Tuesday, December 13, 2016

pinning the tail pretty much wherever

…in which we note that the trainride to Gare de Comprehension is long and contains many stops, but also great views

On Wednesday last week, le petit garçon (I AM NOT PETIT) brought his class notebook home in his backpack. This is our conveyor of messages about the classroom and school in general: We’re visiting a museum. There’s been a case of lice, be on the lookout. We’re making chocolates, please bring ingredients. The food service people will be on strike next week. (In France perchance?) This time, class pictures have arrived! They’re ready to be paid for and picked up.

Although I scrutinize these communiqués, I invariably miss something. A verb tense, an innuendo, lost in the ether of translation. I’ve already amassed a trunkload of examples. Just yesterday, our former landlady sent me a note asking if I had by any chance taken with me the little key which was on the trousseau. I don’t know how to translate trousseau, but I thought, aha! I can sleuth my way through this. If trousseau in English means a woman’s possessions, often mostly clothes, which accompanies her into marriage, then maybe in French “trousseau” means something in which one puts one’s clothes and other belongings, like a chest of drawers. I rack my brain to think about what piece of furniture in her house might fit the bill but can’t think of it, so I write back asking which trousseau might she be referring to—the one in the hallway? I ask The Frenchman who casually says “the trousseau of keys”—as in trousseau de clés—and it turns out it’s a little old keyring. Apparently, trousser means ‘to truss’, or perhaps to ‘bundle’, as a bride might bundle up the items in her trousseau—or I might bundle my bloody keys together. Sheesh.

Excited and a little apprehensive, I put my money in an envelope and write, in my best handwriting and my good blue brush pen: Luca Brancourt. 17 euros. We decide to get the full package, though I’ve no idea really what this means. Is it a page of 2x3 wallet-size photos? What does “wallet-size” mean here? What is this word that maybe means siblings? How much time do we have to get this done? Will they think me pathetically overeager if I turn up the very next day with my money?

I realize that these small anxieties arise, and pile up, so frequently I hardly even notice. 

We arrive to school, to the usual bustle of hurried parents, jackets and scarves, dawdling children, final bisous. I hold my envelope of money in both hands, wondering what to do next, some kind of unsure and obedient student again. A stack of picture packages waits expectantly on the desks. Apparently we have all chosen the 17-euro option, and I say a brief prayer of thanks that I have made the Right Decision, I am flowing with the group somewhat. With my eyes closed I staggered forward, grasping my donkey’s tail which I then pinned willy-nilly on the first wall I bumped into, and this time I got it kinda close to the ass. Success! 
The maîtresse sits, noting who’s paid and moneys collected. She seems a bit discombulated, fielding questions and taking cash from hovering parents crowded around the desk. I see several with twenty euro bills and think, I have an envelope of change, maybe I can assist here! Only I’m not sure about the word for change. Monnaie? Change? No, that sounds silly. Stupid. Argh, silly stupid simple sentence. Here—I have some change. Jeezus, Una. I lean in a little, clear my throat, say Here, here, but it’s like there’s an ocean between me and this person two feet away across the table. Am I speaking that softly? J’ai, j’ai… I’m hoping someone else will finish my sentence. What is with this today? What an idiot I must appear, fumbling around with the simplest of words.

Finally—after what seems like hours with me standing there waving my envelope in the crowd—she takes my money, sees that there is change here! … and notes that le petit garçon has picked up his pictures.

I have already been thinking about what to say once I pay. I’m ready with “Je peux prendre?” and before I get the chance she says Prenez, gesturing to the pile of pictures. My mind turns it over and I think Yes, OK, she’s saying take, but with vous, conjugating prendre. Five stops along the way before we reach our station of comprehension, and another three at least before I can summon my response and the courage to express it aloud.

During this whole worrying swirl, I notice a child sitting next to me, looking over the class picture with his mother. Indifferent to the activity around him, he busily scans each of the four rows of students looking earnestly out at us, and names each one. 

Magdalena Manon Ahmed Aylan Daphné Harold Gaspar Violette Lubna Lucas avec S Aurélien Zeli . . .

He’s got momentum, and I can sense his pride in being able to name them with such speed. The mother beams too, and I am grinning idiotically, looking forward to le petit garçon doing the same when we get home. He watches on, impressed by his friend’s skill.

I’ll take this moment of grace amidst the chaos. The occasional pause, to just stand and look around, with wonder. Watching, breathing, present in the lost-ness. The clouds shift and the weather clears a little. I’ll take it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

je suis comme je suis

. . . in which we discover, and find solace in, poetry

Discovering the work of Billy Collins, at a young age
Each morning when I bring le petit garçon to school, I stretch our10-minute drop-off window for as long as I’m able. I surreptitiously scour his classroom, searching for new drawings, writings, anything to get a sense of what they’ve been up to. I know that linguistic and cultural barriers inhibit my full understanding, but I think it’s also something about the way they operate, gates closed and locked except during these brief, monitored periods, that also lends a sense of opacity and mystery to school here. I know they dance on Tuesdays, and they draw a lot, and they’re learning cursive. I know the lunch menu. We received a note asking us to please bring a book about Egypt if we have one. But not a lot of detail, not the kind I’m used to from our old school, where we all had the code to the observation room and could watch for as long as we wished, or felt welcome to hang out and help in class any time.

So it comes as a complete surprise when, a couple of weeks ago as I’m standing at the stove stirring pasta and he’s talking playfully with The Frenchman, he asks — Can you tell me about Jacques Prévert? … and then like a magician starts reciting lines from one of his poems.

Did I just hear what I thought I heard? I ask for a little more, and then begins to spill, out of this 5-year-old child’s mouth, a flow of words …

En sortant de l’école
nos avons recontré
un grand chemin de fer 
qui nous a emmenés….

I am a lover of poetry, and especially memorizing poems, so that I have access to them at any moment. And here, my favorite person on all earth, has learned a poem! By memory! I had no idea he had this in him. I scramble to look it up, and then with just a few prompts he recites the entire fifty lines. It’s about children leaving school — maybe for the day, maybe more metaphorically to become adults — and all the strange and wonderful things they discover.

If you don’t know Jacques Prévert, well, Bienvenue au club. As I have quickly learned, the prolific Prévert, a poet and screenwriter, is a household name here, and every schoolchild studies his poems. FranceTV has a whole section on his work on their education site. You’ve probably seen his picture before, maybe in one of Robert Doisneau’s photographs. Prévert’s simplistic style makes him accessible for children — and, as it turns out, me. He speaks to their capacity to dream.   
Jacques Prévert, by Robert Doisneau

I discover other poems, this next one published in 1945, so short and sweet and fitting with its straightforward language, plus it involves coffee. An unadorned description of a morning routine... deceptive in its minimalism, no doubt.

Déjeuner du Matin
Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de café
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au lait
avec la petite cuiller
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café au lait
et il a reposé la tasse
sans me parler…

He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
Into the coffee with milk
With a small spoon
He stirred it
He drank the coffee
And he put down the cup
Without speaking to me…

Turns out, le petit garçon and his classmates are securing other ditties to memory too. Another evening he recites a playful song consisting of people’s names, which rhyme with the activities they do. I catch him humming his favorite line as he’s having a pee before bed: “Brigitte — s’agit, s’agit”.

I listen and smile. It occurs to me that this bilingual thing is like having a bigger playground. You reach into your cabinet of tools to describe life’s myriad emotions and experiences, and you have so much more to choose from. In this case, how much better it sounds in French, how much more playful — “Brigitte, s’agit, s’agit” — versus “Brigitte bustles about, bustles about” or worse, “Brigitte tosses restlessly, tosses restlessly”. Well over twenty years after my time living abroad, I still encounter moments when a certain Norwegian phrase says it just so, in a way I’ve never found in English. There must be so many examples.

Admitting I had no idea who Jacques Prévert was is a little embarrassing. But how can you be something other than what you are? As another poem begins:  Je suis comme je suis / je suis faite comme ça. To be able to be this, imperfect — and the potential for such discoveries — is precisely what brought me to France. You don’t know Jacques Prévert? Really? Here. Here you go. Turns out you needed him.

We're so alike. J Prévert by R Doisneau.