French Friday: Goodbye, Ms. Shreve

It’s a last minute Friday post, almost Sunday for part of the country. But when my husband told me that the great author Anita Shreve had just died, I instinctively found my way to the room where I write and store all the novels written by female writers that I’ve read and love. This is also where my youngest daughter, a voracious reader, huge fiction fan, and strong supporter of female writers, sleeps when she visits us.

There, Louise Erdrich, Doris Lessing, Dona Tartt, Toni Morrison, Elena Ferrante, and many others share rows of shelves.

Instinctively again, I reached for the specific spot where I expected to find The Pilot’s Wife, the novel that propelled Anita Shreve to fame, but also Sea Glass or still Light on Snow.

At the same time, in a totally 2018 reflex, I also reached for my phone.

A blog post was already written and I had the perfect photo.

After all, I thought, are there many people who have read and kept every single book written by Anita Shreve?

But my fingers only met an empty shelf.

I was disappointed and even a little upset. Where could these books be? I know that I’ve sorted many over the last years. Still. I would never have stored Anita Shreve’s novels in a bin. No way.

There was only one culprit. Okay, maybe two.

And I would never condemn them.

After all, if my daughter and her older sister devour novels like others wolf down candies, I feel responsible.

Besides, Anita Shreve would approve.

She once said that she was a reader before being a writer and that she could not understand some of her fellow authors who said they could not read when writing.

She added that she had never fallen asleep without reading, since the day she knew how to read. She admitted to late expeditions through hotel lobbies, when she had inadvertently forgotten to pack a book.

If the hotel had no library and the gift shop was closed, she snatched a newspaper left on a table or even fliers advertising local attractions.

She had to read or she would not fall asleep.

I loved her more than ever when I read that.

So as I went back to the kitchen, empty-handed, phone tucked again in my jeans’ back pocket, I imagined that she would enjoy the story of her vanishing novels.

I, I mean “we”, will miss you Ms. Shreve.

French Friday: Coming Soon To Your Inbox

When I lived in France, I had never considered that one day I would be speaking alternatively in English and French every day of my life, for the rest of my life.

Who would have known that this lifestyle would distance me from my homeland, but also reignite a deeper  connection with some of the most interesting aspects of my mother tongue?

I deliberately use “mother tongue” because it’s through my mother’s way of speaking that I noticed the richly evocative vocabulary that most people in Normandy used. Expressions that triggered visuals infused my mother’s conversations.

When I was about five and heard for example that it was not good de “Casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un,” I literally saw someone breaking lumps of sugar on someone’s back. In American English the best equivalent would be bad-mouthing someone. There is a French equivalent for bad-mouth. But who would insist that it is better than breaking sugar on the back of someone? If my mother spoke about someone who had a tough skin this person was a dur à cuire or hard to cook.

 

It’s only when I moved to California that I started to compile these savourous expressions that have provided me more than just words but sensory feelings.

As much as I love the English language that I find often more effective than French, I adore these French expressions.

Since all languages evolve, some of these French expressions age, fade and even vanish. Others appear. And sometimes, an old one is trendy again.

So without further ado, here is my theme for the 2018 A to Z Challenge:

From A to Z, Twenty-Six Funny, Weird, Vivid French Expressions

 

From April 1st to the 30th and following the alphabet, participants to the challenge post every day but Sundays. I’ll do the same, and I hope these posts will make you smile, laugh, or maybe think that these French people are even stranger than you thought.

Since I keep finding new expressions, I should be able to pursue this challenge for another two years 🙂

Check your Inbox in April! See you there!

 

P.S. The flowers are from my backyard. If you and your home are still in winter mode and miss the spring, I hope they will bring a little bit of color to your own yard.

 

 

French Friday: Nothing to Envy

Yesterday, I returned Nothing to Envy; Ordinary lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick to the library.

I read the book with my book club early March. Published in 2010, Nothing to Envy opens a fascinating and rare window on North Korea as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens who defected.

It took years for these men and women to realize that they were living a lie and some more to undertake the dangerous journey out, since they could trust no one. In North Korea, even a whisper is suspicious and  denunciation is rampant.

As I went through the remarkably well-researched book that reads like a novel, I kept comparing what the author depicted to what I had seen in Russia in 1986. The different period of time struck me as irrelevant, since the lifestyle of too many ordinary North Koreans in the 21st century is still quite similar to the way people lived in the Russia I visited before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

My first impression when I landed in Moscow was to witness a very powerful country. This was due to the heavy military presence. Then, the city appeared as old fashioned. Clothing, shoes, cars, shops were outdated, as if the country had been cut from the rest of the world for forty years. Not too far from the truth.

Restaurants, hotels, and other amenities were specially designed for tourists. The black market blossomed. But for ordinary citizens food was meager and long lines formed outside the stores, where mostly women shopped.

I had just met a woman in Paris who knew someone in Moscow. One name was my ticket to the hidden life of Russian people. Gifts of toilet paper, soap, magazines, perfumes, and feminine products allowed me to sip tea in a Soviet apartment. Even with one single kitchen and bathroom shared by three families and walls so thin people spoke in whispering voices, it was far more interesting than visiting yet another museum, mausoleum, and any authorized landmarks.

Black tea replaced coffee and was left to infuse for so long that everyone had stained teeth. The first time I noticed mine I freaked out. I had no intention to see a dentist. But my good French toothpaste took care of the issue. Vanilla was the only ice cream flavor, and only tourists ate caviar after a guided tour of a fishery. I bought a matryoshka or nesting dolls and a colorful scarf in a shop only open to tourists.

Young girls and boys’ impeccable English shamed me. Our door to the other side, one of them told me. Every few feet people stopped me to buy my jeans, my earrings, and my books. I gave away my stash of fashion magazines and sample of beauty products, brought especially for these moments. My clip-on earrings were in high demand and I left several pairs behind.

Totally throwback 80s. But Russians girls went crazy for the earrings I wore back then 🙂

I took very few photos when I was there. We were not as obsessed with visuals as we are now. Besides, was it appropriate to capture on camera people waiting in lines and was it interesting to take another photo of the sites westerners were allowed to see?

Years later, I’m thankful to the visitors who took pictures and to the Internet that allows me to share them with you. This selection of photos and this YouTube video depict with accuracy what I personally saw when I toured Moscow.

As much as I feel fortunate to have seen a tiny fraction of what life was behind the iron Curtain, I was uneasy there. Not because I didn’t feel as free and safe as I did in France, even if both were true. Mostly, I kept questioning the rationale behind the trip.

Did I go out of curiosity? Did I feel I had to see for myself before making my own opinion? Was I on a ‘mission’ to bring some needed products? Wasn’t I somehow cautioning the regime if I booked a tour to visit? What did it mean to visit a country that violated human rights? To which extent was it acceptable to know there was another reality behind closed doors?

Those were my thoughts when I was in Russia and Ukraine and witnessed the waiting lines in front of the shops, the men drunk on cheap vodka, the propaganda painted on the walls, Red Square and its impressive buildings and landmarks, and the insatiable appetite of the young men and women for everything from the West.

Also, as much as the comparison between France and Russia was impossible, I could only admire the people’s resilience and love for their land. Something that was less apparent in my own country.

I found the exact same traits of characters in the North Korean people Demick depict in her book. Their love for their native land and their courage go beyond the imaginable. When they suffered the most horrific famine in the mid 1990s, a sad ironic result of the opening of the Eastern Europe world, their creativity knew no limit. Women were particularly imaginative and became exceptional entrepreneurs, creating the first markets in the country.

The friend who hosted our book club this month had gathered tons of info about the author and North Korea. Among them, I highly recommend Barbara Demick’s short speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2011.

As I slipped Nothing to Envy in the Book Return chute, I thought of a conversation I had with my husband.

He has made several extensive professional trips to Asia in the past and has always wanted to return, with me this time. North Korea is not on his list. South Korea, where he went, is not either.

A country divided in two doesn’t feel right, he says.

But you’ve been to Germany, I argue, when there were two Germanies. And I’ve been to the USSR.

It was in the 1980s, he points out.

Right. The two Koreas have been separated since 1953, while the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and fell on November 9, 1989.

Before that memorable day, significant events had, however, marked ineluctable changes. Czechoslovakia had opened its borders to all residents from East Germany who wanted to leave for the West. Since the summer, hundreds of people had defected through Hungary, Austria or Czechoslovakia. Just days before the Wall fell, protests from both sides of Berlin had happened with no police intervention in East Berlin. Profound changes were underway and they started with the people.

When Barbara Demick spoke after the parution of her book she lamented the absence of North Koreans at the podium. Only a few years later, Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee, two young North Korean women who defected, spoke up. Suki Tim, a South Korean citizen, went undercover in North Korea, posing as an English teacher.

Their stories are heartbreaking, deeply moving, and inspiring. I listened to them, thinking of the title of the book, inspired by the hymn that young North Korean children sing every day in school:

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.

We are all brothers and sisters.

Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children

Do not need to be afraid,

our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.

 

 

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day is also a call to action through events large and small focusing on equality.

The first observance of a Women’s Day was held on Februrary 28, 1909 in New York City. In 1910 the International Women’s Conference suggested to name it International Women’s Day and to celebrate on March 8. Until the United Nations adopted the event in 1975, the event was mostly celebrated in socialist and communist countries.

In France, it’s only in 1982 that the government, under François Mitterrand’s socialist presidency, gives an official status to the day. There, March 8 is called International Women’s Rights Day.

For full disclosure that day was largely ignored and even slightly mocked in France, at least until I left. Now France has embraced the parity, something that American women sometimes envy. Is it working? My French friends, let us know.

Here, in the U.S., 2018 is not any other year for women.

Only within the vibrant community of children’s literature authors and illustrators, women are honored throughout the whole month of March with daily postings that can be read on the KidLitWomen Facebook.

The posts, most often written by well-known female authors and illustrators, trigger crucial reflection. Just to cite a few areas of concern: the inequal financial compensation between men and women in the publishing industry, the larger number of men who receive the most coveted awards in the field of children’s literature, the need for boys to read books written by female authors, even when the main character is a girl since girls never turn a book down because a man wrote it and a boy is the main character.

Today, in honor of International Women’s Day, many women will wear ultra-violet. Others will wear red to support A Day Without a Woman. But we don’t need to wear any specific color to honor women at large. In my jeans and striped shirt, I am still celebrating.

I am celebrating the women who are part of my life or have only crossed it, years ago or recently.

I am celebrating the women who make me proud to be a woman and offer me a sense of belonging.

In no specific order…

 

It is the super mega YA literature star who signs my copy of her novel, even though I’m not waiting in line, just because I tell her that I won’t be able to stay for her signing. Her novels are unforgettable. Now she is too.

It is the cashier from my local drugstore who recognizes me as I stand in front of the ice cream window poundering whether I should pick mint chocolate chips or raspberry double chocolate and asks me how I am doing since she saw me last.

It is the unknown woman who turns toward me at the end of our yoga practice and says with a warm smile, “Namaste.”

It is my young writing critique partner who texts me through the day, updating me on her writing but mostly checking on me, making sure I’m doing okay on my side of town.

It is the college student at the grocery store who says I must be a great baker when she sees the content of my shopping basket.

It is the little girl who pulls on her mom’s hand on the Target parking lot and announces that she knows me because I’m the lady who writes books.

It is the woman who shares my exact birth date but grew up thousands of miles away from me, and yet felt so familiar when we spoke of our girlhood, similar in so many ways.

It is my older writer friend who combed relentlessly through my stories when I was getting more serious about writing, never ceased to encourage me and never showed signs of impatience.

It is the lady who smiles at me at the red light because she has noticed that we are both singing out loud in our cars.

It is the high school sophomore girl who tells me that she writes every day but has never told anyone.

It is my daughter who sends me funny cat emojis and her sister who texts at odd hours to tell me she misses me.

It is my longtime writing partner and now great friend who emails me, texts me, and calls me, when I am just thinking of her.

It is every female author behind the heartfelt, honest, daring novels that fill my Women Only shelf in my small den.

It is you, my fellow woman blogger and reader.

I Am One of You.

I Am With You.

 

French Friday: The Magic City

Most big cities have a nickname.

Paris is the City of Lights but also the City of Love (said one of the students I met in Florida a couple of weeks ago).

But no one really knows why Miami is nicknamed the Magic City. Which was pretty much how I saw Paris when I lived there. From the day I moved to the French capital as a grad student to the day I left for California ten years later, the city never stopped being magical.

As for Miami, unlike my first quick visit a few years ago, my recent one gave me more time to explore.

Miami truly is unique.

Maybe it is the breeze that blows through the trademark palm trees. Maybe it is the Atlantic, turquoise and warm. Maybe it is the skyline. Maybe it is the blend of Spanish and English that can be heard along the streets. Maybe…

Maybe this is what being magic means.

 

6:20 a.m. sunrise as I walked across the Collins Bridge

I passed a  few runners and cyclists but mostly saw birds

Although I only post on Fridays and that the gorgeous wooden doors behind the glass panels were closed, I thought of Thursday Doors

Street Art in Little Havana

Vintage Little Havana

It would not be Florida without a gator. I found this made-man one at Miami Ironside

This iguana, though, was for real

And his sibling was too. Both sunbathed at the Vizcaya Villa in the heart of Miami

Vizcaya was created from scratch by John Deering, from the Deering Company

From the Orchidea Garden at Vizcaya

One of the many water features in the gardens

Vizcaya is built along the Biscayne Bay

Wish I could mimic this perfect sphinx pose in my yoga practice

I also wished I could get my own library card there

I would have to move in then

Stone crab is to Miami what lobster is to Maine. Best lunch ever in Miami Beach at Joe’s Stone Crab 

On the wall at the Pérez Art Museum

No other place in the country is as lush as Miami in February

Nature finds its way everywhere in Miami

Even between the thick roots of a tree in the heart of Little Havana

Or to mask and shade a parking garage

Or still on hotel terraces

I really thought that this tree trunk was painted…

and believed that “this” was man-made…

and that the flowers were made out of paper

But only these signs were

Maybe Miami is a Magic City.

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