And this is where I’m staying, courtesy of my publisher, Gallimard, and I see that they also publish Elena Ferrante so I’m feeling rather fan-girlish just for being here, so close to brilliance.
That’s really I have to say just for now. I’m in Paris!
I have an interview at France inter this afternoon (like France’s CBC radio, I think), followed by an event this evening at the Maison de la Poesie, and then tomorrow I will be wandering around like a tourist taking photos of places I feel like I’ve seen before — but I haven’t! This is my first time in Paris. The streets are like mazes of similar looking buildings, like this (below), but I’ll figure it out.
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.
I haven’t taken many photos at the museum, where I’m spending my mornings. I mean to, and then get caught up in the work and forget everything else. I’ve been commissioned to write a completely open-ended piece that will be performed in the museum a week from Sunday (by an actress, not by me).
Here is my morning routine: I walk to the museum, enter at a back door that is unlocked and propped slightly open, climb a wonky circular staircase, which I swear is going to fall off the wall any minute, and ring the bell outside an industrial metal door on the second floor. Eventually someone comes to let me in, although I usually have to knock for awhile too, and one day had to wander around the grounds until the museum director happened by. Behind the door is a large room with big windows, big tables, shelves of books, filing cabinets, several desks, mysterious bubble-wrapped items, and a workspace where today a man was framing photographs: new prints made from old film (or would it be plates?), photographs originally taken in the late 1800s. These will be part of the exhibit too, which focuses on portraiture.
I follow the director down a hallway where he unlocks another door, this time to a small storeroom that has become very familiar. Here, I sit on a step-stool and write, while looking at paintings, photographs, etchings, sketches—whatever the director brings and props before me. His gentle delight when he offers me a new portrait has become familiar too. It is an astonishing and simple way to spend several hours. I sit, I study, I look, I think, I lean closer and examine, I wonder, I write. Out of this, I hope to make something new and original.
Adolphe Felix Cals, “Portrait de Leonie-Rose Davy,” 1874.
Today, I walked through several empty rooms in the museum below, where the director has taped paper print-outs of paintings on the white walls to indicate where the real paintings will be hung. The exhibit is due to open a week from Saturday. On one wall, I saw a print-out of the portrait, above. As we stood in the empty room, the director gestured toward the woman and said, “It is you!” I have not seen the painting in person, only in the catalogue. I have not studied her face up close, nor sat with her in the storeroom. I hope there will be time before the exhibit officially opens to stand in front of her and wonder about who she was.
After I left the museum, and walked to the boulangerie to buy half a baguette for lunch, and to the fromagerie to buy some very soft cheese to eat with the baguette, I came back to my apartment and looked up an old photo I remembered taking during my 365-project (when I took a self-portrait every day for a year): our expressions are so similar, it is uncanny. What do you think?
I surrender to the mystery.
Songs I have heard in strange places in France; a very short list.
Desperado, at the supermarket in Louviers.
My Name is Luka, at a bar/cafe in Rouen called The Diplomat.
I tell you, spend a little time on your own and you start to develop a picture of yourself that is not that flattering. Do you know what I’ve done for the last hour? I’ve eaten a chocolate croissant, watched a bunch of HIGH-larious and/or weep-inducing videos on FB, and drunk a small glass of white wine (Reisling, from the Alsace region, purchased for less than $6 at a nearby supermarket). To tell the truth, I’m feeling pretty happy. I’m wearing my new sweater, which I purchased earlier this evening in a small boutique up the street, because I didn’t bring sweaters and it turns out that spring in France is chilly, like spring everywhere, really, except back home in Canada where apparently spring is winter, and there’s literally a foot of snow on the ground.
If I were to live alone …
Well, first of all, I would start talking to myself. Out loud. Loudly. Everywhere. With dramatic emphasis and an occasionally nagging tone, and a lot of swearing. In the second person. As in “you.” That sweater is totally you, I mean, it’s practical and it’s warm and it’s a nice colour, plus you got it for a deal. Nicely done, Carrie!
Oh, and the conversation would be banal. Even the swearing would be banal, as it would refer to the tiny irritations that come from doing every day tasks alone, like opening bottles of wine with cheap corkscrews. I worked my way in, but by God, it was touch and go for a few minutes.
Have I mentioned I’m in a new town, where I’m staying in a small flat? Louviers is about an hour and a half south of Dieppe. I arrived here on Sunday. I’ll be here for most of the next two weeks. I assumed I would want to write all the time. But I spent this morning writing at the museum and was completely spent by lunchtime—emptied out, emptied of words, emptied of the desire to process ideas. So this afternoon, I went for a long walk. There is a beautiful walking path beside the river, paved, and it goes for miles and miles between all the little towns in this region. I thought I would use the walk to think about things, but instead I just walked, as one does, and watched the families on bicycles and roller blades and scooters, and saw some swans and ducks, and a lot of dog turds. You really have to watch out for dog turds (I told myself, as I walked along).
The other thing I’ve taken to doing is hanging around outside the tourist office, which is fortuitously nearby. The wifi in my flat can’t be coaxed into working with my phone, so if I want to text or upload photos, I simply stand outside the tourist office and borrow their free wifi. I do feel like a bit of deviant or thief as I nonchalantly lean on the bricks between the windows, hunched over the screen of my phone, but I’m like a junkie for the wifi; I can’t get enough. I guess I could go inside, but there really isn’t anywhere to sit: it’s just a woman behind a desk with a shelf of brochures, and I’ve already taken several maps. I think the woman behind the desk is beginning to wonder about me. Tonight, after purchasing the sweater and the chocolate croissant, I stood outside the tourist office and texted Kevin while watching three young men fish in the river, a few metres away. I stayed for awhile, missing home, enjoying the happily timed back and forth conversation with my husband.
I wonder what this town will look like to me when I’ve been here for two weeks. Already its winding narrow streets are beginning to map themselves in my mind.
There is a hookah bar directly across the street from my flat. Also a Turkish kebab shop—two, in fact—a pizzeria, and a “Flanders-style” bar. When it starts to get dark, I close the shutters. Closing the shutters involves opening the windows, which look like huge doors and are level with the street. When they’re open, I could high-five strangers walking by on the sidewalk, not that I’ve tried. Then I unfold the shutters, pull them in, and close the latch, and shut the windows, and sit in my suddenly dark flat and see myself for who I really am.
**I am rating this post a PG13: it contains mature language that may offend some, and amuse others. You have been warned.**
When I am immersed in another language, even one that I cannot speak very well, I pick up the cadences and rhythms, the particularities of its grammatical construction, and almost immediately I sound like a foreigner when speaking in my native tongue. That might have been the problem at Saturday night’s reading, during the interview afterward when it may have appeared to the audience that I could speak and understand neither French nor English. Even as I write this, I am hearing these words flow out of me as if spoken in a French accent. A poorly imagined French accent. I apologize.
The woman who read from my book on Saturday night is an actress. She is very tall, slender, and I noticed her backstage immediately because she radiates an unselfconscious beauty, with a face that looks like it is carved, large dark eyes, an expressive mouth, her hair cut short and a bit messy as she ran her fingers through it. On stage, she read marvellously, kinetically, seeming to inhabit Aganetha, to bring her to life. Although my French can only be called deficient, I could understand the text because I know it so well and the translation must be very good. As she read the prologue, tears sprang to my eyes. I felt such pride, as if I were seeing and hearing a child of mine perform upon the stage, but it was something more, too, the gift of seeing what one has made from outside oneself. Perhaps because it was a translation, perhaps because it was being read by someone else—I could appreciate the book’s language, the imagery, the story, the appeal of the character in a new way, in fact in a way I have never before been able to appreciate it. I was moved at different moments during the reading by the story. I was moved by the ideas. But nothing was more moving than the initial surprise of seeing Aganetha come to life. I felt lit up. I felt it was a moment I would not forget.
The actress sitting at a small table on stage, lit from above, leaning in and out of the microphone, her voice changing as she became the characters, her free hand running through her hair. Before her, the text printed out on paper and scribbled all over (necessary cuts to bridge or shorten material). She read for 45 minutes, stopping several times to take a drink of water, once to check discreetly the slender watch on her wrist. At the end, the audience clapped and clapped and did not stop clapping. There was emotion in the room. It was magical. When I stood up to be acknowledged, I was confused, as if it were not of me. The interview on stage immediately afterward was, as I mentioned above, rather clumsy. I felt lost; but maybe I was just dumbstruck, in awe of the moment that had come before. All of my emotion was caught in the before, watching her, watching Aggie.
We drove back to Dieppe in a packed van, and I sat in the front seat beside Marie-Sophie, the actress, who told me about her time in Montreal last year putting on a play. It was late by this point, almost 11PM, and we were very hungry, very tired. The driver rolled down the windows because one of the women in the back was feeling sick. The headlights lit up a small portion of the narrow road and the grass beyond, and we plunged up and down, up and down until I began to feel sick too. Behind us, the women were discussing translation—two were actors who translate plays, and the other was my publisher. “It is not ‘sweet fuck,’” said one. “It is ‘sweet fuck-all.’” “Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Sweet fuck-all?” “You can say fucking this fucking that.” “But not sweet fuck? Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Ah. Sweet fuck-all.” They went on and on. I started to giggle, but I couldn’t share my laughter with Marie-Sophie or the driver, who were talking to each other past me, as neither seemed to understand what the women were saying. I couldn’t turn around, either, or I would have felt even sicker.
When we got out of the van after driving around the town of Dieppe—the driver was lost—and we were standing disoriented on the sidewalk near the restaurant, one of the women asked me, “How do you say it, ‘sweet fuck,’ or ‘sweet fuck-all’? What does it mean?” “I heard you talking,” I said, laughing. “It sounded like dialogue from a strange play.” “Can you say ‘sweet fuck?’” asked the actress named Kelly, with the Irish grandmother, who will be translating the work I’ve been commissioned to write while in Louviers; she will perform the translated work in Louviers’ museum next week. Kelly has a very sweet, innocent face, a bow-shaped mouth. “Not really,” I said. “What does it mean?” she asked. I said, “Sweet fuck just means … sweet fuck.” “Sweet fuck means sweet fuck,” repeated Dominique, the translator of the Scottish play that had been read earlier in the evening. “Yes,” I said, “like ‘nice lay.’ But we never say it. It’s not a saying.” “Nice lay,” repeated Dominique. “Then ‘sweet fuck-all,’ what does it mean? Does it mean ‘nothing’?” asked Kelly. She pronounced each word individually, so that the phrase did not sound in her mouth like it would sound in mine. Sweet Fuck All. I said, “Sweet fuck-all means ‘I don’t care,’ or ‘it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Nothing matters.’ Or ‘nothing,’ I guess, yes, it means ‘nothing.’”
“This is what I say to my students, when they are learning translation, I say, throw out everything you learned in school, forget it, you know nothing. They want to translate word for word and you cannot, because in language there is not translation, there is only interpretation. There are so many phrases particular to the culture,” said Dominique, as we crossed the street and walked toward the restaurant, where we would eat fish and rice in a cream sauce, a cheese wrapped in pastry, and I would choose the creme brûlée for dessert.
There is one more detail that I want to record, although it does not relate, only in the most peripheral sense. Earlier that evening, I saw a child’s sock, very small, toddler-sized, yellow with green detailing, stuffed with shit and left beside a park bench in the square near the theatre. I looked down and noted its existence as I walked past, I said to myself, that is a child’s sock stuffed with shit. I could imagine the mother or father having to wipe up the child who had shat himself or herself, and in desperation yanking the sock off the child’s foot and saying, there, we’ll leave it, we don’t need it, forget it, it’s a small loss; although all in French, of course.
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