Monday, 29 February 2016

Saved by Stickers

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a whiny existential post, so before spring is upon us and sailing preparations get seriously underway and obliterate the dead time in which existential crises breed, here it is.  This winter’s crisis began with what should have been a joyful occasion: buying a new laptop computer.  The photo theme accompanying this crisis is “pathways.”

Volubilis, Morocco.
The problem is a simple one.  French keyboards are not the same as English (or American) keyboards.  Of course the French slip in some funny characters (é à ô á è ç) but even the normal letters don’t have the same placement.  A French keyboard is called an AZERTY keyboard because those are the 6 letters on the top left hand of the keyboard, whereas English / American keyboards are QWERTYs.  You can special order a QWERTY keyboard laptop from France, but it costs about $200 more.     

Biking trail along the canals, France.
Patrick offered what he thought was a simple suggestion: just get used to an AZERTY keyboard.  It made sense.  In a few short years I will have spent more than half my life in France  anyway.  Maybe it’s time to let go.  But when I actually thought of re-learning to type, I broke down in tears.  For short emails or facebook posts, I sometimes use Patrick’s French computer to peck out a message, but for someone who used to touch-type 60 words per minute, it’s a real setback.  It’s not the process of learning to type again that frustrates and depresses me, it’s the loss of one of the last links I have to my mother tongue. 

Dades Gorge, Morocco.
Except for skyping with my parents and a few friends a couple times per week, my only English interaction is reading and writing (and I read about 1/3rd of the time in French already).  If writing now has to be done through a French veil, I’ll lose a small part of what’s left.  I’m fluent in French (although that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes) but even if I live here for the rest of my life and even if I speak French 99% of the time, it will always be a second language. Maybe others manage, but I can’t always express myself the way I want in French, or at least not as well as I would in English.  The searching for words, the hesitancy, the “foreignness” of it all is like watching a film in black and white instead of in colour, or like cooking with only salt and pepper instead of a spice-rack full of options.

Hiking trail, Guadeloupe.
My first French teacher was a French woman living in Woods Hold Massachusetts where her husband worked at the Oceanographic Institution where I was a graduate student. We would meet for lessons in her beautiful home, working at the sunny kitchen table overlooking her “French” country garden.  One day, she held my hand in hers and told me that if I made my life in France, I would never feel truly at home anywhere in the World ever again. She knew what she was talking about. With the passing years, the foreign becomes familiar and home becomes a stranger.      

After wrestling with all these demons for a couple of days, I told Patrick that I absolutely could not accept an AZERTY keyboard.  I would make do with my  7-year old Sony VAIO running Vista Business until it just wasn’t possible anymore.  He was frustrated and I felt like a pouty child throwing a tantrum, but I’m just not able to let go of this small part of my culture just yet.

Colza field, France.
And then I turned to the internet to tap into the hive-mind of Anglo-Saxon expats in France to find out if others had gone over to the dark side (okay, we’ll call it “the other side”) and how they managed. 

Tizi n Test pass, Morocco.
Stickers.  Stickers was the answer.  Any recent computer can change its keyboard input to any other language. The only problem is that you have to know the keyboard by heart because, while the computer can speak numerous languages, it can’t do anything about the letters physically printed on the keyboard.  Several companies make stickers that you can use to convert your keyboard to a QWERTY.  The fancy ones are even transparent so that you can see the original keyboard markings as well as the QWERTY ones in a different colour.

Desert road, Morocco.
This solution, besides being simple and elegant, has many parallels with my life in France. My language is now a sometimes-confusing sometimes-frustrating mix of French and English. Yes, I do need to more fully embrace my adopted homeland and its crazy language, but I have so little to cling to that is still my own that giving up even a small part of my mother tongue just isn’t possible for me right now. 

So like dogs and their masters, my keyboard and I are destined to look like each other, both a mad Frenglish melange, neither fully French nor fully English and never really at home anywhere.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Update 3: A Year of Reading the Med

I've created a new category "Reading the Med" if you would like to find the earlier updates and beginning of this project.  Update 3 includes two fantastic finds and a confession.

LIBYA:  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar ****
A first novel, nominated for the 2006 Man Booker prize and winner of the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize.  This haunting story is one that will stay with me for a long time.  We see 1979 revolutionary Libya through the eyes of a 9-year old boy, whose father is taken away and tortured for subversive activities. Initially I dreaded reading this book, as I supposed it would be fairly predictable, bitter and sentimental.  But instead of focusing on the plight of the dissidents of the revolution, Matar tells the story of the family and friends caught in the cross-fire, where loyalties are tested and broken, cowardice is defined and redefined, and, because several of the main characters don’t act the way we want them to, the reader is forced to question how he/she would respond under the same pressures. As endearing as our boy narrator is, he is far from the noble stoic hero we want, manipulated by the regime and a victim of his own innocence, frustrations, and prejudices.  Several scenes are so chilling that I was not able to read more than a few pages at a time, but the often light-hearted recollections of childhood – even this childhood –  save the novel from becoming too dark. The writing is beautiful with strong sense-of-place and richly-defined characters.  The plot is well paced and the novel never bogs down in heavy-handed reflection.  Highly recommended.

TURKEY: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak ***1/2
Foreword: I am a huge fan of Turkish literature.  You may have expected me to review the works of Nobel prize-winning Orham Pamuk (whom I ADORE) or one of my all-time favourites, The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar, or even Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernieres, not a Turkish author but author of an exceptional novel about the heartbreaking birth of the Turkish nation.  A few months ago, I was watching a (fantastic) tv show called “The Europe of Writers” where the featured country was Turkey.  Pamuk was featured, but I was also introduced to Sema Kaygusuz (whom I have yet to read) and Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most widely-read author and a fascinating character in her own right.  For Christmas, some good friends offered me Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul.

In 2006, this book earned its best-selling author a condemnation by the Turkish authorities for insulting the national identity, carrying with it a 3-year prison sentence. She was eventually acquitted. The Bastard of Istanbul addresses the delicate issue of the contested Armenian genocide and does a brilliant job of presenting the complexity of history and its interpretation by its victims’ descendents almost 100 years later. The story revolves around the friendship of two young women, one Armenian-American and the other Turk, who together walk the razor’s edge between amnesia and debilitating memory to try to understand how to (if possible) erase the past and move forward from the atrocities of their shared history.  In the midst of this deliberation, the author presents us with a metaphor for the Armenian-Turkish rift in the form of dark and unspeakable family secrets.  Initially a bit annoyed by this tactic, I agreed to go along with it to see how the metaphor played out, hoping it would provide some insight into the author’s thoughts on the Turkish dilemma.  I’m very glad I did.  At first, the response left me perplexed, and that has made me appreciate the book all the more. With reflection, the parallels offered by the author become clearer: heinous crimes committed by youth and the moral obligation to punish those crimes at the expense of spoiling a glorious past and destroying a whole family. To try to move forward building ever higher on an artificial foundation can only lead to disaster and collapse.  Clearer, but not yet clear.  What good is punishment without public recognition of wrong-doing?  Is assisted suicide still suicide? This is a tale that gives the reader a lot to think about after the last page has been consumed (after which you will certainly go back and re-read some critical passages to make sure you really understood what just happened…). This is a historical fiction novel that is essential reading to understand the beginnings of an impasse that still plagues us today.  As an added bonus, it is a joy to read, and, strangely, hysterically funny in parts.    

And a CONFESSION:  I have been cheating on the Mediterranean with other non-Mediterranean countries.  It just happened.  But I’d be lying if I said that it was meaningless or that it won’t happen again.

MEXICO: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo (***)

SOUTH AFRICA:  J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (****)  

FINLAND: I have just started Arto Paasilinna’s “Le Cantique de l’Apocalypse Joyeuse” with the english title, “The Best Village in the World.”

Monday, 8 February 2016

Quiberon's Wild Coast, Unchained

The first big storm of winter hit southern Brittany today with recorded gusts of 146 km / hr (91 mph, 79 knots!).  Patrick and I ventured out to the Wild Coast (Cote Sauvage) near our home to watch the spectacle.  We waited till the wind was a more manageable 75 km / hr (40 knots), but taking photos was still difficult - impossible to steady the camera and sea foam blowing everywhere. We're very happy Mareda is safely tucked away on her cradle (facing the wind !).

Grib files showing 40 knots sustained winds for the next 24 hours or so...

Sea foam plasters the rocks and flies through the air