing the introductions and offering us useful asides detailing certain family relationships, who is married to whom, who does what for a living, who is older... I watch Michel steering the rudder of the pinasse. I ask Gerard what a tiller is in French.
"La barre." Then in a confidential tone which is clearly intended to convey to me that if I pay attention I may succed in speaking the language of the locals, he adds a bit of useful linguistic detail. You don't use the word conduire (to drive) when speaking about boats. Instead you use the word barrer which literally means to man the bar or the tiller of a boat. To describe what Michel is doing, you simply say, "Il barre le bateau."
I slide back to the stern and sit alongside Michel. He is a an obliging tour guide who clearly doesn't mind recounting the days of his boyhood here as well as bits and pieces of the history of the bassin. He points to different boats which either remind of his own childhood or people or activities he knows about. He refers numerous times to the changing channels and the shifting bars of sand both in and around the bassin. The winds have picked up and the air has cooled, we won't be going to the island, he says, instead we'll keep along the shoreline. We pass alternatively large estates, ugly condominiums, and fishing villages with their colorful windowshutters. A couple of guys on jetskis race past us and spray us with their wake causing Mathieu to send back a stream of profanities, none of which the offending jetskiers can hear, of course.
"The fishermen and the boaters hate these guys," says Gerard. Sounds familiar, I think to myself.

We pass by a Catholic church which features a distinctive Maroccan style of architecture. Michel tells about the origins of the place, how the builder was a Frenchman with strong ties to northern Africa and who had this church built as a chappelle to a villa which was also built according the style of the same area - colorful tile patterns, fountains in courtyards...

"Where is the villa?" I ask.
"The property was sold. And this was put up in it's place." Michel points to a square multilevel condo. "When the locals saw what this man was about they raised a fuss. Unforturnately, only the chappelle still remains."
As we crawl along I decide to ask Michel what he does for a living. I know that he works in the adminstration of the French government but that is all I know. He tells me that he is the president of the French equivalent of the American Sercurities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
"Hmmm..." I say, " Then it's you who is responsible for the expensive euro that is plaguing my family here."
Michel laughs. "Perhaps."
Eventually Michel brings the boat back to SusanMonnette where we are welcomed home by the littles grandchildren, Mathilde and Paulo, and all of the women folk.

A fire is lit in the old chimney inside the house. We sit and sip hot tea and then, as we regain our normal body temperatures, we slip back outside to the terrace under the flagpole for a glass wine or pastiche, a salty snack, and the omnipresent cigarette. The flag pole bears the colors of France and Chile since the wife of Mathieu is Chilean. It is customary in this house to fly the national colors of all the occupants. Michel apologizes for the absence of an American flag. It has been a long time since they had an American guest and the neighbor from whom they borrowed a flag for the occaision is away and out of reach, last minute inquiries had proved fruitless.
As we stand there and chat pleasantly, I am vaguely aware of being watched by people who walk by on the beach on the other side of the fence. I too have walked along this beach and gawked at the houses and caught glimpses of residents and wondered about their situations. Just past the passersby I can see the pinasse settling down onto the sand as the tide slowly drains away. The rhythms of life here correspond to such elemental influences.
Michel appears with a large platter containing three large fish, mule. He shows it around to everyone as a prelude to starting the barbecue. He then disappears back into the kitchen where he goes to work preparing platters of fresh oysters. Meanwhile, outside, a second barbecue is heating up. Crevettes (shrimp) are being prepared along with a petite preparation which is a flavorful combination of vegetables, herbs and spices.
If I told you that these shrimp were delicious, I would be guilty of lying by gross understatement. As I eat one, I am instantly reminded of the line in the film The Big Night where the main character who struggles to say in English (not his native tongue) how sublime a meal is finally simply exclaims, "If you eat it, you have to die!" It is that good.
Michel is supremely at ease in his role as host and guide. He speaks French to us, but every so often gives us a glimpse of his impeccable English as well. In fact, the entire family seems to be composed of anglophiles. Simon asks me for a colloquial equivalent for "Je prends mon pied."
"I take my foot?"
"It's a way of saying that something is great." (My dictionary claims that it also means to have an orgasm!)
I love linguistic tricks like this but as I wrack my brain for something to give him I experience that familiar feeling of being caught between two languages. Beth comes over and I enlist her help.
Finally, I blurt out, "That's the bomb, dude!"
I can't swear to its currency in pop culture right now but I know that I didn't make it up. It comes from somewhere. Simon is pleased. His brother seizes on the word "dude" and repeats it several times laughing. Then his face lights up.
"Lebowski...le grand Lebowski."
I nod at him smiling and I say in my deepest bass voice, "Dude...the dude abides."
Simon and his brother begin trading quotes and anecdotes from the film The Big Lebowski. I am impressed and enormously entertained. I throw out another line from the John Turturo character, named Jesus, who haunts the local bowling alley and wears incredibly tight disco-era outfits while transforming the act of bowling into an erotically charged piece of performance art.
"Nobody fuck with Jesus."
This sends Simon and his brother into yet another excited round of reenactments of the film.
The sixteen year old boy, Thomas, has sidled over in curiosity to find out what all the guys are talking about. He looks puzzled, Simon is more than happy to try explain the Jeff Bridges film which he has obviously seen more than once. I watch the men take the teenager under their wings and try to initiate him into the mysteries of this cult classic. I can see on the boy's face that something is getting lost in the translation, yet the enthusiasm of his uncles is so great that he seems pleased just to be included. They are trying to describe the scene where the ashes are cast out into the wind. Watching them laughing even at their own recollections, watching the boy smile uncomprehendingly at their antics, it occurs to me that the generational gap is every bit as wide and difficulty to bridge as the culture gap or the language gap.
After we have eaten all the shrimp and the snails, it is time to move indoors and sit at the large table. The meal begins in earnest there. Two large platters of oysters await us. Bread, butter, lemon. They will be followed by the fish and potatoes indivually wrapped in foil. A grand vin is brought out and poured into everyone's glasses. We toast everyone's health and drink. It is very good, even I can tell that. Gerard agrees but then he offers the opinion that it may yet be un peu vert (a little green). I get the feeling that Gerard has ventured into contrarian territory and that he is waiting for someone to respond. Michel does not really bite. He merely observes that the wine is not bad. At this point, Gerard hastens to correct any impression that he doesn't like the wine. It is a very good wine, to be sure, but all the same, perhaps a tad bit premature. There are a few murmurs around the table. It seems to me that everyone has an opinion even if they aren't necessarliy going to express it. By contrast, I have no opinion at all. People here are invested here emotionally (and financially) in their wine. It is not an affectation among the friends that I have observed; rather, it is a genuine passion. They love their wine and they love to talk about it.
Dinner conversation meanders all over the place... we talk about health food, somehow a round of Darth Vader sweeps the table, there is a funny series of attempts to correctly pronounce the name of Harrison Ford, laughter and teasing come easily to this group.
At some point mention of the missing American flag triggers a conversation on flags, pledges, and national anthems. The French are fascinated by our custom of having school children pledge allegiance to the flag. It is a practice which doesn't conform to some of their fundamental assumptions about American individualism. They ask me recite the pledge. I oblige them and then tell them the story about the insertion of the phrase "under God" into the pledge and the subsequent debates over that change. Someone wonders why they (the French) don't teach the French anthem, La Marseillaise, at school. Somebody else says that all the kids know it already. Some at the table are skeptical about this claim. Then there is the question of the suitability of the song for children, it's violent, savage imagery. Michel dismisses this claim, but Anne-Sophie's husband who is a magistrate persists. The interpretation is not his own but something that he's read, something with the weight of authority about it.
This claim is met with further skepticism around the table and what ensues is a line by line recitation of the song by everyone, a sort of collect close reading of the text. Each line is checked off as being nonobjectionable until they arrive finally at the chorus and to the phrase in question.
Aux armes, citoyens !     to arms citizens
Formez vos bataillons ! form your battallions
Marchons ! marchons ! forward march!
Qu'un sang impur so that the impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons ! will irrigate our fields
The consensus immediately breaks apart as no one can agree on what the line signifies. Is the sentiment expressed here one of self defense or blood lust? Annick observes that the ornate language itself is a problem and that the passage is perhaps obscure beyond repair. There are reminders of the historical origins of the song, how it helped unify the French at the end of their revolution in 1792.
I share the observation that our own anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, is notoriously difficult to sing. I am pressed for more information, what are the lyrics, can you sing it for us ( I try but it's a pretty lame effort). Finally, they want to know when it was written.
This is the kind of trivia question that will cost me a million dollars some day during my fifteen minutes of national TV celebrity. Without thinking I say the Revolutionary War. Almost as soon as the words are out of my mouth I know they are wrong. No wait, I say. That's wrong. I'm saying to myelf, I know this. Francis Scott Key, watching a shelling of Fort McHenry...or was it Fort Sumpter?, that's the Civil War, that's later. Then I remember... "the War of 1812." I say.
No one at the table has heard of that war.
"Who were you at war with?..."
"Great Britain... again, in 1812, "I say.
"Interesting, so were we."
Later, the salad and the cheese plate and then champagne and an enormous bowl of strawberries which will provide the catalyst for an animated argument about the politics of food and globalization. Michel, the freemarket guru, presides over a table dominated by socialists. He is supremely content to be in the minority and takes great pleasure, it seems, in the fact that everyone is here at the table. I indulge myself in some contrarian exchanges with Gerard who is railing about the need to return the earth to locally sustained food communities. I needle him about the relative costs of transporing tourists by air compared to that of transporting strawberries.
Gerard rails on about the problems of globalization and the need to preserve a certain order styled around local markets. I express skepticism about man's ability to structure things in such a way. Michel then opens his arms benificently and says with a smirk, "I think we should let the market determine whether we get our strawberries from Chile or not." Immediately his children raise a good natured hue and cry, and Michel is content to sit back and observe the fallout. I feel very much at home in this setting. Later the conversation turns to sports and I have a chance to try to explain American football and baseball and to pose some questions about rugby. There is a hilarious anecdote that Simon tells about a time he went to Cubs game in Wrigley Field....three and a half hours, nothing happens forever, people drink beer, people watch, nothing happens, people drink beer, nothing happens and then finally he goes to the toilet and misses the only homerun that wins the game. He is completely mystified by the attraction of the game. I counter his story with a caricature of a soccer game, people run around to no great purpose, nobody comes close to putting a ball in the net, people drink and sing songs, more running, more singing, finally you look away for a moment and "goooooaaaal!" Everybody laughs. We are in territory that Thomas loves and he begins to tell rugby stories of his own. He's sixteen and utterly happy to be hanging with the adults at the table four hours after we sat down.
It's two in the morning when we decide to find our kids and go home. Colm is asleep in the sofa. Tess is in one of the upstairs beds with one of the granddaughters sound asleep. Everyone wishes us a safe drive home and warns us about the gendarmes. Gerard tells us to follow him on the back roads home.
"If they stop you," he tells us, "Pretend you are Americans."
I'm worried that maybe Gerard has had too much to drink. Then he clarifies, "Don't speak French to them. That will confuse them."
We laugh. Then he looks at me. "If that doesn't work pretend you're having a stroke and keep saying, 'the hospital! the hospital!" Everybody laughs again. There are kisses all around, and they send us out into the wee hours of the morning on a wing and a prayer and enough good feeling to last us a lifetime.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Riding the parent rollercoaster

Maybe I haven't mentioned that we're in the middle of spring vacation here. This fact did not escape Tess's notice who way back last fall committed to memory one important fact - Kid parc reopens at the beginning of Spring vacation. That was about six months ago; nevertheless, when we mentioned very casually a couple of weeks ago what time of year it was, Tess immediately grasped the significance and said, "Kid parc is open!"
So we's a great place actually, both of our visits have taken up the better part of a day and have thoroughly delighted the kids without taxing our systems or our pocketbooks overmuch. Just like last time, the kids sampled as many rides as possible and they got to see Kiki the clown do his schtick again. It's interesting the difference half a year makes. The kids rode the roller coaster alone this time, and during Kiki's show when it came time for kids to be brought up onstage to take part in his concluding number, Tess shot her hand straight up into the air and patiently waited for Kiki to see her. Six months earlier, at this same moment I had asked her if she wanted to go up there and she had shrunk back in fear of the unkown. This time unfortunately we were sitting to one side and in the second row and he never made eye contact with her despite the fact that she held her hand aloft for the duration of the entire number. Tess was crestfallen when it became obvious she wouldn't get to up there. Nevertheless I was impressed by her eagerness to get involved, she's a gamer.

Later on, we had a scare with Tess when we lost her for a few minutes.
Looking back, neither Beth nor I can explain how it happened. We had taken both kids to an inflatable fun house that was enclosed by mesh walls. It had a single entrance. We stationed ourselves not more than fifteen or twenty feet from the entrance and watched. We saw both Tess and Colm appear and disappear within the interieur of the structure over and over again. Finally, after twenty minutes or so we decided to call them out and get ready to leave the park. I collected Colm right off the bat but when I looked for Tess I couldn't see her. I signalled to Beth to look around the back through the mesh walls but she came back empty handed.
We asked Colm where she was. He pointed inside. We let him go in to find her, but she wasn't there.
I was in complete denial that she could be missing since in my own mind there was no way she could have gotten past us unseen. But she had.
Beth said we'd better report it. I nodded, grabbed my cell phone and started into an urgent walk, canvassing of the immediate area, revisiting rides we had already been to.
The kind of worry that surfaces when you allow yourself to begin thinking the unthinkable is simply sickening. As I headed for the complex where I thought the office would be I immediately began thinking about the parking lot, what if a car was leaving, what if... I didn't really give in to that thought but neither could I erase it from my consciousness. Then I realized that I couldn't remember what Tess was wearing exactly. I wanted to give someone an accurate description so I called Beth who though out of sight was no more than fifty meters away. She picked up right away.
"Do you see her?" she said.
"I see her."
"Where?" I rounded a building and came into the outside dining area. Then I saw Tess walking. Amazingly that line of sight also led my eyes to Beth in background. "I see her."
"Why did you call me?"
"I couldn't remember what she was wearing."
"A pink shirt, black pants."
I hung up and made a silent vow to never ever again forget what my daughter was wearing.
I angled into Tess's line of sight. She saw me and very matter of factly veered in my direction. When I asked where she had gone, she said that she had wanted to ride fish ride. It was all very simple. I didn't get excited with her but I did calmly let her know that I wanted her to come to us when she was ready for a new ride and not to go by herself. She said okay.
All of this happened in the space of five minutes and within a radius of fifty meters, but the way time and space yawned open at us for those few long moments left us both a bit unhinged. Talk about rollercoasters.

phrench fonnix

French is a phonetique language. Here's Tess's take on how it works.
She produced this little glyph while Beth and I were sipping coffee. We barely noticed that she was asking us questions like "what letter makes the ____ sound?" Consequently our responses were a little haphazard and not really attuned to what she was attempting to do. She plowed ahead anyway. When we finally finished our coffee we discovered that she had indeed had a reason for asking.
Beth has transcribed the text at the bottom of the drawing but I'll give it to you here as well:
Jasmin, elle a un dauphin
Ariel, elle a un poisson

Jasmin has a dolphin
Ariel has a fish

Friday, April 13, 2007

What's wrong with the school system?

The title of this post sounds like a headline you might read in an American newspaper or magazine, perhaps even a new book title. It might surprise you to learn that a debate continues apace here in France on this very subject. One in five kids comes to sixth grade with reading difficulties. Schools have become increasingly beset by the problems of the surrounding culture, drugs, violence, apathy. The gap between the educational haves and have nots seems to be widening. The correlation between getting a diploma embarking on a satisfactory career/life path seems less and less evident... it would seem that globalization involves more than the pervasive spread cheap clothes or computer chips, included on the list of world exports might be societal malaise.
Hamed, one of my colleagues, sent me recently an editorial from Le Monde. His purpose in sending it to me was to correct any impression I might have about there being a lack of debate on the subject of how to best educate French children. Reading that essay sort of led to another essay by the same writer, Phillipe Meirieu.
Part of Meireiu's critique is that French schools and pedagogical practices have become inhospitable to the apsirations and needs of French youth, that teachers and administrators are mired in practices still premised on outmoded notions of economic stratification and authoritative models.
He argues for something he calls a "lycee unique", a concept that has more than a little in common with the American notion of high school in that it's main conceit is one school, one diploma, one social class...for Meirieu school is the place where socialization is as important as scholarization, where students are given more opportunities to explore and develop interests and are not pushed prematurely into irrevocable educational choices. School is where the many and varied elements of society learn, work and strive together in a way that prepares them to live harmoniously and respectfully together later on as full fledged citizens of the republic, instead of being sorted and separated into different social categories at the age of 13 or 14.
He is, not surprisingly, also a trenchant critic of consumer society values which he claims, if I read him correctly, subvert the values of egalitarian democracy.
In this same essay, buried at the end of a paragraph was a little barb directed at a specific someone Meirieu accused of having "caricatured" his (Meirieu's) work. Nowhere else in the essay did the name of another writer or thinker appear. I thought to myself, hmm...these guys don't like each other very much. Maybe he's the other side of this public debate. The other guy's name was Luc Ferry.
So I looked up Luc Ferry and discovered that he had served as Minister of Education in France between 2002-2004. The entry in Wikipedia also cryptically refers to him as a prominent proponent of Secular Humanism. A magazine article calls him one of the new generation of philosophers who is both media savvy and aiming at a larger audience. It turns out that while Minister of Education he wrote his own critique of the crisis in education in France, titled " A letter to those who care about our schools"(don't be misled by the title, it's actually a book). Ferry lays the blame for the current crisis in France's schools squarely on the phenonemon of what he calls " indvidualism". This trend, which he traces back to the 1960's has subverted the classical values that in his opinion undergird any legitimate attempt to educate the young, namely the twin notions of the transmission of knowledge and the hierarchy of values (chief among them work and respect).
Ferry seems fond of a kind of tough love approach to education. Don't coddle kids by putting their needs at the center of the universe. Their needs must be squared off with the need society has of them in order to perpetuate itself. Students don't need to blossom into who they are, they need to become someone else, namely an educated adult.
So there you have it - a radical proposal (for the French at least) that amounts to recycling an American style idea of a single comprehensive high school under the progressive banner of individual expression, social harmony and egalitarian democracy, and, on the other hand, a clarion call to restore traditional educational values of discipline, work and civility by a secular humanist (and anti-deconstructionist) philosopher darling of the emerging liberal right wing in France.
Are these contradictions or merely complexities?
If any of my readers, French or American, feel like helping me with any this, please don't hesitate to chime in.
In case you're more interested in who the Red Sox are playing right now...I understand, of course.

Monday, April 09, 2007

fishes and from the sole

The husband of my exchange partner had to come back three months early last week under difficult circumstances. Gerard's father is gravely ill from cancer. What under normal circumstances would have been an extended celebration and reuniting with friends, family and his beloved sea is now instead a profoundly difficult prelude to a separation far more traumatic than the culture shock each of us has had in our own ways to face.
He left behind him in America his wife, his teenage daughter and his youngest boy. Almost from the outset, his return was an ordeal, there was the long (30 hours) trip, the loss of his luggage containing souvenirs and family gifts, and finally the onset of a head cold which left his throat raw and reduced his voice to a cracking, hoarse whisper. Gerard is one of those people who inspires confidence, trust, and affection from the very first. We've spent precious little time with him, and yet he is already dear to us. To see him in this circumstance is painful. We are living in the house he built lovingly with his own hands. He is home yet not at home; everything is off kilter. All we can do is remind him as often as possible that he is welcome here in this place and at our table, but he is careful not to impose on us. Perhaps it was fitting therefore that on Easter Monday he and his two eldest sons, Stephan and Roman, joined us today for a lovely midday meal...fitting because this day marks for so many the twin themes of death and renewal.
It actually began last night, with Gerard and his boys showing up unannounced as we were finishing dinner. They hauled in a cooler filled with fish caught only hours earlier that day in Marseilles where Stephan has just completed his training to become a boat captain. There were crab legs, some tiny shell creatures no one could satisfactorily name for me, and the prize catch...six sole.
Being mostly ignorant about fish, especially the salt water variety, we sort of dumbly said thanks and offered everyone a glass of something but Gerard was all business. It was battle stations... there was work to be done and it needed to be done quickly. Fresh fish needed to be handled correctly and without delay. We put a large pot of water on the stove, dropped in the crab legs along with some bay leaves and other spices and started heating it up. While he put the sole on a platter, Gerard explained what to do with the crab, bring it a boil for just a toute petite minute then empty the pot and stow the crab legs in the fridge. He was adamant about the toute petite minute. Any more would spoil the meal. He then pointed with pride to the sole, what his son had furnished us was indeed special, even the best restaurants had difficulty getting access to fish this good this fresh.
Tomorrow, he would come back. He would show us how to prepare it. Beth asked him about side dishes, Gerard suggested potatoes. (Only later in the evening would we become panicked by the realization that we had no bread, no potatoes, no vegetables, and, worst of all, no wine and the next day was a national holiday...where would we get it?) Beth and I both felt a bit overwhelmed by the grandness of the gesture. We thanked Stephan again. We then discussed what time tomorrow to eat, evening or midday, and decided on the latter. With that Gerard looking weary and haggard left us, his boys trailing him out the door.
Beth and I sat there a bit stunned not only by the swiftness but also the rawness of the visit, Gerard had seemed too preoccupied, too tired probably to muster anything resembling a mask of good cheer, instead he had simply come into our (his) house as he was, generous always, kind at heart, but also harried and saddled with cares.
On the flip side, we'd had no chance at all to don masks of our own. We were caught in mid meal our mouths full of food, our tongues tied up in knots, the kids wearing tomato sauce on their faces, toys strewn everywhere, the sink full of dirty dishes. Twenty minutes after they arrived, they were gone.
Beth and I tried to digest what had just happened. Tomorrow we would be having Easter dinner, sole and crab, with Gerard and his boys. As we scanned the wreckage of our house and also slowly began to take mental stock of our provisions, there was a vague intimation of how much work there was to be done in a short time , but there was also an abiding pleasure in the realization that Gerard had let us in. We were already in his house, but it felt like he was letting us into what one of my mentors in college called the "sacred circle". The best way we could hope to reciprocate would be to pass a "bon moment ensemble" the next day.
And that is precisely what we did.
Which is not to say that there wasn't some sleep lost over the question of where to find wine and vegies. But life also continued on other fronts completely disconnected it would seem from other storylines. This was also the evening of the first ever bike rides by Tess and Colm which succeeded for a time in utterly displacing those concerns and replacing them with an unexpected jolt of euphoria. Life is not plotted like a well constructed novel, it sends out shooters in myriad directions. Over time we carry about inside us stories connected rather like aspens on a hillside. We went to bed very happy and a little unsettled by the uncertainties of how to feed the multitude the next day.
The next morning I go to the bakery. I get four baguettes: 1 Littorale, 1 Doucette, and 2 Mariannes. I am looking for a large strawberry tarte but they don't have one. As I pay for the bread I ask about the possibility of finding an open market so
mewhere. The women behind the counter looks at me in disbelief then asks her coworker in a voice loud enough for all the customers lined up behind me to hear, "He wants to know if there's a market open anywhere." The coworker shrugs that famous shrug. People behind me look nonplussed, as if to say, how could you ask a question like that?
The woman I asked, smiles and says, "It's Easter." She's trying to help me except that the me she's trying to help is not really me but some American cretin who doesn't get the notion of a national holiday where only critical services like emergency rooms and bakeries are open, and then only for a few hours, on holidays like Easter. That's not really me, I want to say to everyone, but instead I mutter something lame like, "I know it's Easter I just thought I'd ask." I beat it out of their and get in the car.
I'm on the point of giving up the search for a potatoes and wine when on an impulse I hang a left turn and head for the town of Ares a mere three miles down the road. I need to bring home some good news to Beth. There may be a bakery open there with a strawberry tarte. As I drive into the roundpoint in Ares I see that there are many cars parked around the church in the townsquare. And then I see the bakery, there's a line stretching out to the street. I park by the church and walk to the bakery. As I pause to look in the window, three more people join the end of the line. Inside, I see what I've come for, a large strawberry tarte
. I hurry over to get my spot in line. As long as nobody buys that tarte, this will be a trip well worth the time.
I needn't have worried. When I get to the counter I see that there about six such tartes and a few other types as well...all very appealing. Perhaps this will take some of the sting out of my failure to find the other things.
I stow the tarte in the Colm's car seat and pull out of the parking lot back into the roundpoint, as I swing round to the other side of the church I see that that the market is indeed open. I literally can't believe it. I flash back to the deadpan looks in the first bakery. Did no one know this market was open? Judging from the traffic coming in and out of the market's entrance it is certainly not well kept secret. Getting the information you need here...c'est pas evident.
I fish out the cell phone and tell Beth that lunar module has landed and that I'm about to set foot in an honest to goodness market. She talks me through the produce section, parsely, green make that asperegus, potatoes...Roger and out. What kind of wine do you drink with sole? Answer (according to the man stocking the shelves that morning), Chateau Ferran Entre-Deux-Mers Haut Benauge 2005. I get three bottles. Life is good once again.
At the check stand there is a moment of suspense as I offer my credit card and wait
to see if it will work...not every store is outfitted with the necessary equipment to make it work, though almost always there is no problem. The checker runs my card through and then waits, and waits, and waits. I'm in the midst of formulating a plan B involving a quick dash to the ATM machine across the square, another queue of nonplussed customers in my wake, when I notice that the other checkers are also waiting. There are three checkstands all them at a standstill, all of them with lines snaking back into the store's aisles. I decide to venture a little small talk with the checker.
"When all the machines are working at the same time, the system must go slower huh?" I haven't the faintest notion what I really mean by that, perhaps a single squirrel wearing down as he vainly tries to generate enough power to operate all those computerized gadgets?
The checker looks at me and says, "No. It's the boss. He's on the computer upstairs." She lifts her chin just enough to suggest an office somewhere up there. "When he's on the computer, everything down here slows down." I laugh at bit too hard at this disclosure. I should be frowning, pursing my lips, shaking my head at the poor service, but I'm just happy my card is going to work...eventually, it does.
So an hour after leaving home on Easter Monday, I return
with bread, potatos, asperegus and green beans, three bottles of wine, and a strawberry tarte. I'm quite sure that the coffee Beth made me is cold by now but that's a small price to pay for the satisfaction of providing for your family.
Two hours later (noon) Gerard comes over and thus begins a long, luxuriously slow developing day and meal that will not come to an end until another five hours have expired.
In the interim we will have looked at photos, swapped stories about our exchanges our families and friends, offered observations cultural and linguistic and often hilarious, even squeezed in a ping pong game or two, and we will have savored some very, very fine crab and sole on a sun drenched terrace table.
The warmth of this day is palpable, both human and heavenly. Like a cat, I want only to back up against it, to feel it on my skin and in my soul. I look around the table, the sunlit faces of Gerard and his sons, three points of light describing an arc that joins them to another far off and fading light in a bed in Bordeaux and one even farther away in the eyes of a young boy clear across the ocean in the northwest United States. Tess glides by on her bicycle. She can ride it now all by herself; it's as if she's sprouted wings. Colm is on his back humming on the grass with a book shading his eyes. Beth holds suspended a glass of white wine whose reflected light plays softly upon her tanned features...
From where we started, I think to myself, how did we ever get to such a place as this?