Friday, August 5, 2011

French Fairy Tale: The Forest of Languages

For the last in-class writing assignment of the semester, I asked my second-level French students to compose a fairy tale that included at least three members of the class and demonstrated their ability to distinguish one form of the past tense from another.   

One student, Michael, wrote a fairy tale that I found weirdly endearing, in part because he gave me an uncharacteristically heroic role in the final, apocalyptic battle of good versus evil.    It’s the kind of thing you appreciate when, in a past life as a high school teacher, you occasionally found your name carved into desks and bathroom walls followed by profanity.

Michael made magic out of 200 words and 50 minutes.  So, I asked his permission to reprint a translation of the story.  He granted it in an e-mail quoted (in excerption) below:

"Bonjour Tara!!

Haha ABSOLUTELY you can publish it wherever you have my full permission yada yada haha.


Since everything I write these days requires annotation, I added endnotes, just for fun.  


The Forest of Languages

The good witch Madame TS adored going into the forest of languages because the students loved living in her house and listening to her. (1) 

One day, it was raining along the path . . . (2)

A long time ago, three students lived in a house in the forest of languages.  Monsieur Stephen, Madame Margaret, and Monsieur Key (3) loved to study French!  They studied with the good witch Miss T.S.  This sorceress was a beautiful woman.  She had very beautiful blond hair and blue-green eyes.  (4) She loved to hear the students speak French when she came home.   

Today was different.  The witch, the good Madame TS, reflected on the weather.  It was raining!  It was raining!

“It only rains when the mean sorcerer comes to the forest of languages!  Oh no!”  the witch, TS, said.  “The students are in trouble.”   

She voyaged on her bicycle (5) towards the house where the students were studying. (6) She arrived and went into the house.  It was dark, and she heard HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. (7) No!  It was the mean sorcerer, Aaron! 

“The students are dead.  Haha. (8) I made them speak English to each other.  (9)

NOOOOOOOOO.   TS declared.  She waved her wand and Aaron died. (10)

The sun came back out in the forest of languages. (11)



(1) Sweet, huh?  How he has us all living in the same house in an enchanted learning community.  But, as the story reveals, this sort of situation only ends in tragedy.

(2) I find this clever for a couple of reasons:  First, it mimics something that happens more often when you’re speaking in a foreign language: the loaded trail-off, where you wait for your listener to realize what you’re saying or not saying.  Second, the seemingly unrelated meteorological mention introduces a detail that seems irrelevant but becomes important later.

(3) These three students sit together in class and often work collaboratively.  For some reason, only Michael goes by his last name, here.

(4) The female lead in Michael’s stories is often an older woman whom he describes as stunningly beautiful.  Last time it was Hilary Clinton.

(5) I bike to class most days.  I’m a little curious as to where I am when I’m not with the students.  Do I have another student-family on the other side of the forest?

(6) Notice how the students are studying French for the intrinsic joy of it even when I’m not there.  They’re not texting each other and or checking Facebook.   Then again, the story is set  “a long time ago” and the Forest of Languages is probably too remote for Internet service. 

(7) What a great, bellowing run-on maniacal laugh by Aaron, who, in real life, is not an evil sorcerer, but a diligent, front-row student.  It startled him to learn that he’d been cast as a ruthless, destructive villain in Michael’s story. 

(8) A more subdued, concise version of the earlier BWAHAHA laugh reveals Aaron’s total nonchalance about his murder spree.    

(9)  This may be my favorite part: despite the fact that the students’ native language is English, the act of speaking English to each other during French study time is so antithetical to their beings that THEY ACTUALLY DIE.  It’s like their souls just shrivel and cease to be when they can’t converse in French.  If this really happened to someone in class, I bet the other students would never again have to be reminded to parler en français.

(10) The word for “wand,” in French, is baguette, the same word used to describe a long, thin loaf of French bread.  My first year of teaching, I made a baguette magique to use as a pointer: a shellacked French-bread wand wound in sparkle garland with a silver star shooting out of the end.  So, that’s the wand I imagine as the instrument of death.

(11) I’m still not sure how to interpret my choice to kill the evil sorcerer: Am I destroying him because there’s an immediate threat?  Is this an act of vengeance for wiping out the most obedient, assiduous class-family ever?  Or am I just stamping out the villain so the fairy tale can end?

(12) This conclusion is eerie.  The return of sunlight and the disappearance of the evil sorcerer suggest a happy ending.  But in this happily ever after, there I am, alone under a sunbeam in the middle of the woods, surrounded by four dead young adults.  

Thursday, July 14, 2011

N.O., N.O., N.O., and 4 Bottles of Rum

If you’ve ever read the lyrics of “Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Rum,” you know that that rum can prove perilous.  

With rum, one runs the risk of pirates run riot.  (Try saying that 3 times fast after you’ve had a shot or so.)

After much reading and re-reading of lyrics, and a little vocabulary acquisition (A “boozy ken” is not Barbie’s boyfriend after he’s had a few, but rather a 19th century alehouse.  And a “plucky jade” is my new favorite word for floozy), I’ve determined that this is what the song is about: 

Some sailors come across a pirate ship where the whole crew of 15 has murdered each other in the most gross-out, gory ways possible.  Really, it’s Shakespearean in scale, this mass murder, only more creative.

How did the pirates go?  Well, the bosum was “brained with a marlinspike,” someone strangled the “cookey . . . with fingers ten,” the skipper “lay with his nob in gore,” because “the scullion’s axe his cheek had shore” (ouch.) and the scullion, apparently, got “stabbed four times.”  (And you thought The Raft of the Medusa was bad . . . ) I’ve never read Treasure Island, the book where the lyrics originated, but from the song alone it’s never clear what caused all the hubbub.

Is the brawl about booty? 

(“But which booty?” my friend Leah asked as we puzzled over the lyrics.  “Are they fighting over the dead man’s chest full of Spanish gold or the plucky jade on the bunker cot?”)

“Ohh!  I know what the problem was!”  I volunteer, all Nancy Drew-like. 

“So, counting the plucky jade, they had sixteen people . . .

And only one bottle of rum.” 

It’s the kind of poor planning that could cause a mutiny. 

Especially if their liquor tasted anywhere near as good as the kind my roommie and I sampled on our last trip to New Orleans.

A couple of weeks ago, the two of us had the pleasure of visiting Old New Orleans Louisiana Rum, the only rum distillery in the Southeast.  And, having suffered through many brewery tours in a few different countries for the sake of a free beer, I have to say that regardless of your opinion on rum, this is a treat. 

Bienvenue . . .

My favorable opinion began a few hours before the tour when I learned that the distillery offers a pick-up service from two locations in the quarter.  Logical, right?  Why have tourists taxi out to Gentilly, when you can genteely offer them a lift?  Or why risk tipsily trekking homeward, when a bus can deliver you back to a place where you can take public transit?

The second thing that distinguished the Old New Orleans Rum visit from any other form of alcohol-inspired tourism I’ve tried was that our tour guide offered us something to sip as soon as we arrived.  A few minutes in, we were sampling a glass of Cajun Sweet Tea (spiked, of course).  So, immediately, it felt like we were being hospitably shown around someone’s home while leisurely having a drink.  

Cheers!  In the winter, you get something warm.

Often, on tours, I realize about halfway through, that as much as I enjoy a glass of wine or a pint of beer or a flute of champagne or a shot of whisky, I’m less interested in its past life in a cave or vat or barrel.  Then, I get the fidgets like some kid.  I wonder how much more education I’ll have to endure before they break out the booze.  Not so, on this tour.

 While we learned about the science of rum-making, the emphasis is more on artistry and improvisation, which makes since given that the owner, James Michalopoulos, is an artist who (enviably) divides his time between Paris and New Orleans.  Roommie and I look at each other and nod.  This Michalopoulas knows what’s up. 

Imagine molasses.  That's the aroma of this pirate's potion.

 That was the first reason to like Michalopoulos, despite having never met him.  The second reason was that he could paint an old truck in a way that captured all its noble romance.  I turn to Roomie after we stare at one canvas in the lobby for a minute.  “Wanna pool our student loans and get this one for the living room?” The third reason to appreciate Michalopoulos was the names of his paintings, which all attest to an affinity for assonance and alliteration.  And wordplay, more generally. 

Examples: An image of the river sloshing against a boat, then sliding back toward the shore is called “Lap Dance.”  A night light vision of a saltwater-taffy shaded balcony houses is “Moon Swoon.” A giraffe against a swirled sky is “Starry Safari.”  And another I liked, though I’ve only half-decoded its double entendre title, is a close up of a cow’s called “Vashmont Beau.” 

In French, vachement colloquially means “very,” a hipper version of très.  Though literally, it translates to something like cow-ly.  It was the first slang word I learned after arriving in France.  So, is Vashmont, the town where the cow’s found?  The name of the pasture’s owner?  The beast, itself? 

Our tour guide, Bob Songy, was a Louisiana native and had the kind of sonorous southern accent and teacher’s talent for storytelling that made me want to sit up and take notes.  

Our tour director, Bob Songy, showing up the watermark for the flooding during Katrina.  Note the change in color on the beam.

In fact, I took so many that he started getting curious about all the jottings in my little book.  “Send me a copy!” he said and handed me his vertical business card that resembles a replica of the distillery’s door in miniature (which matches the label of their award-winning spiced rum).  Down to the smallest details, there’s artistry in everything there.  I tuck it into my journal.

“The joke around here is that Bacardi spills more on the floor than we make in a year,” he said.  Right now, Old New Orleans Rum makes 55,000 bottles annually, though within the next few years that sum will double. 

Still Life in Primary Colors

Here’s another detail I loved: The neck of each special-edition bottles is hand-dipped in a crock-pot of blue wax, which runs down the sides differently on each one.  

Post-dipping, they’re stamped with Louisiana’s signature fleur de lys, which also marks all of the barrels. 

Oak barrels that held bourbon before they came here.

“What is it with you people and the fleur de lys?” Songy quoted all the out-of-towners asking. 

Fleurdelisé is a French word that means covered in fleurs de lys, and it’s the perfect adjective for New Orleans.  It was the symbol of the Bourbon dynasty when France owned Louisiana and it has stuck, since.  You can purchase cookie cutters in its shape, have it tattooed on your arm, even buy fleur de lys diapers, Songy notes.  (Where else, besides New Orleans, could a football team get away with having a flower as their symbol?)

My favorite part of the tour was seeing the rows of labels and varied bottle types Michalopoulos designed.  Eventually, Songy said, they told the artist he’d need to settle on something and stick with it for the purposes of product identification. 

In case you're wondering, 29/90 is the longitude and latitude of New Orleans.

The winning design.  Print inside.

We concluded the tour with a dégustation of four types of rum:

1) A light Crystal, with a sparkly vanilla taste
2) A blended Amber, aged three years and caramel coated
3) A Cajun Spice, a cayenne peppery potpourri of perfection
4) A 10 Year Special Edition, aged in oak, ripe and reddish, and “steeped in the tropical heat of New Orleans,” to cite the phrasing on the place page

Know what rhymes with rum?  Yum.

They even poured a few extras, in case we were still thirsty. 

Unlike on the pirate ship, there was enough to go around.

Cutting up, after the tour.

**Thanks to Roommie, who contributed much of the photo documentation.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The One That Got Away

"There are no ordinary cats." -Colette

Then one day, she went.  From sunning herself on the sill where I’d lifted the window—she: peaceful, plump, and nodding off in the June humidity, me: post-coffee and pre-yoga, admiring her stillness as I scrambled to make it out of the door on time—to sliding through the tear in the screen, nudging wider in the wire mesh the hole that seemed gaping when I found it hours later. 

I imagine a breeze ruffling her fur first, towards her tail where the open spot was.  Then (I imagine) her, eyes wide, jerking her head in that direction.  Seeing in the ripped slit of the screen a portal to a different existence.

A three-feet leap to the ground. A cat’s gallop across the lawn.  Not seen since.

B . . .

I admired her entitlement.   The way she bounded onto a freshly-made bed, linens still warm from the dryer, to sprawl in the center.  The way she could “sleep 20 hours/ a day/ without hesitation/ or remorse,” to reference a poem by Bukowski, another cat lover.  But I also admired her ability to be perfectly low maintenance, to nap just as comfortably on a crooked pile of books and papers.

She had a streak of the savage.  She cooed like a tropical bird when pawing at moths.  She annihilated cockroachs, leaving the litter of their limbs for me to find later.

She intently watched the acrobatics of the squirrels in the tree outside the windows of my old house, rushing along the ledges in pursuit as the squirrels leapt between branches. 

A kittenhood injury had left her right leg weaker, so she extended it when seated upright, dangling it over the edges of beds and bookshelves like a lounge singer.

It impressed me that she intuited whom I should trust, and whom I shouldn’t, often before I did.

She had many meows and loved hiding and pretending to be invisible.

“Losing this cat is making me act kinda weird,” I wrote to a friend a week later. 

I wander around the neighborhood calling her name.  I crawl under the houses of people I don’t know with a flashlight.  Then, when they catch me, with cobwebs in my ponytail and grass imprinted on my knees, I say things like, “This cat was like my family,” or “I wanted us to grow old together and retire to the Riviera.”   

I leave bowls of water and food by each entrance to the house.  When I hear rustling, I rush down the stairs and throw upon the door and watch as a stray scuttles off.  

I mention buying a cat trap then wonder aloud to my housemate if I’ll just end up with rabies from the strays.  Then she says, a little more earnestly than one would expect, “Well, maybe you need to go ahead and catch rabies so you can be sure you’ve done everything you could do.  I’ll give you the shots afterwards.  There aren’t as many now as there used to be.”

A few days later, I’m talking to a gardener who thinks he spotted her, after seeing my LOST CAT ad taped to the stop sign.

“So, the cat had never been outside?”
“No.  Well, sometimes she’d dart out for a second till I grabbed her.  But . . . no.”
“And the cat’s five years old?”

He shook his head. 

“You can’t do that.  Not with people, not with cats.  A cat’s a wild thing.  Free spirit.  Same as you.  Don’t like to be closed up.  Maybe she just wanted to go on a little walk around the neighborhood.  Who’s to say she’s even LOST?” he said, his voice faintly echoing the alarmist font of the flyer.  “She could know exactly where she is.” 

Could I blame her? 

For wanting to dirty up her coat and hunt something bigger than a bug and sharpen her claws on bark and play cache-cache with the other cats and sleep in the shade of a banana plant.

Maybe this wasn’t the vision she had for her life.  Sitting on the desk, watching me plod and peck at my thesis. 

I’d type in something Homi K. Bhabha said, then she’d yawn, stand up, walk across the keyboard in response: ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;; mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm000gggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggj77777777777777777777oo’/taaaqaqau9ds Ut-----l[yµ?

“I know, B,” I’d cheerily corroborate.  “That’s what I think, too, but we may have to phrase it differently.”

Then, she’d leap off the desk and onto the bed for a nap, irritated that I was always dismissing her contributions.

“Don’t look like that,” said the gardener, “You’re gonna get me crying.  I've cried over a horse, a chicken, a goat, a dog . . . But I think it's pretty bad when you cry over a plant.
And I laugh a little, because I think it's hypothetical.  Then I remember that he's a gardener.

I glance back at the house where I see the plant in the window where B used to sit.  Think of its browning leaves.  When I had asked the man at the nursery around the corner about indoor plants, he commented, “It’s already a lot to ask of any plant for it to live inside, but it can survive fine, with enough light and water.”

"I know someone musta poured something in that plant. I KNOW it . . . I took such good care of it," said the gardener.  His eyes go glassy.

And I think . . . it always feels the same.  Being separated from something you love.

Plant. Goat. Cat.
The funny injustice of loss, that leaves you, fifteen years later, in a different part of the country, saying to a woman you just met, "But I watered it every day."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mardi Gras is a Legal Holiday in Louisiana

Store Sign in Downtown Eunice

Outside of Louisiana, it’s hard to grasp what Mardi Gras means, in-state.  For me, as a child from another place, Mardi Gras just meant a pancake dinner in a church fellowship hall.  A few dollars for a few pancakes swirled over with synthetic syrup.  Then busily, we went about Lent, repentant. 

I imagined, then, that in New Orleans, people paraded on Mardi Gras day but would have never guessed that the Fat Tuesday festivities were actually the culmination of weeks of parades.  And that all day, every day parading began the weekend before Mardi Gras.  Or that everyone, from kindergarteners to university students had several days off from school.  Or that people decorated their houses with beads and wreaths and colored lights.  Or that Mardi Gras was actually a legal holiday on the scale of Christmas or Thanksgiving.

I was reminded of all of this during last week’s episode of Treme, set during Mardi Gras season.  As friends and I ohhed and ahhed over the king cake that one New York transplant received from a friend in New Orleans, Helana (who makes an excellent King Cake, herself) said, “You know, the rest of the country is probably really confused by this entire episode.”

Which seemed possible, though it summed up a lot, and I appreciated that David Simon hadn’t explained everything—just let you glimpse and guess: the neon green, gold, and purple gooey goodness of king cake, the grandeur of the Mardi Gras Indians, the lengths people go to for trophy throws, like Zulu’s coconuts or Muses’ shoes, the way Bourbon Street shuts down at the stroke of midnight like a dirty version of Cinderella, and how there’s an entirely different tradition in the country, in towns like Basile, Iota, Eunice, and Mamou.

Mamou is where I spent last Mardi Gras day, with my friend Leah and her father, Dan Willis. 

I think we should do the country Mardi Gras this year, she’d said, and I responded a little non-commitally, much like the DJ on the show.  

The Courir de Mardi Gras . . . I loved the idea of following a caravan of men dressed in hand-sewn costumes riding on horseback from house to house as they begged for the ingredients of a communal gumbo to be cooked at the end of the day when the riders galloped back into town, but it seemed to raise an obvious problem, one also evoked on the show: being in Mamou on Mardi Gras meant not being in New Orleans.

It’s worth it, she said simply.  The DJ on the show wasn’t convinced to go, but I was. 

Lundi Gras 2011: Dan, Leah, and I arrive in Grand Mamou in time for an outdoor dance near the famed Fred’s Lounge.  

First, we sampled barbeque sandwiches and boudin and crawfish nachos. 

Boudin: Pork Sausage with Rice Inside

“I think we should taste everything,” Dan said.

“Your Dad makes an excellent point,” I seconded.

So, we food-stand hopped.

Then we scrawled something a little rowdy in the guest book for the time capsule.  Something some member of the historical society probably whited out later.

Finally, we wandered into the field of hundreds of locals bobbing to the zydeco beats of a live band blaring out over the trampled grass.

Leah’s father pulled us into a huddle in the middle of the swaying dancers, some of whom had balanced cans of beer on their heads as they moved to the music, and spoke real low:

 Look, girls.  Our job is to liven these people up.  We bring the fun wherever we go, got it? We bring the fun.  He said it like the future depended on it.  Like we had better not mess this up, damnit.

So, we each took one of his hands, looped through each others’ limbs as we spun and leapt and rolled into his arms then unfurled like party streamers, weaving together then untangling against the starry sky in Big Mamou. 

Girls, I think our work is done here, he said after half an hour. . . . But those people over there look a little bored. C’mon.  

We moved through another patch of dancers.   And another.  Shimmied.  Shaked.  Got jovial.  Got joyous.   Brought the fun until he declared our work done.

My Dad’s ready to party, Leah had warned me when she picked me up.  Hope you can keep up.

The next morning, we woke up before six and made our way to the site of the prior night’s gathering, wondering if some people had never left.  Men having Bud Light for breakfast danced on horses and sung the Mardi Gras song until it was time to gather for a secret meeting, (which I envisioned as a slightly larger version of our huddle) before meandering down the highway.

Pre-Ride Meeting, Right Before the Door Closed

 Granted, with the horses and hoods, the preponderance of white men and the closed discussions, it can briefly feel like you stumbled into a group of Klansmen.  But the tradition dates back to the medieval fête de la quémande, when rural communities pooled their resources in the harshest period of winter.  The hoods or capuchons, mock the elaborate hairstyles of women nobility and the garb of religious figures like the pope.  It’s actually illegal to wear a hooded costume or head covering in Louisiana except for on the expected occasions and for religious purposes, seemingly because of the association of facial coverings with Klan activities. 

In the Morning, Pre-Courir

At each house on the route, the capitaine, the only uncostumed member of the caravan, spoke to the owner and asked for permission to approach.  Neighbors contributed ingredients . . . rice, vegetables, chickens . . . the latter gets tossed into the air while twenty or so men scramble through the mud to catch them. Then, everyone sings the Mardi Gras song and dances for a few minutes before moving to the next house.

Post-Chicken Chase

Throughout the day, Dan received a steady stream of phone calls from work.  He’d listen for a few minutes, punctuate the pauses with “Mmm-hmm.” and “I see,” then say, abruptly, “Well, Mardi Gras is a legal holiday in Louisiana.”

I loved the way he said it.  Definitively.  As if he were sternly informing his client that they might both be flirting with misdemeanor charges for discussing work in such untimely circumstances.  As if they both had better hang up immediately in case the line was tapped and someone heard them talking shop when they ought to be bringing the fun.

 Then he’d laugh and say, I can’t even tell you where I am right now.  All I know is I’m riding down this dusty road in the outskirts of Mamou in a line of about 25 cars watching a bunch of coonasses chase chickens. 

Coonass is a word originally used as a slur against Cajuns that has been affectionately appropriated by many Cajuns, themselves.  Several of my students claim to use it fairly regularly in their families; others categorically don’t use it.  Like any reworked word, what’s signified depends on who’s saying it and how.  Here, it was used with great affection and identification.

We didn’t stay for the gumbo.  We wanted to catch the return of the riders in Eunice, a nearby town that allows women and children to participate in the courir.  Our work in Mamou was done.

And that’s how I remember Dan Willis.  In his leather jacket in a field in Grand Mamou.  Surveying the scene after he’d dizzied us with his dance moves.  All of us laughing as he congratulated us on a job well done.  Trusting that the fun would stay right where we’d put it even after we'd left. 

Boots and Saddles