Photos d’identité

mug shots

‘La photo d’identité’ or passport picture used to be something of a French specialty. They were de rigueur for just about everything — joining a club, getting a bus pass, starting school or applying for a job. There were automated photo booths in every supermarket and photographers’ shops on all the main strips did a booming trade in portraits.

In various wallets, purse pockets and drawers around my house is a jumble of old ID photos. These records of past lives capture moments, years, entire eras since I first arrived in France back in 1986.

Now you can get them done online and print them yourself. Although I’m not sure this is good enough for official passport purposes.

Like any good French wife and mother I always carried a few photos around as mementos and to be prepared if anyone asked about my family.

This collection documents most of my daughter’s journey from pre-school to young adulthood. The first one cracks me up. That expression! She wasn’t going to take any guff.

She briefly morphed into a mini-me when some well-intentioned professional recommended glasses to ensure she missed not a single letter of the vital early reading years. It was just after that that she rejected all efforts (mostly Belle-mère’s) to give her that cute little B-C-B-G look (bon chic, bon genre, a French version of the well-heeled chic). She grew her hair and became a tomboy par excellence before transforming into a beautiful young woman. More recent photos even show her smiling!

There are fewer ID photos of my son. This may be because he was in constant motion, especially in the early years. One teacher dubbed him ‘Zébulon’, a French cartoon character on a spring who simply can’t stay still. (If you’re interested, he shows up in the video below at about 20 seconds in.)

Husband matured from handsome young man to handsome older man. As he is still my junior by several years, he will always have youth over me. Although possibly not hair.

I am not sharing any recent ID photos. Since they changed the rules in line with the biometric passport, and you are no longer allowed to smile or even form your facial muscles into the semblance of an expression, I will spare you my slack-jawed mug shot.

But I’ll keep the collection for my memory box.

Do you keep a collection of ID photos?

Boite à souvenirs

Boite à souvenirs

I’ve always kept a memory box. None of your nicely curated ones with the pretty covers, neatly annotated photos and properly catalogued albums. Just the random flotsam and jetsam of my life.

Somewhere in our basement is a collection of boxes, battered and bruised. They contain the memorabilia of growing up, the bits and pieces I’ve found it necessary to keep over the years. Always with the vague idea that, one day, I would look fondly through these things and remember that one particular moment: this elation, that heartbreak, the time we… The broken guitar string. The cigarettes I believed I’d never give up.

Thankfully I did quit, and my broken heart mended. And though I never seem to find time to sort through all the keepsakes, I roost upon them like a clucking hen, hoping that one day they’ll hatch into something.

In among the boxes are photos, unsorted, mostly in the envelopes they used to come in when you picked them up from the drug store. What? Yes, mes enfants, we did that.

There are birthday greetings and farewell cards, both funny and corny. Party invitations, concert ticket stubs, student travel cards. There are yearbooks with messages earnest and flip from people I went to school with and have mostly forgotten. Crude comments from clever boys. There is an impassioned letter with an embarrassingly bad poem written by a doorman in London whose heart I apparently stole with my ‘face like an elfin grove.’

There are poems and lyrics of my own, a few that got published in high school reviews. There are my on-again, off-again journals – the sporadic ramblings that kept me sane pre-blog era.

There are the letters – ah, the letters! – exchanged over months of overseas correspondence with a certain Frenchman. And the postcard that changed everything. The one that made me decide he was serious.

There are the family mementos, the cards my kids made for Mother’s Day. Souvenirs of holidays in France and trips back to Canada. Ghosts of Christmas past.

The boxes have gotten thinner of late. Now most of our memorabilia is online. This makes me sad. Nothing can replace the treasures hidden inside my memory box.

Recently I’ve dug through some of it, pulling out pieces I needed for my memoir. So far, though, most of my memorabilia has yet to be released from its boxed purgatory. But I’m glad I saved it, every last bit.

Photo: Robert de Jong

Thanks to Colin Bisset, whose excellent blog recently reminded me of the importance of keeping a journal.

Do you keep a memory box?

Fête des mères

In honour of Mother’s Day in France this Sunday, and in memory of my mother who would have been 90 this year, here are a few memories I hold dear.

Her name was Gladys, or Gwladys in the French spelling that picks up on the Welsh origins of the name. This post is not about anything French or Welsh but a woman who in some ways I hardly knew, and yet who was close to me as only a mother can be.

Gladys Catherine Angela Kennedy was born on the 21st day of March. “I came with the Spring,” she liked to say, with a raised eyebrow and the glint of a smile, all the self-deprecating humour of the British bred in her bone.

Perhaps Gladys was a name that needed a sense of humour. The only other Gladys we knew of was a gorilla at the zoo, and a funny looking cleaning lady on the TV commercials. One morning after my parents had been out late at a party, I found her name tag stuck on the toilet seat: “Hello, my name is Gladys.” When we asked why it was there, Dad said it was because that’s where a glad ass should be. He always called her Glad for short. And Glad she mostly was.

My mom (which we always pronounced ‘mum’, in the English way) was mine in the way that only a mother can be. She was the one person I could admit anything to, who understood my fears and helped dry my tears without judging or making fun. In return she confided in me, her eldest, making me feel special and unique.

She was proud to have a first-born girl of many talents. I was good at drawing and could ride a bicycle, had a fine voice and was not afraid of going on stage and showing off in front of people, none of which she was able to do. And when at times I got too big for my britches, she told me so, reminding me that humility was the greatest virtue and that God loves the weakest best.

God was where Gladys and I parted company.

To my eternal disgust, my mother named me after a nun, a certain Sister Mary Ellen that she herself had greatly admired. It probably explains why I later adopted my initials as a nickname. Other than my hero Julie Andrews, who is kicked out of the abbey for being rebellious in the Sound of Music, the only nun I could ever relate to was played by Sally Field. As a child The Flying Nun was one of my favourite TV shows, and I would have sold my soul to stay home to watch it on Sunday mornings rather than getting dressed up and going to mass. Come hell or high water, my mother conscripted all four of us children to attend church with her. Dad, a sometime Anglican, stayed home and read the paper.

The only part I liked about church was the hymns. It was also an opportunity to observe the backs of people’s heads and try to catch them in surreptitious behaviour such as nose picking, shifting suspiciously in their seats (maybe that was why they were called pews!) or catching a few z’s. When I got bored with that, it was my personal ambition to try and make my mother laugh. This didn’t always work but every now and then I would draw her attention to some particularly ridiculous looking hat or a bald fellow singing off-key in the next row. At my best I’d manage to reduce her to tears. It got to a point where if I could only catch her eye, I could get her going with a simple deadpan stare. The poor woman learned to religiously avoid looking at her eldest daughter during mass.

When I reached the grand old age of sixteen I put my foot down, announcing to my mother one Sunday morning that I had decided not to go to church anymore. God was all very well but I just didn’t believe in religion, I explained, standing on the stairs in my pyjamas when they were about to leave for Holy Spirit. Why should the Pope dictate that people spend their Sunday mornings inside some church smelling incense? My idea of spirituality was going outside and communing with nature. Furthermore, it went against my feminist principles: why shouldn’t women be priests? Besides, I declared, figuring I might as well go the whole nine yards, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with sex outside of marriage.

Upon hearing this speech my mother blinked at me in stupefaction: I may as well have told her I was Mary Magdalene. She eventually got past the shock and accepted that, despite having done everything she could do to raise me as a Catholic, I was not cut out to be one of the faithful.

Other than her family and her faith, what kept my mother going in life were her friends, along with her coffee and cigarettes. She drank coffee all day long and was almost never without a smoke. Gladys was a people person. Her friends and acquaintances were many; she got a kick out of people from all walks of life and truly enjoyed listening to their stories. She always laughed, no matter how silly the joke. But although her sense of humour held her in good stead, it was not always enough. Sometimes she was depressed, and these times were hard on all of us.

She was not a very good housekeeper; this was less to do with any innate lack of orderliness but rather of being overwhelmed by life: four children, two large dogs and a husband whose right it was to come home and put his feet up. Our house was never dirty but it was often hard to tell beneath the sea of clutter.

Her priorities were often elsewhere. She was a good cook and a light hand with pastry. She had excellent, expensive taste; she decorated and dressed well, if conservatively. She often went out to church groups and she and my father went to theatre evenings and to play bridge.

Mom did not approve of swearing but she did use colourful language. She was famous in our family for her expressions: “Go to Putney on a pig!” she would say in moments of duress. Her most cutting criticism was, “She gives me the pip!” And she often asked the iconic question: “Who’s she when she’s out?”

‘Mother’ was the name that Gladys always used when referring to her own mother, my grandmother, upon whom she doted. There was a formality in their relationship that was altogether foreign to me. I detested all things stuffy and stuck up. I wanted us all to be friends and equals, kids and their parents and grandparents, with no artificial boundaries of age or politesse between us.

From the first time they met, Gladys liked and approved of her future French son-in-law – small matter that he was foreign and seven years my junior. She got a kick out of his fractured way of speaking English. “You have a nicer sewer,” he said when he saw her sewing machine; another time he said ‘crow’ and pronounced it like cow, sending her into the kitchen in fits of giggles. He also won points by thoroughly enjoying her home cooking, the ultimate compliment, resulting in a situation of shortage at family suppers that was quickly dubbed, “The Frenchman factor.”

She had a sweet tooth, and when she came over with my family to Paris for our wedding, she made it her personal ambition to visit every pâtisserie and sample every pastry possible. I remember her clapping her hands with delight when a waiter came bearing her dessert, a generously sauced serving of profiteroles.

Gladys passed away far too early, shortly after learning that I was expecting her first grandchild. Many chapters of the family story have unfurled in the years since she left us, and still she is missed and fondly remembered. She lives on in her grandchildren, who resemble her in different ways: a bit of bone structure here, a smile and a kind word there.

My mother’s story is part of me, but her story is not mine. Although I eventually did become a mother, I did it on my own terms. Perhaps being true to myself was the greatest tribute I could pay to Gladys.

gladioli

Bonne fête à toutes les mamans!

Tant de chemin parcouru

I like to look back. Whenever I take a train or a boat I sit backwards, facing the departing view rather than what is rushing towards us.

It occurs to me that at this time 25 years ago we were getting ready to cross the pond. The contents of our lives were on a container ship, our two Frenchies were checked in with our luggage, and we were squeezed into two economy class seats on an Air France flight to Paris with a squirming two-and-half-year-old. I think it was the last time we got away without paying for an extra seat for our son, who is now 27. Our daughter, who turns 24 this year, was in the active planning phase. Enough said.

 

So much water under the bridge, tant de chemin parcouru as we say in French. We moved from my in-laws’ house in Paris to Lyon in the summer of 1992 and never looked back.

Actually, that is untrue. We look back a lot, or at least I do. The years have this way of flying by, and it’s only by looking back and seeing where you’ve been that you get a sense of how far you’ve come.

Where were you 25 years ago?

Sa langue dans sa poche

chatty-cathy

I’ve never been known for being tongue tied.

When I was a little kid, I talked a blue streak. Family lore has it that my younger brother was assumed to be very quiet because I did all the talking for him: “That’s my brother. His name is David. He doesn’t talk very much.”

The first toy I remember getting for Christmas was a doll called Chatty Cathy. My parents probably hoped for a little relief. You pulled a string in her back and she would say things. After a little while the string broke but I kept chatting.

Things changed when I grew up. Shyness came upon me with the awareness of how I sounded to others, of how little I really knew about so many subjects, and how unpleasant it was to be around a loud mouth know-it-all. Either that or I had already used up all my words. Or at least the nice ones. Cursing became my new friend and I learned to do it with flair. Bloody fucking hell. Holy fuckoly. Fuck a duck.

When I first learned French, I was shy about speaking the language. Afraid of looking foolish, of not being understood or of saying something funny or frankly stupid. But once I came to France, there was no room for being timid. It was speak up or be ignored. So I spoke French and was misunderstood, corrected and laughed at. But I learned.

I learned that French is a language of subtlety and suggestion, that there are many indirect ways around things that we English speakers (or at least, we Chatty Cathy’s) would probably barge right into, feet first. I learned that it is not just what you say, but how you say it.

I also learned to swear with the best of them: merde, putain, fait chier.

I still feel shy at times. Whether with family, friends or professional associates I’m rarely the most talkative person in the room. Sometimes I don’t even answer the phone. But I love a good conversation and cannot resist an argument. And when I have something to say, I cannot remain silent.

The French expression ‘ne pas avoir sa langue dans sa poche’ means to be outspoken, to say what you think.

That’s me in the photo, at a team event a few years ago. With my tongue where I usually keep it.

How about you? Do you speak up or hold your peace – and in which language?