Enfant terrible

A new novel by Michel Houellebecq (pronounced: Well-beck) is a major literary event in France. L’enfant terrible of French letters is loved by many and detested by some but leaves few readers indifferent.

I was set to dislike the fellow. First of all because I have an automatic distrust of the intellectual. You must understand that in France, ‘intellectual’ is a profession. Writer, journalist, political theorist and philosopher: all are taken far more seriously than in the commercially driven culture from which I hail. They are respected fonts of wisdom that drive opinion in this country.

Secondly because, well…look at the photo. He appears to the picture of the debauched, jaded version of the intellectual, a sort of Serge Gainsbourg of letters. Strike two. Thirdly because his work is controversial and I assumed that his point of view would be distasteful.

But then I read one of his novels. I don’t often read in French as it feels less natural to me than English. Frankly, it’s more work. But when the voice is right it makes all the difference.  And his voice spoke to me. Not only because I understood it, but because he has a style that is intimate, natural, relatable. I liked his voice. So I read another. And became a fan.

Houellebecq is hated by many because he speaks his truth (his version of the truth: all that any writer can do) and it is not one which is politically correct, or even palatable to some. But it is certainly representative of the thoughts and fears of many French people.

Now perhaps you’ll think I’m being pretentious, supporting the very thing I purport to distrust. Intellectuals, writers, artists. But there is one thing that I hold dear and it is the freedom to say or think anything. I posted about this before back when the last wave of terror began in France and some of the comments perfectly captured the way I feel about free speech, whether actual censorship or via the cult of the thought police.

I haven’t read Houellebecq’s new book yet. It’s called Serotonin and it’s on my list. If you’re interested, it’s apparently already translated into English and several other languages.

Interestingly, the novel seems to predict the the current movement of social unrest in France, or at least to have had its finger on the pulse of the discontent behind it.

The author isn’t doing a book tour or making any public appearances for now. This seems to be upsetting le tout Paris, but I can understand why. He doesn’t need the publicity and it’s bound to lead to awkward questions.

What do you think: should writers be expected to defend their political beliefs or be given a pass as free thinkers?

Mon singe

I have a monkey on my back. Un singe. See him? No, of course you can’t. He’s a private little fellow.

I’m no addict – he’s not that kind of monkey. But carrying him around all the time can be exhausting. He never shuts up.

There he goes again: What on earth are you writing about? No one is going to have a clue what you mean. A monkey? How ridiculous!

Monkey has his good points. Sometimes he makes me smile.  Il fait le singe, makes like a monkey. And he can be a creative little guy. Bitingly funny. Who would even think of half the stuff he comes up with? Too inappropriate, mostly, to share with anyone else. But in some ways he is my muse.

Most of the time he is an angry little dude who makes me impatient and short-tempered. A kill joy. He can be terrifying, with his dire predictions and irrational fears.

He is my inner critic, my slave driver, cracking his whip. Not good enough, he whispers. Who do you think you are? Often I believe him. Monkey see, monkey do.

Too often he exhausts me to the point where I just give up. No, I will not be good enough. While I’m at it, I won’t be good at all. May as well fool around instead of working. Waste time, kick back, have another glass of wine. I will forget about exercising or writing or doing whatever else I’d planned.

Now it’s time for a change. This year, I’ve decided to make friends with my monkey.

I can’t get rid of him completely. But I am thinking that perhaps I need to work with him. He is part of me after all. And in order to enjoy the good I need to manage the bad.

So I’ll tell him it’s okay not to be perfect. Sometimes good enough is just fine. And failure is okay if it means you really tried. In fact, it can be positive.

He will surely scoff.

And I’ll simply say: Monkey, be quiet. (Not ‘shut up’. Even monkeys deserve respect.) I’ll invite him to take a deep breath, admire the view. I’ll even give him half of my banana.

The rest I’m keeping for myself.

Happy new you!

Have you made any resolutions for 2019?

Juste ce qu’il faut

How much is just enough? Not so long ago, it seemed I was always wanting more: friends, money, success, travel…a new this, an updated that. Now, suddenly, something is different. I still feel this way at times but lately I find myself thinking that happiness is having just what you need. Or needing what you have.

As the dark days before the winter solstice grow colder and ever shorter, it is important to think about the things have brightened our lives over the year. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy keeping an advent calendar. For each of its 24 days this month I have written down a word that sums up something – or someone – that has made my life happier.

I am lucky to have a great deal to be grateful for; it has been a full year, a good year. Not without moments of sadness and regret. Those bittersweet times are there to remind us just how lucky we are when all the rest is good.

Here are a few of the things that I am especially grateful for this Christmas:

This great big, wonderful world. We went to four islands this year, each of them special and unique in different ways. New Year’s was in Curaçao, a curious and beautiful place indeed. And it was amazing to be able to enjoy this exotic destination in the company of my Canadian family, including my Dad and brother, their better-halves and our kids. Our island adventures this year also included a writing retreat for me in Pantelleria, Italy; a first-ever trip out west to Vancouver and a romantic anniversary week on Madeira.

The people who got us there and back. Even in years when we don’t travel as much, there are still a lot of comings and goings with our jobs and family in different countries and continents. I never go anywhere without mentally preparing for disaster on some level (fingers permanently crossed). And yet, despite a tense couple of landings and a few delayed suitcases, we have all made it home in one piece. I am grateful to all of the hard-working pilots and drivers of planes, trains, buses and taxis who got us there and back. And all those who support them. They don’t hear it enough.

The memories we share. I am both old enough to have a lot of memories and young enough to look forward to making new ones. Also fortunate to have family and friends who remember too. This year, my husband unearthed a box of old cassette tapes from when our kids were small and sent them to be digitized; we are looking forward to watching this marathon memory movie over the holidays. To be in this position, to be able to share those memories, strikes me as very rich indeed. And I would like to share a thought for all those who suffer from dementia and other forms of brain disease.

My blogging buddies. This community we have here on WordPress is something I never imagined would bring so much joy to my life. I originally started this blog as a way to connect with people of similar interests with the idea of getting a book published. It hasn’t happened yet, but each week of writing, reading and commenting on my fellow bloggers’ posts brings me immense satisfaction and a sense of connection. It is a privilege to know you guys!

Family and friends. You know who you are. Thank you for putting up with me. I love you all.

And there are so many more. But how about I kick over to you: what are you grateful for?

La Marseillaise

It is as stirring an anthem as any ever written. Not that the French are inclined to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ that often – the last time I can remember was before the start of the final World Cup match. Which we won. Such memories of victory are important at the moment as we are going through a bit of a rough patch in France.

I first saw the Arc de Triomphe shortly after landing in Paris many years ago. It is an impressive way to enter the city, coming from Roissy and Charles de Gaulle airport to the northwest. Driving by it on the multi-pointed Etoile, it is even more monumental than one imagines from all those beauty shots taken from afar.

It was only later that I got close enough to admire the statuary, and learn of its history. Commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate all those who fought for France in the revolutionary wars, inscribed with the names of victories and generals and home to the tomb of the unknown soldier from the first world war. Its statuary, pictured above, includes the sculpture by François Rude of The Departure of 1792, also known as La Marseillaise. It depicts the symbolic winged Liberty and celebrates the cause of the first French republic.

I am no historian; all this comes from Wikipedia. While we’re at it, here’s the scoop from Wiki on the anthem:

The melody soon became the rallying call to the French Revolution and was adopted as “La Marseillaise” after (it) was first sung on the streets by volunteers (fédérés in French) from Marseille by the end of May. These fédérés were making their entrance into the city of Paris on 30 July 1792 after a young volunteer from Montpellier called François Mireur had sung it at a patriotic gathering in Marseille, and the troops adopted it as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille.[2]

The music, almost discordant at times, is a powerful battle cry. The lyrics are a call to arms. There is blood on the ground and fierce pride in the hearts of all who sing it.

This explains a lot about what is currently going on in France. Not that I agree with it, or condone the acts of violence and destruction. Quite the opposite. But I do recognize that it is true to the French. When there is a perceived injustice, one that goes too far, there will be protest. And it will not stop until something changes.

I just hope it will happen sooner rather than later. It breaks my heart to see the broken statues in the Arc de Triomphe, the graffiti inscribed on its walls.

And, after all, who will pay to fix it? We will. Who will suffer when the police refuse to do battle with angry mobs who throw bricks and kick them on the ground? When the shopkeepers close, when the tourists stay home. We all will. We the people, the taxpayers, the young and old, the rich and the poor.

France is known, even among the French, as being a country that is ‘irréformable’; that is, one that cannot be reformed. For as long as I have lived here, over 25 years, every government has tried and, mostly, failed to effect change. In fact, thanks again to Wikipedia, it seems that years ago during the government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, there was a move to change the bloody, revolutionary lyrics of the French national anthem to something rather more peaceful. It failed. La Marseillaise prevails.

Now Macron’s government is trying to bring what most agree is needed reform, with a carbon tax and other budgetary measures. Will they fail? I hope not. But if they do, I will be the first to stand up and march for an even bigger change, one that will allow us to make a sweeping reforms once and for all. A 6th republic. Not one led by extremes and Antifa movements, but one that would give this country a fresh start with a revised constitution and laws.

Revolutionary, you say? Mais oui. Just listen to la Marseillaise…

Que de chemin parcouru

The trail seemed easy enough. The hotel offered a free shuttle ride up to the start of the three-hour walk along ‘Levada Nova’.

Levadas are the irrigation channels that carry water down to the seaside towns from the top of the mountains on Madeira. We were visiting the Portuguese island for an extended anniversary weekend, a mini holiday that we take every year around this time. The weather was perfect: spring-like temperatures with a few clouds and a bit of fine rain. Walking along the levadas is a popular activity for visitors to the island.

I was wary of getting in over my head, though. The Frenchman I married all those years ago is far more at ease than I am at altitude; he skis and climbs and can keep going forever. I figured we should start small and see how we went. So we chose the easiest trail.

It started out well. The paths were fairly narrow but flanked by lush vegetation of all kinds on both sides. Madeira was once the world sugar cane capital but these days bananas are the more lucrative crop.

But it quickly got a lot scarier. The narrow path edged along the mountain side with a fairly sheer drop just centimetres away in many places. Where it was steepest, there were barriers — stakes with ropes attached – which provided at least psychological support.

I had to fight my fear of heights to keep going. Coupled with my challenged sense of balance ever since I had inner ear surgery several years ago, the fear of taking a wrong step had me seriously considering walking in the irrigation ditch, lower and away from the edge. But it would have meant slowing down and soaking my feet, so I slogged it out. I was too afraid to stop and take photos of the steepest parts. You’ll have to take my word for it: it was impressive.

We didn’t have a map but had been told the path was clearly marked. No one said anything about a tunnel. Did I mention I also have a fear of the dark, of both open and closed spaces? Basically I am a mess. I thought the man I married thirty-odd years ago would have known this by now.

Reaching the tunnel, I balked. Then ensued a scene not dissimilar to many others we have navigated over the years together.

“No way am I doing this. Are they out of their freaking minds? It’s pitch black in there. Why didn’t they give us torches?”

“Don’t worry, your eyes will adjust.”

“Mine won’t. Wait, I’m going to use my phone flashlight.”

“But you can see light at the end.”

“No I can’t, you’re blocking it.”

“All right, then, just let me step aside…” There was a splash and my scream echoed through the tunnel as I turned my phone light and saw him struggling to right himself from where he had fallen into the ditch.

“Oh, god, are you okay? You could have broken your ankle!”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, just get moving.”

I walked as quickly as possible without running in the dark, as the speck of light at the end of the tunnel grew bigger.

We emerged on the other side to a gorgeous waterfall with another sheer drop. I collapsed on a rock. He looked at me and shook his head.

“You’re not your daughter’s father!”

I cracked up. “No, that would be biologically impossible.”

But he was right: I’m my mother’s daughter, not my father’s. My dad is the adventurous one, the guy who goes kite surfing at the age of 86. My late mother’s idea of sport went no further than the dance floor.

I inherited her fear of heights, of enclosed spaces, of flying, of fear itself. I also got her eyes, some of her kindness and a lot of her sensitive soul. Sadly I did not get her ability to cut a rug. From my dad I got a love of the outdoors and some of the exercise gene. Just not at altitude.

We continued on, through gorgeous vistas. Fifteen minutes past the tunnel, he couldn’t find his sunglasses.

“Where did you have them last?”

“On my head.”

“Right. They probably fell off in the tunnel.”

“I’m going back for them. You wait here.”

I put my foot down. I may have even stamped it.

“No way! There is no guarantee you’ll even find them. And I’m not going to wait here for half an hour worrying while you go and look. We’ll buy new ones.”

He was not happy. I reminded him that if we had made it this far together it was because we both knew when to pick our battles and when to cut our losses. We moved on.

A short while later, the path disappeared. We stopped at a fence where it had been washed away. Some other hikers confirmed that the steps we had passed some ways back led down to a different levada, one that would lead us back to the hotel.

On reflection I suppose that marriage is like that trail. Sometimes it is dizzying, and sometimes there are dark passages where you can’t see the light. But you just keep walking, a step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. You keep the faith. And suddenly you realize how far you have come. Que de chemin parcouru.

Happy anniversary, mon amour!

One of the last sightings of the sunglasses…