L’école buissonière

I played hooky last week. Skipped off school and went AWOL. Or, as we say in French, went to ‘bush’ school.

That’s not really true but it is how it felt. I signed up for a week’s retreat on the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria with a group called Wide Open Writing (WOW).

It was a chance to go off the path and enjoy a holiday break while devoting time to myself — and to writing. Not the PR work I do for a living, or the blogging I do here, but in pursuit of the storytelling muse that lives inside us all.

For a week our group enjoyed the rugged beauty of this volcanic island that is actually closer to Tunisia than Italy. That did not mean warmer, however, as it was windswept and chilly a good part of the week. But when the sun came out it was wonderful!

All week long we met twice daily to think, write, read our work and share thoughts. The idea wasn’t to critique each other’s writing so much as to give positive feedback. It was an experience at times intense, hilarious, emotional, beautiful and moving. I found a sense of kinship with this group of writers from all walks of life and at different stages of finding their voice. There was also yoga and meditation for those so inclined.

I stayed in a dammuso, the thick-walled stone cottages unique to Pantelleria. They are designed with domed roofs to capture the rain water.

Water so essential for irrigating the capers, olive trees and vines that grow here…and these days also for more leisurely pursuits.

Walled gardens are also part of Pantelleria’s unique heritage. This one in a vineyard was built to protect the precious lime tree growing within.

On our last day we visited the Donna Fugata vineyard where a variety of the ancient Muscat grape called Zibibbo is grown to make the island’s famous Passito, a sweeter apperitif wine, among others.

Throughout the week, we also ate and drank copious amounts of Sicilian food and wine.

This dessert is called bacio pantesco. It’s a kind of waffle pastry filled with delicately perfumed ricotta.

One of the things I love most about living in France is how close we are to so many amazing places. It wasn’t easy to get to Pantelleria, as it involved three flights via Rome and Palermo. The last one on this Air Mistral plane operated by the Italian Post.

You can learn a lot when you skip school, or ‘faire l’école buisonnière’, as the French call it. It was a bit of a splurge, but well worth it. Besides, getting away is good for the soul.

Do you remember skipping school?

Pretentious, moi?

The biopic 'Saint Laurent' is is showing in competition at Cannes
The biopic ‘Saint Laurent’ is is showing in competition at Cannes

Last night was the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival.

I love Cannes. More than anything, I love watching the red-carpet moments of the festival, when French journalists decked out in penguin suits scramble to catch a sound bite from movie stars as the paparazzi flash away.

I especially love hearing them ask questions in heavily-accented English, and then watching the expressions on the faces of the American stars as they struggle to come up with an answer. (‘What was the question?’)

Okay, it’s mean. And it’s petty. But I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of French arrogance long enough, I figure they owe me a few moments of fun.

I also love the live edition of the Canal+ talk show, le Grand Journal, hosted every year from the Croisette, with its star-studded line-up of guests. And where you can expect some unexpected and embarrassing moments. Last night Nicole Kidman and Tim Roth were on the set when ‘les intermittents du spectacle’ (contract workers in the French entertainment business for which there is no equivalent in English), staged an unexpected appearance – interrupting the live broadcast with a political message.

What I love less about Cannes is the pomp and circumstance of the festival. They take their cinema pretty seriously over here. Quite frankly, I rarely watch the film that wins the coveted ‘Palme d’or’ or Golden Palm, the top prize at Cannes. Who can stay awake?

French-Irish actor Lambert Wilson, who hosted last night’s event, said in his opening remarks to the gathered international glitterati that the French were universally thought to be the most arrogant, pretentious and rude people in the world.

I’d love to be able to crush that stereotype. But you and I both know that’s not gonna happen.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of crossing the Channel to take a 3-day writing course in London: John Truby’s Anatomy of Story Master Class, primarily for screenwriters but incredibly useful for anyone who writes stories and wants help with structure. He really knows his stuff and he gave a great course.

The thing about Truby is that he is the Hollywood writing guru – a script doctor from LA who’s worked on major studio productions in film and television. He’s there to tell you what works in commercial terms, to teach the craft and give writers the tools to succeed. He is not there to provide an existential analysis of the art form or to explore the film-making techniques of Lars Von Trier.

Among our group of writers, actors and producers from all over Europe, there were two people who continually interrupted with questions that challenged the legitimacy of the approach. Who looked down their very long noses intellectually at what they apparently considered to be ‘formulaic’. Who clearly thought they knew better than the expert himself.

Guess where they were from?

There are times when I am embarrassed to be French. Even by adoption.

‘Nuff said.

So, are you a fan of Cannes? Is your eye on the red carpet or the silver screen? I hear that Grace of Monaco, which is showing at the festival but not in competition, is terrible. But there are some entries, like Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and Turner from Mike Leigh that I will be eager to see. How about you?

Liebster Award: And the nominees are….

liebster_award‘Liebster’ means beloved in German, so it is fitting that the award that bears this name requires you to share the love. I am hereby nominating the following blogs that enrich my life as a reader:

  • 365 things I love about France – This blogger finds so many positive things to say about our fair land, I am truly ashamed…yet written with humor and realism.
  • Life on la Lune – I enjoy reading this blog about a British writer’s life in France, which  seems strikingly similar yet very different from my own.
  • One French Word – A beautiful food blog that also make it easy to learn a lot of French culinary terms!
  • Taste of Savoie – Another delicious blog with a lot of interesting tidbits about places to go in our corner of France.
  • C’est la vie – A newcomer deals with her frustrations and family life in France.
  • Long View Hill – I love this writer’s frank approach to sharing her fitness and life challenges.
  • Scene by Minerva – Absolutely beautiful photographs of flora and still life captured through this talented photographer’s lens.
  • Aimée Cartier’s Blog – Only recently started following this blog but her voice and humor hooked me from the get go.
  • Wife After Death – This blog deals with the painful road back to life following the loss of a spouse. Her writing is so good I want to be there for every step!

Fellow bloggers, I know that not everyone will have the time or inclination to participate. Your mission, if you accept, is to follow the Liebster Award rules as outlined in my last post.

Here are your questions:

  1. Blogging takes so much time that you could be spending doing something else. Why do you choose to blog?
  2. Who are your favorite writers?
  3.  If you could have any talent, artistic or otherwise, what would it be?
  4.  Do you ever dream of moving to another country and if so, where?
  5. Where and when do you write?
  6. What is your preferred form of exercise or sport?
  7. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
  8. What household chore do you least like to do?
  9.  Picture yourself in a perfect moment of happiness: where are you and what are you doing?
  10. Let’s raise a toast to your continued to success with blogging – what are you drinking?

Santé!

Liebster Award: I’d like to thank the academy…

liebster_award…Or at least my fellow blogger, Rose Red, a wonderful writer with an amazing voice who nominated me for this great honor. And it is, indeed, an honor to be acknowledged by other writers whose work you truly admire.

To be fair, blogging awards like the Liebster are as much about PR and promoting interest in new blogs as they are about recognizing writing talent. But that’s what this whole blogging thing is about!

So I’ve decided to accept and ‘pay it forward’ as the award rules specify.

1. Each nominee must link back the person who nominated them.
2. Answer the 10 questions which are given to you by the nominator.
3. Nominate 10 other bloggers for this award who have less than 200 followers.
4. Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer.
5. Let the nominees know that they have been nominated by going to their blog and notifying them.

I’ll start by answering the 10 questions provided by Rose, then do the rest in my next post.

1) When and where do you find time and space to blog?
I do most of my (non-work) writing in that magic hour early in the day, after breakfast and before getting out of bed. Yes, that means I have breakfast in bed.

2) What is the worst job you have ever had/done?
Teaching English to the French. I was an awful teacher and they were not very good students.

3) If you could try any job for a day, what would you do?
I’d love to be an actor in my favorite TV soap, EastEnders.

4) What are you reading at the moment?
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. A brilliant memoir that may just give me the inspiration to write my own (although there’s nothing remotely as exciting about my journey).

5) Can you remember your favorite childhood book, and what was it?
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. Can you guess which one was my hero?

6) Do you listen to music while writing, and what do you like to listen to if so?
Absolutely not. I find it too difficult to think over music or any other background noise (except the dull roar of the train, my second-favorite place to write).

7) What, if any, is your favorite song lyric?
Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, the dizzy dancing way you feel.” From Both Sides Now, by my fellow Canadian, musician and artist, Joni Mitchell.

8) What is your idea of the perfect holiday?
The idea of a perfect holiday. Thinking then planning is the most perfect moment of any holiday. The reality inevitably falls short.

9) What would you choose as your last meal?
Something magical that would give me eternal life. And/or French fries.

10) What are you most likely to say if you drop something heavy on your toe?
Fuck. Or possibly ‘putain.’ But no swear word in French gives as much satisfaction as the f-word.

Thank you Rose, for the giving me the chance to participate!

Speaking in tongues

Lord Ganesha
By Ranjitphotography93 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m spending the week at a yoga retreat near Angoulême in southwest France with a group of people from all different backgrounds: English, Irish, Welsh, Swedish, South African and American with a dose of French, German and Moroccan influence thrown into the pot for good measure. With limited access to the outside world, conversation has been our main form of entertainment in between the ‘oms’.

The stories and voices of my fellow yogis have been echoing so loudly in my mind that I found it difficult to write my planned blog post. I changed topics three times before finally deciding to write about being a sponge for other people’s voices.

I’ve always been fascinated by accents and different ways of saying things. When I was a child I decided it was much more interesting to speak with an English accent, so I contrived to speak that way. Needless to say I got teased relentlessly and dropped the act.

Now, when I feel a strong connection to someone, be it a colleague or a close friend, I will unconsciously imitate their way of speaking, even pick up on some of their preferred adjectives or verbal tics. “It’s so-o-o-o lovely,” I find myself saying in uncharacteristic accents to a Brit. “Whaddya reckon?” I’ll ask a friend from down under. Or continually add “Ya know?” at the end of my sentences. Worse, in conversation with someone whose English is halting, I’ll occasionally go to their level and begin to speak pidgin. It gets embarrassing.

When I was learning the mechanics of French grammar, I got my head so inside the French way of saying things that for some time it felt like I could no longer speak proper English. “You must go around before to cross the bridge,” I would say confusingly when asked how to get to the other side of the Seine in Paris. (Il faut faire le tour avant de traverser le pont.) Or, ridiculously:  “I envy a chocolate croissant.” (‘Avoir envie’ being to feel like having something). Temporarily losing my ability to put a sentence together in English was a growing pain of learning another language.

I suppose that internalizing other people’s voices is a form of empathy. It’s my way of actively listening in order to put myself in their shoes. But sometimes it feels like a handicap.

As a writer, you have to find to your own voice and remain true to it. I’ve felt unsure of that voice many times over the past months, convinced I was all over the map in this blog. But reading it back with a bit of distance, it does feel fairly consistent. So I need to let the voices quieten in my mind this week before I go back to my next planned post, or it may sound a little out of sync.

Yoga is stretching me in more ways than one. I may be stiff and sore for a few days from opening up to different ways of thinking and doing things but hopefully I’ll find my voice again soon. With perhaps just a hint of somewhere else.