Precious. Precious Jones, an inner-city high school girl, is illiterate... and faced with the choice to follow opportunity and test her own boundaries.See the film. Order it here.
A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse
On Sunday I was invited over to couscous (so as not to tell you the names or show you the faces of those who would rather remain like the best prayers: in secret).
My cheeks are still sore this morning suite à or followed by a six-hour sourire. How could you not smile in the presence of so much warmth and conviviality?
I had to wait until tea was served (after lunch) to meet the woman who had welcomed us with a friendly feast, one that she had begun preparing au lever du jour.
When Madame M. sat down beside me and offered me a cup of freshly-brewed absinthe tea, I had the chance to listen to her story: that of a young Berber bride who came to France in the 60's. Her marriage was arranged, by tradition. And like that she was wed even before she had the chance to learn the alphabet....
These days her own children read to her, teach her to recognize letters, and tease her terribly in the process. Beyond her traditional, brightly-colored garments, her face is an eternal light as she speaks eloquently, in perfect French, about her illiteracy—something she has struggled with ever since reading became a need.
Alone in the foreign land of France while her husband was away all day at work, it was up to her to buy food and necessities at the market. After pointing and waving and similar such gesticulating, Madame returned home helpless and alone. The little village in which she lived in isolation soon wrapped its fingers around her in a cloud of depression.
She gave birth to all of her children in France, losing two (des jumeaux) in the process. I think about the fear she must have felt, as I did, not understanding what the nurse and the doctor were saying in the delivery room. She must have communicated with her eyes, as I did with mine, never losing contact with the sage-femme's face. My own son was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and I will never forget seeing those unfriendly forceps. No French was needed to understand the implications of intervention; no neatly-aligned letters could spell the relief that I felt on seeing my baby breathing. Madame was less fortunate... and no alphabet could begin to spell the sadness or describe the tears she wept.
Madame M. does not know her exact age. "62" her son offers, give or take four years. She has no official document of her date of birth, which reminds her of a story about the naissance of her first daughter: because of a malentendu, her girl was given a boy's name.... just one of the many misadventures of Madame's literacy-challenged life.
"Why don't you share your story in a memoir?" I suggest. Madame says she would rather learn something new: English for example. She tells me that Berber is similar to English, closer to it even than it is to Arabic. I wonder, is Madame pulling my leg? Her son assures me she is not.
"But... your memoir," I remind her... Madame M. says she prefers to look forward. With this her face, which peeks out from so many satiny scarves, brightens and her eyes twinkle like stars over le désert saharien, from which her husband hails.
Madame reminds me of a dear friend... one that I have the fortune to keep in touch with via the phone and the internet—both of which were missing on that lonely farm back in 1962 where a young étrangère fought isolation and illiteracy in a foreign country.
As I sit facing Madame, I am anxiously aware of our cultural differences and I am nervous about overstepping the bounds of Berber. I let the light in her eyes guide me as I question her history. There is so much I want to ask Madame, but I remember to keep it simple and so end up asking a lot of "do you like this and do you like thats". Each time her children answer for her: Elle aime tout! Elle n'est pas compliquée.
She likes everything. She is not complicated. I decide that this must be the secret behind the peace on her face and the calm contentedness that her very Berber being emanates.
This forum is now open for any comments about today's story -- or for general questions or requests. Here are some examples. Don't be shy to add your own to the comments box.
A question from Mrs. Sacks:
Bonjour. I would like to visit the south of France and I love to bike. Is there any way you can direct me to reserve a tour bike?
And here is a request, from Montimarie:
I am looking for a nice French woman who would like to have a pen-pal. Je voudrais continuer de practiquer mon francais. If you have any ideas. Please let me know at montimarie (AT ) yahoo.com
Educational note: Berber definition
▸ noun: a cluster of related dialects that were once the major language of northern Africa west of Egypt; now spoken mostly in Morocco
▸ noun: an ethnic minority descended from Berbers and Arabs and living in northern Africa (Thank you OneLook.com!)
le sourire = smile
au lever du soleil = at sunrise
le jumeau, la jumelle (jumeaux) = twin
la sage-femme = midwife
la naissance = birth
le malentendu = misunderstanding
le désert saharien = Saharan desert
un étranger, une étrangère = foreigner
elle aime tout = she likes everything
elle n'est pas compliquée = she is not fussy, she's not complicated
Smokey says: Please study the photo above... next, learn the literal translation of "No Bones About It"!
Stuck with sticks for now, yours,
P.S.: when you purchase something via the following links, you help to support this word/woof-friendly journal. Merci and barks of glee!
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Thank you for the time you've spent reading my column. If you have learned more than a little vocabulary here and find yourself looking forward to the next story, please know that ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue doing what I love most: sharing these missives from France. Your support is vivement apprécié! Donating via PayPal is fast and easy when you use the links below. Merci infiniment! Kristi