Peregrinations


It’s been more than two years and I still have not written about my summer residential language sojourn in two very beautiful places in France. They deserve better by me, both the wonderful people who hosted me and their beautiful homes and environs thereof. I had such a lovely time there–really it is the last time that I can remember being carefree (well, mostly).  Some might say I was in a fool’s paradise, but I’ll gladly take on the label of fool again, if the Loire Valley and Dordogne are part of the package!

A little bit of free advertising by way of a preface. I took these classes through an organisation (since it’s London based, I’ll go with the Brit spelling) called Eurolingua that arranges  residential programs for a number of languages–mostly European. Having flirted with learning French for several years now–two stints at the Alliance Francais in Philadelphia and New York and one summer course d’eté in Dijon as part of a grad program requirement are some of the formal attempts while more informally I tried (and managed all of three time! over several years) to join the French table at Yale. Then a friend in Korea mentioned her experience–very positive–and so I went hunting online as well, and Eurolingua turned up with some interesting possibilities. Then a couple of years later, opportunity in the guise of unemployment supplemented with a check for retirement from my Yonsei (Korea) job presented itself. So I wrote to the folks at Eurolingua, and Voila! And after a conversation about my goals and expectations, the co-ordinator set me up, with two different tutors.

2015-08-24 19.17.16Le premiere professeur était M. Sylvain Fremaux. A music conductor (we found out that we were both grad students from Yale, though separated by several years) who teaches French in a community college in Oregon, Sylvain owns a charming home in the village of Mer, which despite its name is nowhere near any sea. But as I learned, the name is meant to signify marshland, which being dint of being on the banks of a river is appropriate enough. (When I check the dictionary, however, the word for marsh or marshland is marais, which is a well-known neighborhood in Paris…). I spent 3 glorious weeks in Mer, where in addition to daily French lessons–which included among other readings an abridged version of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and supplementary translation sessions with me trying to work my way through Anne-Marie Moulin’s idiosyncratic prose style–and plenty of conversation in French, bicycling trips of the area, and weekend visits to some lovely chateaux, a fascinating museum (Musée du Compagnonnage) in Tours, and other sights in the famed Loire valley region. The region’s wines are famous and with good reason as I found out for myself in a visit to a wine fair in Mer where various locals came to show off their wares. I met several people thanks to Sylvain, but I cannot write about his stay and not mention Sylvain’s wonderful father, the famous conductor Louis Fremaux, who at nearly 93 (his birthday was just around the corner) was still up for driving and biking around the countryside.

2015-09-13 17.52.38La deuxième enseignante était M’mselle. Danielle Mazars, who after years of living and working abroad. With her I shared not an alma mater, but a place of past residence, Cairo. My two weeks at her home in the gorgeous Dordogne, which is part of the greater Aquitaine region and according to Wikipedia, (for I must acknowledge all my sources) roughly corresponds to the ancient country of Périgrod (a name likely more associated for us foodies with foie gras) were completely different but as enjoyable and educational as the previous. Danielle’s farm is far from any town as such–the closest is Sarlat–and sits in the heart of cave country, not far from a chateau owned by the family of the pilot-author St. Exupéry. By caves, I mean the prehistoric type with paintings. The most famous of course are les grottes de Lascaux, with the breathtaking images rendered in gorgeous hues of sunset and flame. But there were several others that I visited along with Danielle and will write about in a dedicated posts. Dordogne has its share of chateaux other than the aforementioned one and I paid some a visit, and then there was the type of medieval town called a bastide, which, if I can dig up my lessons, deserve a separate post just because they have such a fascinating history. I must also her dear and lovely friends many of whom invited us for dinners to their homes and encouraged my halting language skills and for whom in return I cooked an Indian meal at Danielle’s home.

A quick word about the photographs in this post. I included them for they are more personal reminders of the time I spent there The grapes, which might well be a symbol for all of France, are those handing in the garden area of Sylvain’s home and while not wine-worthy (said he not me) were great to pluck and nibble on days when I sat outdoors working on my lessons or translations. The sheep belong to Danielle and would come running and line up by the wall to be fed the buckets of cut up peaches when they heard her calling. Missing from the photo are a small black lamb that I named Seana (after the recently watched claymation Sean the Sheep Movie) and her friendly sweetheart of a dog, Darius.

Au revoir mes amies. Jusqu’à la prochaine fois (#39)

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Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 8.32.10 PMDescribe the tone of a loved one who is deceased. Or about the inability to hear it.

I’d completely forgotten that I’d noted this prompt down from my book Writing from the Senses, and came about it sort of accidentally today. I really cannot remember whose voice I wanted to write about at the time the prompt caught my eye, but encountering it today made me think of my two grandmothers and their voices and speech mannerisms and thought perhaps I should try and record those memories.

First, my paternal grandmother Kamakshi Patti, who died a long time ago in 1982. The first thing that comes to mind with her is a visual, but I do have some vivid memories of her habits or speech and her sayings, and since this post is about the memory of sounds, tones and voices, I’ll stick with that. The thing I remember most of all is her whisper. The adjective “sibilant’ might have been coined with hers in mind, so onomatopoeically perfectly does it suit. Her whisper was not the type one associated with secrets, far from it. It was a carrying sound in which every syllable could be heard with crystal clarity. Probably because, oddly enough it was guttural too, in tone. I remember how my cousin Kappu once fondly said that while she often strained her ears in vain to hear gossipy conversations between her Mom and Patti (after the lights went out at night and everyone including the women were in bed) when they spoke in normal voices, she could relax and hear everything once my grandmom resorted to whispering. And since Patti saved that voice for the juiciest bits, my cousin never missed an important detail — can’t say I remember any details myself, but yes, I too share fond memories of listening to those whispers.

Two more specific sound related memories: My grandmother never spoke English but she would always talk about a song that she learned during her brief years of school, and sing (sort of) the opening line to us. “Welcome welcome, hearty welcome” it went in a Tamil accent, whose tune I couldn’t for the life of me reproduce. But I always remember (and hope I always will) the pride and joy with which she told us about the song. Then there was the way she said the words “beans”–always mispronouncing it as “beems.” For some reason this infuriated, or at least irritated, my obnoxiously snobbish brought-up-on-English self at 7 or so and equally all-of-those-things younger brother. We would try and try to make her say it right and she would patiently repeat it after us but get it wrong every time. Poor thing–she never got upset with us kids despite our atrocious rudeness.

One last memory of her that I’d like to record in this post is not exactly about her voice, but related, which is her remarkable facility for communication with all and sundry, despite not sharing a common language. As far as know Kamakshi Patti never spoke anything but Tamil, but she was the quintessential intrepid soul who could with gestures and a lot of hand waving, she could make herself understood when needed. I particularly remember the way she got a visiting American boy called Raji Thron (who may or may not be the same person who has a yoga website) to perform all sorts of chores like grinding dosa batter on the old fashioned stone or  fetching water to clean said stone, which she certainly could not get myself or my brother too. She was widowed relatively young and still made her way to on her own by trains and buses (and changing them) all the way to the Hindi-dominated North India where we lived, on her own several times. Like I said, intrepid soul.

Intrepid is not the first characteristic, I associate with my other–ie .maternal–grandmother, Chuppu Patti, who might have been the kindest person I can think of in many ways. I would have said gentle, but while her soul was gentle–perhaps the gentlest of anyone I’ve ever encountered–her voice was not. It was strong, slightly hoarse (as was my K Patti’s too). She had a great facility for various Indian languages and could speak some half a dozen of them to my knowledge. I particularly remember visiting her in Sringeri in the state of Karnatka, just a few months after they’d moved there, and being amazed at how easily she seemed to speaking to all the local shopkeepers in their language. Not so my grand-dad who’d moved there the same time, although he being of a more scholarly bent of mind (more on that below), when he got around to it also learned to read and write the language.

I have many more memories of this grandmother since she was with us until 2013, but I don’t have the kind of specific anecdotes about her voice  as I do about my K Patti. This last is just a tiny bit ironic because this grandmother actually shared her name–Subalakshmi–with one of the most famous Carnatic music singers ever, down to the initials M.S. that preface the given name. What I remember most about C Patti is her gentle but consistent nagging of my grandfather to do whatever he was supposed to rather than read whichever book he happened to get his hands on on any given day. Actually come to think of it I just remembered something after all–an exasperated remark, in Tamil naturally, to the effect of “As if he’s going to do a PhD with all that reading!”

On that note this sleepy person who did go on to get a PhD by reading (and writing other things besides blogs), during said Patti’s lifetime–though regrettably not until after Thatha, the non-PhD avid reader passed away–will end this post, which may have actually caught me up on my blog-once-a-week resolution made on June 10 (#40).

The title of my post is a spin on the title of a book by Pat Conroy (of the Prince of Tides fame) which I happen to be reading write now and enjoying very much…Plagiarism? one might ask, to which I’ll offer a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s famous line about immature poets imitating vs. mature poets stealing. Actually he goes on to talk about bad poets defacing what they imitate and the good ones taking something and making it better “or at least different” but that part is not germane to this post. So I’ll defer a discussion of the American Schoolteacher to another day and post (perhaps) and get to the the subject at hand, which as the titles proclaim, is about my writing life.

What triggered this post is a description by Conroy of his writing habits. To him, “the writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine. The writing of books does not permit much familiarity with chaos.” Funny I should encounter that statement today of all days, when earlier in the morning (many hours before Pat Conroy was in my psyche) I was thinking about what makes me tick as a writer. And the conclusion I came to, in an impassioned monologue in my head that I delivered to no-one (and would never have done so but for the inspiration) was quite the opposite of Conroy’s description: that routine for me is anathema.

I thrive, or at least my writing self does, on chaos. I mean, I can’t even sit at the same spot 3 days in a row without getting restless and losing productivity. I need to mix something up–go to a cafe (if I’ve been working at home); a different cafe if I’ve visited the same one more than once; or change the hours I work or what I’m working on. Consider my inability to keep to my once-a-week resolution on this blog. I tried I really did, but it hasn’t really worked has it. I often go several days without writing and then suddenly have a succession of entries. As a PhD student I indulged myself in what I called “productive procrastination” with at least one other major project–what became The Human Genome Sourcebook, a reference book about the human genome, which I wrote over a period of 4 years all told, with a co-author. And this wasn’t even the first book to come out of my years as a grad student–the first, another reference book on microbes, was a solo effort that I had embarked on even before I had begun my Ph.D. Of course the first year of grad school brought the progress on that book (which bears the long and boring title of Microbes and People: An A to Z of the Important Micro-organisms in Our Lives. My father wanted me to call it The World of Small Things–another Eliot follower even if unknowingly so–but the title was not up to me) to a screeching halt. But then came my first summer, which I spent with Dad as my roomie at the oddly organized, I. M. Pei designed, East West Center at the University of Hawaii, where over a period of two-and-a-half months I wrote most of the book. Again–or I should say setting the pattern for the future–following a gloriously chaotic non-schedule that entailed some midnight visits to my Dad’s office and some dawn time walks from the Math Dept. to the EWC!

My current book–about 5 sevenths (or 5 eighths) of the way in since I began writing for real and in earnest last (2016) February or March–has been yet another exercise in discipline through chaos, written in bits and pieces in cafes and friends and cousins homes  all over the world–Melbourne in Australia, London, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Savannah (Georgia), the Bay Area, Bangalore… so far. (The proposal was written up entirely in Seoul I think). Fair enough since its geographic reach is similarly worldwide, though not quite as peripatetic. Most of the individual scientists that I am writing about–the eccentric Felix d’Herelle being the notable exception that proves the rule–were remarkably stable in their careers spending decades if not their entire careers in one place.  But there is method to my madness as the saying goes, or a consistency to my chaos. And once again I’ve found a way (actually multiple ways) to procrastinate productively with other projects, as yet too undefined, some even embryonic this.  (#43)

What does it say about my ability to abide by the eponymous resolution of this post, when it took me three tries to even get the spelling of the word right in the title? Not, as I imagine many people might think, that I’m out of practice typing–because I’m not not–but perhaps it’s a Freudian slip because I don’t want to make a resolution I may not keep?

So what’s this resolution? Well inspired by a similar one that I just finished reading about in a different blog/articles website, it is simply to contribute something to this blog once a week. At least once a week I should say. Regardless of what else I write or not, or what I’m doing, I think writing here just once a week is not an un-keepable goal. I did start something like this based on a book a few years ago, but other than putting down the prompts for several in the drafts section of this blog, it didn’t go very far. Not because I think I owe anyone anything really.. early on when I created the blog it was with a promise to myself to be guilt-free for not writing. I stand by that sentiment, but this once-a-week exercise is more of a discipline-building one. Just to prove to myself that I can. No other conditions or stipulations about topic, etc etc. Just write… at least one entry per week here, in my peregrine chronicles, which means it cannot be about food really, since that topic I reserve for my other site.

So where am I? I just took a quick read back at my blogs over the past two years, and actually have to admit that the record wasn’t too shabby compared to the previous three. But almost exactly 3 years ago, I entered something about the flight of this peregrine, and reading the optimism of that post, makes me want to weep. Because optimistic is certainly not the way I’d describe myself any more. Exhausted, disheartened and yes, even defeated is how I feel more often than not.

Having said that though… not all is bad, even now. Though jobless for two years now, I’m in Madison Wisconsin on a short fellowship to work at the archives of a scientist who features in my book (that at least is still progressing even if the move to India turned out to be a jump from one frying pan into another or to be ethnic about it from the Korean barbeque into the kadhai). Madison is a lovely town–not quite big enough to merit the label city–with lots of lakes and the University Union building sits on one of them and I’ve spent a lot of my waking hours here.

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In some ways Ravenna is the perfect metaphor for my approach to blogging about my Italian travels over Easter break 2008, because rather than approach it with any sort of plan or chronology, I’ve been filling in chips providing a mosaic of my experiences rather than a single canvas. Actually, to take that metaphor even further, I’ve been filling in these chips in a the larger mosaic of my pergrinations in general but… I’ll stop with the analogy. And the reason for this perfect match is that Ravenna (as many might know already though I didn’t until my visit there) is certainly full of mosaics. It’s a real shame that I haven’t written about this place earlier actually, because of all the places that Shraddha and visited over our Italian week together, this was certainly the treasure chest of sights previously unseen. And after a long day of visual feasts we had yet another of those edible experiences that had us both swooning in rhapsodies of delight…

7 years later…

After so much time, the memory of those mosaics still delight, not only of the the bit above from one of the churches, but that of a small baptistry which brought to mind a Van Gogh starry night, with brilliant blues and purples and teals. It also recalls that line from the oft-quoted, never tired Yeats, of the blue and gold etc etc in the “Tread softly” poem. Same trip a week or so later took me to Trieste where more mosaics delighted as well. The memories haven’t gone anywhere though the impulse to write more has. ’tis best this were published. Or else I’ll have to trash it.

The structure of the Korean academic calendar being as it was, in cycles of 4 months on and 2 months off, I didn’t treat myself to many (read any) term-time getaways as I did with such frequency while in Egypt (both in and out of the country) though summer and winter breaks are another story. In fact, a short trip to Hong Kong in October, 2013 during the Chuseok holiday was the first time since my arrival to the country in 2011 that I went anywhere during the term. But I seem to have made up for it my last semester (Spring 2014) there as evidenced by the weekend jaunt to Bo-seong of the green tea fame, and a  mid-term week flight to Bali for 5 days in April where I met up with Anthony Osiris & parents, and a Buddha’s birthday venture into Vietnam in early May. The latter two are the references in the title. Details may follow in future posts or my food blog but here’s a collage/montage of photos from the trips:

Our villa grounds in Sanur

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Ships a-flying! 2014-04-20 14.10.31-2

Spongy purple flotsam

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Viet-lodge & views

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Cruising at sunset

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Aboard the Violet2014-05-05 09.39.22

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Or is about to. As so many friends wrote in when I last made a similar announcement in January 2011, that fact that I’m moving may not surprise anyone who knows me. Nor will the fact that true to type, everything happened suddenly and rapidly. But the destination might be a surprise to many for after traipsing around the world for nearly 30 years (I left in 1986) this peregrine is coming to roost a mere 4 hours from the one place in in the world that was a stable home for more than a decade of my life. The actual place is called Kundli and it’s near Sonepat in Haryana, on oft-traveled road between Delhi and Chandigarh. But basically I’m going to be in Delhi! The new job is at a brand new liberal arts school called Ashoka University. My new job title will be associate professor (that’s right.. finally 8.5 years after I took up my first job in Eau Claire, I’ve managed a promotion!) of history of science. And that might well be the first time there’s been a job with the history of science written into it’s title in India. I’m excited naturally, but also approach this job with some trepidation because of the enormous changes it represents for me. More details on everything soon but for now wanted to at least announce the news.

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