Some little French stories

When I read the news or look at Facebook I fear that returning to the US will put us on the wrong side of history. Heading out of the pot and into the proverbial inferno. It’s terrifying and confusing from this vantage point so I thought today I would share some little moments from my notebooks from this year. Here are times when we were with people and humanity was a simple pleasure.

Last fall we went to an Olympique Marseille soccer game with 65,000 mostly shirtless fans who chanted and threw smoke bombs onto the field. It was intense and exciting. Afterwards my son ran in the night, in the rain, and I followed him to cram ourselves into the metro with everyone else.  We came out to a small dark street on a hill full of parked cars, carrying our little light blue plastic soccer flags with the other fans going home. A drunk man or a crazy man yelled at us: You are fake Marseillais, chui vrai moai, faux Marseillais vous. In my head this man without hair, missing some teeth, is following me in the night of my soul: everyone else knows, you are fake, a fake writer, a person who is just floating in the world.

This is a tractor garage I saw on a recent walk in the country. I like to think the other side is all windows and a modernist house. Perspective is everything.

I stood on a cobbled street with my bony friend and her young son and to my surprise she began crying.  We walked to the park and I tasted a little red and yellow fruit that I had never eaten before. I rest astounded at all the things my friend knows about the animal world, about nature and she wants to learn more.  Once again, she is in love, or maybe not, with someone who thinks they are always right. I want her to be the smart one in the house.

Looking at this, it’s hard to fathom that the French don’t have their own word for whimsy.

At the Velo Toulouse station a clergyman wearing a black bike helmet types in his number to get a bike and ride off.  I am sitting in front of a plaque commemorating the pre-Enlightenment thinkers who lived and were killed in Toulouse. The little free electric bus for getting around downtown comes down the street. Today I heard that empathy was first proposed as an art historical term.

The man of my dreams. He makes baguettes.

Last night my son asked me what superpower I would want and I said to be in someone else’s head and to see the world. He said I couldn’t have that one because that was the superpower he was going to choose. And we talked about how it would be so interesting to be in their head, looking out through their eyes, but still being ourselves. He surprised me by saying something like: that would be the ultimate empathy. But then, a few moments later, he explained that what he really wants is to be in someone else’s head the moment they are decapitated by a guillotine.

The Garonne, the mighty river of Toulouse.

An encounter in the library. She walks right up to me.   »I’m Danish. I don’t like Toulouse.  It’s too Spanish here,«  she says to me in excellent French, pale blue eyes unblinking. And then with no facial expression at all she walks on and heads out into the pouring rain.

On the ski bus coming back from Saint-Lary I wanted to write a sentence: I admire the optimism of artisanal soap makers.  I love the math of snowboarding. Slope plus speed plus objects moving in a certain direction and their likelihood of collision.

I walked into a beautiful church I had never visited before.  I don’t know why. The organist was playing, practicing, and I was moved by all these centuries of other peoples’ faith.  How lovely. My hair was wet, my coat was long and warm, my face and head hurt a little from falling yesterday, and my throat tightened.

A weekend away and I am discussing spirituality and cohousing in French on comfortable couches with thoughtful people until almost midnight after a day of good adventures and intense natural beauty.  Five of us. All single, all weighing the fragile balance of contentment in our chosen states. Single people get together and talk. They spend a lot of time with other people. We talked about love.  Such a nice topic of conversation. And then they all needed to smoke so we went outside and stood around a small white table. A few stars twinkled beyond the high foggy clouds and we asked each other humane questions about fear and living with animals and who does the cooking.

This is a brand new restaurant that seems to have been created during confinement and now does takeout as that is all that is allowed. The question is, was that the original name or did recent events inspire it?

One day we came home in the afternoon to find two very drunk men lying in our small street.  One was mostly on the sidewalk, the curb as a pillow for his large blond and ruddy head. The other man sat and swayed on a box in the middle of the street before eventually lying down with some of his butt hanging out.  They sprawled on the asphalt, inert and hot. We leaned out of our fourth floor window several times, waiting for a scene, for anger, for honking. The first car drove up. A woman in a Volkswagen. She assessed the situation and then simply backed out the narrow curving street.  No yelling, no upset. The men were there for hours, eventually moving out of the middle of the street and we never heard any rage. It was a day of partying and drinking and there they were.

A good croissant.  An unexpected conversation.  A vast beamed meditation hall. I love that this cafe is so generous with water.  The regular barista, a trans fellow, is not here. Twelve small globular pendant lamps in black and white metal hang over all the little tables.  We can all see our work very well. There is so much light that my hand casts two shadows. Bohemian Rhapsody on the stereo and I have to smile. Mama, I just killed a man. I am back in my classroom, teaching Camus, laughing with my students.

Sitting here on this gray bed listening to the rain falling on the stone courtyard might be the moment that changes it all.  In my life there have been a few Eureka moments but mostly an accretion, a lot of little experiences that pushed my bark to a certain muddy overgrown fork of the river and yet I am also the river.  There is no unchanging life.

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