Monday, November 7, 2011

Student Pastiches on "Letters from a Peruvian Woman"

"Aza, my dear Aza! Like a morning mist the cries of your tender Zilia rise up and have dissipated before reaching you. In vain do I call to you for help, in vain do I wait for you to come and break the bonds of my enslavement. But alas, perhaps those misfortunes of which I remain unaware are the most dreadful!..."

For my course on French identity, students were asked to write a pastiche or imitation of the novel Letters from a Peruvian Woman by Francoise de Graffigny, whose emotional opening is quoted here above. Zilia has been abducted from Peru and spirited away to France where she encounters a host of troubling, bedazzling and generally perplexing customs and behaviors. The exercise gave students some space in which to explore their own feelings of distress, wonderment and frustration. The three below--Max Arnell, Maud Welch and Kristen Poulin--captured particularly well both the cultural disparities and the melodramatic tone of the 18th-century novel.

--Professor Read

Dearest sister,

I have found myself transported, through means that I do not know, to a foreign land, which is at once similar to our own and yet vastly different. The population speaks a language which I feel familiar with, and yet when I try to speak it, I render myself useless, and become an object of ridicule for all to hear. It is very troubling.

There also seems to be little relationship between the form of the language on the page and the sounds of a native speaker. When I see a sign, reason is restored to the world. Their writing is quite similar to our own, though they often adorn the tops of words with a variety of small lines, which are termed "accents." I do not know the exact effect that these accents have on the word, but I cannot find a relationship between the written and the spoken. I am at least thankful that the alphabet appears to be unchanged. It is a familiar sight in an unfamiliar place.

When I first arrived, I seemed to be in a holding area of some sort, with many other transplanted individuals, all as confused as I. At long length, we were called downstairs by the most grating series of tones imaginable. Perhaps it was my confusion, but as of now I can think of no other sound that has such a negative effect on my spirits. As we descended the stairs, a most glorious contraption rolled into view. It was a train, but it appeared like no train I have seen in the United States. The nose was sharply pointed, and the cars well furnished and comfortable. To a devotee of New Jersey Transit, this train seemed to be heaven on rails. As we left the station, the true glory of the train was revealed. This train did not lumber along, shifting like a lost drunkard. No, my dear sister, this train flew along the rails, so smoothly and quickly that the illusion of flight may well have been a reality.

Despite the blurred landscape, I was able to discern some details of this strange country, which I have since learned is called France. It seemed to be mostly countryside, and the buildings and infrastructure appear to be much older than our native New Jersey. The houses and shops are made of stone and brick instead of wood, and the streets are so narrow that it is unlikely that Zanzibar [Ed. note: Zanzibar is the name of the family minivan, a Honda Odyssey] could pass freely. I have arrived in a large city, which, according to the signage, is named Nantes. However, while attempting to talk to the citizenry of this fair city, the name sounded more like Nant. This leads me to the conclusion that there are more than one Nant, but I have yet to find a divider. 

This city! I cannot get enough, dear sister. My eyes rove over the ancient architecture, the cobbled streets, the majestic chateau, the welcoming sidewalk cafes, and more wonders than I could list. The trams! There is a glorious above-ground rail system, reaching though the major arteries of the city in such a way that a passenger need not wait long to be effortlessly ferried from his location to his destination. Thanks to this magnificent system, Nantes would seem to have precious little need for personal cars. If individual transportation is a must, bike lanes abound, but ownership of a bike is still not necessary. The citizens of Nantes seem to possess a strength of civic spirit unmatched in New Jersey, and have developed a wide-reaching network of what appear to be bike stations. One can walk up and borrow a bike just as easily as one fills a gas tank at home, and with far less expenditure.

Pardon me for my rambling, but whenever I feel like I have adequately described my location a new and untapped facet of my experience jumps to the overactive forefront of my brain. I must now attempt to describe to you the indescribably delicious delights of French cuisine. When I first attempted to procure a meal, I was wracked with anxiety that I would purchase something disgusting in my poorly-informed linguistic folly. I need not have worried, for without fail, every dish I have tried has been more than delectable. The bread is tough yet supple, and the subtle differentiations between type and bakery beguile the taste buds. Dearest Jessie, I know that you above all others will appreciate the following sentiment: French cheese is unparalleled. The varieties are endless, and I cannot possibly hope to try them all, even if my unexpected arrival in France was permanent. I do not know how the cheese can be firm and yet creamy, spreadable yet solid. With meats, too, the French do spectacular things, but knowing of your devotion to the cause of vegetables, I will not trouble you with any more talk of this, dear sister.

The true wonder of this place is not in the food or the magical tram, but in the universal quality of the people. The people here are not so different from those at home, but lacking an effective means of communication, I am forced to watch life unfold around me in effective silence. Their language seems to be rich and full of emotion, but as of yet unintelligible. I can hear the melodious usage of words and phrases, but the meaning is far outside of my grasp. Once I am able to grasp this most difficult of languages, I will be able to share this experience with you more fully. I will continue to write to you as an awestruck erstwhile inhabitant of Nantes, but I have a great journey ahead to become a true citizen.

Max Arnell

Max (far right) with Maddy, Emma, Maud and Josh at the Eiffel Tower

Dearest Cousin,

I have journeyed across the vast Atlantic to a land where cobblestone streets are cluttered with street cafes and cheese appears to rule the hearts and minds of the people. Ada, you would be stunned by this multifaceted city! I do not know what time period I dwell in, nor what culture I have entered. Elegant 19th century facades line narrow lanes, bells toll on the hour and accordion players toss their caps onto medieval street corners. Yet, this aged world is juxtaposed with modern inhabitants moseying hand in hand, decked in red skinny jeans and striped sailor tops. They speak in a tongue with such speed, vigor and fluidity, I hardly know when their phrases begin or end. Elongated buses and miniature cars beep and burp their way through the crowds of naïve foreigners. So, I find respite in a striking cathedral ten times the size of any in the colonies. I cannot think unless alone, listening to my own imported breath, appreciating the centuries of silence.

I write to you seeking approval and counsel. When your letter arrived today, I felt as though a fragment of home were sitting on my desk. To hear your news, to hear of your life continuing with such natural progression, whilst I have abandoned all whom I love and all that I know! I flee seeking myself, hoping she will casually appear before me in this alien world. As conceited as it may sound, I am bewildered by time advancing anywhere other than here in the city of Nantes. Oh my darling friend, never have I felt such elation paired with pangs of perplexity and inadequateness. Never have I felt such pleasure in my independence, yet such desire for care and understanding.

I have found shelter within a loving family who has welcomed me with enthusiasm and attention. My daily panic is merely the fact that I cannot begin to express the extent of my gratitude. This language appears beyond my command. Just when I feel a brief instant of mastery, it escapes me. Is it truly beyond my ability? My fervent desire to comprehend my surroundings leads me to believe the fault lies within my failure to focus hard enough. My limitations lie in my insecurity. I must endeavor to concentrate, memorize and for God’s sake, LISTEN! Otherwise, I succumb to mortification.

At times, I feel like a self-imposed mute. Perhaps, a professional mime acting out his habitual movements would be more accurate. I grunt and squeak and squeal my emotions, while other effective oral communication is thrown to the wayside. I so want my sentiments to be heard, my questions to be acknowledged, and my thoughts to be weighed and judged accordingly! I appreciate the extensive vocabulary of the glorious English vocabulary more than ever. How marvelous that such a language should be engrained in us at infancy. You of all people know the workings of my mind and the wishes of my heart; please tell me I have done well to take this leap of faith. My disorientation blinds my reason.

I write from the courtyard of a chateau, one like you and I often dreamed of when we took the vows children take, strung the countless bracelets, wore the cheap silver lockets and plastic green glass rings- cementing our friendship, already tied by blood. Hand in hand we once encountered a make believe universe. Oh those rich medieval sagas of our fabrications! Cousin, shells of those pasts still reside in reality. The immense history beneath my very being, I hardly even dare to fathom now, for fear my mind with fail to do it justice.

I watch as teenage boys on bicycles pedal past me with baguettes under their arms and sheepish grins on their faces. I must remember to return their friendly nods, rather than gaze, coldly, through them. It is out of fear and perhaps folly that I do not return their greeting. The men here are forward and one must be constantly on one’s guard. For at night, this marvel of a city transforms into sloppy disarray. Groups of oily men stand, slurping their beers, wagging their tongues and rubbing their unshaven chins against their gruff, unwashed hands. Wearing black leather jackets to match their greasy pigtails and black leather boots to match their swaggering steps over vomit-covered cobblestones. I don’t understand a society that finds solace in inebriation or liberty in drunken disputes.

But, I digress. I am writing to tell you of the charms of this part of the world, enough of its repulsive aspects. This past weekend we boarded a train and voyaged to a small village. Clisson is merely fifteen minutes and two centuries away from Nantes. A castle rises magnificently above the sea of rustic, shingle-roofed homes. It is no wonder Francis II risked his life for its defense. We wandered the ruins, grasping for glimpses into its mighty past, scrambling into the mildewed crannies and inhaling the sweet intoxication of dungeon air. Looming neoclassical bridges linked a Jacques Milot’s estate to the ruins, but the romantic remains of a 15th century construction surpassed the post-revolutionary chateau in allure.

I think of you often for I know you would delight in such pastimes. I will not tell you of the delicacies of the cuisine here, for you would be envious of the products this country has to offer. The people live for their meals. It appears their cuisine is an art form, and many a civilian, a gourmet virtuoso.

I am slowly learning what it means to be French. My first lesson commenced on my first day with my patient host mother. I was not aware that all French babies are carried to their families by “cigognes”, or storks! French baby boys arrive in “choux”, their word for cabbage, and French baby girls in roses! She was dumbfounded by my ignorance. I was too overcome with joviality by her mimicking explanation to be embarrassed. And, so my education here is truly just beginning. I will write again when I have settled and recollected a sense of sanity. Please give your parents my love, assure them of my safety, but if you would be so kind, keep the contents of my ramblings to yourself. Who knows how I will regret them, when I have come to know this rich realm called France.

All my best wishes for your health and happiness,
Maud Welch

Maud (left) with Maddy at Notre Dame in Paris

Katee, my dear sister! How I do miss your face, and mother’s, and all things familiar. Why must I have chosen this? My time in France has been quite different from what I had imagined. It has only been a few weeks, yet my heart and soul equally pain as I think of how many days I must go before we reunite. Oh Katee, how I have been yearning to hear from you and to tell you of this new land in which I have arrived.

Ever since our tearful separation, I have been both confused and amazed by that which surrounds me. I will never forget my first moments in Paris where I learned that smoking had no limitations. This country seems not at all concerned with the dangers that we have associated with this horrid habit. How sick I felt having to walk through cloud after cloud, breathing in the poisonous air. Oh! And, must I even mention the absurd practice of being forced to pay to dispose of one’s bodily waste! I had not even been given the chance to look out at this new land, and yet already knew in my first few moments, that this fate I have chosen for myself would be one surely not absent of hurdles.

When approaching the city of Nantes where I plan to reside for the coming months, I found myself caught by surprise with the landscape. How marvelous to travel but merely five minutes outside the bustling city and find yourself surrounded by hills and hills of green with only cattle in sight. It would be as if Boston and our home near Durham, Maine could be found within the same two miles radius.

Oh but my dearest sister, to have never lived amongst anything close to that which holds city characteristics, could you imagine my surprise when dropped in the middle of a foreign city? The system that one uses as transportation brings to me much anxiety and confusion. I try to follow the maps and decode the colored lines and numbers, but never with much success. The buses here, with never enough seats for all its passengers, fly down and around the quite narrow streets, jostling its commuters back or forth. My first day here came with a lesson on how to use a type of travel unfamiliar to us in the States. These “trams”, as the French call them, travel above ground on a track, but are not nearly the size and capacity of that of a passenger train found in the States. They are numbered similar to the buses here, and again have limited seating. Oh, how perplexed I was at seeing these “trams” take off down the track, seeming to only stop for merely a few seconds at designated areas. Immediately, when the doors opened while at a stop, exchanges between people getting on and off the “trams” occurred at a rapid pace and before I could fathom what was happening, the doors had shut and the mass was traveling further down the tracks. Oh Katee, how will one go another three months like this? Left to travel about with only the option of being caught body to body with those unfamiliar as we stop and go and stop and go, all the while struggling to grasp an object to stable ourselves. How I miss our morning carpools to work where we sat comfortably and in control of our vehicle, deciding at leisure when to come and go from the house. My travels are not so “free” here, as I must carefully think out every trip I make and am held powerless to that of the bus and tram schedules.

Oh sister! How I have rambled on too long and yet, you know nothing of my residence or with whom I reside. The Lavanant house, whose location and surroundings would not doubt appear unusual to you, stands sandwiched amongst similar houses on a street no bigger than the width of our family’s SUV. The color is all I have to separate my new house from the others, as each one is oddly narrow and tall. Oh Katee, could you imagine my worry at first glance? Not one plant for a garden or blade of green grass! This type of crowded living is unknown to you and me. And, the parents of every household tend to occupy the room on the third floor, also unknown to us. What does one do when they become older? Must they still climb all of those flights of steps? Oh, what a spectacle it must have been to see me try to wedge my two over packed suitcases up their steep, narrow staircase. One thing you must know Katee, is that everything in France is smaller. Personal vehicles are the height of my shoulders when walking along the curb, milk and juice containers are a fourth of that bought in the States, and all kitchen appliances are but half the size we use.

Oh, but this does not just apply to objects my sister, as my eyes have been unable to seek out one overweight individual in this society. It took but only my first night here before realizing why this is so. It did not take careful observation for me to see that mealtimes were much more than a time for us to fuel our famished bodies. Oh, sister! How my first meal with the French was all too similar to those at Grandma and Grandpa’s Christmas parties. Oh, do you remember when we were younger? How we lingered around the kitchen just waiting for the hot crossed buns to come out of the oven. And, we were never able to take our eyes off of the pies in the corner of the room while we were supposed to be eating our super! Oh, how the French, of course unintentionally, make me feel as if I am that impatient child again. I am constantly reminding myself to slow down while eating, as I often am finished a good while before the rest of the family. And, must I say I am frequently left wanting seconds and thirds! Their portion sizes do not compare to those at our dinner table. I sit anticipating when the next course will come and when the dessert will finally be brought out. At home, we often eat, muttering a few words in between mouthfuls, while here, they sit chatting amongst themselves, frequently stopping to take a few bites, before proceeding on with their recount of their day. We begin supper around eight o’clock and I do not retreat to my room until close to half past nine. Oh sister, how wonderful it would be for us all to make time in our schedules for family meals when I return.

While I enjoy my time with the family, I must tell you that no meal goes without a headache. Sister, if only I could have you here with me! How delightful it would be to have someone to share in my every reflection and understand my thoughts with ease. I have so many curious questions I long to ask and so many stories throughout the day that I wish to share, but so many times I just bite my tongue, as it takes a great deal of energy to try and break the language barrier.

Oh sister, I try so hard to understand this French language and yet there are only but a few words that seem familiar and in no way help me to express myself. Overwhelmed with this constant foreign exposure, I have yet to feel rested and refreshed since my arrival nor am I able to rid my head of this pain, no doubt caused by the constant processing of my new surroundings.

Oh sister! So frequently do the weight of these obstacles before me force me to interrupt my work, as I give in to my homesickness and am unable to resist the flow of tears from my eyes. Of all my challenges, the absence of affection in French the culture will be the most troublesome to cope with. Perhaps it is just the family I am staying with, but it seems that hugging and kissing and expressing one’s love for their family is unknown in France. Oh sister! Inside, I am dying for your arms to be wrapped firmly around my neck. How I long to just be squeezed so tight by you and mother and for no reason in particular. We are constantly saying, “I love you” and hugging and kissing one another when we are just simply on our way to work or the store, returning home that very same day. Oh, I have realized how open we are with our emotions, much more so than my family here in Nantes. Dearest Katee! How long are these weeks when one is counting them? How will I go another three months without a hug? It is unfathomable to me and seems so unnatural. My soul is beginning to cry out for your comfort. All other things unknown I was sure I could adapt to and live with, but this absence of expression in society? It is for this sole reason that I know that a life in France is not a life for me.

But, let these sad thoughts leave me, for I must put on a pleasant face and visit with my new family. Oh dearest sister, please know that you and mother and my memories of home fill my every thought. I interrupted this letter many a time to gaze at your photos at an attempt to mend some of my loneliness. December 14th, the day my heart’s desire to run and leap into your arms will become actuality could not come sooner for me. I love you Katee.

Kristen Poulin

Kristen (center) with Noah, Simon and Oliver (Professor Hall's sons) and Mikayla at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. All three photos by Ebbe Sweet

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