Monday, February 18, 2013

mountains in my blood

Somewhere between Lyon and Albertville, France

17 février 2013

Naked vineyards climb snow-covered slopes. Slopes that are angular and rocky. Not soft and rounded like the mountains I come from. Occasionally, a small, ancient castle—perhaps intact, perhaps in crumbling disrepair after centuries of standing tall—slides into view, as though it’s no big deal to be a castle, still claiming a vantage point that assures no marauders can approach unseen. Roofs of all sizes are pitched steeply, ostensibly to keep the heavy snow from collapsing them, but even pitched roofs can eventually succumb to the heavy, wet whiteness, it seems. Along with and sometimes on top of castles, broken roofs, too, have slid past, each scene in view for only seconds—oh, look! now there’s a tall, narrow waterfall outside my window, gushing melted snow—as the train zips on its merry way.

Albertville, France

Even if my weekend in Albertville (site of the 1992 winter Olympics!) had been terrible—which it wasn’t—the weekend jaunt would still have been worth it for the train ride alone. On my Friday exit from Aix to Albertville, views were mostly muted and monochrome, but beautifully so, hinting at the weather that had brought the previous night’s pillowy snowfall. As I return south today, the sky is clear and bright, making the landscape’s every color seem more fully itself: the white, white snow; the deep brown/black of disrobed trees; a blue, blue sky; the warm stone-brown of still-lived-in old houses; multitudes of shutters flaunting bright greens or light blues, cherry browns or apple reds.

And as I observe families of homes huddled together in the shadow of the rocky heights and wonder how the shadows and the beauty mark the lives inside those homes, my train takes me back to other places where I’ve wondered similar things.

Kalongo, Uganda

Suddenly, I’m back in Uganda, wondering about the people of Kalongo who live in the austere but beautiful shadow of that strange, rock-mountain that towers over their round, thatched roofs. And then I’m in Cape Town, South Africa, where Table Mountain marks life for inquisitive four-year-olds such as my cousin’s daughter and for residents eager to return home to the security of their mountain’s austere but familiar footprint.

Cape Town, South Africa

Next, the snowy Alps and the cultivated slopes transport me to the mountain villages I visited while trekking in India’s stretch of the Himalayas. Especially that particularly heart-claiming village where the people were so very friendly and their terraced farmland, so high up, was the picture of order and hard work and healthy harvest. And from there I am back in the Appalachians that birthed me, back in scenes I was reminded of in India.

Uttarakhand, India

Just as certain qualities of urban centers are a culture all their own no matter what nationality marks them, so it is with communities tucked into mountain crevices. I felt at home in Northern India partly because it reminded me of home in Northeastern Tennessee, where a drive along curvy mountain roads showcases sheds of patchwork tin and sometimes-dilapidated barns with partially-intact roofs, clinging to life a little longer in solidarity with their older cousins in the Alps. 

Upper East Tennessee, USA

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

adventures in living cross-lingually

Street cleaner in Madrid. This gives you an idea
the scene. photo by Jose Angel Astor
Tuesday afternoon I stepped out of my building to rush through centre ville's lovely maze of narrow streets to my afternoon French writing workshop in a much less aesthetically pleasing classroom south of centre ville at Aix-Marseille University. I quickly reached the end of my block, turned the corner, and slowed minutely while I fumbled with my phone, trying to call my French language exchange partner to update her on our post-class meeting time.

Then I realized the "Mademoiselle" I was hearing was aimed at me. Normally here, strangers don't speak to or acknowledge each other on the street, unless asking for directions, and I was sure the street cleaner man (I don't know what they're called here) with his fluorescent reflective vest and rolling trash can had to know these streets better than I do.

My feet paused their rushing, though my brain was still trying to make that phone call and get to class on time. The man of 50-some years had a friendly, kindly demeanor, but unfortunately, I didn't understand at all what he said to me. He wasn't asking for directions, and when his French didn't fit the one contextual situation that seemed possible, I was lost. Plus, my head really didn't have time to stop rushing long enough to have a real conversation with him, and I still have to concentrate very hard to have any hope of understanding.

So I confessed that I didn't understand and apologized that my French isn't very good. To which he then repeated the one word I did understand: "le tableau." A painting. He proceeded to pantomime what a painting was and gesture down the street, where there were no paintings, billboards, or even graffiti in sight. Okay, sir, I understand this conversation has something to do with a painting, but what? Alas, he never explained--or I never understood--what he was saying to me about this painting.

Finally, 30 seconds later (which feels much longer in such little quotidian street scenes) we both admitted defeat. I apologized again for not understanding. He's said good-naturedly, "Ce pas grave." (Basically: No worries. It's not a big deal.) And my feet commenced rushing with my brain.

But the rest of the way to class my brain had a mystery on its hands, one that will never be solved: What in the world was this man saying to me? Why did he stop me? None of the possible scenarios I can imagine seem the least bit plausible: He's an artist and wanted to paint my picture? Unlikely. He was hitting on me? Unlikely, as he was more grandpa than casanova. He's selling paintings? Unlikely, no fine tableaux were wedged between the trash can and broom on his rolling cart. I look like someone in a painting? Again, unlikely, as he'd seen me for all of 5 seconds before calling out "Mademoiselle." He's a scout out looking for blond girls to be painted by the artist who has an atelier (workshop) down that street? You got it: very unlikely. He wanted to know if I had any paintings to throw away? All together now: unlikely.

Does anyone out there have any plausible scenarios to contribute? Just because "ce pas grave" doesn't mean I'm not going to be curious about this for a while. And is "I was practicing French on the streets of Aix" an acceptable excuse for being late to class? With a little more time, a little less rushing, I might have understood. Would my teachers have been proud when I walked into class bearing a painting of myself that was going to be thrown away unless I bought it while scheduling a date with the street cleaner man and the artist down the street?