Que sais-je (not that much)

Although I don’t travel so often, in my years of occasional blogging I’ve developed a bad habit of stockpiling material for mammoth “My Trip” posts and then never quite finishing them. This one’s a messy beast, but here it is.

On a bit of a whim I decided to visit a friend in Fribourg, Switzerland, for a month and so got to spend time in one of those ridiculously functional neighbourhoods that make everything in North America seem slap-dash by comparison. The commuter train goes by at reassuring intervals. State of the art appliances wait in the kitchen to streamline your meal prep, while upstairs the German washing machine works quietly (and more thoroughly, it would seem) on the little project of your dirty clothes. Adults with reassuring jobs like therapist and architect come home for lunch and wheel their bikes into the communal bike shed at the head of the lane and greet their children in somewhere between one and four languages. (Overachievers.) Birds chirp. In between flurries of work I ate cheese and used the reassuring little yellow arrow signs to guide me on walks on the system of trails and farm tracks and back roads that brachiate off in all directions and can, in theory, get you anywhere you want to go in this country.

And of course I read, although I had taken a chance and packed no books since I’d been promised use of a library card once I got there.

Reading on vacation in places where they don’t stock many books in your language has, in my experience, made the books I do get stand out much more. On a two-month trip to Argentina several years ago, I ran out of reading material a few weeks in and I remember waiting anxiously for the Buenos Aires book fair where, after much deliberation, I bought Paul Auster’s Moon Palace, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and a Penguin edition of Lolita with Nabokov spelled wrong on the spine. On a shorter trip to Germany a few years ago I bought a copy of The Lower River by Paul Theroux and vividly remember reading it by the bad bedside light in the Munich studio apartment where we were staying. (That apartment was also devoid of any coffee-making accoutrements, which meant I was, probably for my own good, forced to go to the bakery two doors down and order “ein kaffee” every morning of our stay. Actually, the procuring of coffee in foreign places has been its own sort of subplot to the procuring of English-language books for me, although I don’t get a whanging headache from not reading, just sad and irritated.)

My neighbourhood library in Fribourg was La Biblioteque cantonele et universitaire. What caught my eye when I first walked in were the many shelves of pastel spines near the front. These turned out to be a French series of books called Que sais-je, well known to everyone I asked later but completely fascinating to me. Here is what je sais so far: Published by Presses universitaires de France, since 1941, each volume is 128 pages, and they are updated when the information becomes obsolete. If the subject itself becomes obsolete, they stop issuing it, but it keeps the number. The range of subjects is what’s really impressive and because, in the library at least, they are arranged by number and not subject, you get runs of beautiful little juxtapositions like English Grammar, Puberty, Contemporary Japan, Inflation. I have to admit the latest cover design for the series is not to my taste, but the ones from the 70s and 80s are pretty satisfying. The series title was inspired by Michel de Montaigne. Funnily enough my barrier to reading more Montaigne so far has been the fact that his work only ever seems close to hand in gigantic, thousand-page omnibus format. I’m still looking for him in something more Que sais-je sized.

After about ten minutes of gazing at the pastel splendour I remembered that my reading level in French is somewhere closer to board book and began hunting down some English. The English shelf was small but mighty. I had expected the kind of selection you’d find at an airport, but instead immediately saw eight or ten titles I’d been meaning to read. I ended up choosing Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts to start with. (On a day trip to Bern a couple of weeks later I found a bookstore with an entire English-language floor complete with dedicated English staff and a well-stocked corner of “Keep Calm and Blah Blah Blah” paraphernalia, and happened to see a copy of The White Road with the alternate subtitle “Journey into Obsession,” which I like less.)

de Waal is a potter and the book combines his research (both archival and on the ground) into the multiple origins of porcelain, which has an interesting, convoluted history in that it was invented and reinvented in different locations around the world, with different secret recipes and techniques. The combination of travelogue, research and memoir of artistic process made a good companion for my stay, although in hard cover at roughly 500 pages it wasn’t exactly something I could pop in my pocket while going about my flaneurial routine. (I know, I know: e-readers. Shut up.)

A couple of my favourite passages:

“My friends were in London with jobs, writing, partying, getting on with careers and affairs, and I was making dishes, unglazed, rough oatmeal brown on the outside, and green on the inside, pots to disappear into the landscape. No one bought them. No one liked them. This is usually an artist’s trope – as in no one liked them except, say, Peggy Guggenheim – but in my case they were genuinely unlikeable because they had that killer factor for objects. They were needy. And once you recognise neediness in an object, it is difficult to live with. The fluidity of your life with it curdles.” (94)

About a year in Tokyo:
“For the first time in my life, I could make pots without anxiety. I had no need to sell them, or exhibit them or explain them. And I was amongst others, in a cheerful studio with students and retired old men, and commuters dropping in for an hour to work on a tea bowl before starting their long journey back home on a train. There was a substantial contingent of elderly women making containers for flower arrangements. We had a little show in December and complimented each other.

“My pots relaxed. I picked up a bottle I’d thrown in porcelain, and squeezed it gently. Picked up its pair and did the same, placed them next to each other so that the gestures met. They looked better together. It made sense.” (153–4)

This book also reminded me, and I don’t know why I have to keep relearning this, that I tend to get more out of reading about the work habits and process and careers of artists who are not writers, possibly for the basic reason that less of it is tangibly relevant. I can read a book like this or watch something like Jiro Dreams of Sushi (and have in fact watched it an alarming number of times) and come away feeling absolutely solid in my decision to keep plugging away at writing poems, even though it isn’t particularly for anything and isn’t ever progressing at a particularly impressive gait. With biographies or writers, much as I do enjoy them, I am constantly playing the game of comparing my progress to theirs. Wait, he was how old in that year?

With a library at my disposal I was a little slower than usual to check out the local bookstores, but when I did I found something interesting (to me), which was that good portions of them were organized by publisher. This is something I haven’t seen much of anywhere else. I didn’t investigate too deeply, but I suspect it has partly to do with the amount of literature in translation that’s read in Switzerland. Maybe it also reflects a trend in French publishing. Fribourg is a French canton and so I assume along with domestic publishers, a fair amount of its reading material is coming from France. Likewise, I suppose in the Italian and German speaking parts of the country there’s a mix of domestic and imported translations which all lend themselves to this style of familiar, easy-to-spot formatting and design. This is just a working theory. In any case, I discovered a number of other series, including Folio and Le petit mercure.

About that French. I believe it improved marginally over the month, and if nothing else my listening skills improved so that I was able to calmly receive what someone was saying to me in French rather than panicking, clinging to the random words I knew, and not listening all the way to the end. With my friend Véronique I discovered a threshold of overlap that worked quite well. She spoke about 80 percent French to me and I spoke about 80 percent English to her and if I do say so myself we covered quite a bit of interesting ground in our conversations. Which were admittedly a bit beer-addled.

But in fact having someone apart from store clerks and waiters to practice another language on at all – ie. meeting people in my travels – was itself very new for me. As a not-so-outgoing person, either alone or with (usually) not-so-outgoing travelling companions, I tend to return home with the same number of friends I had when I left. But this time I was visiting someone who had his own friends and Fribourg being a not-so-big city, sometimes I would even see someone I knew in the street and they would say hello. The first time this happened I almost fell over. It also meant that once I had fairly mastered Fribourg (as someone with no sense of direction I was able to drag this out over a couple of weeks) there were people who wanted to help me explore the rest of the area. I was dropped off a trail heads, invited onto balconies for beer, given an all-day train pass (my idea of heaven), taken on a hike that ended at a hilltop restaurant serving (so I’m told) the best fondue in the canton. Then, so that I could go home properly educated in both national h0t-cheese dishes, a little raclette party was held just before my departure, and I got to witness the marvel of engineering that is the raclette machine (google it. And yes, they all look like prototypes). I was sort of an overgrown exchange student now that I think back on it. That people would want to indulge another grownup with that much hospitality was baffling and much appreciated. Thank you, mes Suisses!

And then I came home, in one of those very long against-the-time-zones days that seem like they shouldn’t actually work mathematically. After train-flight-flight-skytrain-bus-ferry-bus it was somehow still light out when I got to Victoria, so I dropped my bags in the hallway and went to the library just before it closed. Then I took myself out for sushi and spread all my books out in the booth. I’ve been on a literary critcism bent lately, possibly working up to someday soon writing some myself, and this week am sifting between a few in that vein: John Leonard’s Reading for my Life, Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, and an older one, Ursula Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places.

When I got up the next day a little voice on Twitter told me that the poems I’d had accepted by Ryga magazine before I left were now online in the journal’s latest issue, which you can find here, if you like. Four of my five are travel-related so that seems fitting.

You can also see more trip photos here, on my mostly un-bookish Instagram page.

2 Responses to “Que sais-je (not that much)”
  1. 07.25.2016

    So delighted to read a new post, Kate. Invariably, I find myself nodding in agreement or simply relating, “Yup, I know what you mean. . .” And I can count on at least provoked smiles, if not out-loud laughter. I was thrilled to find quotes from Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, a title that has made it as far as my never-ending reading list. So, encouragement to bump it closer to the top. Congratulations on the publication of your poems in Ryga magazine!

    • kate
      07.25.2016

      Thanks, Paula! And yes, the de Waal book is definitely worth reading. The balance of his research and his own artistic process is quite satisfying.


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