Friday, February 3, 2012

Paris, Books, and Heritage . . .

I wrote this post months and months ago, then added the photos several weeks ago. Still, I've held onto it, hesitating to click on the "Publish" button. It's closer to me than most of my writing here, and I hope it will be the beginning of a series of posts that explore my marriage through mine and my husband's many trips to Paris. I do hope you enjoy it. . . 

A sunny morning, wandering the Village St. Paul in Le Marais, Paris. We'd already explored l'Eglise St. Paul, following the instructions written in my Moleskine by a charming older woman, une vraie parisienne, a few nights earlier. Sitting coude à coude at the tiny, bustling, red-check-tableclothed Au Pied du Fouet, we'd struck up a conversation with her and her dining companion, and she'd insisted on some must-see's, reaching for my notebook to write directions in a classic French hand. She was right. The church we'd by-passed on earlier visits to the area more than repaid the time it took to peek inside, where there was a Mass just ending. So we'd also obediently and gratefully paid attention to other ancient buildings whose history our vieille dame had summarized. Now, released from duty, we were following the dictates of eyes and stomachs. Clinking glasses, the aroma of garlic and butter and cheese and grilled meats were coaxing us to ignore windows displaying paintings and sculpture, wonderful ceramics, textile art, exquisite shoes, candy-coloured handbags, enticing scarves . . . The demands of the stomach were winning, until I was caught, seduced by a precisely wrought object in the window of a stationery store.

At first, the object looked vaguely architectural, although it was very small. Quickly, it resolved into a magical sculpture formed by the intricately pleated pages of a book. The livre itself appeared to be quite old, and its demure size lent it an inviting intimacy -- within the pleats, I glimpsed jewel colours promising hidden illustrations, alluring secrets.  We popped inside to enquire about the price and pick up a business card. Est-ce que vous avez une petite carte? has become my default method of fending off sales tactics with some dignity, along with my trusty il faut que je réfléchisse and it seems to work well. This time, I sincerely wanted to be able to get back to the shop after taking some time to test my impulse to buy.  And two days later, the day we were booked on the afternoon Eurostar out of Paris, we trekked back to the Marais to bag my treasure.  Despite the packing difficulties, despite the not-inconsiderable price tag, I wanted this little book sculpture.

The store itself, MelodiesGraphiques (10, rue du Pont Louis Philippe, 4e) is a cornucopia of marvels for those who love all the various accoutrements of writing: distinctive pens, papers in myriad textures, colours, weights, sophisticated and beautiful cards. And the owner was charming, keeping the conversation en français with no apparent impatience, allowing me to compare the two book-sculptures and to take my time choosing between them. We chatted a bit about the artist and about the books she sources to fold into her artworks -- children's catechisms or missals, preferably no later than early 1900s vintage. I finally decided on the piece that had originally caught my eye, secretly eager to pry it apart and view the coloured illustration.  The owner wrapped it in a box for us, Paul trying not to frown at the notion of adding yet another item to those which wouldn't fit into our wheeled carry-ons, and we headed back to our St. Germain apartment to collect our gear before heading to the Gare du Nord.


On the train, looking up from my reading periodically to watch the French countryside retreat for another year, anticipating the concert we'd listen to at St. Martin's-in-the-Field the next evening in London, my mixed feelings about leaving Paris yet again were shaped by my pleasure at taking home something tangible, this small piece of art. Sitting on a stand in the dining area of our big open kitchen, it would bring that Old World Marais neighbourhood into our West Coast open marine environment. The two couldn't be more different, right down to the smells -- there, sophisticated perfumes, wafting kitchen aromas meld with the less pleasant exhaust fumes and sewer notes of any big city; here, the vegetative notes of the surrounding woods are sharpened by the iodine-and-salt of the ocean, the seaweed drying on the beach above the tide mark -- the only distasteful olfactory notes would be the occasional fish carcass washed up on the shore.


But while my new purchase would bring the Paris difference into our daily life, it would also provide a link with my personal history, right here in Canada, a long family history in the New World, yes, but again linking back to France, the ancestral home of my maternal grandparents, my grandmother especially. Indeed, I believe the sculpture's pleated pages attracted me because they evoked -- even before I knew their precise origins -- a memory, a recognition, of one of my most treasured possessions, my grandmother's catechism book.  Similarly sized for a small child's hands, my grandma's book boasts that it is Illustré de 32 gravures. While these thirty-two illustrations must have been more entertaining in a century still opening to the audio-visual transformation of the mind's eye, the little book appears quite uncompromisingly dull today. It's impossible to imagine a contemporary seven-year old spending more than a moment considering it.  But that's about the age grandma would have been when she carefully inscribed her name - Hélène Langevin -- inside its front cover, sometime in the first handful of years of the 20th century.


The preface that covers the first yellowed pages, tiny rips in the yellowed pages where someone turned too eagerly or impatiently, in frustration or boredom, that preface is written by the priest who explains his pedagogy, and it's dated 14 Octobre 1874. The book proper opens with the title DIEU -- and it outlines the words and expressions that the chapter will explain: Dieu, Bontés, Seigneur, Amis, Vie (God, bounty/gifts (from God), Lord (as in Our Lord), friends, life). The chapter begins comfortably, invitingly even, continuing a conversation that would have begun before my grandmother joined her siblings in this world.  Growing up in a French-Canadian Catholic family whose central social focus would have been the local church, these opening words would have made immediate sense: On vous parle souvent du bon Dieu, mes petits amis, et l'on vous dit qui'il faut l'aimer de tout votre coeur (People often speak about the good God, my little friends, and tell you that you must love him with all your heart).


 Leaving aside the content for now, what strikes me as I hold this little book reverently in my hands (my reverence directed as its age, the way it captures traces of my beloved grandma, rather than at its religious nature) is that my grandmother, even as a young child, could read it. By the time I knew her, the only hint of her French-speaking past was in the dinner-table command she would give as we sat down to eat: Servez-vous, mes enfants, she would say, and we'd begin to pass the roast beef, the mashed potatoes, the green jello and cottage cheese wonder, studded with walnuts, that had thankfully replaced the dreaded tomato aspic.  Only occasionally was there a flicker of an accent, more an inflection really, barely detectable. Indeed, even my mother had little more familiarity with Grandma's French-speaking self than I did, although sometimes when her Aunts Blanche and Leah visited, the Langevin sisters must have sequestered themselves in the language that gave them privacy from their broods. 

 Some of Mom's cousins, raised in Maillardville, a French-speaking community outside Vancouver, stayed francophone, and even today, I must have relatives -- 3rd, 4th or 5th cousins, four times removed? -- who maintained their language, but for us, it was all lost when Grandma was sent to school in rural Manitoba, sometime around 1904.  Precisely when or why she switched from the francophone education system that issued her little book (certainly an extension of the Catholic church) to English-only, I never thought to ask. Instead, I was shocked and saddened to hear her tell about being smacked for speaking French. If you'd known my grandmother, you'd find it as impossible as I did to imagine her, even as a child, behaving badly enough to deserve corporal punishment. But to have it inflicted because of speaking her mother tongue? I know. Those were the days. . . . And the method was certainly effective. She learned quickly to conform, worked that accent right out of her English. And eventually, her youngest daughter, my mother, met and married an Englishman, straight off the boat from Yorkshire, and my linguistic future was determined.

Before she met and married my father, though, Mom had a shy girl's romantic teenage notion of becoming a nun. In her late teens, leaving behind her family, long settled now on the West Coast, she headed back to Manitoba, this time to live in a convent boarding school in a tiny French-speaking community. Her shyness intensified by an overwhelming combination of homesickness and limited ability to understand and speak the language surrounding her, she obviously renounced her supposed vocation. But where some might have renounced French along with the nunnery, my mother, at some point between then and having children, decided we should have more opportunity to learn French than she did. So by the time I was six or seven, she was borrowing French language-lesson records from the library to play for us.  One of the few television shows we watched regularly was the wonderful Canadian children's show, Chez Hélène (now, sadly, long defunct) Occasionally, I'd hear my grandma exchange a few phrases with her French-immigrant neighbours, and once I started attending our small local Catholic school, I'd sometimes hear the French-Canadian nuns slip back into their langue maternelle, and I'd understand why they had such a tough time with the "th" sound in ours.


In other words, I was fertile ground for the seeds of language, and as soon as we began having French lessons in Grade 6 and 7, I quickly acquired a vocabulary and a decent sense of grammar. Already an avid reader in English, I transferred that ability to French, although there were very few texts to practise on. High school offered a richer range, but it was hard not to be impatient with the way the language was parcelled out, the present tense this month, the passé composé the next. Still, at least in the all-girls tiny Catholic high school of Grades 8, 9, and 10, the lack of an opposite sex freed us from the major embarrassments of learning a language and allowed us to indulge in the romance of, well, a Romance language.  We took our Dictées seriously, but we also had fun writing and performing skits en français; once, even, on a school outing, a group of us pretended we were exchange students from France, confining our entire conversation to French, amplified with our version of the accompanying Gallic gestures, convinced that we fooled all who saw us.

The next stop on my French-language journey was not as enjoyable. The huge (2700 students) co-ed public school was filled with teens who had learned to hate a process that grilled and quizzed and bored and embarrassed them. The French teachers were martinets or, even worse, were vulnerable in their quirkiness. My proficiency became a social liability, and although there must have been allies there somewhere, I was too new to the system to detect them. Still, I persevered, fascinated by the relationship I was seeing between English, French, and Latin, which I was also studying. And finally, at university, I got the reward I'd been seeking: a room filled with fellow language-lovers who'd done the reading and wanted to talk about it, were willing to risk embarrassment for the joy of exploring another world. Why then, having finally arrived here, did I leave so soon? Right on the verge of acquiring the fluency my grandmother, my ancestors, had once had, how could I turn away?

27 comments:

  1. Fascinating story. I look forward to reading more about your life.

    My parents grew up speaking German, learning English at school. They were so reviled by classmates and teachers alike for speaking German that they left it behind, refusing to teach their own children. They wanted us to be fully Canadian, speaking English. I regret not learning German as a child, and think that it may be my next language, studied very casually.

    Your French is, in all probability, very good, more au courant than mine, I'm sure. I have lacked opportunity to practice, and am longing to return to France or visit Quebec to improve myself.

    And your blog! Wow, what a switch!

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  2. Oh, and the book - utterly charming. It's interesting how objects can pull at our heartstrings and evoke memories long past.

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  3. Lorrie, thanks for both comments -- too bad my readers can't see your first, as it's an interesting insight into families and language acquisition. That one made it through to my e-mail, but got lost in the experimenting I've been doing with blog formats. I really like the clean look of the newer Templates, but am not sure I want to relinquish the widgets I've built in. We'll see . . .

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  4. What a lovely post! As I read I was reminded of a piece we read in my American Literature class that describes how native Americans were sent to boarding schools for indoctrination in European religions and language. Like your grandmother, they were punished for speaking in their native language(s), among other faux pas.

    The sculpture is lovely though it is difficult to get a feel for the size of it from your photos.

    I studied french in the classroom for over 5 years...and yet, I can only imagine I would be practically illiterate if I were to visit France.

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    1. Terri, almost every term I have at least one First Nations student whose grandparents spent time in residential school. So destructive and so far beyond the hurt suffered by my grandma, and it's still having powerful repercussions here.
      The book sculpture is quite small -- the book itself perhaps 3x5.
      As for your French, I suspect you'd pick up quite quickly in an immersion situation, at least as far as reading.

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  5. I find it rather surprising and interesting that you attended an all girls Catholic school....was it in Vancouver or Maillardville?

    I remember Chez Helene. I think her show was on the CBC. When we were growing up TV shows were very sparse. Do you remember the late night broadcast when TV went off the air?

    I studied French all of my public school years and have retained more than I would have expected as it has been close to 40 years since I graduated!
    I would need more than a few refresher courses if I were to go to France!

    I love those folded pages inside that old book.

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    1. Hostess: The school was St. Ann's Academy in New Westminster (a sister to the one in Victoria. And yes, Chez Hélegrave;ne was on CBC; in fact, there were no other channels in the years I remember it from.
      A trip to France, well worth the refresher courses, right?

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  6. This was a fascinating post Mater - thanks! It got me to remembering my own first contact with a foreign language. My dad was Ukrainian, but he always spoke to us in heavily-accented English. When I was about 5 or 6 he asked if I wanted to go to Ukrainian class at the Ukrainian club in our town. The teacher would be a family friend. I was quite excited at the prospect and told my friends that on Monday (the class being on the Sunday) I would be able to speak Ukrainian! Well, come Sunday my innate shyness came to the fore and I really didn't enjoy the class at all - to my everlasting regret I told my dad that I'd rather not go back. By the time I got to secondary school (a couple of years after my dad died) I was a lot more confident and took on first French, then German and Italian, but how I wish I had stuck with the Ukrainian!!
    By the way - your new 'reply' template must make life a whole lot easier for you! P.

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    1. Patricia: This is such a revealing and poignant comment -- so many of us, with our nation's immigrant past, must have something of this loss in our family background. It's completely understandable that a shy young child would be overwhelmed by the difficulties in that class, but especially when you lost your father, and ever since, you will have wished for that part of your heritage.
      And yes, finally the new 'reply' feature is working and I do enjoy it.

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  7. First, your book- what a treasure, refined, mysterious, beautiful. I can see why you were captivated and why you enjoy it so.

    re learning another language, I often quote Charlemagne, who said, "To have a second language is to have a second soul", and in your case, connects to your ancestors. Any language keeps the brain active and (so my teacher says) sharp- though I have rarely felt as frustrated as I do when I just can't remember grammar. A glass of wine seems to help greatly!

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    1. Yes! Let's raise a glass to the role of wine in language acquisition!

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  8. Frances,
    this is lovely - it's interesting, in a large family, the different memories that are owned by each of us. thanks for sharing your earlier memories of grandma, have to say though that I liked the tomato aspic best

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    1. Isn't it fascinating?! Although I can't quite believe you actually liked the aspic. Seriously?!

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  9. I am charmed by the idea of language, and books, and the way they've threaded through your family. To say nothing of the beautiful photographs.

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  10. What a wonderful, evocative post - first bringing us to Paris, and then back in time to your grandmother's childhood, then to your own love affair with language. I so enjoyed it.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Marsha. And thanks for commenting -- it makes such a difference to get feedback after having written something so personal.

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  11. Super post, F. Gotta reread it a couple of times to really absorb it. As a child of first generation parents, it resonates.

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    1. This comment means so much to me, Kristin, that you would think the post worth rereading. I'm honoured by the attention you give it and so pleased to have the effort of writing it returned this way. Thank you.

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  12. A beautiful mille feuille of a post, your story like the images hidden in the layers of the book is just beautifully told. I am a language luddite, my head is do full of art a theory and philosophy I just have no room left, but I truly wish I had been raised bilingual. I love it when Leyla speaks Turkish and I have to confess I find even Emin’s somewhat guttural utterances an aphrodisiac! His parents suffered similarly in the language stakes forced to document everything in Greek until the island was liberated!

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    1. Thank you! And while you feel as if you're a language luddite, it's wonderful that you're watching your daughter ADD a langauge into your mix, rather than, as my grandmother did, watching a language disappear from it.

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  13. I loved reading this Mater. The book is beautiful.

    It's hard to imagine anyone being punished for speaking her own language.

    Like your mother, I had a romantic teenage notion of becoming a nun, still remember leafing through a directory of convents and considering which ones would be a good fit.

    It must be a joy to speak French fluently.

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    1. Thanks, Susan.
      Mom actually spent a year or so in the convent before recognizing that it wasn't really her vocation.
      And yes, I think it must be a joy to speak a second language fluently -- I'd love to reach that, someday . . .

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  14. I'm sure your thoughtful post and beautiful book pictures have many of us thinking about our families and immigrant heritage. Your love of language, any language, comes through in all of your posts.

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  15. I loved this post and read it twice. I find myself attracted more and more to the stories of other Canadian families. There is no story more interesting than a true one. My mother's parents' first languages were French and Arabic, but she never learned either. My father's parents spoke Gaelic as mother tongue but he retains only the bad words and those from childhood. My husband still has his Danish but didn't pass it on to our children, who despite education in German and French remain uni-lingual anglophones.
    The waste.

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  16. I'm so pleased (and flattered) that you would take time to read and re-read this post. Your own story is a forceful example of how quickly we're losing language diversity. Last term, I had my 1st-year uni students doing some research around this issue, but it comes home most clearly to me when I seeing it on a family by family basis. Imagine, in three generations, a French, Arabic, Gaelic, and Danish speaker were lost, in one family. . . Thanks for sharing this.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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