How to Digress Comme les Français

by | Sep 22, 2015 | Creative Nonfiction

I’m just back from southern France, where the air is filled with the sound of gypsies. Summer evenings are roused by the music of Romany, the raw sentimentality of which confronts the fastidiousness of the French bourgeoisie with a flagrant challenge. Tonight, a trio from the Camargue is performing a rumba-styled tune in the large square. With studied disinterest, the French pretend not to notice, even though they are walking to the beat of “Bamboleo.”

He contrasted the panhandlers of New York to their French counterparts. He wrote: a young man is kneeling on Rue Jean Moulin with a cardboard sign that reads SVP. No older than twenty, he is white, healthy and comfortably middle-class, but he is seeking charity, s’il vous plait, with the intent and conviction of Joan of Arc. His posture is so precise and formal that he could be caste in a medieval play. He kneels exactly in the manner of aristocratic donors portrayed in 15th-century religious triptychs, only he has on Air Jordans and a leather rucksack. For a brief moment I imagine him as a statue, a religious sculpture that has been stolen from its niche and set on this marble-paved street as a provocation.

He wrote: southern France is a region crisscrossed by grapevines and plane trees where old shrines and abbeys rise up like grain elevators in Kansas, when you least expect them. He described to me how the plane trees, with fat trunks and scaling bark, form great leafy canopies arching high above the winding roads. He said they were originally planted by Napoleon to provide shade for his troops from the heat of the mid-day sun. Today, the trees are blamed for fatal traffic accidents. Nearly one in every ten road deaths involves a collision with a tree.


A French Minister, whose constituency vowed revenge against the tree that ran into a motorcyclist, declared plane trees were a public danger and should all be chopped down. Albert Camus drove into one on his way to Paris on a cold and foggy morning in January of 1960. By the end of the nineteenth century, France had as many as three million plane trees; now there are less than two hundred and fifty thousand. Did you know that the largest plane tree in France is at Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert?

He wrote me: I have been around France several times and now only old stones still interest me. On this trip I’ve pursued them with the curiosity of a stonecutter. He told me about the Royal Chapel of the Blue Penitents, hidden between a lingerie boutique and an upscale shoe shop where sneakers go for 300 euros a pair. He wrote: It’s Friday afternoon and the bells of Saint Denis are ringing the noon hour. The foot traffic outdoors is heavy. Except on Sundays, every winding street in Montpellier is clogged with pedestrians and scooters. The Virgin Mary, the patron of the Blue Penitents, is standing high on a pedestal atop the façade of the church, where she commands a lofty post, fixed in a gesture of greeting only pigeons can hail. To see her on this narrow street, you need to arch your neck until it hurts. He wrote: the right side of her face has been darkened by time.

He said the roundabouts reminded him of the merry-go-rounds of his childhood, especially on one occasion when he fell from a wooden horse. Later he told me that in France he felt as though he were always about to fall.


11:30, Montpellier. The streets are lined with pedestrians moving through narrow, winding streets like electrical current, young women, be-sneakered garçons on their cells, smartly dressed middle-aged couples, tiny old ladies with enormous straw bags, jabbering foreigners, dog-walkers, baby-strollers, nomads, all of them smoking, texting, queuing for crepes, pizza, roasted chestnuts, flowers. An anti-Cartesian swarm of humanity conferring existence on one another. I walk therefore I am.

He described to me how each day he circulated through the older part of town, down the vaulted streets paved in polished white marble. The closeness of things drew him into the canyon-like passageways. The old stones, he said, were charismatic, the hallways, the giant geometry, the magnetic marble. Everyone can feel a kind of proximity effect.

Even the ancients—old men who fought in WWII—walk by hunched over, dressed in their checked jackets, wrapped in warm sweaters and scarfs, men and women holed up in basements hiding from the Nazis sixty-five years ago, now here in the dazzling light of the 21st century. On Sundays, when the French stay home or leave for the beaches, there is nothing more unnerving than the empty squares and cafes. The city comes to a stop as though from a power outage. The old stones murmur, left to their own devices.

At nightfall the city is taken over by students who travel from bar to bar, their convivial chatter reverberating between buildings. The careless sounds move across street corners and over cobblestones, circling around the cathedral like a foreign army.


He wrote: In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill, the victim of mistaken identity, is pursued across the country by a spy ring. In one famous scene, Thornhill sees a crop duster advancing menacingly towards him. In the next shot, Thornhill turns and runs. As the camera tracks back, we have a picture of Thornhill racing away, with occasional frantic glances over his shoulder at the approaching plane. He wrote: Cary Grant may be dead but Roger Thornhill will always be on the run.

He described to me how in French cinema few hurry and no one ever runs. He wrote: in the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie the main characters walk silently and leisurely along an isolated country road, never rushed, with a supreme casualness that belies their absurdity. Anyone who can amble so ably and for so long can’t be all that bad. In vintage war films, French soldiers take more time to smoke cigarettes and converse than shoot at their enemy. Even in Breathless, a film with American-style chase scenes, the profound nonchalance of Jean-Paul Belmondo calls into question the very basis of action.

He wrote: comedy is born of slowness, which is why America is so humorless.

He told me about the College of Medicine in Montpellier with its gallery of distinguished heads. Among others, there was the bust of Galen, the ancient philosopher who dissected monkeys in public to prove that arteries were not air ducts. Galen’s beard has turned green with time, but there are no bird droppings spilling down his face (like tears), as is the case with François Peyronie, the confidant of King Louis XV, famous for having diagnosed the abnormal curvature of the penis, and who now guards the entrance to the College of Medicine with inscrutable composure.


He told me of Nostradamus, the young pharmacist who attended the College of Medicine in 1520 while assisting victims of the plague. Nostradamus had a passion for almanacs—charts and lunar phases, weather forecasts, calendars filled with horoscopes and predictions—all of which was written down painstakingly in four-line stanzas.

Today the bad poetry of Nostradamus rivals the poems of Baudelaire. He wrote me that the College of Medicine was the first university in Europe dedicated to the study of corpses.

He told me that on Sundays, when the French depart for the beaches, he could hear nothing but his own foot steps and the murmur of fountains. Always alone (even in a crowd) he was an urban digresser, roaming through city streets, detached by necessity, engaging from a distance, always gazing, logging traces of the past on every stone, on every urban form, seeing this world from the perspective of the dead. I haunt my own narrative, he wrote.

Later he told me that the partly ruined face of history looks out from each street corner and shop front. It was there in doorways, the feeling that the dead were not departed. He wrote: I was hypnotized by the proximity of the past. Even today, the past continues to bleed into the present.


In the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin wrote that the flâneur is that figure who resists incorporation into the milieu in which he moves. His essence resides precisely in his refusal to become part of the crowd.

He wrote: the flâneur would seem to be an anachronism, someone not in a mad rush but who can afford to dawdle, a wry figure moving through space in slow-motion—at best, a narrative device. Later he told me that in mid 19th-century Paris, it was once stylish to take a turtle for a walk on a leash.

He described to me old city structures carved from limestone. I’ve spent the day in the market at Les Arceaux, admiring fishmongers scaling their catch beneath a 17th-century aqueduct. The aqueduct is modeled on the Roman style, with two tiers of arches. Made from limestone, it spans ten miles of countryside, the numerous arcades repeating into the distance like an M. C. Escher drawing of impossible form. Who does not think the stone arch is a lucky charm against the linear savagery of modernity?

He wrote: there is an unusual intricacy to the texture of these stones, a mix of minerals, shells, fossil remains, bones. Like a graveyard: silicate exoskeletons, calcium carbonate from the shells of marine mollusks. They are soft and porous and filled with the debris of long deceased sea creatures. The cathedrals of France are born of the dead.

One day he writes me: memory of a dream. A woman on a park bench is writing in a notebook. Her letters are sticking to my body like tattoos. Southern France is full of such spells. More and more my dreams seem to come from elsewhere. In many cultures dreams are thought more real than waking life. Some say we are capable of wisdom only while sleeping, a profundity that comes from fleeing ourselves, from absenting our being. If I wake from a dream that I am a hummingbird, am I a man who has dreamed he is a hummingbird, or a hummingbird dreaming he is a man? The dream is a mystery that haunts our being. Nothing is as it seems.


Later he told me that he had just learned of Foreign-Accent syndrome, a rare disorder that makes people sound as though they are from another country. An English woman woke up one morning after a serious migraine sounding French. A man from Yorkshire, who has never been to Ireland, suddenly began speaking in an Irish accent after a brain operation. He now sings Danny Boy in perfect pitch. A Croatian speaker woke up one morning able to speak fluent German after surviving a coma. Karen Butler from Toledo, Oregon came out of dental-implant surgery with a peculiar mix of Scottish and South African: “whatever pops out of my mouth pops out,” she said. “I’m quite ok with the accent.”

He wrote me: doctors believe foreign-accent syndrome is triggered following a stroke or head injury, when tiny areas of the brain linked with language, pitch, and speech patterns are damaged. After a series of migraines, a British IT worker spoke with a Shanghai accent and could no longer say the word Linux without sounding daft. “I have never been to China,” she said. “It is very frustrating—I just want my own voice back.” Those who suffer from foreign accent syndrome speak of their loss in tragic terms. It’s as if they’ve lost a bit of themselves, part of their personality fading away with the former accent.


9:30, Montpellier. Five scraggly young men with outstretched hands standing on a corner surrounded by empty bottles and dog piss—nomadic teenage beggars pretending to be crippled. Today they are partnered with six sad-eyed dogs, having doubled their mode of persuasion. The dogs are long-suffering creatures who have resigned themselves to cramped sidewalks, crouching on soiled scraps of cloth and sheets of cardboard. You can see in their eyes an uncanny tolerance, a look of humane intelligence that comes from some deep, profound patience. You will see the same look in the eyes of the over-coated Bruno Ganz in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire.

He described to me his fascination with marionettes. He wrote: the ancient Egyptians brought their puppets into the afterlife along with other burial goods, string-operated figures made of clay and ivory performing various household arts and duties. The puppets were meant to mimic the everyday chores of life, like kneading bread or brewing beer, as if the next world could only be imagined as a continuation of this one. Puppets were found in the tomb of an Egyptian chancellor of the royal palace dating back to 2000 B. C. The mummified chancellor was surrounded by his toy friends, whose linen skirts had been nibbled by mice. Inhabitants of a doll world, the puppets had hoped for more, as surely as did their master. Had he not shared with them his dream of paradise?


Did I write you that there are marionettes in Centre Ville? It’s three o’clock and I’m alone on a street corner transfixed by a large wooden marionette dancing awkwardly on a stage cluttered with antique toys and images. At first one smiles at this scene. A nineteenth-century marionette, it has clear brown eyes and a patchwork costume of red and green diamonds. On his head a floppy three-pointed jester hat with brass bells. His hands are so delicately carved they seem real, though pierced by tiny holes, through which black string rises to a mechanical motor on the ceiling—in lieu of the hand of the puppeteer—that lifts the limbs of the puppet up and down. Though in constant motion, this wooden actor is serene, as if dreaming.

Rumor has it that marionettes never die. He wrote: I am unconvinced that puppets do not have thoughts. Each has a secret, mysterious life, perhaps even a thousand memories of the carpenters, the children, the puppeteers it has outlived. Where are they now? This marionette’s face, worn by age, is animated by a smile that raises his cheeks in venerable wooden folds. What I see in his dancing legs, in his staring eyes, is a remnant of something, a vague intelligence, another form of knowing that makes me marvel. This is not Pierrot the clown, pining for the love of Columbine, but a wooden object tiptoeing across the borders of the human.

He liked the fragility of these thoughts recorded on paper.

PAGE 11Later he told me that the dancing jester was surrounded by figurines, teddy bears, geese, clowns, mechanical toys, and circus posters. On the back wall hangs a lion’s head festooned with multicolored ribbons and decorative tinsel. A miniature candy-striped helium balloon rose aloft with a tiny wizard who, wearing white gloves, ceremoniously gestured to a little tin man in blackface and a yellow hat performing vaudeville besides a bulldog dressed in motley. Another harlequin, this one purple-clad and less benign, was biding his time stage left, grinning with unnerving precision at a fury chimpanzee riding a papier-mâché goose in a tableau as surreal as it was creepy. Possessed of palpable cunning, his grin bespoke a talent for trickery.

On the storefront window, the shop calls attention to its specialty, games of reverie and reflection—Le specialist du jeu de reflexion—which it advertises by means of a cartoon of René Descartes, that pioneer of introspection, which also doubles as a logo for Jeux Descartes, a maker of role-playing games and puzzles. As it is Sunday, this tableau vivant is played out behind a red steel scissor gate, a barricade that protects the delicate puppets from the severe indifference of the French outside. In the eerie serenity of the marionette, which is masked by a clownish delight, he read the essential repose of the French, a composure displayed mostly by women. In life it seemed to show itself in two ways: a determined indifference or a discreet sensuality.

He wrote: In a quiet corner of the city, the monkey business of the universe goes on unnoticed.

I’m writing you all of this, he said, from another land, a world of old stones and echoes and gypsy songs.

He used to write me that he had spent much of his childhood nosing around railroad yards. He said he came for the sounds, the screeching steel, the rhythm of the rails, the throaty hoots of the whistle. He wrote: it was just me and the butterflies in mid summer and the corroded rail cars lugging coal and steel up and down the lines, through the valley of daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, cattails, wild strawberries, burnt-out rubber, old refrigerator doors, smashed beer bottles, propane canisters, V-8 engine parts, and rotting rabbits, cats, and raccoons–the quick and the dead side by side, indifferent to the subtleties of time.

PAGE 12He wrote: my last day in Southern France was spent on the steps of Saint Roch, across the square from a series of trompe l’oeil frescoes of imaginary people loitering in and around an imaginary building. The square was full of foot traffic, and few pedestrians could resist the playfulness of these illusions that somehow extended the life of the plaza into the space of the mind—as if this walled-in square were an infinite regress. Next to me on the church steps were several young people who looked uncannily like the figures in the frescoes, down to the color of hair and sense of repose. Gazing across the square was like looking into a mirror, but that I couldn’t see myself.

So all of this will have begun with the singing of gypsies.

He writes me from France.

Will there be another letter?


Photography by Jeff Porter

About The Author

Jeff Porter

Jeff Porter is the author of Oppenheimer Is Watching Me, Understanding the Essay (with Patricia Foster), and Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. His essays and sound works have appeared in Antioch Review, Isotope, Northwest Review, Shenandoah, Missouri Review, Hotel Amerika, Wilson Quarterly, Contemporary Literature, Seneca Review, Blackbird and other journals. He teaches at the University of Iowa.