Monday, March 15, 2010
Ever read to someone at the library... because that someone could not recognize the letters in the story?
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
A Day in a Dog's Life... by Smokey "R" Dokey
Smokey says: Please study the photo above... next, learn the literal translation of "No Bones About It"!
Stuck with sticks for now, yours,
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety
For Mrs Sacks who would like to cycle in the south of France... I went cycling in Provence with VBT Bicycling Vacations. It was fabulous and I cannot fault them on anything. I would highly recommend this tour group which I believe are located in Vermont. If you google VBT you will find them. They gave us so much care and attention and the routes we took each day were full of new things to see. It was the best vacation I have had yet.
Posted by: Janet | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:28 PM
What a lovely story. You should pursue the conversation with Madame and see if she will consider a memoir - I'm sure we would all read it!
Posted by: Jeanne | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:30 PM
Now that most of the US has gone on daylight saving time, we are one more hour "off" from France. How annoying to have to wait an extra hour for the French Word-A-Day.
I can sympathize with Madame M. but obviously on a VERY much smaller scale, trying to get medication for my wife when she had a bladder infection when we were in France one time. My French was (and is) poor enough that I could not describe the symptoms very well and the pharmacist's English wasn't good enough to help me. I imagine Madame M. didn't have anybody who could translate for her or even knew her language. As you said, that would be very isolating and scary.
On a brighter note, Smokey is looking great, but a dog without a bone will just have to find other things to chew on.
We saw Jean-Marc on Friday at Solo Vino and introduced ourselves to him and got a couple bottles of wine, too.
(Kristin, where's the funny story for Bill in St. Paul and Candy in SW Kansas that you mentioned on Friday?)
Posted by: Bill in St. Paul | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:32 PM
absinthe tea- please explain Kristin!
Posted by: lisa marie | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:35 PM
No matter what our language barriers or cultural differences might be. "la naissance" crosses all boundaries and unites women's souls.
A beautiful story, Kristin.
Off to research "no bones about it" now - it sounds like it may date back to medieval times.
I found antler "bones" at our pet shop. Our dogs love them and they last forever, it seems. (No harm done to animals to get them, by the way.)
Posted by: Karen in Towson, Md. USA | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:35 PM
Hi Bill, Heres your and Candys story:
Imagine my surprise and delight during a recent visit with readers (here at our vineyard) when my guests remarked: oh, and heres that famous Smokey and another said And theres Jackie. One person in the group mentionned to my live-in characters: do you realize you are stars? Speaking of stars... next, they asked about Bill in St Paul and Candy in SW Kansas :-) I have had visitors ask about Newforest and other characters here as well :-)
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:42 PM
Here in Minneapolis/St. Paul I spend lots of time with West Africans (Togolese, Ivoiriens etc.) who watch closely when you enjoy a meal chez eux. When they see you eating heartily, they smile and give the same compliment, "Elle n'est pas compliqué!"
Posted by: candy | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:43 PM
For Mrs. Sacks - if you love to bike and like France, get hold of a book called "French Revolutions" by Tim Moore. It's one hopeless fellow's attempts to follow the route of the Tour de France. Very entertaining and no doubt will inspire you. btw most airlines will take a bike on the plane... have you enquired?
Posted by: Alicia | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:43 PM
oh and by the way, the French call Mountain Biking VTT ... vers tout terrain is what I think it stands for... across all terrain.
Posted by: Alicia | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:44 PM
VTT stands for Velo Tout Terrain and for smooth surfaces there are
VTC which are Velo Tout Chemin (better for ordinary roads).
Posted by: Mike Hardcastle | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 02:57 PM
What a wonderful story. And how nice of Madame M. to reach out to you and invite you into her and her life.
Posted by: Suzanne, Monroe Township, NJ | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 03:19 PM
Oh right - I'm on board with Lisa marie: Absinthe tea?? Do tell - alcohol cooked out or added to?
Posted by: Karen in Towson, Md. USA | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 04:05 PM
Elle n'est pas compliqué. -> Elle n'est pas compliquée.
Posted by: Hannah | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 04:07 PM
What a wonderful story. She should be proud of herself for speaking French so fluently and realize that so many people never can achieve that. She is not too old to learn to read. Her children should teach her or she should take a class. I am always so amazed and proud when I hear about older people taking classes and graduating from college.
Posted by: Eileen | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 04:13 PM
Your writing, as always, is seductive and engaging and makes me wish there was more. Thank you.
However, I can't imagine Mme X wanting to do a memoir of a life of such sadness - denial of education, illiteracy, forced marriage, lack of healthcare resulting in the death of 2 newborns. And now even today, tradition demands that she stay in the kitchen and not dine with her own guests, and when asked simple questions, her son answers.
Is her facial expression one of peace or simply resignation? And I imagine what she liked most was the visit from you, a kind, sweet, warm and empathetic person.
Posted by: Candice | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 04:15 PM
Thank you, Hannah (Ill get that helpful e) in a second... Lisa Marie and Karen: absinthe is a plant growing in Madames garden (one she uses in place of mint, depending on the season). I noticed she added a touch of something else, which I asked about later (I think she said it was acacia?), which is in keeping with her Berber tradition. And no, there is no alcohol in this tea :-)
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 04:16 PM
I had tears flowing before the end of today's story. What is even sadder is the number of native-born Americans who are illiterate. Having taught reading to learning disabled middle school children I have seen their frustration. I pray that before they reach adulthood they will have finally learned the skills that will allow them to function in the world of literacy. It's so hard to get them to understand what they are missing by not being able to read. Reading was, and still is, my greatest joy - to escape into the life of someone else for just a moment gives one a sense of connection to something much greater than oneself. Oh my goodness, how philosophical I am this morning! Maybe it has to do with the time change :)! Thank you, Kristin, for sharing the story about someone asking you about me and Bill! (Talk about a connection to something "bigger than oneself"!) That certainly helped to dry up those tears I was shedding for the precious Madame. It's cool and rainy in SW KS today. I'm so ready for Spring - have been perusing the gardening catalogues! JULES, I've been missing you! And, Kristi, when does J-M get back home? And how is the young chef?
Posted by: Candy in SW KS | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 04:45 PM
I have biked three years in a row with Cycloundo, www.cyclomundo.com, a French company who provides the hotels, dinners, bikes, itinerary, maps, luggage transport and assistance if needed. They do not ride with you. You ride at your own pace, stop whenever. Reasonably priced and so much fun, I keep doing it over and over. This year it's the Lot Valley.
Posted by: Linda Meier | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 05:00 PM
What a beautiful way to share this story with us Kristi! Like Candice, makes me wish there was more.
Andrea @ Austin, TX
Posted by: Andrea | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 05:16 PM
For Mr Sacks: For bike rental, as opposed to tours, I highly recommend http://www.francebikerentals.com/ in Bedoin, at the base of the infamous Mont Ventoux. They rent a variety of bikes, including high-end carbon frames for getting you up and/or around Ventoux and so many other lovely places. They also deliver bikes within a wide area of Provence. I and my friends have rented from them happily many times. I have no financial connection with them, but they have used a number of my photos in their gallery. Jean-Michel in Bedoin and distant investor Paul in Canada make transactions in English very easy.
Another good bike rental source is http://www.bikerentalsplus.com/ which is really an English front end to local bike rentals throughout France, especially Provence. I went to the Tour de France with their associated tour company http://www.experienceplus.com/ which I liked better than my tours with VBT. Your experience may vary! I'd be happy to answer more questions via email and provide lots of photos links. I've biked a LOT in Provence. It is wonderful! Enjoy!
Posted by: gary | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 05:26 PM
I could not find the The sound file to download. I look forward to it, it is how I learn to pronounce the french words. It is the only way for me to learn the language.
Posted by: Allen Patterson | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 05:42 PM
For Mrs. Sacks, I recommend Bourgogne Randonnees:
Coming to France and just need a bike? Bourgogne Randonnées is the choice for top-line quality hybrid bike rentals in france. Since 1995, we have supplied excellent quality bikes, and great rental service. Our bikes are custom made for us and get rave reviews. We can drop them off and pick them up all over France. (Rates upon request). If you need more help with places to stay, routes to ride, and things to see, then contact us instead at Detours in France and we'll help with all the details of a complete package.
Posted by: noemi en californie | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 05:47 PM
I enjoy hearing stories of peoples lives. We all have so many to tell, even when we don't think we do. How hard it is to feel alone and how good it feels to understand that other's have similar stories. It gives us a certain bond and connection, and both are so personal and important to have.
thank's once again for sharing such a wonderful day with us.
Posted by: Missy | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 06:18 PM
Hi Candice and thanks for your concern about Mme M. I forgot to add to my story that Madame had a wonderful sense of humor and smiled and laughed alot. Occasionally her son would answer for her (he is also her favorite teacher (she has other classes for learning to read and write, but says her son is the most patient). I, too, was confused as to why Madame did not eat with us. But then I thought of my own mom, Jules, who loved nothing more than to have her dinner before my guests would arrive... so that she might then run upstairs, tuck herself into Maxs bed (the closest to the stairwell (just off the kitchen) and listen to our conversations, our laughing, and our festive evenings. She would rather do this than sit through a 3 or 4 hour meal. Then, the next morning, she adored talking about the dinner party and having me fill in any blanks :-)
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 07:08 PM
Thank you so much for this portrait of Madame M. Lovely, just lovely. How did you originally meet her?
And thanks for all the bike info. I'm making a note of all of these options for our next visit over there.
Posted by: Julie | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 07:11 PM
For Mrs. Sacks,
A Google search for bike touring companies operating in Provence will yield many. We have done some research on the subject, and though I cannot recommend any from personal experience, Cyclomundo (mentioned above) sounds good. It is operated by cyclists who live in France, rather than generic tour operators who live somewhere else.
In May my husband and I will be touring Provence self contained - i.e. on our own, carrying our gear on the bike and choosing our own route, eating at local grocery stores and small restaurants, and staying in gites along the way. I would love to connect via e-mail with Gary, who seems to have a lot of experience and information to share.
Good luck Mrs. Sacks - it should be the trip of a lifetime for us all!
Posted by: Johanna DeMay | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 08:39 PM
Kristin, thank you for the story about Candy in SW Kansas and me. I was a little embarassed at the wine tasting at Solo Vino when I introduced myself to Jean-Marc as Bill in St. Paul and when J-M went "Oooh!" some people at the tasting asked what that was all about and he said "Well, he's well known on my wife's French Word-A-Day blog" and my wife looks at me like "what do you do at work?"
Posted by: Bill in St. Paul | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 08:53 PM
Another golden story! Merci encore! Fred
Posted by: Fred Caswell | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 08:55 PM
Elle n'est pas compliqué. -> Elle n'est pas compliquée.
Posted by: candy | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 08:58 PM
I don't know which is the better story today~ the actual post, the one about Jules eating before guests arrive so she can listen to the festivities (there is a lesson in there) or Bill "getting in trouble" with his wife at JM's tasting!
God Bless you Kristin for bringing us all together!
Posted by: Kristine, Dallas | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 09:47 PM
Beautiful story, Kristin. You are always finding material for new books!
Posted by: Sharon Sakson | Monday, March 15, 2010 at 09:48 PM
Beautiful story about a beautiful lady. Not knowing her name, not knowing exactly what she looks like, seems to make her more real. Some things are better left to one's own imagination, which is why reading a book is very often more satisfying than watching the movie.
Speaking of movies, I ordered "Precious" on Amazon via your website. I haven't seen it, but after watching the young actress, Gabourey Sidibe, on the various awards programs on TV, I could tell that it is a compelling and uplifting story. Then again, using my own logic, maybe I should just read the novel Push by Sapphire!
Posted by: Robert Haine | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 12:11 AM
Salam Aleikoum Kristin
First, some spelling: deSSert is 'sweet', the Saharan deSert is not! :) and Analphabétisme should have 'un accent aigu"?
What a wonderful experience to meet Madame M and her family, thank you for sharing it with us.
Absinthe: Artemisia absinthium, (the French Wikipedia article is very good.) is a beautiful herb to grow. It is great for pot-pourri, tussie-mussies or as a strewing herb. You'll be glad to know one of its medicinal properties is as a vermifuge!
Jacqueline from Brisbane where autumn has started and I can sow chervil at last!
Posted by: JacqBrisbane | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 02:13 AM
As for Smokey's request...
No bones about it --> Aucun Os de Cela!
Posted by: Jeff C. | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 02:15 AM
Thanks, Robert! Merci beaucoup for ordering via my site. Thats a great help and it keeps me doing what I love: writing!
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 07:16 AM
Note: I am posting the following note on behalf of a fellow word-a-day friend. Thanks for reading! :-)
I've been following your blog for years now- from when I lived in Toulon! I'm now back in the US with my Toulonais mari and am working at a new French immersion school that was just started in St. Louis, MO. I am super excited about this school, and the potential French-language education my future children will have!
We are in the running for a playground grant (which will be a huge help for our urban school!!). Would you please vote for us? St. Louis Language Immersion Schools (SLLIS) at this web site: http://www.facebook.com/l/5c676;projects.kaboom.org/voting/elections/video_2010 ? You can vote every day until March 31. Would you mind passing it along to anyone else who you think may vote?
I appreciate all that you do to bring joyful anecdotes from France to we who cannot be there with you!
Posted by: Kristin | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 07:20 AM
What a truly lovely story and I agree with Jeanne; how could you not delve into the 'histoire' of this intriguing lady. She must have a remarkable tale to tell, perhaps she will tell it herself when she completes her literacy studies. Too often people think illiterate is ignorant. This beautiful lady disproves that.
Posted by: Shauneen | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 08:50 AM
Julie had asked about how I met Madame M. : via her lovely daughter who is close to my brother-in-laws heart....
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 10:32 AM
Madame M. is "berbère" - a word that seems to define everything, including her Berber hospitality learned and practised wherever she was before she left for France. Was she born in Morocco? in Algeria? It doesn't seem to matter. She belongs to “le peuple berbère” that has existed since time immemorial. We understand her husband is also “berbère”... Kristin, did you speak to him as well?
I'm trying to imagine their life and fill up the gaps... from their childhood dominated by an oral tradition, to the time of their berber wedding, to his finding a job in France first, until she joined in, still so young... In spite of her illiteracy, she managed to get through life without making any fuss. I guess that her struggles and depressive moments must have been endured with a sense of resignation (?). In her life in France, “berbère” must have rhymed everyday with “étrangère” - add the illiteracy, and probably a certain poverty, and you can feel how tough her isolated life must have been!
Kristin, the winning aspect of Madame M.' story has emerged in a remarkable way. She's mastered the oral side of the French language, speaking it 'eloquently' (!) This is already an achievement. A few posts above, you added some happy notes about her (worthwhile placing at the end of your story, really). I am delighted to hear Madame M. is not only attending reading and writing classes and loves to get her children's help, but, she smiles, laughs a lot and expresses herself with a wonderful sense of humour.
Before I read this newsletter, the word 'Berber' was associated in my mind with “les Kabyles”, “la guerre d'Algérie”, les Touaregs”, “le désert du Sahara” ... and also with lovely carpets ... and sweet tea! That's about all. Now, there is a certain Madame M. in a little provençal village, wearing brightly-colored garments, growing lovely plants in her garden to make mint tea or absinthe tea - a certain 'Maryama' or 'Meluya', concentrating on her reading and writing... a wonderful lady who has nothing to say about her courage and tenacity, but who could teach all of us the art of hospitality.
Posted by: Newforest | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 12:19 PM
Kristin, just read your post above... Well, you will certainly hear more about the Berber background in the future.
BTW, Did you have tea in one of those fancy glasses on the tray? (I assume they are glasses)
Posted by: Newforest | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 12:25 PM
Dear Newforest, thank you for your last comment which gives food for thought (as your notes always do). As for Monsieur, he is back in le desert sahara for the moment (or for another month). I do not know if he is Berber, but, as you note, will one day find out. RE the lovely blue glasses with gold embellishments -- yes, we had the chance to drink out of those! And when Jackie and Max ran up to the table, Madame was so gracious as to offer them a glass (as I stuttered careful! careful with the pretty glasses!). Madames two daughters and two sons were present, one of whom is handicapped and just learning to walk now (in his 30s). What an angel he is with a smile of grace. He only began speaking in the last few years... And what were his words to me (and, I imagine, to other visitors)? You are always welcome chez nous. Madame sent me home with a doggy bag (I taught her family the word... and was a bit taken aback when she filled one of her pretty plates (not a plastic container) with the remains of the most delicous coucous that I have ever tasted. The kids and I dined on that for two days! So much more to tell. Thanks, Newforest, for motivating my memory :-)
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 12:49 PM
Beautiful stories and comments from both Kristin and Newforest. Heart warming and thought provoking, comme toujours! If all of us could take a moment and see life through the eyes of someone else what a better world this would be. A world of love and acceptance, of generosity and kindness. That's what I think of when I imagine sitting in the presence of Madame M. And I hope you got her couscous recipe, Kristin! :)
Posted by: Candy in SW KS | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 02:45 PM
More about biking for Mrs. Sacks:
Look up AdventureCycling.org on line. The March edition of their excellent magazine, "Adventure Cyclist", is focused on commercial tours, with many ads. You will be sure to find something to suit you.
Posted by: Johanna DeMay | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 05:06 PM
I'm so glad I read through the comments to get more of the story - it continues to unfold.
Posted by: Jennifer in OR | Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 05:01 AM
BICYCLE adventure club BAC out of san Diego CA
is a non profit organization since 1962 .As good as pro companies at half price or less ...
Posted by: [email protected] | Friday, March 19, 2010 at 04:14 PM