FRENCH FRIDAY: HIGH SCHOOL VISITS IN FLORIDA

Last Friday, I found myself at the very tip of Northern Florida for a full day of school visits.

As I drove on this gorgeous stretch of Florida I was tempted to skip the events and go for a hike and a picnic. The blend of states parks, beach parks, marshes, creeks and ocean is distinct from the rest of the state and on Friday the early morning fog rising from the Amelia River tugged at me, the promise of a beautiful day.

But I’m so glad I only skipped my weekly French Friday blog post 🙂

School visits are always special. These five last ones included.

At the first high school, the librarian had invited me to show up before my presentation so I could have breakfast. She spoke of a continental breakfast. And it would have been plenty enough. There is nothing better than fresh coffee, donuts, banana bread, and fresh fruit to put everyone in a good mood, right?

No, there are the breakfast sandwiches that nobody but locals know about.

To be frank I’m not a huge breakfast person, but I always try what the locals eat. When I am invited somewhere I am part of a place, even for the time of a visit. Or for the time of a breakfast ham, cheese and egg on an English muffin.

And when there is a story behind what I eat, it’s even better.

The chair of the English department was there and as any good English teacher he told good stories. The one behind the breakfast sandwiches is here. In his own words, it was the best idea anyone had to give another life to a closed gas station. In a great American way, although some people thought that serving food in a gas station was weird many more and even the reluctant ones gave it a chance. Their patronage brought the joint to the Washington Post. Not bad. The breakfast sandwich I picked was great. I only wished I could have enjoyed it, slow and easy, but I’m always a little nervous before speaking in front of many people. Next year I will make sure to stop by T-Rays to celebrate the end of the day. Have a look it’s really cool.

Parents play a huge role in American schools. Including at that high school. I spotted some dads signing in for the seniors’ field trip. And a mom stamped my novels (I use an Eiffel Tower and a small café stamps when I sign) so I only had to write a short sentence and add my name. While we worked together we spoke. Of course. She hoped to live in France for a little while, at some point. I love it when people share their dreams because it’s the only way to realize that we are all so similar despite our differences.

At this high school, I met with three groups of sophomores in their media center. I love libraries and librarians. This school is so fortunate to have a huge media center and an amazing librarian who cares so much for the students. I spoke about writing, writing in a foreign language and of France too. I had downloaded more music and I played extracts to cut the presentation and also whenever I felt they needed a break. And when I needed one too 🙂

At the end of the third presentation one of the teachers told me that I was like a teacher. I thanked her. And she added that like a teacher I warmed up as I went and adapted to my audience. I had not really noticed but then saw that my notes were left on a chair. I had not once looked at them. Q&A was fantastic. Few kids had traveled to Europe and even less to France, so it’s always with a mix of humility and pride that I try to introduce my small but complex native country.

I had an hour ahead of me to drive to a neighborhing high school, half an hour away. Traffic was jammed, so I missed the lunch graciously offered by the French teacher and munched on my cereal bars instead. I missed that breakfast sandwich.

There, I met a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, all taking French. They had read my novel in class and had tons of questions.

Their French teacher being French it was an additional treat.

My most favorite moments of the afternoon:

  1. What do you miss most about France ? Some people more than things.
  2. What do you like best about the USA ? The list is too long to even start one.
  3. How long did it take you to be fluent in English ? You don’t want to know.
  4. Can you say: “squirrel” because our French teacher can’t ? She and I are even.

Of course, I answered each and every question and agreed to repeat a few words in English. We joked and laughed and this is what we all should do more often.

On Friday, however, being invited to two high schools located in Florida made it impossible to ignore the shooting that had happened 48 hours earlier, on Valentine’s Day, in another high school in the very same state.

I knew I would make sure to talk to the media specialist and the French teacher before meeting their students. I didn’t have to. Teachers and staff told me upfront that it had been hard to be at school since then, but that life had to go on. At the end of the day an announcement reminded students that support was available to anyone who needed to talk.

And yet it was hard to imagine a similar tragedy happening on these bucolic campuses.

I bet people thought similarly in Parkland.

On my way out I saw groups of teenagers waving goodbye to each other, hugging each other. There was after all a three-day weekend in perspective. They all looked so young, so full of energy and possibilities. And I felt suddenly sad and angry too.

Knowing that my own children had been spared from such tragedies through their entire schooling didn’t change my mood.

I’ve always favored the American inclusive schooling to the more rigid French style I’ve known. But I’ve also envied French students for the safety of their schools. Even now with terrorist threats ever present on the French soil, no student has ever shot his classmates.

Our American children and teenagers could be as safe as the French.

It is an American paradox I will never understand. When people are so civil and courteous in the street, in the stores and on the roads what justifies their need for weapons? When they come together as one in times of hardship what explains the unconditional support for the Second Amendment ?

As our nation was mourning again the loss of young lives, I felt sick and tired of hearing that we needed to keep them and their families in our thoughts and prayers.

Of course, we would. How couldn’t we?

But thoughts and prayers obvioulsy have not exactly worked.

Over the last years, I’ve signed every possible petition regarding gun control and also the need for a better understanding and management of mental health.

Obvioulsy, they have not worked either.

Each time a school shooting or a mass shooting happened we all believed it would be the last.

And yet.

I felt angry.

And I did not want to pray.

So I turned on the radio, which I often do when I drive.

This is how I first heard of the Florida man who decided to turn his own AR-57 in to the sheriff’s office and asked them to destroy it after the school shooting.

If you missed it you can read the interview highlights here. His Facebook post went viral.

I listened to the much longer conversation he had with NPR. At some point, he mentionned that thoughts and prayers didn’t feel enough for him and that the tragedy called for action.

It’s only one man, one action.

What if…

 

The soft Atlantic waves

 

Pour vous qui vivez en France, ce court article paru dans Le Monde recense les fusillades les plus meurtrières aux USA depuis 25 ans. Tristement, je les ai toutes vécues. Après Columbine on a tous ici cru qu’un changement important se produirait. Après Sandy Hook, c’était certain.

Le congrès américain a explicitement interdit la vente d’armes semi automatiques entre 1994 et 2004. Mais depuis que la loi a expiré il est très facile de se les procurer de nouveau pratiquement n’importe où aux US. Seuls les états de New York, de Californie, le district de Columbia, et cinq autres états en interdisent la vente. Les mêmes états limitent aussi le nombre de cartouches qui peuvent être chargées dans une arme. Malgré cela, tout est fait pour annuler les interdictions, légalement et illégalement, en modifiant de façon mineure les armes.

Si vous lisez l’anglais, cet article du New York Times explique la situation actuelle.

Depuis Parkland, les lycéens expriment pour la première fois leur colère au-delà de leur douleur. Manifestations inhabituelles prennent place et la maturité des filles et garçons que nous entendons s’exprimer me donne raison. Je ne cesserai jamais de croire que l’avenir et les changements importants sont entre les mains des adolescents d’aujourd’hui.

En les écoutant depuis ce drame, je me dis que peut-être nous sommes enfin arrivés à un point de non retour.

Malheureusement, entre le moment où j’ai écrit ce billet et aujourd’hui il y a déjà un énorme nuage noir qui planne et laisse augurer de débats houleux.

Si vous le souhaitez, voici un article récent qui illustrent la longue route qui nous attend. Celui sur la situation de la santé mentale aux USA est intéressant. Les deux sont publiés dans le New York Times et peut-être pouvez les lire dans le Monde qui reprend régulièrement leurs articles.

J’ai souvent écrit à propos des rituels américains, particulièrement dans les écoles, rituels qui parfois m’ont fait sourire tant ils sont différents de ceux de la vie scolaire française, souvent étonnée, jamais fatiguée.

Que la tragédie de Parkland devienne un rituel scolaire américain serait monstrueux.

 

 

 

French Friday: For Humankind

With the Republican running candidate blasting his opinions about women during his campaign and the #Metoo movement that followed, women have clearly taken the public debate stage.

Whether we appreciate the courage of the women who come forward or fear excesses in the process, it is impossible to ignore the momentum and to deny the need for real equality between genders.

Since it is a very heated debate it’s important, I think, to keep our sense of humor and critical sense as we plow our way along the arduous road.

Just this week, a few events show how the best intentions can fall flat and also how even women can see things very differently.

Pretty much everyone likes Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. And pretty much everyone noticed him when he corrected a woman who said “manhood” and offered “peoplekind” instead.

Humankind or even humanity would have worked just fine. Despite the fact that Trudeau interrupted a woman while she was speaking, his intentions were no doubt sincere. Inclusion is necessary, but sometimes the desire to achieve it can lead to faux-pas.

Canada is still making genuine efforts. Take this magazine that printed two versions of its latest issue. One is sold 26 cents more than the other to reflect the disparity of salaries between men and women.

In the U.S., Macy’s is soon to introduce a collection of modest clothing and hijabs to capture a slice of the Muslim women’s clothing market.

At the same time in Iran, women are taking their veils off, putting their lives in danger, to obtain the right to choose whatever clothes they wish to wear.

Who is right? Maybe there is no right and wrong when it comes to women’s freedom to be who they want to be.

In any case, women are playing centerstage in these early months of 2018.

Now that I chose to write a month of French expressions for the A to Z Challenge in April, I could only notice that some of the most common French idioms are in fact sexist.

I was tempted to list them but have decided otherwise. I didn’t want to put de l’huile sur le feu, as we say in French (oil on the flame), but instead focus on the delightful aspect of these small words and short expressions. Thanks to my early personal mistakes, I quickly learned that all tell a lot about a country and its culture. Many are not perfectly exchangeable from one language to another. Often, they still have an equivalent. Sometimes, nothing can exactly convey the idea.

To my own surprise, I quickly compiled a first draft of my 2018 list, only missing as always an expression for the letter X.

As I went through the list I noticed that several expressions had something to do with food.

Now, it was telling something about France that men and women alike would agree on.

 

And nothing and nobody can be better than animals to bring smiles to humankind.

 

 

These photos have been taken in my native Normandy, where a few inches of snow fell over the last few days, transforming the landscape in a scenery that I rarely got to enjoy when I lived there as a child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belated French Friday: C’Est Ouf to Meet Smart, Kind Middle School Students on Crêpes Day

Post-classroom visit

It’s a belated French Friday post, only because I was meeting a class of 8th graders yesterday.

Which was ouf.

Last Friday, I left you with two French expressions. Dan used the services of Google and suggested “Get the pill” for “Se dorer la pilule” and “This is a pick of ouf” for “c’est un truc de ouf.”

Thank you, Dan for trying. Really, that was cool. But I cannot give you an A. That’s Google’s fault, really.

Google, can you hire me?

* Se dorer la pilule doesn’t mean to get the pill but to get a tan, also simply to relax without doing anything.

Get the pill would be “Prendre la pilule” and it would also be said in reference to the birth control pill.

On the other hand, we don’t have the exact equivalent of the vivid American expression: Take a chill pill.

* Ouf is Fou, only written backwards. Fou in French means crazy.

C’est ouf means it’s crazy.

Un truc is a thing.

C’est un truc de ouf means it’s a crazy thing.

 

So, yes, meeting with the kids yesterday was ouf, in a very good way.

C’est ouf!

Following your advice, I went with a selection of photos depicting France and Paris. One one girl had been to Paris, so all of them enjoyed my personal Normandy selection. And they smiled when they saw me at their age.

As expected, the addition of music was a great idea. I played music while the students settled in. Then I picked classic French songs and extracts of contemporary songs from singers and bands and played them during the presentation. Even the teacher could not sit still when she heard some French rap.

Since the main characters of my novel eat at different cafés, I added a few slides about typical fare that Parisians and French eat at their favorite cafés.

 

And I wore my special T-shirt 🙂

The kids loved my last slides about the Chandeleur. Eating crêpes on February 2 is yummier than waiting for a groundhog to see or not his shadow.

So after the school visit I rushed home to prepare my batter. When my four children lived at home I doubled and sometimes even tripled the recipe and we ate crêpes for dinner. Now my husband and I have a couple for dessert and eat the leftovers warmed up for breakfast.

But when I arrived we changed our minds, so I made a regular batter.

The batter, my mom wrote on her recipe, should not be too thin and should not be too thick. That’s the reputation people from Normandy have: undecided 🙂 But her crêpes batter is the bomb.

 

First crepe is like a first draft. Necessary.

Better

My husband added a sunny-side-up egg on our crepes

We ate until there was no batter left 😦

I wish you all a fantastic weekend!

If you are a football fan, enjoy the Super Bowl. I know of a few diehard Patriots fans around me. It’s in my nature to cheer for the underdog. Although, on Super Bowl I will be found in a park or at the movies, which are pretty quiet on Super Bowl.

Just saying 🙂

 

French Friday: Reading to Understand Mental Illness

Although I skipped my yearly participation to the Multicultural Children’s Book Day I still support this national event, which will be celebrated on Saturday, January 27. Multicultural Children’s Book Day highlights the need for diverse books. More and more editors and publishers are aware that children become readers when they see themselves in the stories they read and develop more empathy when they discover how other children live.

Most often, books suggested and reviewed on Multicultural Children’s Book Day represent minorities’ cultures and faiths.

And those books are as important as ever.

But I decided to come up with my very short personal selection of books that also represent a form of difference. The idea grew from an exceptional novel that treats of mental illness. I read Turtless All the Way Down a few weeks ago but the story still sits on my mind.

The following books portray children and teenagers who deal with mental disorders, some less severe than others. These children or teenagers’ lives are ‘different,’ much more challenging than ‘normal’ lives but not less fulfilling. In fact, in all these books these kids and teens are very inspiring.

Compassion for them is one thing.

Understanding or trying to understand what they go through is another.

Reading about them is a crucial step.

 

For Teenagers:

I don’t need to introduce the author behind the debut novel Looking for Alaska and the sensational best seller The Fault in Our Stars.

John Green is not only an exceptional writer he has also been candid with the fact that he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In Turtles All the Way Down he depicts sixteen-year-old Aza’s own struggle with such accuracy and integrity it will break your heart and still make you smile and definitely root for her.

This is pure John Green, so expect amazingness. The dialogues are especially great, witty and right 0n. I love Aza’s best friend so much. And I could only relate to her mother’s genuine will to make her little girl feel better. The novel is vividly set in Indianapolis. Written for Joey 🙂

If you haven’t read this novel, grab one copy or/and recommend it to a teenager near you.

 

For Elementary Students:

Spaghetti Is Not a Fingerfood (and other life lessons) written by Jodi Carmichael and illustrated by Sara Ponce

This chapter book ( 7 to 10 years old) is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Connor who has Asperger Syndrome. It’s a sweet, funny, and tender book with also great illustrations. An easy read that treats of a complex topic. Perfect for children who live or go to school or play with boys or girls with Asperger Syndrome.

Joey Pigza Series by Jack Gantos (5 books)

Joey is taking ‘dub meds’, the nickname he gives to Ritalin. Joey is plenty aware of his wild mood swings, but he can’t help it if he moves, jumps, and sometimes gets in trouble. Hyperactivity and its related disorders are very common in children, and it’s such a gift for kids who are affected and their friends alike to get to meet irresistible Joey.

Adults disagree on the age range for the series, due to the seriousness of other issues presented in the books. I would say that some fourth graders are already able to handle them while some eight graders will still enjoy them.

 

For Middle Graders:

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloane

A pure chef d’oeuvre, that you may already know since the novel has been extremely well received upon its publication. And for good reasons.

Willow is twelve and is reassured when she counts by 7s. She loves nature and her parents. When they die brutally her world changes overnight. It could be a heartbreaking story and it is very moving, but it is above everything a story of resilience and courage from a girl who had already a lot on her plate to start with.

 

Picture Books:

Wilma Jean the Worry Machine written by Julia Cook and illustrated by Anita Duffala

This sweet and funny story introduces anxiety disorders in children through adorable Wilma Jean. Frequently undiagnosed, anxiety disorders are, however, very common in children.

I was one of these super anxious kids, and I know how painful it is to worry alone. I’m lucky since I got much better when I started college. But the title of this PB echoes my childhood experience.

 

Antsy Ansel written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Christy Hale

Who doesn’t know the great photographer behind the stunning photographies of Yosemite National Park? It is less known, though, that Ansel Adams could not stand still. He fidgeted and was constantly on the move. School was not his thing. But when his father introduced him to the natural beauty of the Sierra and particularly of Yosemite young Ansel found calmness and focus. The rest is history.

A great, great story to reassure the child who cannot be still. A successful, creative life is still possible.

 

And last but not least, two classics, absolute must-read novels that (in my opinion) opened the gates to the more recent wave of books that treat of mental disorders:

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Autism introduced through a twelve-year-old girl put in charge of her younger autistic brother. Poignant and authentic, the Newberry Honor novel was published in 2006.

Mockinbird by Kathryn Erskine

A young girl who has Asperger is dealing with the loss of her brother brutally killed during a school shooting. Sadly still timely and I’m afraid to say maybe timeless. Exceptionally well crafted, emotionally packed, and very hopeful too the National Book Award For Young People’s Literature novel was published in 2010.

 

On a totally different note, I want you to know that I just decided to embark the crazy A to Z Challenge train again this year. For anyone who doesn’t know what the challenge is about: One daily post for the entire month of April, except on Sundays, following the order of the alphabet.

Based on readers’ feedback, WordPress statistics, and my personal interest I will return to my beloved French idioms. My hope this year is to mix and match classics and most recent.

Until then, I leave you with two expressions. The first one was very familiar when I lived in France and is still current, while the second was born many years after I left France.

I hope you will find their meaning and leave a comment below!

 

 

SE DORER LA PILULE

C’EST UN TRUC DE OUF!

 

 

Enjoy your weekend.

See you here next Friday and on your blog in between!

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Friday: My Étonnant Native Country

One of my best friends, a picture book author, is happy as a clam when she talks to 100 kindergartners. I know of other authors, who adore huge assemblies.

I’m a small group person. Big parties and large venues have never been my thing. Concerts are an exception. Still, I’d rather see my favorite bands or singers in a small club than a stadium.

In the next few weeks, I will meet with more than 400 middle school and high school students. I just found out that their teachers decided to separate them in smaller groups. So I will have one presentation at the middle school and four at two different high schools on the same day. Phew, what a relief.

What worries me now is the fact that for the first time ever I will meet students who take French at school. This should comfort me since anything French is my thing, right? In fact, as I am preparing my presentation, I keep questioning its content.

Usually I split my one-hour power point presention in four parts:

* My French background shown through slides from my hometown and surroundings.

* The process of writing, from the choice of topic to the editing. I also include elements about writing in a non-native language.

* Multiple-choice questions based on my novel, which is shared in class prior to my visit.

* Q&A is always my favorite part, so I allow 10 minutes.

But as I am now selecting my slides, I am caught in a spiral of thoughts:

How do I introduce contemporary France to teenagers who learn how to speak France but have not necessary been there yet?

What should I tell them about my native land? How honest do I want to be?

Is it okay to show its flaws? Will it discourage young people to visit?

In my Middle Grade novel Chronicles From Château Moines I introduced the early immigration issues that took place in the France of my childhood in the 1970s. Almost fifty years later, France is still dealing with immigration issues.

Do I want to show the gathering of migrants at Porte de la Chapelle, still happening after the regular dismantling of the camps and despite the opening of welcome centers, too small to accomodate everyone?

But there is also genuine concern for the migrants’ situation. French people want to exemplify the motto Liberté Égalité Fraternité.

So what about Calais?

Now shouldn’t I stay with a classic vision of France, particularly of Paris, with its lovely cafés and sophisticated boutiques? Is cliché versus authentic okay?

After all, there are still lovely cafés and sophisticated boutiques in Paris. They sit blocks away from the gathered migrants and within an hour from the projects in the suburbs.

In my Young Adult thriller Trapped in Paris, the two protagonists find themselves in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, less than ten miles away and yet another world.

What about music? Music plays a huge role in any teen’s life.

Once in a while, when I’m in a store or a café in the U.S. I hear French music. Almost always it’s soft French music. Often Edith Piaf singing La Vie en Rose or even Charles Trenet and La Mer. But Carla Bruni is now a favorite, as well as Serge Gainsbourg and Zaz.

It is said that when French-style music is played in a store, the atmosphere shifts from ordinary to sophisticated. In fact, some storeowners are known to play French music or French music-style when they have French items, such as wine or cheese, to sell. Shoppers don’t even notice but are still influenced.

Many contemporary French singers such as Julien Doré still exemply the unique French poetic musical style.

But what about hip-hop bands or rappers who use music as a media to address racism, poverty, immigration, unemployment, topics of concern for many French people?

Now I scroll down my own playlist and wonder about the older Manu Chao. The singer started his musical career a few years before I left France but really took off in the mid 1990s. With his mix of reggae, ska, with clear Latino roots he changed the traditional French musical scene.

Now what about the diverse French rap scene, a mix of rap de rue or street rap, conscious rap, popular rap, and other sub genres in between?

Should I add the hip-hop band Nèg Marrons? After all they wrote one of my favorite songs about their parents.

As I prepare my presentation and debate pros versus cons the complexity of my native land is palpable.

So for now only one thing is sure: the choice of the T-shirt I will wear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Friday: From the French Front

Taken from one of the Bâteaux Mouches on the River Seine

Two events and two women have marked my French week:

  • The public letter denouncing the #MeToo movement, published in the newspaper Le Monde on Tuesday. More than 100 French women in the entertainment, publishing and academic fields, the most famous among them being the actress Catherine Deneuve, have lent their signature to the controversial statement.
  • The death of the quiet yet significant French singer France Gall, on Sunday.

 

Invariably when I meet American people and we talk about French celebrities, they cite the actors Gérard Depardieu and Jean-Claude Van Damme, even if the later is Belgian and not French, the singer Edith Piaf, Amélie (that’s the American title for the French movie The Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain and not the name of the actress who is Audrey Tautou), and more recently Marion Cotillard, famous since her role in La Vie en Rose (La Môme in France), in which she brilliantly incarnates Edith Piaf.

On the other hand, I’ve never heard anyone mentioning 74-year-old actress Catherine Deneuve, a star in my native land. Deneuve admits being better known in the U.S. for being the face of Chanel in the 1970s and L’Oréal in more recent years than for her acting.

In France, Deneuve is also known for her “prises de position” or public statements.

In 1971, she was one of the 343 French women who signed a manifesto supporting abortion rights, when abortion was forbidden and punishable. These 343 women who called themselves salopes (sluts or bitches in American English) risked criminal prosecution when they signed the manifesto. Deneuve made public that she had once deliberately terminated an unwanted pregnancy. Two years later, another manifesto, this time signed by 331 French doctors declared their support for abortion rights. In 1975, the Veil law, named after Simone Veil, the Health Minister, repealed the penalty for voluntarily terminating a pregnancy during the first ten weeks (now twelve).

In the mid 1980s, due to her popularity and beauty, too, Deneuve’s image was used to represent Marianne, the national symbol of France

In 2007, Deneuve signed a petition protesting against the misogynistic treatment of the presidential candidate Ségolène Royal when she ran against Nicolas Sarkozy.

And now, in the early days of 2018, she is behind yet another letter, this time denouncing the #MeToo movement and its French counterpart #balancetonporc. The public letter has triggered immediate infuriated reactions from both sides of the Atlantic, including from Ségolène Royal.

There are several aspects in the letter that can suscitate legit concerns. Among the most cited:

* The authors defend the right of men to pester women as they please.

* They urge mothers to teach their daughters how to fight back when necessary.

* They express compassion for the men who were forced to resign “when all they did wrong was touch a knee” but no obvious compassion for the victims.

* They argue that this is a hate campaign against men.

Regardless of personal opinions about the #MeToo movement, whether it goes too far or not, whether it will really bring more equality between men and women, I will always be appalled when women go against other women, when they doubt and even dismiss their experiences.

As a French woman who has now spent more of her adult life in the U.S. than in France, I also find it ignorant when terms like “witch-hunt,” and “Puritanism” are used in 2017 and arrogant to distinguish “Anglo-Saxon feminism” from “French feminism.”

American people are maybe unashamed and excessive, bold and loud, but they are also the most generous and unafraid people I ever met. Americans are at the origins of so many movements that have changed their country and affected the rest of the world that it is impossible to ignore the current #MeToo movement, with its excesses and flaws. Any significant movement knows excessivity when it starts. No revolution is peaceful and unanimous.

Perhaps it should comfort me that Deneuve and most of the other 100 French women behind this letter are old and stuck in their old world. In fact, it makes me sad to witness the impact of decades of “culture.” Their way of thinking is so engrained that it is possibly impossible for them to see the need for change and accept the inexorable forward journey of life.

I would hope that these women use the privilege of their age and social status to help the younger women who fight for the world they want to build and want to leave to the children of tomorrow. Exactly like Catherine Deneuve and others did so generously and intelligently when they were young.

 

From Paris

Speaking of a woman who was not afraid of change and adversity.

Born in 1947, France Gall was only four years younger than Catherine Deneuve. She began her singing career at a young age and gained immediate recognition when the song Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son, written for her by Serge Gainsbourg, earned Gall the prestigious Prix de l’Eurovision in 1965 at the age of eighteen.

Gainsbourg will write other songs for France Gall and she will quickly become one of the stars of the yéyé movement in France (for Yeah Yeah). But this is when she met the singer and songwriter Michel Berger that France Gall showed her ability for change when she started to sing more meaningfull lyrics. There was more than musical harmony between Gall and Berger since they married and had two children together.

Gall and Berger often sang the same songs that he wrote and composed. But Gall would always be more popular. No doubt due to her approachable sunny personality. I admit personal fondness for Michel Berger’s lyrics and music. He was a pretty good pianist too.

Berger died brutally of a heart attack at the age of 44. Only two years later 19-year-old daughter Pauline passed away from the consequences of cystic fibrosis. From that moment Gall pursued her humanitarian efforts in Africa more than her musical career, even though she still recorded and gave concerts.

When I lived in France France Gall didn’t really interest me. Her songs were very catchy, but I was more into British and American music. It was impossible, though, to grow up in France and not know France Gall’s most iconic songs by heart.

  • Sacré Charlemagne is one of them. Published in 1964 the song is about children dreaming of a week exclusively made of Thursdays and Sundays, at a time in France where only these days were no-school days. The simple lyrics blame Charlemagne for inventing schools. In France, Charlemagne (747-814) is falsely credited for creating the French school system. In reality, he only contributed to its early beginnings and only for boys. It is said that France Gall didn’t like this song, but I guarantee you that everyone knows it in France.
  • Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son is of course one the songs that jumps to French people’s minds when evocating France Gall since it brought her to fame.
  • Résiste exemplifies the singer’s desire to follow her heart more than conventions to live a meaningful life.
  • Évidemment is homage to France Gall’s friend and beloved singer and activist Daniel Balavoine who died accidently in 1986 in Africa where he was leading a fund-raising effort aimed at building wells there.
  • Tout Pour la Musique, as it title implies, is simply a hymn to music and musicians.

Since France Gall’s voice was high-pitched, sounding almost like a little girl I assumed for the longest time that she was somewhat naïve, while she was in fact a strong woman who made deliberate choices to pursue both her long musical journey and humanitarian activism. She also went through the heartbreaking death of her longtime partner and daughter with grace while soon after dealing with breast cancer with the same discretion.

Since her death I’ve listened to her songs with a different ear. France Gall got a great sense of rhythm and absorbed the musical trends of her time. Behind apparent easy songs she and Berger had also an indeniable knowledge of music history. Like most musicians from her generation France Gall was fascinated by the United States and America certainly influenced Michel Berger as well, so I leave you with Ella, Elle l’A or Ella, She Has It, a song written in homage to American icon Ella Fitzgerald but also as an anthem against racism. Still timely.

 

With these two women I’m reminded of the self-contradictory nature of my native France. A country so creative in the world of the arts and yet so often reluctant to move forward.

P.S. Pour vous qui me lisez à partir de la France. Vos réactions vécues à plusieurs milliers de kilomètres m’intéressent. Elles me permettent aussi pour prendre le pouls d’un pays qui me devient de plus en plus étranger même si je reste pétrie par sa culture.

Comment avez-vous vécu ces deux événements?

Que pensez-vous de la démarche de Catherine Deneuve?

Quelle est votre chanson préférée de France Gall?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Friday: Bonne Année! Happy New Year!

J’avais prévu un billet différent, mais comme je ne fais plus de résolutions de début d’année depuis quelque temps, je me suis autorisée un changement de dernière minute.

Je dédie cette galerie de beauté naturelle à ceux et celles qui ont souffert et souffrent encore des conséquences des ouragans et incendies de 2017, principalement au Texas, en Floride, à Puerto Rico, et en Californie, à ceux et celles qui vivent un début d’hiver très difficile sur la côte est des États Unis, particulièrement en Nouvelle Angleterre, toujours proche de mon cœur.

Malgré les nombreux challenges qu’a présenté 2017, la beauté a gagné sur l’adversité.

Elle gagnera encore en 2018.

I had planned a different post, but since I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a while ago, I went with a last minute change.

I dedicate this series of natural beauty to anyone who has lived through the devastating hurricanes and fires of 2017, principally in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California, to anyone currently affected by the harsh winter conditions along the East coast, particularly in New England, always tucked close to my heart.

 

Despite the numerous challenges during 2017, beauty won over adversity.

It will again in 2018.

 

 

Oranges, Perdrioles, and the Six Books of Christmas

When I was a child I always found an orange in my best pair of shoes on Christmas Day.

The tradition went back to my parents’ own childhood when oranges were a rarity and thus a treat. I imagine that in grey, damp Normandy the fruit also symbolized sun and warmth, lacking there in the winter season. The oranges of my childhood came from Africa or Spain, and we only ate them in the winter.

Oranges, of course, have been part of my children’s daily life in the U.S., so I’ve never tucked one in their Christmas shoes. Instead, I’ve always slipped a book.

Often bought at the last minute since I am a late holiday shopper. Yep, I know. It’s not always good. This is how it happens.

In the fall, I envision myself browsing leisurely on a crisp midweek early December morning, a large coffee mug in one hand and a thoughtful gift list in the other. In reality, I start to gather ideas way too late and end up changing them, as we get closer to Christmas.

Though I am a late shopper I enjoy holiday special events. Last weekend, for example, I attended a Holiday Pop concert which ended with The Twelve Days of Christmas.

As it has been for most American things, I discovered, years ago through my American-schooled children, that The Twelve Days of Christmas is an American holiday classic.

Embed from Getty Images

The Holiday Pop offered a particularly successful rendition of the song, thanks to the amazing singer and orchestra. This moment triggered a blog post idea. I will write a “Twelve Books for Christmas” post, I thought.

But I managed to also be late for this plan.

However, when I checked the origin of the legendary song I discovered two facts.

  • The gifts to the “true love” are not given twelve days before Christmas but from Christmas Day to January 5th.
  • The song is credited for having British but also French origins, although the gifts in the French version are offered over the course of twelve months and not twelve days.

Intrigued, I dug a little more and found out that the partridge, called perdrix in French, is also included in the list of gifts. The French title is Une Perdriole, which I assume is a small partridge.

Here is a link to a version that includes the lyrics. Even if you understand some French, it can be a challenge to follow the song without them. I was myself a little lost between the names of these strange gifts offered to the “true love” in  The Twelve Days of Christmas🙂

In the end, as you see, I was not late after all, but I still decided to downsize my“Twelve Books for Christmas.”

So here is my “Six Books for Christmas,” in case you are also late, six days before Christmas.

Or if like me you always slip a book inside a loved one’s pair of shoes or … stocking.

For Little Ones

Aliens Get the Sniffles Too Ahhh-Choo!

Written by Katy Duffield and illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Aww… Little Alien is sick. Even with his parents’ extra care and out of space medicine, little alien is not feeling 100% himself. Until a loving puppy finds out what can pull a smile on little alien’s face again. Text and illustrations are equally filled with humor and tenderness. A unique twist on a plain cold.

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Such a gorgeous picture book! Both text and illustrations tap into the emotions that trigger a child’s birth. Love the author’s unique take on a baby’s place on earth. This picture book is so perfect that I offered it to a friend of mine who just gave birth to a baby. I could simply not find anything more appropriate to welcome a new human being on our planet.

For Middle Graders

Like her maman my #1 daughter loved fiction from day one, but # 2 wanted “true stories.” With her I discovered the world of nonfiction. There were less books in the 1990s for the lovers of true stories than currently. So for the child in your life who also favors nonfiction over fiction, stop by Jennifer Swanson’s website. I’m postitive that you will find more than one book to satisfy this kid. Since 2017 has been a remarkably important year for women, I especially like Cool Women Who Work With Animals.

Me and Marvin Gardens

Written by Amy Sarig King

I already reviewed this book, since I’ve read every new novel from the author. She’s brilliant and you can never go wrong if you select one of her numerous books crafted with talent and heart for any teen in your life. I love them all. This first-ever written middle grade novel is highly enjoyable and yet cleverly layered and very moving.

For Teens

The Librarian of Auschwitz

Written by Antonio Iturbe and translated by Lilit Thwaites

Based on the true life of a fourteen-year-old girl prisoner at Auschwitz who becomes a secret librarian there for the sake of books and humanity. I heard of the book from a blogger. As dark as the topic is, the story is filled with the best of human traits. A must-read for teens and adults alike.

For Grown-Ups

Gold Fame Citrus

Written by native California author Claire Vaye Watkins, it’s an exceptionally well written, bone chilling and amazingly timely dystopian novel about drought and the human thirst for more than water. It will particularly hit home for California residents. My French blogger friend told me that the novel is translated in French under the title Les Sables de L’Armagosa.

 

Now, even if your holiday shopping is finished, your gifts wrapped and hidden, remember that the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day until January 5th 🙂

Which is when I will see you on your blog and mine, since I’m hitting the pause button until then.

 

I wish EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU a beautiful Holiday Season.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Los Posadas, or any other holiday dear to your heart, enjoy this special time of the year with the people you love. Even those well chosen gifts cannot match these shared moments.

I also wish you a healthy, happy New Year!

 

 

French Friday: From a France I’ve Known …

Two famous French men died, only hours away, in the first days of December.

One was nicknamed the Elvis Presley of the French.

The other was an awarded author and the Dean of the Académie française.

These two men had little or even nothing in common.

Chance is you’ve never heard of them, unless you’re French or francophone or a really big Francophile.

And yet they leave a mark on the French collective.

Including mine, even though they have also little or nothing in common with me.

 

Johnny Hallyday, born Jean-Philippe Smet in 1943 to a Belgian father and a French mother, was meant to spend most of his life on stage. His mother was a model fitting and his father an actor, singer and dancer. Since his father left when he was only a child and his mother worked fulltime, Jean-Philippe spent a great deal of time with a beloved aunt and his two cousins, moving at an early age to London where the girls pursued a dual dance career. One of them will marry Lee Halliday, an American dancer who will quickly call Jean-Philippe Johnny. Johnny adored this man and took his last name, which he will keep as his stage name. A printing mistake on a record will transform the letter I in Y.

Johnny Hallyday was born.

His musical career didn’t take off immediately. Like for so many other singers of that period of time,  Johnny’s success will materialize in the 1960s when he decides to become a rocker. Thanks to Lee Halliday who receives American records directly from the USA through his family, Johnny is exposed to American music, still unavailable to the French. He will in fact record a complete album in English, in Nashville in 1962, a never heard of for a French singer.

With a career spanning over half a century, Johnny Hallyday could only be at some point the backdrop of my French life.

Was I a fan? No. But his songs played on the radio when my mother sewed and he was one of the most coveted television’s guests too. With a voice, a face, a presence Johnny Hallyday was inevitable and a genuine component of the popular French culture.

Although I favored British and American rock, Johnny Hallyday, often only called Johnny, had many female fans. I remember of a few girls who bought each and every of his records and clipped his photo from the fan magazine Salut les Copains, which I didn’t buy either.

For valid reasons Johnny was often compared to Elvis Presley. His public demonstrated similar adoration and his female fans also shrieked and fainted whenever he appeared on stage. In return, Johnny was also very loyal to his fans and even threw free concerts, as he did on Bastille Day in 2000 and 2009.

I suppose that Johnny’s fans were hit as hard when he died than the people of Memphis and Elvis’s fans across America when The King died.

Unlike Elvis, though, Johnny is little known away from France. He’s in fact sometimes called the only rocker nobody heard about.

Although his casket was carried along the Champs Elysées as it is for a national French figure, Johnny won’t be buried in his hometown like Elvis but on the idyllic island of St. Bart, where he owned a stunning villa.

This last note leaves many of Johnny’s fans disappointed. Most will hardly afford to stay on the most exclusive French Antilles islands to pay their respect to the man who’s been called an Everyday Man.

I never owned a Johnny’s record or a CD, but look what I found at home!

Back from 1986, only a matter of time before the owner of this single – 45 tours in French – and me shared a common Parisian flat. I suppose that Johnny’s fan base is more eclectic than I thought 🙂

 

 

 

 

Jean d’Ormesson was born Count Jean Bruno Wladimir François-de-Paule le Fèvre d’Ormesson in 1925.  No wonder he was called Jean d’O.

I’ve never been a fan of aristocrats, no doubt due to my working class upbringing 🙂

That said, Jean d’Ormesson leaves behind him an extensive body of literature, recently gathered in the prestigious La Pléiade Collection.

He was also for a while the youngest member of the Académie française, the preeminent French council for matters relevant to the French language and died as the Dean. A while back, I wrote a post about the hot debate related to the evolution of the French spelling and grammar and included the public announcement from the Académie – unanimously opposed to the changes that attempt to bring more gender equality. Jean d’Ormesson was also against this evolution, although he admitted that the French language, once dominent, had lost its power as France and Europe had lost theirs. He didn’t weep on that loss, though, since he believed in the natural changes due to time.

As I wrote my post last month, I was reminded that the Académie française has currently only four women on board for forty seats. Jean d’Ormesson is the one who brought the first woman to the Académie in 1981. He did so against the Gallic dismissive comments of his male colleagues who mocked Marguerite Yourcenar’s real gender since she was gay. According to Jean d’Ormesson, he rejoiced to finally pronounce a word so incredible and prodigiously so singular: Madame.

So, even though, d’Ormesson also directed the newspaper Le Figaro for many years, with a readership leaning more toward the right than the left, I remember him for this decisive step.

He was also a very educated, witty man who spoke like no one else. Even his enunciation, so articulate, was unique. No doubt born in a world where so few French came from. His piercing blue eyes were filled with genuine joy and humor. A favorite on French television his presence elevated any conversation.

And he left us with so many admirable sentences! I only select one that I prefer in French for its beautiful rhythm and that I humbly translate below, totally aware that I will never equal the eloquence of Jean D’O.

“Tant qu’il y aura des livres, des gens pour en écrire et des gens pour en lire, tout ne sera pas perdu dans ce monde qu’en dépit de ses tristesses et de ses horreurs nous avons tant aimé ».

As long as there will be books, people to write them and people to read them, not everything will be lost in this world that we have loved so dearly, despite its sorrows and horrors.

Re-reading the sentence I would say the same about music.

And maybe this is also what Johnny’s fans felt when he sang.

 

 

A last humorous note about Jean d’O. He’s credited for saying once that dying on the day a star dies is terrible. No doubt, Jean d’Ormesson’s death has been somewhat eclipsed by Johnny Hallyday’s.

These two French men could not have been more different. Their public and readers had probably not much in common either. At his death one received popular homage, the other national homage.

In their own way they incarnated my native France.

With them gone, another page is turned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Friday: We Are ALL From One Place

Of all people immigrants have an acute sense of what straddling worlds means. But the importance of the place that has seen us grow leaves permanent prints all over our heart and defines our beliefs and misbeliefs, regardless of being or not an immigrant. This place that shapes us – whether with good or bad events – matters to anyone of us.

Over the last ten days I read one memoir, a young adult novel and watched a movie, realizing only lately that despite the first impression all three treat of worlds that meet and collide, ultimately forcing the characters to face the importance of their first home.

In Hillbilly Elegy the author J.D. Vance writes about his childhood and youth spent between Middletown, Ohio where he was born and has lived most of the time, and Jackson, Kentucky where his family was from.

There are many reasons to love and to be wary of this book. The author has really lived among true hillbillies and has seen the worst and the best of the so-called Appalachian values. Substance abuse and violence counter balanced by unconditional loyalty and love of country make it for a confusing upbringing. But as a conservative, Vance shows little patience for the ones who have nothing, often making them responsible for their own misfortune. He claims his hillbilly-ness and seeks responses to the crisis that affect the American white working-class in this part of the country, but his ties to some of the bigggest Trump’s campaign donors can only trigger legit questions. The topic of his memoir is serious but the writing is approachable and I highly recommend the book so you make your own opinion. Here is a New York Times review of the book and here an opinion published in the Jackson Times-Voice. You can also hear the author’s Ted Talk.

The core of the memoir remains about the importance that geography plays in our lives, also the aspect that moved me most when I read it.

No one chooses her/his place of birth. Like one’s first name it is a pure accident and yet so powerful. So powerful that in fact most of us either spend our lives where we were born or close by or leave for an entirely different region, country, or even continent, sometimes to come back much later.

J. D. Vance for example couldn’t wait to leave the poverty of Middletown, a now-decaying Ohio steel town filled with Kentucky transplants. But he still spoke with obvious affection of his family living there and of the physical beauty of eastern Kentucky.  Lately, after living in San Francisco he has returned to Columbus, Ohio, where he studied at Ohio State before going to Yale Law School. Columbus is the city he calls home.

The author’s journey from poverty to professional and personal success is fascinating and very rare. He thanks his grandparents for being the reason behind. Despite their own excesses, they poured constant love inside little J.D. when his mother was abusing drugs and creating havoc around her with numerous temporary boyfriends. His grandmother was particularly loving and pulled him through. And four years in the Marines completed the transformation from a pure hillbilly to a guy who could venture in the world, says Vance.

He  drank, though, sparkling water for the first time at Yale, thinking it was Sprite lacking sugar. This is also at Yale that he learned how to dress for interviews, realizing that what looked extraordinary to him was banal for most of his classmates. Growing up in a hectic environment where conflicts were dealt with fists and not words, he also learned to express his feelings with honesty and not anger. Not an easy task!

Thanks to my parents, I have not lived an abusive childhood neither witnessed domestic violence or the consequences of substance abuse. But Vance’s discoveries of a sophisticated world echoed some of my own.

A whole pear served on my plate for breakfast as I stayed at a middle school friend for a sleepover puzzled me once. As I started to bite inside as I did with apples, I realized that everyone was using a fork and a knife to peel the fruit and then cut it in pieces small enough to be eaten without juice dribbling down the chin.

In my first year of middle school, located only a few miles away from my small village, I also pretended to be fluent in music notation when I understood that I was the only one who had not studied sight-reading. My one-room elementary school teachers had taught me how to read and gosh did I read! But musical education was not for working-class or rural kids.

Years later, a set of unknown cheese knives confused me, too, while they seemed so familiar to a college friend of mine.

In The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas writes about sixteen-year-old Starr Carter who lives in a poor black part of town by night and studies in a posh private high school by day. Her life is distinctly separated between these two worlds, creating from the very beginning issues in her neighborhood where she still has friends and at school where she has made new friends, primarily white boys and girls. Even her clothes and language are different whether she’s in one or the other place.

Starr is deeply aware of straddling two worlds and already struggles with the notion of allegiance. When one of her closest childhood friends, someone she sees less now that their worlds rarely meet, is shot by a policeman in her presence, these two worlds must meet.

The Hate U Give is first and foremost a novel based on the numerous police shootings of unarmed young African Americans, tragic events that triggered the movement Black Lives Matter.

The same question through the entire novel, however, is: Can you straddle two very different worlds and still remain the same person? Can you stay loyal to your kin while living away? Starr often finds herself in such different settings that she wonders who she is. In the white comfortable world of her school friends she is tempted to defend her neighborhood, her people, her tribe. At home, she also realizes how impossible it is for her people to understand that everything white is not always bad.

In the end, she has to find her voice and tells the truth about what happened the night her chidlhoood friend was shot. From a girl split between two worlds she becomes an activist or at least someone keenly aware of the deeply disparate lives people can live, only miles away from each other.

Lady Bird aka Christine McPherson is also a high school student in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut movie Lady Bird. The story tells of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence and of Lady Bird’s exceptionally strong but butt-headed relationship with her mother who we imagine being exactly like her daughter at the same age.

Since the story is set between 2002 and 2003, in Sacramento, California it is also a film about the power of a birthplace on human’s psyche. Anyone who has lived in post 9/11 California has also lived the rapidly changing American economic backdrop, largely due to the end of what was called then the dot.com boom.

Lady Bird’s family is directly impacted when her middle-aged father loses his job. They already live on the other side of tracks, as Lady Bird puts it. Her home is not set along one of those tree-lined Sacramento streets where the wealthiest residents live. Her mother can be a hardworking nurse, clothes are bought at thrift stores and money is tight, moreover since Lady Bird’s parents have sent her to a private catholic school – no doubt to get a better education. There, she meets economically and financially diverse kids.

Opinionated but big-hearted and impossibly likeable, Lady Bird has one dream: leaving Sacramento and California. She has harsh words against the city and the state. The delta has always been frowned upon as being agricultural. People there often argue that they are not part of Central California, a region even less desirable for many. Sacramento is still quite diverse and greatly benefits from the proximity of UC Davis, located about fifteen miles away. But as local kid, Lady Bird doesn’t want to attend UC Davis but study in “a place filled with culture.” A dream that I could easily understand as someone who has also lived in a French region considered rural and remote from cultural life.

Lady Bird sometimes lies about her address and even pretends living somewhere else. She goes great length to avoid being seen with her parents, mostly because they don’t drive a recent car. Again, these details rang so many familiar bells. I was so impressed by some of my middle and high school friends’ homes that I prayed they would never show up at my much smaller and less comfortable house.

I don’t want to brandish the Spoiler Alert flag, so I won’t go into more details, moreover since there are countless small details in this movie that tell so much and show the talent of the director.

As an example, just a brief conversation between Lady Bird and a boy she meets at a party, toward the end of the film when she has just started college.

“What’s your name?”

“Christine.”

“David. So where are you from?”

“Sacramento.”

“Where?”

“San Francisco.”

It is when she is in New York City that Lady Bird takes back her given name. This is also there that she understands the importance of place for oneself. And where she considers her mother’s feelings about Sacramento, a city that will forever tie them.

This short dialogue moved me since I also lied on occasions after realizing that the name of my hometown resonated with no one but me. Much later, of course, I understood that it shouldn’t have mattered.

We are ALL from one place. And even though we may leave it behind we are still from there. There is no particular pride or shame to draw from it, only perhaps respect and affection for a small corner of earth that shaped the person we became.

Besides the common theme of home that serves as a crucial backdrop, the role that one or more persons plays in a child’s life is very important in these books and movie. Whether it is J. D. Vance’s grandparents and particularly his grandmother or Starr’s mother and father but also uncle or still Lady Bird’s mother, each of the characters receive love, sometimes brutally bold, sometimes embarrassing, always unconditional.

Ultimately, as seedy or posh home is, love is still what defines it and what matters most.

From my home to yours

 

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