Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Reading South Africa

André Brink (1935 - 2015). Photo source:
In making my ambitious plans to read everything and anything this year, I decided that one of my reading forays would be into reading South African writers. I have not read that many South African writers and amongst my list of writers to read was of course, André Brink. Then on Sunday I saw a newspaper article announcing his death and suddenly there was this new urgency to get on with Reading South Africa. I have just taken his book Philida from my bookshelf and I am adding the internationally renowned A Dry White Season to my list. I have to narrow down my reading list though, so that in trying to read everything, I don't end up reading nothing at all. As I write this, a copy of Marlene van Niekerk's 692-page book Agaat is next to my computer. To say it looks intimidating is playing it down. The bar-coded date stamp at the back states that I bought it in March 2008 - it not only sounds like a lifetime ago, but it feels like it too. I think my reading it is long overdue. André Brink  is next in my new quest.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gastronomy: "Le Frank" at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

I finally got to see the recently opened Frank Gehry-designed glass monument that is the Fondation Louis Vuitton. It truly is a marvel to behold. There is an entire story behind how the lobbying for its construction went as high as the highest echelons of the National Assembly.
We finally went today. I took the initiative of ordering the tickets online, hoping to avoid any long queues, but we still queued for about thirty minutes - by which time my children were no longer keen on the idea of museum first, then lunch after. So we joined the queue for Le Frank - the Fondation's restaurant which has been named after the architect.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Urban artists pay hommage to Dalí

Being a sunny, if chilly day, we bundled up and headed out to Montmartre. My daughter, with her keen interest in street art or urban art was keen to see the Dalí Fait Le Mur exhibition at Espace Dalí. If you have ever been to this museum or rather space dedicated to Dalí's work, you will know that it is a very small space, and I wondered how they would fit a collaborative exhibition with the already extensive permanent collection of Dali's reproductions which are housed there.
They managed. If only just. The urban artists' works are juxtaposed alongside Dalí's many and varied sculptures and paintings. The artists, pay hommage to the surrealist painter who once asserted that "Surrealism is me", using the tools of their craft: pencils, stencils, installations, and adhering to the same non-conformist and provocative methods of Dalí himself.
If you are curious about Dalí and also have a combined curiosity about street art, go see it. Caution: It is a very limited space, so go on a quiet day. Images of the outing, which turned out to be a photo journey around one of Paris most famous tourist spots can be seen on Wanderlust in Paris. The exhibition is on until 15 March 2015.

Friday, February 6, 2015

On learning a new language

I had lofty ambitions of regaling you with weekly tales of my Sorbonne stories. But between daily grammar classes,  7:30am classes on writing and oral reinforcement,  lunch periods spent in the phonetics lab, mornings spent reviewing previous days' notes,  nights spent studying for weekly tests - all those ambitious plans fell by the wayside very early into my semester. It is now over, and yesterday as I sat through the 'graduation' ceremony (all pomp and ceremony for a semester course, absolutely loved it!) with past luminaries of L'Académie française looking down on us from their hallowed vantage points in the cornices, it felt good to have risen to the challenge. We were in good company - Founding father of La Sorbonne, Robert de SorbonneRichelieu, Pascal, Descartes, Lavoisier, Rollin ....
Would I repeat it again? Maybe, a very non-committal 'maybe'. It was a grueling four months - mind you not my first semester, but one which took a lot more of out of me than previous ones. I may not be too keen to resort to the classroom learning again for the moment, but I am living the learning everyday.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reading the classics and tales about magic

Harper Lee.
 I have written about my aversion towards mandated reading that forces one to read a certain genre merely because at the time it is deemed important enough to add to one's literary repertoire. I must confess that when it comes to the classics, I do still have a lot of to-be-read (TBR) books  on both my kindle and on my bookshelf, for which I will ignore my own rules. I am 'shadow' reading with my children. My son is finally getting into the Harry Potter books - so I have decided that maybe it's about time I found out what J.K. Rowling did to spawn an entire generation and more of magic enthusiasts. As he reads The  Philosopher's Stone in paperback, I am following  on my kindle.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Books: WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith

Title: White Teeth
Author: Zadie Smith
Published: 2000
Genre: Fiction

Zadie Smith's White Teeth took me close to two months to finish. That for me is a very long time, but it was read between a whole lot of other commitments. I read it during my daily commute,  when I had a few moments waiting for my son's violin class to finish, and in between studying and writing and procrastinating. I finally finished it two weeks ago and it has taken me this long to write down my thoughts of it.  I took it off my 'To Be Read' (TBR) shelf expecting to be wowed, after all, the reviews that accompanied the book when it was published in 2000 were more than hyperbolic in their praise of Smith's raw talent:  how it was reminiscent of Rushdie's brilliance, how her turn of phrase was incomparable to none other, so steady and controlled for a debut writer.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

On the fractures left by the Charlie Hebdo attacks

It has been more than two weeks since the heinous attacks at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but their aftermath still dominates our lives. Now local and international papers are running editorials on the renewed threat of  'international jihadism' - further emphasising the insecurity the world faces.

On January 7 and in the days that followed, I watched in horror as all the local and international television channels covered the Paris attacks. Then the world took on the Spartacus call of #Je suis Charlie; quickly followed by the debates on the need for responsible journalism. My fourteen year old daughter came home after a debate in her Global Issues class on The right to freedom of speech versus The right for respect of  individual beliefs  - a debate which left her uncertain of where she stood. There was the insecurity felt by an eight year old when all he saw was the gratuitous violence of the attacks which left him fearful of a larger scale attack on France, and in the  days that followed all he wanted to know was whether we would be moving to a different country. Other parts of the world and other groups of the French population took up a call in protest declaring that  #They were not Charlie; then followed the heated debates which divided many depending on which side of the Freedom of Speech spectrum they stood - all of which have left  France with the realization of the need for some real introspection on their liberté, égalité and fraternité.

This week Courrier International and L'Obs are paying special attention to the threat of  'homegrown jihadism', to the 'cracks in French society' that the attacks have exposed, and to France's failure in  integrating its immigrant population. This following on the past week's speech by the Prime Minister on the "geographic, social and ethnic apartheid" that ails France.
The attacks have left a rupture in the facade of the 'well-functioning society' of just a few weeks ago. It has exposed old persecution fears and reignited new religious prejudices: the Jewish population now feels more threatened and the Muslim population once again stigmatized. From the  Left to the Right, politicians are all talking in carefully couched words on the need to look at the 'integration' problem.  The Front National in the meantime is capitalizing on that fracture- reiterating the need to address the 'Islamisation of Europe', deftly avoiding any anti-immigrant mention.

To say it has been a horrific start to 2015 for France is an understatement. It will certainly be one that forces a great deal of introspection on the French population. One only hopes that as with all issues brought to the fore by relentless media coverage, the impetus to delve below the surface of the superficial talk does not wane after a few months as politicians move on to the next more pressing problem and quietly park the 'social problems' which, as has been illustrated by events of the past weeks, can threaten the security of a country.

Wishing you a very belated New Year, and hoping it only gets better from here on.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Books: CRY BABY by Lauren Liebenberg

Title: Cry Baby
Author: Lauren Liebenberg
Published: 2013
Genre: Fiction

I read Lauren Liebenberg's deliciously-named, The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam many years ago. I enjoyed it immensely and had been looking forward to reading her third book, Cry Baby. It is a story of an upper middle class couple, living in the Northern Suburbs of  Johannesburg  raising their two young boys - one of whom has terrifying nightmares that have an otherworldly significance to them. The author's point of view changes from that of the two adults to that of the little boy throughout the book.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Honouring the fallen on Armistice Day

This parade happens every year in my neighbourhood. Our apartment is directly opposite a historical monument, Place Winston Churchill. Along with the numerous other parades that take place in and around Paris on this day - most notably the one on the Champs Elysées - to honour the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany, a commemoration takes place in Neuilly-sur-Seine annually.
This year was no different. It is a brief, yet solemn event. These photos were taken last year, but the event was no different this year.

Friday, November 7, 2014

On identity: Am I still South African?

I always know when there's something bothering my children. The indicators are fairly simple really: like the flurry of questions or the rhetorical statements made the minute they walk through the door. My son's most recent bother was one that questioned his identity.
"Mommy, am I still South African?" was the first thing out of his mouth- before he had even put his school bag down.
"Of course you are! Why do you ask?" I cautiously ventured, hoping it was not going to be one of those answers that required a clinical psychology degree. Sometimes I simply do not know how to make his hurt going away, and worse still at times I just do not have the answers, and yet in my son's eyes I am the well of all knowledge - me and Wikipedia.
"Because the South African on the bus said I'm not." He references all the children on his school bus by nationality, even though he know their names. I don't know why and have never asked. He just does. Maybe it's the thrill he gets each time there's a new nationality that joins his bus route (I do know that this is a real thrill for him because he is always quick to excitedly update me if there are any changes in the country representation); or maybe he likes the idea that in any given school term, there are always at least 8 nationalities on his route (this is a 10 seater bus).

I still remember his excitement when he came back from school at the start of the school year: We have a new South African on the bus. Having another South African on the same bus route was like finding his kindred soul at long last, but now I could see that the glow of camaraderie  towards his compatriot was fading fast.
"He says that because I have not lived in South Africa for a long time, I am not a true South African.''
I will not even go into the emotions of anger evoked by that statement. But I held it together and remained reasonable in my assessment of this point of view. Okay, fair enough - we left South Africa when my son was two and a half years old. After three years in Ghana he was proudly claiming his dual South African - "Ghananaian" nationality . He identified that much with Ghana. He had a wider Twi vocabulary than a Sotho one, and mannerisms that spoke volumes about his partial West African upbringing. In France, after almost three and a half years, he declares his South African nationality without hesitation. So all things considered, it is having spent a good part of his life outside of South Africa that calls into question his nationality.

I think I have risen to the challenges of raising my children outside their country well enough. They know not to address adults by their first names; they know how to greet; they can understand their mother tongue  - although speaking it is still a problem (perhaps my biggest failure yet);  the flag colours; the national anthem (sort of); past and present presidents...let's just say the Encyclopedia Of All Things South African has been a real help. I order my Iwisa Maize Meal , biltong, and Mrs.Balls chutney from the South Africa online store every so often, and put together a real South African meal for the International Days at their respective schools - working with what I can find from the Monoprix. And with the help of gifts from my dear friends back home, they don their seshoeshoe shirts or beaded ndebele skirts and set off to show off how proudly South African they really are. Then the 'South African on the bus' turns around and questions all of this.

This had me thinking about whether when we return home, they will encounter this sort of narrow thinking on a regular basis, or if it was simply the misplaced view of a sixteen year old to an eight year old who didn't have the vocabulary to defend himself. It is difficult enough for third culture children to get on in the world, when they themselves question where they belong all of the time, without the added pressure of possibly being 'outed' by their fellow countrymen. I am still not changing tack though, proceeding as before. But now I am adding to their repertoire of life skills: 'How to defend yourself (verbally of course) if ever your identity is called into question'. I believe that  one will be an ongoing lesson.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Books: THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA by Hanif Kureishi

Title: The Buddha of Suburbia
Author: Hanif Kureishi
Genre: Fiction

I recently saw an interview on France 24 with Hanif Kureishi discussing his writing. I remembered that I had one of his books, The Buddha of Suburbia,  which I decided to read again. Funny how one's impression of certain books is influenced by so many other factors: one's age; current emotional state; country of residence; reviews read about the book...This one felt like a completely new book to me. I can't even remember the last time I had read it. This time it resonated a whole lot with me. Maybe it is living in France, and that feeling of always looking in being the observer; or it is watching the French tackle multi-culturalism; or maybe even raising my children in a country that is not their own. Whatever it was, I loved how Hanif Kureishi's observations on multi-culturalism in the UK then, circa 1970s, remain just as relevant now.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Books: STUFFED - Adventures of a restaurant family by Patricia Volk

Title: Stuffed: Adventures of a restaurant family
Author: Patricia Volk
Published: 2002
Genre: Memoir

I have read some scathing reviews about  Stuffed, and must say that as accurate as some are in their take on Ms Volk's memoir of her family's restaurant business, there are still some elements worth reading. Personally, I enjoyed reading about some of the misadventures of her family in their restaurant business; about the eccentrics aunts and uncles; the family history - all of it. Yes, without a doubt she does write too enthusiastically about even the less than admirable characters, and still manages to find something redeeming in all of them, but it is her family memoir and she has chosen to remember it as she wishes. Writer's prerogative and all that.
I read this in less than a week, much of it on the train during my commutes back and forth. It was entertaining, and funny.
I recommend it, but with a warning that Ms Volk's admiration for her family, warts and all, may come across as either too contrived or boastful. For me it made for entertaining reading about a family life more than ordinary.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Wheeling it through Prague.

We decided that exploring other slightly off-the-tourist-trail paths was required during our stay. So we succumbed to the sales pitch of the Segway guide and booked a tour for early Saturday morning. He arrived at out hotel before 11am - gave us our ten-minute tutorial, ran through the safety guidelines, and we were good to go. My son, who is eight and had has his fill with 'walking' Prague was overjoyed.
 It was the first time I has tried the Segday rides, and I would most definitely recommend them for any city that allows it. It took us away from the sites we had already seen, and added an entirely different perspective to our sight-seeing. We started with the John Lennon wall in Lesser Town; moved on to get a viewpoint from high above the city up Petrin Hill, one of Prague's greenest spaces; through the Rose Garden; past the Stefanik Observatory, named after Milan Rotislav Stefanik - astrologer and pilot. Then made our way to Strahov Monastic Brewery where we sampled the local beer. We then made our way down again after a highly interesting tour with a very enthusiastic guide.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Gastronomy in Prague: Ginger & Fred

Having recently written about Frank Gehry's newest architectural marvel in Paris, I was eager to see the building he has designed for the city of Prague, and as it so happened, the restaurant we had chosen for lunch is located in a building designed by him.  I have decided that the next exhibit I see will have to be at the Pompidou Centre where there's a current exhibition on Frank Gehry. I may as well take it all in while there's still all this attention on him.

Ginger & Fred is on the seventh floor of this Gehry building. Oddly, no signs reveal its location. The charming young lady at the reception asked where we were headed before directing us to the seventh floor. Oddly mysterious. Very spy movie-like, given that we were in a city where most spy movies seem to be set.
Amazing views from the top, incredibly charming decor, great service, and okay food. The wine and views made it a memorable lunch.

Exploring Old Town, Prague - A Photo Tour

Exploring Prague's Old Town was a morning filled with the sights and sounds of a truly vibrant city. Armed with our list of places to visit, we headed out early to avoid other tourists. We walked along the famous Charles Bridge, so named because it was commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357. It is a cobble-stoned pedestrian bridge that spans the Vltava River and is a very important part of Prague's history. A sighting of the Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square saw us competing with the hordes of people also out to do the same thing: view the hourly chiming of the clock with its moving figures, a marvel really, given that the mechanism dates back 600 years.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A photo journey inside the St.Nicholas Church, Prague

Described as one of the 'most impressive example of Prague Baroque ', the St. Nicholas Church  in Lesser Town Prague, is described in superlatives in almost every reference one reads. It is a beautiful church.
It dates back to 1703, but was built on a former parish church site that dated back to the 1300s. It is also the largest of Prague's churches founded by the Jesuits.
We took our time in this one, and you can see why.

On Prague Castle, the Changing of the Guard and...Starbucks

Fuelled on a huge breakfast, we decided to walk through the city and make our way towards Prague Castle, loftily situated up a winding road, and overlooking the city.
First off though, we spent an inordinate amount of time inside St. Nicholas Church - with some of the most impressive interiors of any church I have ever seen. From the frescoes to the statues, we took our time taking it all in. Who knew that spending time in a church would hold everyone's attention that much. The church is still used for masses, and the solemnity within probably explains why we didn't rush the visit.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A contemporary Eurasian feast in an old European city

Service: Excellent
Food: Excellent
Though admittedly the ambience could have been warmer, the impeccable service and scrumptious food more than made up for it. Dinner with the family last night, as we plotted what the rest of the weekend in Prague would entail, was a feast. Essensia at the Mandarin Oriental was a true delight.

On reading everything and not taking myself seriously

I am always scouring websites, blogs and newspaper articles on books - looking for recommendations by readers, writers, bloggers,...Oprah!
My FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is not socially-related, it is about the books. As a result I am plugged into everything to do with books. It is not just news about the new that holds my attention, it is also everything about the old. But lately I have grown rather weary of those lengthy lists drawn up by a somebody of the literary world, listing the books that one can read, tick off,  and comfortably declare themselves as well read after.

So in protest to what feels like mandated reading, I have been reading a lot of Young Adult (YA) fiction, and am loving it. It has taken off the pressure of having to read the 'serious' books, and by serious I mean high brow literary fiction that comes with literary awards - as opposed to teenage books about dystopic worlds that come with movie deals.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Books: FRANCE'S GOT TALENT by Peter Gumbel

Title: France's got Talent : The woeful consequences of French elitism
Author: Peter Gumbel
Published: 2013
Genre: Non-fiction

I have been sitting on this review for a while. Whilst I really enjoyed Peter Gumbel's book, in it giving me a whole new understanding of some of the workings of the french education system, it left me hungry for more.
Peter Gumbel writes of his experiences as the Communications director of Sciences Po, under the then director of the university Richard Descoings, who was a fire-brand and controversial anti-elitist figure. He covers the differences in teaching methods of french tertiary institutions and how they often do not allow for as much debate as say  American institutions; the hierarchical structure amongst the teaching staff; the elite nature of the Grand ´Ecoles and how they have been, are,  and will remain the breeding ground for France's ruling class. But moreover he points to the fact that the elitism in France is, by international standards, not normal.