Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

Paris and Rennes revisited

July 21, 2010

It has been so long I am at a loss for words as I face a white screen.  What may I add to what I have said and the world has said about Paris and Rennes? Almost nothing.

Into that nothing one may dig and discover a touch of disappointment.  This blogger is beginning to see in what he sees the ugly side of things, to the point of saying things like “To enjoy being in Paris, stay indoors and read a book, and remember Paris”, or “Buy a bagette and a piece of cheese and eat in your hotel room”, or “Shut your window to avoid hearing the nasty honks of chic cars”, or “You should write down the words and describe the attitudes of some of the sales people, and run indoors to avoid being totally depressed”.

In Paris, in July, it is fun to walk here and there: all you hear are  languages other than French.  So Paris and Rennes revisited is about nostalgic moments.  It is getting tiring to revisit and yet there is something ethereal and enjoyable about climbing into a taxi, buying metro tickets, avoiding some cafés, and choosing to stay indoors and let the masses of humanity walk all over those blessed sidewalks in search of the stone beauty that is certainly here.


“Are you in the real estate business?”

June 14, 2010

Driving on French toll freeways is not as pleasant as driving in toll-free national and regional highways or even village roads.  When you have the added pressure of seeing radars ready to photograph your license plate when you go beyond the speed limit you long for the days when you could enjoy the scenery by hitchhiking or by train.

On one of our return trips from Bretagne, as we were headed for the Auvergne region in the heart of France, we suddenly left the A28 toll freeway to have some lunch.  The inspiration to leave the freeway came from a sign indicating some sort of château worth seeing.  It is always a mistake to stop for lunch past 2 pm because with the exception of imported fast food restaurants of renown, almost no one serves lunch past the sacred and official lunchtime.

It took us more than twenty minutes to reach the château town, but the château was being cleaned or renovated and there was nothing to see and do at that time.  And no one was open for lunch.  But as we were going back to the freeway I remembered seeing, on the way in, a corner café snack bar at the intersection of two roads.   I had seen it coming because when I saw it I could have taken the road to its right or the one to its left, and that snack bar stood in that angle, a very appealing white structure.  It was time to stop and ask for lunch and by the same token, I told myself, a snapshot was calling to be taken.

Once inside the dark café I asked the owner/bartender if he was serving lunch, and he looked at me, then at the lonely man by the counter across him, and at the wall clock, before saying something in French which would be the equivalent of « Can’t you see that it is almost three and by that time you can go anywhere in this country you won’t find a soul willing to fry you an egg, so thank you for coming and good bye monsieur and I don’t really care if I ever see you again.»

On the way out I chose a spot from which I could snap the historic shot, to keep it in my memory bank.  The name of the snack bar had changed from « Au bon coin » to « Le bon coin », roughly meaning the « right corner » or the « good corner ».  Indeed it was a fitting name, the good angle and the right angle in that imaginary triangle, in an isolated corner of the county.

I went back to the rented car and as I was about to start the French engine, a police car with two very tall and serious « gendarmes » parked to my immediate left, almost blocking the car.   They basically came from nowhere.  I was so puzzled that I stepped outside to see what I had done in a car that had not moved an inch for over ten fifteen minutes.  It is at that moment that one of the « gendarmes », came around his unmarked car and asked me with a straight face: « Etes-vous dans l’immobilier ? » (« Are you in real estate? »).  Frankly I had no idea what he meant, and within seconds he mentioned the fact that I had just taken a picture of the snack bar.  Oh my God! I thought.  Did they see me take a picture, or did the snack bar owner phoned to complain about my asking for lunch at a suspicious time and THEN take a picture once outside.

I said that I was American and that I was fascinated by French towns, buildings, streets, trees, and I may have mentioned that my wife was French, and that I had spent my life reading French literature till my head went dizzy,  and that I was not in the real estate business.  That was all they needed to hear before they left as fast as I they had arrived.

So much for lunch at 3 pm in quaint French towns.

Don’t say “Habeebee”

June 13, 2010

I am not sure I look at things the way most fellow humans look at things.  For instance, although I think I am prejudice-free, with multiple roots and multiples dwellings over the years, born there, lived over there and  moved to somewhere in-between, before going way over there and returning time and again to the middle of over here, and before settling in the middle of  another here, I still put tags on people.  It may be just pure curiosity.  The fellow may be French, but by speech patterns at least, I’ll say he is from the north of this place, or from the southern part of that place.  Can we speak of prejudice when the human tendency is to ask, “Where are you from?”

That evening, in front of our favorite French hotel, the sidewalk was blocked by a tall and muscular young man identified by the author as coming from the northern part of another continent I knew well.  For reasons to be determined I said to myself this young man knows one form or another of the Arabic tongue I used to speak with my father as I was growing up.

So when the young man, helmet and all, occupying a good chunk of the sidewalk would not move, thus blocking passage (I understood that the conversation he was carrying made it impossible to hear our repeated requests to move out of our way), I decided then more or less gently to tap on his motorcycle to get his attention.  He turned around and was so furious that he managed to get off his bike and became violent and almost hit me. “Why did you touch my bike?” and other similar comments ensued.

I thought it would be smart to calm him down with the word “habeebee”, meaning in Arabic “my dear”, as a way to show him I was not trying to attack him but simply that I was seeking passage.  “Habeebee” compounded the problem and I had to go inside the hotel to seek advice and decide whether the police should be called  to calm the intruding motorcycle from a pedestrian sidewalk. 

By the time I returned to the outdoor scene where I had left my wife and my daughter with a couple of workers trying to resolve the incident, the young man had decided to leave.  Three times his age it dawned on me that any youngster if insulted by my having “touched” his bike could easily have beaten me, “habeebee” or not “habeebee”.  The Arabic term of endearment did not go well either because he was insulted by my touching or tapping on his bike frame, or because I took the liberty to speak a language he may have forgotten or he may have not understood, or that he may have not accepted to use with someone unknown to him.

If there is another lesson here is that it is probably wise not to seek exchanges or involvements in public spaces at any time, anywhere, any place to avoid unexpected reactions from unknown and unpredictable fellow human beings who could care less about intentions and language use.

Friday night auctions in Pocatello

June 2, 2010

Vague Memories of living in America (VMLA) (I)

The distance between San Francisco and Pocatello, Idaho, is roughly the same as the distance between the Gem State and Africa.  I vaguely remember that when I told friends in the Bay Area we were moving to Idaho, they looked in disbelief and said: “Idaho?”.  And a year later when we were getting ready for another eastward move, our new friends in Pocatello said in similar disbelief: “Africa?”.  There is a perceived center of gravity in today’s world, and it shifts.

With my highest degree in my pocket there were only three job possibilities in the United States open for someone with my qualifications.  A university position in the department of languages in Birmingham, Alabama; in Austin, or was it Sherman, in Texas; and finally in Pocatello, Idaho.  The state university of Idaho was looking for the ideal candidate, a professor of French, Spanish and Russian.  They settled for my French and my Spanish.  It was a very good year.  Vague memories thirty years later revolve around the university’s credit union, our department chairwoman, the kind evaluations of my students, the one or two short films I managed to shoot, and the feeling of isolation.

Pocatello was a slight problem at the beginning.  We were extremely used to fancy shopping centers in the Bay Area back in the early eighty’s, sophisticated coffee house establishments, great boutiques and frequent festivals.  In the early months of my very short tenure in Pocatello, as I set about looking for Bay Area excitement in Idaho, I decided that the grisly bear and the Friday night auctions would become temporary replacements of old attachments.

We came regularly to those auctions for the togetherness and the bidding.   And we needed some of the purchases to fill an empty house.   That particular Friday night we picked up for $8 a great looking brand new slide projector.  Those were my pre-Africa photography days, when I thought my slides were beyond beautiful.  The love of one’s work is a terrible thing!  The downside of the projector was that it did not have a power cord.  So that was the end of our belief in the potential of Pocatello as our very own future home.

After the auction session we went backstage looking around and I found somewhere on the floor the “misplaced” power cord.  That was not the highlight of my week in Pocatello, but it felt heavenly.  We knew then that Pocatello was to be our future. You don’t find power cords just like that.  I knew then that I was meant to become a new Ansel Adams or more appropriately a new Henri Cartier-Bresson.

But by then we knew that we were “destined” to leave for Africa.  The last quiet weeks in middle America, far from the Baltimore, Los Angeles and  San Francisco days, were times of inner celebration of the bounties mid-western towns bestow on strangers.   I felt the spirit of the founders of a nation before things got big and bigger and a bit out of hand. 

A letter from a former university student of mine a few days ago, out of the blue, brought me back in time three long, full and vague decades to the cordless slide projector days in the Pocatello we thought we knew of the good Gem State.

The blue transformer thief

May 23, 2010

Vague Memories of Small Wars (part II)

This story has the feel of a mild nightmare of the pre-golden age. The thief was a civilian gangster under the guise of a militiaman, dressed cowboy style with sunglasses and an AK-47. Those things are noisy, they work and they hurt, and most of the time they actually kill. But the tough guys were not evil, they were just signs of unjust times and world upheaval.

The aging white four-wheel drive, like an agile old man ready to impress any youngster anytime, received an order for flight. The pilot and co-pilots knew their end was near. The only escape route was somewhere out of the city through crowded neighborhoods of frightened families looking at each other for clues. Small change was needed to pay for “coffee” at villages dotting greenish and reddish landscapes on the way to bluish ones.

The jeep was loaded with goods, scared dogs and scared humans. As the jeep continued on the long dirt road, the sudden sound of machine guns broke the silence as a nervous jeep with four militiamen came up on the left and forced an immediate stop.

The militiamen ordered an inspection. They grabbed a radio cassette, and a black poodle. They did not see the larger scared dogs hiding under boxes, suitcases and rugs. After senseless philosophical discussions they threatened to shoot the tires. When peace was finally brokered the leader insisted on taking the heavy blue transformer.

Two hours later the four-wheel vehicle ran into the same tough guys, as they were busy pumping gas out of an innocent truck to fill up their busy vehicle. With great respect the pilot of dogs and humans, begged to retrieve the dark blue transformer in exchange for a bill or two. The man obliged.

A blue transformer may be a material object, worthless to some. But in these days of 110 volts versus 220 volts, owning it and being allowed to put one’s right foot on top of it in days of peace, reminds one that fighters fighting small wars are oftentimes looting time, while survivors perceive blue transformers in times of small wars as great trophies.

The Easter egg

May 21, 2010

An Easter egg is an« Oeuf de Pâques» in French.  So around Easter time, once upon a time, for reasons I no longer remember, I made a detour and found myself in the heart of France.  Smack in the middle.

I decided to drop by my mother-in-law’s wonderful village abode in that part of the Auvergne region, near the city of Le Puy-en-Velay, a pilgrimage town of unsurpassed volcanic beauty.

In the photogenic village of Beauregard, home to twenty rustic and modern dwellings, where cows are queens and make a good living with farmers progressively unhappy with rules, quotas and other issues, we used to spend short and long periods of time, vacationing, and admiring the vast expanses of hills and fields, between Loudes and Fix Saint-Geney.

The house itself, ancient and memorable, is the single most beautiful old rustic and modest dwelling for miles around.  It just has a personality and charm that is rare. Not chic, not large, but authentic with no modern touches, just a place to live honestly and simply in the early twenty’s with no insulation, just a woodstove in the dining room.  Absolute simplicity and scents of another era

Over the years Madame Renée would send us dozens of letters in her generous cursive prose worth a short story or two.  I always remembered her for being an antique specialist, a fighter for human rights, a defender of the poor and the downtrodden, and willing to risk everything to speak her peace and right wrongs.  All with elegance, conviction and devotion.  Madame Renée was gentle, generous and tough, pen ready to write to politicians and presidents if she sensed nonsense.

So, that Easter day as I was finding my way to the village on the hill, I managed to arrive late in the evening.  Unannounced, s’il vous plait.  As I knocked on the front door my French mother, Madame Renée to many, looked in utter disbelief but much happiness and said: “Vous êtes mon plus bel œuf de Pâques” (You are my most beautiful Easter egg). 

This is dedicated to that grand French Lady and her devoted sons and daughters that surround her with love in that gentle mountain town of Gap in the Alps where she now lives.


May 21, 2010

The Weight On Women (WOW)

African women are special in more ways than one.  As a matter of principle men should not talk about women with an air of authority, because after all what do they know about the real inner feelings, joys and sufferings of women?  Men and machos of all shades brag about the fact that they are surrounded by women, on account that they have mothers, wives and daughters, and therefore they understand.  But for heaven’s sake,  does that make me a woman?

As a man I will take a chance and speak my peace, with no authority, nor authorization but from the witness stand.  From observations across Africa, but specifically from the heart of it, it is my humble view that women are charged by invisible forces, and  some visible ones too, with the task of carrying weight for reasons that may be apparent to the initiated.

Carrying a child or ten  before birth is something men will never understand.  I for one declare that on that particular point, women’s status should be an inch higher than men.  I know I sound a bit off the wall; but on those grounds alone women should be entitled to have higher salaries than men, and be honored more than their counterparts.  Wishful thinking says he.

I have seen around the town of Kikwit in the Bandundu region and on the outskirts of the city of Goma in Kivu,  places located in the former Zaire, women going to work very early in the morning, as in a procession, to far off fields carrying on their heads heavy loads, going and coming, day in day out.  By heavy I mean heavy, you need two people to lift the load.

And if carrying before birth, and carrying on their heads were not enough, they end up carrying on their backs their young child, in a well balanced way with a generous piece of cloth, that allows them to manage both child and load and perhaps something heavy in one or two hands. 

If all that physical weight were not enough, let us add the burdens of fetching water, cooking and keeping an eye on households under pressures unbearable to some, and fighting for their belongings when the man is gone and relatives come knocking.

 Any volunteers to show gratefulness, and not just on Valentine’s day and Mother’s day?


May 14, 2010

Travels with a black coat and a bush hat (II)

Somewhere in the northwest coast of France, in Bretagne, Binic sits facing the island of Guernsey far in the distance and further to the north, invisible to naked eyes, two coastal towns planted somewhere in Devon or Dorset, Sidmouth and Exmouth, and most probably closely related, look back in silence.

Binic has a harbor full of small boats, small restaurants by sea level, and small houses scattered across the town, which spreads from sea level to an elevation that overlooks the sea.  For some tourists the fun comes from watching the tides: the succession of high and low tides throughout the day makes for a natural free show hard to beat.

When the low tide finally settles in and the water goes to sea, the hundreds of wooden and colorful fishermen’s boats, among others, look silly sitting on sand incapable of moving and anxiously awaiting  a bit of water to look respectable.

My better half loves the sand, the waves, the air, the salty water, and the billion shells more than I can explain.  I do too, but I show my appreciation through pen and lens, and that has to do with the hat and the coat that get in the way.

Besides taking in the view, absorbing the landscape, and visiting an art gallery or the local museum celebrating “things of the sea” of a past era, there is really not much to do, besides strolling up and down the hill and or walking on the sea shore.

Although the dark crepes or “galettes” made out of buckwheat flour– a favorite flour for those recently converted to the diabetic mode of living—are found in every other street corner across the Bretagne region, I gravitate towards places like Binic because of the idea that buckwheat galettes are about the only foods I can look and eat without fear because they are not made out of the omnipresent white flower found in all patisseries across the hexagone.

But to be honest, I come straight here from the Gare de Rennes because the name Binic, like most things French, carries a poetry of its own.  There is a magic and a charm in French words that are not easy to explain.  It has to do perhaps with long exposure to poets like Rimbaud, and Verlaine, and novelists like Proust and Flaubert.  Their music makes you love the stones.  And that is another matter.

La Gare de Rennes

May 11, 2010

Travels with a black coat and a bush hat (I)

The train station of the city of Rennes in Bretagne is more than a train station.  It is of course a “gare” like any other “gare” across the land.  A train station in France is part of the landscape, like a church or a “mairie” (town hall).

As a building serving thousands of arrivals and departures it is impressively modern and practical with an automatic underground metro serving city dwellers. But it is the way the building sits with such a vast and open esplanade before it that draws me to the area like a living magnet.  I may enjoy the old part of town, only if I use the metro to get there, and remain impressed with the modernism of all its architecture, I am still drawn to Rennes because of the humble buildings surrounding the esplanade and facing the train station like old admirers.

There are several hotels and several restaurants all equally priced and clean as a new coin, standing like row houses in front of the station.  I happen to sleep in the same hotel on one side and have dinner in a crepe restaurant on the other side of the main boulevard that comes from the middle of town straight on towards the “gare” and divides the area in two semi-circular chunks.  But the esplanade remains so spacious that at times great popular exhibits grace it for days, and just walking across it feels grandiose.

There is no classical beauty in that ensemble.  There is nothing that will fill a line in any travel guide.  And nothing much happens around the area except the ceaseless arrival of cars eager to welcome travelers or those dropping them off for their journeys.  So as bland and clean as the place is (a virtue of course as far as the reputation of most train station neighborhoods go) I cannot understand the strong attraction I feel when I think of going to Rennes.

Is it because some close African friends have lived and live in the city, or is it because of old friends from other chapters of our lives that have chosen the area to settle for good, or is it perhaps because a lady of spiritual insight and another lady of high medical acumen live in the vicinity and heals with plants, roots and herbal teas that Rennes has become charged with emotions invisible to a regular traveler? Or is just the way the station sits with the esplanade before it in an open dialog with the plain buildings facing it.

The corner hotel, by itself, is probably the only one in France I have ever stayed in that makes my days feel like moments of pure bliss.  With no need to make a single purchase in town, nor drink the customary coffee, nor the least croissant plain or with almonds, nor walk in any particular direction, the traveler across the train station as he leaves his quaint and honest hotel with the bush hat and the black coat feels he has achieved unsurpassed contentment having done nothing noteworthy besides being there.

To say or not to say

May 10, 2010

In the blogosphere words carry truth and opinions and authors and commentators need not identify the flags under which they live nor the social strata they call home.  I, for one, make a great deal of effort to feel loyalty to the world at large, although I was born in one continent, raised here and there, did most of my university studies in another and lived in three continents.  My ancestors are from a fourth continent and part my family still lives in a fifth.

So I feel I belong nowhere in particular.  Loyalty to the world would be a motto to live by.  I have chosen to write about an axis that starts in South Africa, goes through two Congos, and before it reaches the United States goes to France (and Italy) through the British Isles and Ireland.  An axis of a certain beauty.  These places I know and I will dwell on things of value and lesser value and comment with balance when possible.  

Because we live in the heart of our favorite continent I feel committed to writing more about Africa. This writing is intended for readers and commentators that are curious about the world, and care about the continent and may desire to lend a hand and offer advice if they so choose. African readers that live in the continent, or have left it may learn very little from my entries.

When I travel I will comment on my travels as I travel, hot off the streets. When I don’t, I will reminisce about vague memories, and will fictionalize when needed, but will warn when that happens.

This type of writing has not produced negative criticism so far except when I attempted to describe a sensitive subject  It may be wiser and even safer then for me not to comment on negative things even if what appears to be a negative entry is factual writing and reflects the opinions and sentiments of people born and raised in these parts.  

This reminds me of why I stopped taking pictures in Africa.  I was told that taking pictures when those being photographed have not been warned and did not have the time to prepare themselves to look their best (which is what streets photographers do on Saturdays and Sundays photographing couples and others for photo albums) reflects poorly on the people and therefore the act of shooting a picture is perceived as demeaning to those being photographed.  Others invoked a belief that in taking a picture you were robbing people of their souls.  It is a good thing that great photographers have, in spite of these warnings, managed to take great stills and published them with no consequence I could detect.

I was encouraged to write with details, as in good fiction, to help readers smell the roses, and see the hues of the leaves of the safou tree, and the color of the eyes of the Okapi.  I don’t always go for those details because I don’t have the required writing skills, nor the need to color the words, nor the patience to do so as I try to stick to a black and white description with enough hints for readers and commentators to add the details at will.  Plus I am always seeking an angle to trigger a thought or a smile of understanding or of sympathy.

But in conclusion I must say that as I tread a fine line of reporting and balancing the good and the ugly, I adhere to the belief that all humans are sisters and brothers trying their best to live productive lives in a safe and peaceful world with borders to be crossed with pleasure and no pain.