Monday, March 31, 2014

haiku-ing 2



Lauds: Spring

All along the rue
Shutters bang, curtains fly in
Southwesterly wind.

Friday, March 28, 2014

i fought the cliché and the cliché won

Aix-en-Provence
vendredi, 28 mars 2014

The topic of the homework assignment was right up my alley: "What kind of reader are you?" I frenched my way through a description of my preferred reading habits: what, when, where, why. That kind of thing.

And then I waited eagerly to discover how badly I had mangled the grammar. The day our professor returned the graded essays I discovered a squiggly line under the phrase "la littérature non romanesque," along with the question "c'est à dire?"

I had carefully consulted my various dictionaries to discover the French words for "nonfiction literature," but I hadn't been certain of the result, so I wasn't completely surprised to see the squiggly line indicating what I'd written wasn't clear enough for her to offer a correction.

Class ended, and I accosted the professor, eager to solve a mystery that has real bearing on my life, given that nonfiction literature is the genre I work in, dreaming as I am of one day being a real purveyor of long-form narrative journalism, of narrative nonfiction, of creative nonfiction...pick your term, they're all used in the writing circles I run in.

But apparently not in my professor's writing circles. (though I'm not sure she has any writing circles at all)

Voicing my question was that step you take when you're happily ambling down a quaint Aixois sidewalk and suddenly find you've stepped into one of the piles of dog sh.../poo that polka-dot the narrow walkways. As much as you try to focus on all the ancient beauty that surrounds you in this lovely town, the reality is that dog poo is a true part of life here too. And it's not even a hidden reality.

My innocent vocabulary question dropped me into one of the cross-cultural clichés whose existence I try so desperately to deny. Mme. Professeur essentially told me, as we walked down one of the bland corridors of the Fac de Lettre's main building, that nonfiction and literature are mutually exclusive terms. When she asked what kind of writing I was talking about, I explained that the term encompasses things like essays and memoir, but tried to explain that it's really more than that, that it's a genre of literature. But she would have none of it. She was adamant that these things of which I speak are not literature.

My first response was a moment of internal panic. I HAD to make her understand. Surely, she just wasn't understanding my French explanation. That's all this was: a language problem.

But in slow milliseconds, during which all of France's proud literary history crashed in a haughty, foaming wave over the top of me, I realized that I had to admit defeat at the hands of cliché.

Painful as it is for me to write it, sometimes clichés are true. Sometimes some French people can be inordinately rigid about definitions and structures and all things anti-creativity and innovation and bohemian fluidity. This was one of those times.

But this morning I've just finished reading a redemptive interview with the French writer Emmanuel Carrère. I'd never heard of him before, but I've immediately claimed him as my new French soulmate. He's a journalist and writer who, get this, writes what he calls "nonfiction novels." Take that, Madame le Professeur!

In the way of, well, anyone who is out for revenge over insults real or imagined, I want to deliver my find to her covered in some sort of ironic giftwrap, maybe with a French chocolate on top and an Eiffel tower Christmas tree ornament.

Instead, I'm just writing a nonfiction blog post about my imagined vengeance. So much less clichéd, right?

Friday, March 7, 2014

okay, okay, i did like paris a little

Starbucks - Blvd Garibaldi - Paris
samedi 8 février 2014


First view of the Seine.
 "C'est une bonne maladie," said the bookseller in reply to my (in French) "I love books, so shops like this are hard for me," as he totaled up my purchases. It was a beautiful and true reply, and delivered in French, it carried an even greater ring of truth, profundity, and bonne-ness than the same comment would have if uttered in English.

I felt deep down that he, in his French-ness and his bookseller-ness, completely understood and approved of this bonne maladie, this good illness, even more than your average American bookseller does. France carries a bookishness that America can somehow only match in small pockets. In France, one sometimes senses that "livre" and "France" are nearly synonymous.

When visiting American friends and I browsed a tidy, aesthetically-pleasing rare books shop in Avignon several months ago, we discovered that books from 19th century authors weren't old enough for this shop. Basically, a book needed to be older than America to warrant a place on the shop's tidy shelves filled with deliciously old book bindings and their pages. In the thrice-a-week market in Aix, what seems to me like a very old book--you know from the 1800s--sells for practically a dime a dozen (or, well, 5 euros per book, which is not the price of rarity).

Back in yesterday's Parisian shop, I felt like the bonne maladie I shared with the proprietor suddenly erased our cultural differences. In fact, he and I, we're citizens of the same pays, the country of booklovers.
Happy to get to pass by again in
the dark. Love the lights!

When I entered that bookshop, I crossed a threshhold much grander than simply the one marking the distinction between the sidewalk and the room of books. You see, I had just completed my first interview entirely in French for my first reported-from-France article. And then I entered a shop full of books written in French, where I purchased a couple Parisian guidebooks-in-French and made small-talk in French across the bookseller's counter. More adamantly than many other good elements of this current blessed semester of French progress, the threshhold marked my long-awaited arrival onto the first steps leading deeper into the bowels of the French way of life and psyche, a place that has until now remained just out of reach, dependent on my gaining a greater command of the language.

I'm glad I didn't come to Paris any sooner. After 16 months of having a French mailing address, French doesn't make me tired anymore. My grammar is still often terrible, especially when I don't have time to rehearse the sentence in my head first, and I still feel like I've become a very silent, tongue-tied version of my real self, but I often understand spoken and written things now without thinking about understanding them. I understand them without translating into English. Thus, a guidebook-in-French is useful rather than painful now. What a difference a year makes!

Paris, where all your antique fire poker
needs will be met.
The beauty of journeying to Paris at this point in my language-learning marathon is that from the beginning, I've entered the City of Light as a place where I speak French not English. In Aix my identity is too marked by English because I entered that town as an English-speaker (and because it's a place overrun by anglophones). Whereas, French is the language Paris and I are using for our love affair.

I can't yet say, "Paris, je t'aime," but perhaps that's mostly because I'm not a fall-in-love-at-first-sight kind of person. A bientôt, Paris!



Like those in this article, I, too, only stumbled upon the Wall for Peace monument without knowing what it was: "peace" inscribed in 32 languages and 12 alphabets.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

what's all the hype about?

Paris has served as muse to generations of artists, even to those who have never visited her. How has she accomplished this feat? Countless artists and writers have tried to say. Paris feeds an artist, motivates her, galvanizes her, and makes her murmur, "This is my home." A mere glimpse of a photo of a Parisian street causes us to feel both uplifted and bereft, thrilled by what Paris implies and saddened not to be living there right now. We do not have to list the reasons for its allure to get to the bottom line: Paris is the  place to write. Since it is the perfect place to writer, it is the perfect place to commit to write." --A Writer's Paris: a guided journey for the creative soul by Eric Maisel

Apparently, I'm on the eve of being fed, motivated, galvanized, and made to murmur. And I'm kind of resisting. It's the same way I resist anything that's become too popular and clichéd. (Such a little rebel I am.) And there's nearly nothing (in a hyperbolic kind of way) that's more clichéd than a writer/artist who's inspired by Paris.

Tonight I settled into my dark brown fauteuil (one of the French words I love), which you might simply refer to as an Ikea armchair, for a smidge of pre-bed reading. Life's been busy, and tonight I needed to read and ponder and ruminate for a few minutes. So glancing at the clock and calculating that I could read for 30 minutes, I reached for the stack of no less than 4 books I had brought to the chair. This is the story of my life. So many books and not enough time.

As I said, I had settled. But then I unsettled myself and strode a purposeful five steps to the other side of my cozy, little apartment to reach for one of the four books among my meager supply in my current abode that have Paris in the title or subtitle. Three of them are about writing in Paris.

When I read the quote above, I realized some things:

  • I kind of want to not like Paris. It's so overdone.
  • I'm in to-do list mode at the moment with some once-far-off deadlines pressing uncomfortably close, and since I decided to try to do a couple interviews while there, I've viewed my upcoming Paris weekend with the adjective "productive" in mind. I don't really have time for a vacation right now.
  • I have not been anticipating my maiden voyage to the City of Light with my writer self in mind. In my mind, this trip has been about doing a little work and visiting friends, not about languishing in leisure, searching for inspiration, or creating something new and beatiful.
Then I realized some other things:
  • Maybe I should think about leaving space for some aimless yet inspired and inspiring meandering this weekend.
  • With Paris, I subconsciously want to find reasons that it doesn't live up to its hyper-superlative status. When I visit a city in Africa, I want to discover ways the city outshines it's negative hype.
  • When I bought these Paris-centric books for my expansive book collection, I had no idea I'd end up living in France a few years later. Life is amazing.
  • I'm still on a campaign to educate the world that prima-dona Paris is not the only city in France. I'm afraid that by taking photos there or mentioning Paris on social media, I will step over the line onto a long and wind-y path along which no one will ever again believe that I don't live in Paris but I do live in France.
And that, my friends, is where things stand as I head to bed THE NIGHT BEFORE I GO TO PARIS for the first time!!! :-)

Friday, January 24, 2014

all the best travel stories include a bathroom scene

Can you believe it? Another toilet photo?
This one's at my university. Lovely, huh?
It was July 2000, and I was enjoying my third trip outside the U.S. This time, I was visiting my dear college friend Julie who was living in Londrina, Brazil.

As has continued to be my modus operandi in my travels since then, I had gone to Brazil to see Julie, not to check off a long list of tourist attractions. Thankfully, though, she organized for us what is still one of my favorite travel memories.

One afternoon we hopped aboard a bus for a lengthy-ish trek to Iguaçu Falls/Iguazu Falls. Being the bad traveler I am who doesn't research places before I go to them, I had never heard of this rumbling paradise before. (Here are some intel and photos.) But I was excited about the trip: taking a local bus with real local people outside the city with stops in small towns as we made our way to the grand attraction would be almost as great as the waterfall itself, in my opinion.

As I recall, the bus ride delivered on its promise of adventure, including some crowdedness and an unplanned stop at a bus depot because someone threw up. We either changed buses or waited for ours to be cleaned; I can no longer recall the specifics.

What I remember most about that ride, though, is climbing off the bus at a small town bus station and eagerly following the other women to the bathroom. So far all my Brazilian bathroom experiences had been pretty much like the ones in the U.S., so I had no expectation of anything different.

But as I stepped into the stall, I paused in surprise and confusion. Was this possible? Were my eyes deceiving me? And what was I supposed to do next?

In that little Brazilian bus station I encountered my first seat-less toilet. It had never occurred to me that toilets might not automatically come with seats. Or that it could be an intentional choice not to include a seat with a public toilet. I had never thought of toilet seats as luxuries.

I've traveled a lot more since then and used a lot of different types of "toilets." I've even mastered the squatty potty variety enough that on a couple occasions -- given the options and depending on what I was wearing -- I've chosen the squatty over the regular toilet (and then called my girl scout leader to request my squatty potty badge). I've probably encountered other seat-less toilets, but they don't stand out in my memories.

But then I arrived in France, a reasonably hygienic country with most of the amenities my American self is used to. Yet after nearly 1.5 years here, I'm still not fully acclimated to the bathroom culture of this place. Sometimes it's pretty much the same as in the U.S., but other times it's wildly different.

For starters, it's rare to find a toilet seat in the bathrooms in the university building that holds my classrooms, and in addition to that, most of bathrooms aren't designated as male or female. They're a free-for-all. There are individual stalls, so really, there's still full privacy, but it still feels strange to walk through the doorway from the hallway into the bathroom on the heals of a man, because in public bathrooms in the U.S. that only happens by accident, in the stories you tell your friends for a laugh (after you've recovered enough from the embarrassment).

In other places, here, things are even more shocking (to my privacy-loving, body-parts-covering American self). At a nearby brasserie, when the need for relief strikes, you follow circular stairs down to a small basement bathroom. First the sink greets you at the bottom of the stairs. Then to the right are a couple small stalls with doors. But beside those and without a door? A urinal. C'est la vie ici.

It's also reasonably common to find men relieving themselves against some building or other (or sometimes a dumpster suffices for them) right here in the center of town, especially at night after a few hours at a bar. Sometimes they seek out shadowed corners, sometimes not. I suppose it's one way of feeling a little like you're camping even when you can't escape the urban life to hie thee for the woods?

Bathroom culture is a fascinating piece of culture exploration, one that any traveler will unavoidably encounter. It doesn't get much more quotidian than reliving oneself somewhere, somehow. And it strikes into all these core assumptions and sensibilities that are part of us without our ever choosing them. They're part of us simply because of where we come from and how we've grown up. And it's not until encountering an alternative that we ever realize our way of doing bathrooms isn't the only proper one. And that maybe the other options are perfectly and completely acceptable, even if they just feel awkward and weird and uncomfortable because they're not what we're used to.

And as uncomfortable as these moments are, one of my favorite things about soaking into a new culture is discovering the many ways of thinking and being that are subconsciously part of me. Once I discover there are other options, I get to make a choice: continue doing things the way I've always done them or make a change. Whatever the result, the beauty is that it's now an intentional choice, not an at-the-mercy-of-not-knowing-anything-else one.

For the record, I still choose toilet seats whenever possible.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

French homework


We've logged two whole weeks of class in this new semester. I'm in the most advanced group in my program now, a fact that on the surface indicates that I know a lot of French. The surface is only partly true. Some days. C'est la vie on the rollercoaster than is learning a new language.

Today we turned in a big dossier assignment: a self-portrait created by following a number of different famous French forms for talking about yourself, most of which I don't really like:

  • There's the "portrait chinois" (Chinese portrait, which has nothing really to do with China), which follows the model of "If I was an animal/piece of clothing/type of work/country/piece of jewelry/etc, I would be...." I hate these types of questions! :-)
  • The Proust questionnaire. Here's all the history on this form of questioning.
  • A list of things you want to do before you die, following the model of a list compiled by French novelist/filmmaker/essayist Georges Perec.
  • A list of things you like and don't like as associated with specific moments and memories, following the model of Amélie Poulain in the film Amélie.
  • A physical and moral self-portrait, modeled after one written by Michel Leiris
  • And finally, a description of my life 10 years from now, an exercise in using future and conditional tenses of French verbs and the hardest part of this assignment for me, and not because of the verbs. As I said on Twitter last night: Who knew writing a future for myself (10 years hence) would be my hardest French homework yet?
So just for fun, here's my list à la Georges Perec:

J'aimerais....
  • Ecrire au moins un livre (en anglais) sur un sujet intenational.
  • Faire mon travail comme journaliste freelance en français ainsi qu'en anglais.
  • Habiter dans une ferme.
  • Cultiver un jardin.
  • Prendre les leçons de dance classique.
  • Ouvrir et diriger une pension pour des écrivains.
  • Faire un voyage dans un bateau sur la mer.
  • Ecrire un recueil de poésie.
  • Lire les grands auteaur français en français et les grands auteurs qui viennent d'autres pays.
  • Lancer une exposition de mes photographies.
  • Aimer quelqu'un sans limite.
  • Etre actrice dans un film ou une pièce de théâtre.
  • Ecrire un scénario de film et travailler avec une équipe pour réaliser ce film.

In English:
I would like to:
  • Write at least one book on some sort of international topic.
  • Do my freelance work in French as well as English.
  • Live on a farm.
  • Grow a garden.
  • Take ballet lessons.
  • Open and run a retreat center for writers and other artists.
  • Publish a collection of poetry.
  • Take a trip on a boat on the ocean/sea.
  • Read the great French authors in French, and read authors from other countries, too (in English or French).
  • Launch an exhibit of my photography.
  • Love someone without limits.
  • Be an actress in a film or play.
  • Write a film script and work with a team to make the film.
I'm not 100% attached to all of these, and I don't really keep a running list like this, but forced to conform for the sake of my education, I caved. And made the list. And it was a little bit fun.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

on being excited the french way

Now that French classes and freelance deadlines have finished for the semester, I can finally give this blog a little love once again.

(And sleep. And breath. And figure out how to cook once more. And maybe even reply to your email message from early October.)

For starters, here's a link to my guest blog post on the Zestyverse blog, curated by the lovely and talented E. Amato.

On Being Excited the French Way 

by Kami L. Rice  

Yesterday, I tried for the hundredth time to use French to share my enthusiasm about some excitement or other. I have been informally polling the French for the past year, asking how to communicate this sentiment in their lovely language. I’d been told by at least one person that you can get away with saying, “Je suis excitée...” “I am excited ...” if you complete the phrase with a description of what you’re excited about—otherwise, you’re basically saying you’re feeling horny, which apparently is something the French know how to communicate. [Head over to Zestyverse for the rest!]

And speaking of languages
A friend recently (let's be honest, it was sometime back in November and I only just had time to read the article) alerted me to this interesting article about languages and personalities: "Do Different Languages Convey Different Personalities?" The author of the article seems skeptical, but, me, I could buy it. At a minimum there are a whole lot of culturally predisposed mindsets, actions, and worldviews wrapped up in language so deeply that speakers of the language can hardly avoid absorbing them. Discovering what those predisposed mindsets, actions, and worldviews are is one of my favorite (among many) things about learning French in France.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

climbing over obstacles usually pays off

Tonight I entered more deeply into the mysterious bowels of the tabac/café that mesmerizes me more each time I visit it.

For a year I've passed it regularly but never stopped. The localness of it intimidated me. Perhaps I and my halting French wouldn't be welcome there. For all my adventurousness, it is still often an act of will for me to push myself over the threshold of places that look like they contain unwritten rules I won't understand immediately. I can cross national borders with ease, but doorways to unknown-to-me eating establishments in Nashville or Aix, n'importe où, rise up before me as tall as climbing walls without handholds.

I suppose we all have our quirks.

This is one of mine.

But this tabac, with its small terrasse (terrace) tucked into the folds of the cathedral's outer ramparts and underneath the shade of an average-size tree, has always seemed a bit mysterious to me. Through its doorway, the long, narrow shop with a counter running perpendicular to the street looks more like a liquor shop or cigarette counter than a place to get coffee. Various brands of cigarettes line the wood shelves behind, followed by tall liquor bottles and clear glasses. All reflecting light off their surfaces.

But my French friend Hélène helped me over the first barrier when we chose this terrasse a couple months ago for one of our weekly chats. More quiet than the larger cafés on the nearby Place de la Mairie, it's as though the walls of the cathedral provide warm arms that contradict the slight gloominess suggested by the near constant shadows that cover the protected terrasse.

We've since returned to these cool shadows a few times. The server, an older woman with a short haircut and wide shoulders framing her comfortably plump-ish figure, is warmly unintrusive each time.

Today, at twilight, it was too cool to claim an outdoor spot for my reading time. So with a "bonsoir" to the server-woman/proprietress and another taking a smoke break with her at the door, I thrust myself over the threshold into the heretofore unknown inner sanctum, the warm seats in the back that you can't see from the street.

My companions back here have since exited, leaving me alone with my empty cappuccino cup, my pen, my paper, my book, and my certainty that I must return to this sanctuary. The warmest of conversational buzzes floats back to me from the few tables near the counter. I can just glimpse the two women exchanging bisous with a few favored customers across the counter.

On a street lined with tourist-attracting shops, I feel like I've entered a gem where family lives. There's certainly something to be said for thrusting oneself across thresholds.  

Sunday, September 29, 2013

who doesn't want to claim Chimamanda Adichie as a kindred spirit?

This TED Talk by the eloquent Chimamanda Adichie speaks perfectly to why I'm preparing for and pursuing the story-telling vision I'm aiming for.

Chimamanda on the danger of a single story:


It's worth every minute of its 19 minutes.

I read Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun in the months leading up to my 2007 travels in several countries in Africa and loved it. Such a good story and so well-written.

As a side note, I think this book was my first introduction to jollof rice. After reading about it, I was so curious about what it was and tasted like. So I was beyond excited when I got to eat it in Ghana, the first stop of my African sojourn and the only West African country I visited. That's the beauty of literature: introducing us to things a world away from our regular lives. And then it's the beauty of travel to actually get to discover the real-life version represented on the pages. Both experiences were richer for being paired with each other.

Yet, whenever we read or travel, if we're too beholden to stereotypes, believing them to be the only version of life in a place, we'll be unlikely to see a place and a people in their fullness.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

culture shock. or not

True confession: This is my French toilet. It is not
 in a gas station. Alas, I had no American ones
on hand for illustration. Who takes
pictures of toilets?
It was a gas station bathroom. One not remarkable in any way except that it was relievingly clean, as "les toilettes" at the big trucker-targeting interstate-highway gas station complexes tend to be--cleaner, at least, than the kind around back that must be entered with keys attached to three-foot-long boards marked "Women" in black magic marker. I was making my first little solo road trip in months, maybe a year, even, and enjoying the chance to be alone in a car on the open road during a summer trip back to the U.S.

The bathroom was small-ish as such bathrooms go, with only about three stalls. I exited to the sink ahead of the other woman who had entered the bathroom. But she had reached the hand-washing stage of things beside me by the time I was waving my hands under the magic sensor to acquire a paper towel. What emerged surprised me: only about three inches of stingy dispensing. As I waved a second time, so I could dry my other hand, she was receiving her first ration.

And then suddenly I realized I could comment aloud about the slightly comical allotment. So I did. She smiled and agreed that these were the smallest paper towels in the world (or maybe it was something slightly less hyperbolic but just as friendly).

And it was in that little highway bathroom somewhere in Tennessee that I realized how the past year, and especially the six months since my two-week run State-side for Christmas, had retrained me: I've stopped talking to strangers.

My brain still doesn't work fast enough in French to succeed well in those spontaneous life moments in which two unknown-to-each-other people exchange their humanity for a few seconds. And outside of France--say, in the realm of international flights--I now wonder how you can ever know which language to try first when speaking to someone you don't know. Really, you can't tell by looking at most people what language they speak. And with one and 1/4 languages now at my disposal, I'm paralyzed by the possibility of choice.

This thing that in my former life had always been a certainty--speak in English and they will understand--is no longer certain. As though I've eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, my new knowledge has left me tongue-tied. The world is no longer simple and innocent.

I hadn't realized how silent I've become until I was confronted by it in that truck-stop loo. It was strange and sobering and exciting all at once to discover how my new cultural milieu has changed me. I tend to dance between cultures quite easily, feeling at home in lots of places in this world. This is mostly a gift, though sometimes being a chameleon leaves you wondering who you really are.

So when others talk about culture shock, I can barely relate. I enter new places excited to discover how they are different and how they are similar to all the other places I know. I enter eager to understand how people transact life there, eager to interact with them on their terms. Perhaps it's that lens of wonder that keeps me from being too rattled by all that's new and different. I don't expect it to be the same. I want it to be different. I want the world's cultures to keep their endearing and sometimes-maddening quirks.

But this is the longest I've lived outside the States, so I have wondered if this culture shock thing would rear its ugly head in time to celebrate my one-year anniversary of life abroad. I expect I'll discover other effects, but for now I've just stopped talking to strangers. I suppose that's not so bad as the list of potential shocking maladies goes. And I have hope that this skill isn't lost forever. So watch out, strangers of the world, my French is improving. One day I'll learn how to say, "That's the shortest paper towel I've ever seen!"

haiku-ing


Imperceptible

sun sanctuary
withers into mud unafraid
holy season change



Monday, September 9, 2013

on the importance of travel

Carthage ruins, Tunisia

At the end of August, I made my first foray into North Africa, something I've been wanting to do since arriving in southern France last year and making North Africa my neighbor. Upon setting foot in Tunis, I quickly found myself falling at least half in love with Tunisia from the word go.

I hadn't been sure what to expect given the Middle Eastern/North African security warnings dominating the airways in the weeks leading up to my hop across the Mediterranean. But our Tunisian travels went off without a hitch.

Tunisia felt partly familiar and partly exotic. It was this beautiful mélange of other places I've visited or lived in and loved: India, sub-Saharan Africa, France. Yet, it had its own spice. And who's not attracted to someone who's comfortable to be around but keeps things interesting with a little fire and spirit?

By all Instagram appearances, my trip across the sea was a fun vacation. In this case, appearances are only partly correct. In reality, any travel I do is also work. But, hey, work can be fun! You see, given the line of work I'm in and the vision I have for the stories I want to tell more of, every exposure to new cultures and places is extremely valuable, whether I'm there to tell an already-assigned story or not.

I've written more articles related to Haiti and interviewed more Haitians from the U.S. than I did during my month in Haiti in 2008. But because of having spent that month in Haiti, I had a better context for everything my Haitian interviewees said to me in those later interviews. I understood their world more than I would have if I had never been to Haiti. Before I interviewed them across telephone wires, I had been in their home country, ridden in tap-taps, eaten Haitian food, and enjoyed the vibrancy of their culture. This allowed me to connect with them better, drawing out their trust. It allowed me to ask better questions. It allowed me to understand their answers through a lens that wasn't only American.

When I was in Kenya in 2007, I wrote on my blog about my visit to one of the slums outside Nairobi. I had been in Africa for 4 or 5 weeks at that point, and I had been listening attentively to everything I could in order to understand accurately what I observed. Yet, I still got something wrong. It's just a short little sentence in the middle of a blog post, and it's not even actually factually wrong. But the way I used that sentence painted an inaccurate picture, though I didn't know that until a long time later.

The offending sentence is this one: "Several of the children and babies weren't wearing underwear or diapers." I wrote it in a paragraph illustrating the needs in the slum and at a particular orphanage. A while later, well after returning to the U.S., after the images from these travels and others had had time to roll around in my brain for a while, a question emerged.

What if the reason those little kids weren't wearing underwear or diapers had nothing to do with poverty?

I ranged back over the images archived in my head. And maybe some recorded in pixels too. I began to realize that it was mostly the littlest kids running around with uncovered bottoms. The older kids usually had some sort of clothing.

I'm not sure what connected the dots for me, but I finally asked a friend who came from one of Africa's countries about it, to check out my hunch: Were those kids diaper- and underwear-less because they were still potty training? And in a community where most of life happens outdoors, it makes way more sense to let the three-year-olds run around free to go when the need hits? (How many American three-year-olds wouldn't love the same freedom?)

My hunch was confirmed. But you see, I didn't ask the question back when I wrote that blog post, because it never crossed my mind that there was any possible interpretation other than the fact that no one had money to get clothes for these poor kids.

I thought I understood, so I didn't ask.

A story is normally only as good as the questions one asks before writing it. And this is why I need to travel and learn as much as I can. Because it was traveling and observing and putting two and two together that finally prompted the question and corrected my impressions.

I'll never be able to rid my stories of all such errors, but my goal is to keep chipping away at my own and others' incorrect impressions. I want to keep being confronted by questions I never thought to ask before.

Thus, I need to travel as often and as much as I can, for the sake of the stories I will write. Work and rest are nearly inseparable in a writer's life. Any experience is fair game for one day being written up. Most of the time, that's perfectly fine. Working didn't make my Tunisian vacation any less fun. :-)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

oh, metric system, how I try to love thee

I can now admit that I was a bit smug a year ago when I packed to move to France, for what I then thought would be just one year. I was a little proud of myself for being world-wise and think-ahead enough to know it might be difficult to find my kind of measuring cups in France. You know, the kind that actually measure things by cups or portions thereof.

With my American recipes in hand, I was going to need some 1/4 cups and 2/3 cups of lovely ingredients from the local French produce markets. What a beautiful marriage it would be between U.S. standard units and metric-world items.

And so I and my measuring cups arrived to conquer France (only in a manner of speaking, mind you, and that manner is not a literal one). As I cooked my way through this part of the world last year ("cooked" is also used loosely here), I found myself regularly googling various conversion units and engaging in mathematics gymnastics every other meal. You don't want to know how many calculations it takes to make a bowl of oatmeal when you purchase the oatmeal in France where my 1/2 cup measures are nowhere to be found in the cooking directions. Determining how many grams of oats go with how many milliliters of water is the stuff of nightmares, even for those of us who actually like math. (Not to mention the fact that what that box refers to as a serving size is barely enough for a beetle to live on.)

Upon my return to lovely southern France a couple weeks ago after a six-week summer séjour (as the French would say) State-side, I'm taking some little steps to commit here. I'll be here at least another year, maybe longer (anything's possible!), and I don't want to live here transitionally for the next 20 years because I only sign up one year at a time.

Thus, came the idea of all ideas. The one that was destined to make the world a much better place. Or at least my world. The realization exploded in my brain--a brain made more agile by all those real life math problems I did last year, I bet--that I could actually go buy a milliliters measuring device! Such kitchen gadgets really aren't reserved only for those who grew up metric. In fact, when I crept into the kitchen shop--no need to draw attention to the act of treason that was about to go down--no one even asked to see my French residence permit before accepting my money. Amazing!

So watch out world. Looks like I'm really living in France now!

And don't worry, I will continue to get plenty of real life, brain-exercising mathematics application moments every time I buy anything, courtesy of earning money in dollars and spending them (painfully) in euros--euros that I'm very happy aren't pounds, the money kind or the weight kind.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

French matchmakers

[Don't lose heart! This equal opportunity post appears below in English. Brought to you by new language learners everywhere.]

~~Un jour au marché~~

Aujourd'hui au marché les fraises m'ont appellé avec leur beauté rouge. Donc j'ai arreté en face d'elles et j'ai attendu le vendeur.

"C'est deux barquettes pour 5 euros," a dit-il. Pour une barquette c'était 3 euros, selon le signe sur la table.

"Juste une," j'ai répondu. "Je ne peux pas manger deux parce que je suis seule."

"Vous êtes seule?" Ses yeux se sont éclairés. "Mon frère est seule. Voulez-vous me l'appeller?" Il a fait le signe universel pour le téléphone avec son pouce et le petit doigt proche son oreille.

J'ai souri. C'était drôle. 

J'ai fini mon achat.

Et puis l'homme m'a dit encore. "J'appelle mon frère?" Il était sérieux. 

"Non, merci," j'ai répondu. Pendant que je suis partie, j'ai imaginé la conversation: "Boujour, monsieur. Voulez-vous manger des fraises avec moi?"

C'est un vendeur astucieux: pour vendre plus de fraises, il vend son frère aussi.




~~One day at the market~~

Today at the market the strawberries called to me with their red beauty. So I stopped in front of them and waited for the vendor.

"It is two cartons for 5 euros," he told me. One carton was 3 euros, according to the sign on the table.

"Just one," I replied. "I can't eat two because it's just me."

"You are alone?" His eyes brightened. "My brother is single. Do you want me to call him?" He made the universal sign for a telephone call with his thumb and pinky near his ear. 

I smiled. It was funny. 

I finished my purchase. 

And then the man said again to me. "I call my brother?" He was serious.

"No, thank you," I replied. While I walked away, I imagined the conversation: "Hello, sir. Would you like to eat some strawberries with me?"

This salesman is quite shrewd: to sell more strawberries, he also sells his brother.