Monday, December 25, 2023

Noël Letter


Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Confessions of (Hating) a French Wedding

Dah-dum-dum-dum (here comes the bride)...wrong song for France. It was in fact, "We were in Paris, to get away from your parents," by the Chainsmokers  that dredged forth the memory of my first Parisian wedding, maybe it was my first French wedding ever. In my case, the desire would have been to flee Paris to get away from parents, aunts, uncles, cousins...but the people were not the problem. The people were extraordinary. But it was late. I happen to be a "couche-tôt" or a morning person who wilts after 10 pm.

We had arrived by train from Toulouse, my chéri and I. His uncle, groom of the following day, picked us up at the station to take us to his mother's house, stopping to run an errand on the way there. We were miles from downtown Paris, out in the woods, when Tonton Bertrand stopped the car at a tall gate and gave us his signature, insider-joke smile, not quite sheepish, but drole. "My friend runs this, but only in the summer. Don't worry, there's no one around at this time of year." I looked up at the sign high over the gate, "Colonie Naturiste". I looked back at him, perplexed, although the words sounded familiar, the translation did not sink in right away, "Nature Campground"? Bertrand's big laugh made its way to the surface, "nudiste, quoi." Nudist. Right. But no one is home. I got out and peeked around cautiously but curiously, over and around the hedges. It was not warm, but maybe there were spring nudists?

We were just stopping by to borrow a punch bowl or some such, then it was back to Paris to say hello to the future bride and the baby girl in her crib. This is not typically French. Typically, one waits until there are two children and the tax break really becomes hard to pass up for a married versus a non-married couple. Unless you come from a very traditional family, in which case, one marries before the babies come along. 

The wedding itself was the usual visit to Monsieur or Madame the Mayor to sign the official paperwork, fifty or so people crowding into the town hall; all marriages must take this step to be legal in France, no music involved. After that many couples go on to a church for the short version of a Catholic wedding ceremony, no mass, the French do have some good sense.

There are two receptions often in France, the first one, that might take place right in the village square outside the church, or in the same place as the second reception, but outside, not inside where the table is laid for the wedding feast. The first one is drinks and appetizers, served by waiters with trays moving among the guests, "Madame? Another duck heart wrapped in bacon?"  It can take awhile for all those not invited to dinner to stop drinking champagne and clear out, thus, a second location can be a good solution. At our own wedding, the darling, sociable, champagne aficionado of a mayor was the last to leave Part One. 

The dining part seldom begins before 9 or 10 pm, by which time, I am already fantasizing about brushing my teeth and heading to bed. Course after course after course, then cake, then, dancing. By 1:00 am, I am really, truly, finished with the whole thing and I would love to go home. But the family is here, it is a celebration, and we are guests, here to take joy in this new union, so let's dance! 

I am the first one to remark how sad it is to attend an American version of a wedding, where the venue is booked by the hour, not by the night. An occasion this important deserves at least a night and day of coming together for this fresh new unit of society, this lovely addition to our community. Their new and public promise to each other, if respected, encouraged, and nurtured by all those who care about them, will have a lasting impact on the world around them as they raise a family or devote themselves to workplace and community, stronger together. They deserve more than three hours of our time.

And yet, by 2:00 in the morning, I am whispering to my own fiancé; "can we not abscond, please?" "Of course not, look, the waiters are just getting ready to pour the champagne fountain over there, let's go watch." I allow myself to be dragged to my feet, I smooth down my borrowed dress, royal blue, a terrible choice for France (the color of garbage collectors and custodians, not for dress-up), and follow. We gather to watch the champagne flow from top glass to the next layer of glasses and the next. "A toast to the happy couple!" 

"Off to bed?" 

"Stop, love, this is a party. Relax and enjoy yourself. Besides, we are staying with my grandmother and riding with my aunt, so we have nowhere to go until they go. Let's dance, mon bébé."

The lights were low, the conversation animated, too animated, and the music was thumping. I am afraid I became most unpleasant to deal with after this point, to my later chagrin. As long as one is dancing, no whining is happening, so I was kept dancing by positively everyone in sight.

As I mentioned, this was my first wedding. I had no idea that I would still be grumping about going back to a place where bra, heels and pantyhose could be shed for nice, cool sheets at 5 am, else I would have given in and given up the complaining hours before. For a community to come together and grow, there must be real time spent together. In the US, we do this via our kids' activities, ballet, sports, theatre. In France, they celebrate the whole family, with the whole family. It is lovely, and I would like it so much better if we commenced the activities at sunrise instead of moonrise. And oui, I will return for the very next wedding!

Saturday, May 6, 2023

A Day or Two in the Life (of a French Court Interpreter)



It has been a week of work and drives. No, it has been two weeks of working and driving. No wonder I am feeling fresh as a May daffodil. (In Iowa, this equals drooping and done.) Despite the fatigue, I appreciate the beautiful detail in historical courthouses (Polk County above and to the right, Benton County below). There was a trial out of town on Monday, which can bring out the best and the worst in me. On one hand, I settle down to prep work in a serious way, but that is because I know that this is going to be intense. Even breaks will be taken up with attorney-client communication and I will have nary a minute to stop and do any extra research.

Trials mean, most importantly, that I will get to work with another interpreter, to collaborate with someone, to have someone to relieve or be relieved by when fatigue sets in, to laugh with after this is all said and done, mainly said, done is a matter of opinion, to have made memories with in both languages, which one can only do with another interpreter. Most of the time it is just me. 

On a non-trial day, there is a routine that may look a lot like this:

Interpreter shows up at courthouse, and on a good day, finds a parking spot less than a mile away. Interpreter stands in line at the front door with all of the other clients of the day. We wait to be scanned, bag and person. We usually have a minute to greet the guards, but not enough time to dwell for too long upon the misery of poverty and missed opportunities, despondency, mental illness, and (sometimes) horrible actions that have brought many of the people in this line to this place today. There are a number of individuals who look scared, rebellious, nervous or resigned, but most of them look down on their luck.

Everyone then either finds the printed-out sheet on the table in the hallway, or glances up at the electronic bulletin board by the elevators, or simply treks the three flights up to the clerk's office, depending on the county, to figure out which courtroom one needs to be in for their case. The smaller the courthouse, the greater the chances of needing to trek up three flights of stairs. Some counties let interpreters and attorneys know where they will be via email the night before. In one county, I will most likely descend to the basement and ask the smiling clerks at the bottom of the steps if 1) I am on the correct floor and 2) if the assigned attorney and party needing French have arrived. 


At this point, there is no set procedure, but if I can, I say; "tell them they can find me in courtroom 1-F," and I set up shop down the hall, comfortably installed, coat on a hook, ipad and ipencil at the ready, headsets for each party too, and on my guard for the moment someone may be looking for me. In the over-crowded, less welcoming courthouses, I have to shuffle about in the lobby of the floor everyone is supposed to be on, craning my neck every once in awhile to see if I can see the look that says, "hey, are you the French interpreter?" 

There is a very particular look, recognizable on faces of attorneys who I've not yet met, part panic, part exasperation, part rushed and harried, then such relief at finding each other. In the ones with whom I am familiar there is a different note of stealth and slyness and hope, "maybe she won't see me and I can just sneak in this very annoying and insistent client first who will only take a moment of my time, then I can deal with the man who needs an interpreter and will take twice as long since we have to say every single bloody word twice." 

"No, sorry ma'am, this interpreter knows that you think it will take but a moment, and that 45 minutes later, I will still be hanging out and checking for you to find me, with the added risk of every minute spent out here means a greater chance of your client asking me questions I am not allowed to answer." Now, would be the best time to utilize my services, merci.

Was that not clear? Let me explain...and I never explain, so pay attention, this is important if you want to look like a professional interpreter who knows what she is doing.

What my job is and is not: the duty is to interpret, which means, more or less that the stuff said in English goes into French and vice versa. If there is only French coming in, especially in the form of questions I am not qualified to answer or statements about what they say did or did not happen in a case, there is no interpreting, because my answers would be in French too, and they would be my own words. So, unless there are three of us present, I am not doing my job. 

In the hallway, a conference room, or a courtroom, the interpreter's role is always the same: interpret the message accurately from one language into another and back again, every message and utterance, the whole time.

What the job is not is giving my own opinion, ever using "I" except to convey what either of the other two parties just said to the other one. This is what makes waiting in a holding space of any sort (lobby, waiting room, hospital room, jail cell) with one person problematic...I am not interpreting, I am engaged in a conversation. This is especially true of an LEP individual who suddenly finds themselves in the presence of someone who understands their language fully and to whom they may of a sudden find themselves very much inclined to confide every last detail or ask every question about this very confusing system in this foreign country. I would do exactly the same thing in their place, should I ever find myself in similar straits in say, Bali or Tokyo, and I would milk it for all it was worth, because I am here, I do not understand and I NEED TO KNOW. 

It is natural, it is also equally in my nature to want to help, to offer a kind word or an answer to requests such as, "How do I call and set up the drunk driving class?" (Yes, it really is referred to that way by some judicial officers). "What if I am a permanent resident, would the plea offer get me deported if I took it?" In front of a third party, I become perfectly legit. I just say that phrase in English and allow the other person (the person qualified to answer) to take over. I am obligated by a strict code of ethics and in the interest of the system working the way it should to not give the appearance of any conflict of interest. This used to feel cold to me, but then came the day when I was accused of just that, and I was not allowed to complete an assignment the way I would have preferred. Live and learn. 

But still, occasionally someone catches up to me in the hallway after a hearing to say, "Madame, Madame, is he going to be allowed to have weekend visitations with the children, even though he told my brother back home he hates us and will have us deported or kill us?" Or, "I did nothing, that cop did not even talk to me when the accident happened. She was the one, the other driver, who ran into my car, not the other way around. This is so messed up, man. I just bought that car, it was almost new. What, is it because of the color of my skin? What is going on here?" The parking meter they have out in front of the courthouse in City A is full of glitches and there are requests to help out with it, back outside in the rain. And so I hide in courtroom 1-F until it is time to interpret.

Recently there have been three trials, scenario A. It has been a great pleasure to work with two French colleagues. I absolutely adore my fellow Franco-American interpreters and had been counting on working with one of them, but agencies will surprise you sometimes and set you up with a trial partner you've never met. I love that the French expression can come out so elegantly with a native speaker, and the flow is beautiful. I delight in hearing accents that are familiar as family to me.

The last trial, the third one in as many weeks, was a bench trial, set for a duration of half an hour. This means there was only one interpreter assigned to the case. I thought it would be a piece of cake to handle a little plea hearing in one city, drive two hours, and interpret for this "short trial", then drive an hour home. Three hours later, this civil law suit with a counter claim turned out to be a fresh new circus of ..."he said, I said, they did, they did not," with a never-ending set of documents to prove the contrary of the other side's argument. When we ended and I had not collapsed from exhaustion, it was a triumphant moment. 

I got back into my car, put on the most outrageous podcast I could find to keep me wide awake, and drove home to my family. It is not a bad life at all.

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Spill/Steal Zone of Knitting and Life

Sometimes you care and sometimes you just don't.

When knitters cast on a new knitting project, we exist in a dream zone, a lull in time, the magic of the softness of the yarn, the brilliance of the design, the idea of how beautiful this will someday be. At this stage, you will be ever so careful of the baby project who needs all your attention and protection from the elements, from thieves, from mugs of tea splashing or worse. 

Just as the end approaches, this protective spirit returns, because now we are almost there and you see the value in the work that has been done, the work our very own hands did to reach this point. 


It's the in-between time, the "voyage" over which so much ink has already flowed. This is the time where, upon exiting your vehicle, you glance back at the knitting which, thus far you have either insisted be kept upon your person at all times, or you've locked in the trunk if you positively must part with it. Today, in the abject apathy stage, you shrug instead, "Let them have it, pain in the patooty anyway, over it, bored with it, stuck on a tricky bit, have to unravel and start over. It is not worth the trouble."

Life is a long, messy slog. All around us are perfect examples of ungrateful wretches having the worst day ever. The only thing on my bucket list on those days is the opportunity to crawl back under the covers.

It is worth the trouble, I know it is, all projects have value, all projects deserve a chance and a little love, but if this particular one were to disappear, would anyone notice or grieve for very long? Can I not have a do-over? Look at my mistakes, anyone can see this is a disaster. The cup of coffee hovering near no longer fills us with dread

...but if you persevere, it will.

The end will come, completion will once more be at hand. The beauty in creation wins out over the lackadaisical and ugly. Then you can start all over again. Cast and carry on. 

P.S. The analogy was just repeated in a concrete way with one of my children. This one had been feeling bogged down by the enormous amount of work to be done to complete her double major in four years. She is a junior; in "normal" American terms, this means she has just one year left after this one. However, this one was proving to be too too much. 

wahhhhh wahhhhh wahhhhh

Not nice, moms can't always be nice, just most days, and, yes, I had days in school when I was 100% certain that my TRUE future lay in hopping in the nearest sailboat and navigating the globe, right now. 

I am not a stranger to kids and their flailing motivation while getting through school. It is senioritis that can strike at any time, but mainly towards to middle to just past the mid-point. It happened in community college for one, in law school for another. My high school sophomore swears he has it now. 

Today came the news that this is looking like it will be so good. It will be excellent to finish college and next year will not be as bad as the three preceding it. Graduation may actually be a date in the near future. She's getting to the part where you know you'll be casting off soon and have a THING in hand. Hurrah!

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Note to All: BUY A FLASHLIGHT: Four-months Post-op, Still Clumsy

Because, even though you have counted yourself lucky not to have ever done this up thus far in your life, miraculously, (what are our chances, ever?)...

...dropping your phone-cum-flashlight in the toilet as you reach across to dry your clean (not for long) hands on the hand towel that for some reason has always hung on the wall right across the way, is just dumb. Dumber still when it is 3 am and now you have to look up all the NEW advice about what to do with a phone that goes under (the last time it was a bowl of green jello during a household-wide gastroenteritis crisis, most unfortunate). 

Just. Buy. a. Flashlight. Or a bathroom nightlight. Or learn to walk in the dark. Why are our phones now such a part of our anatomy that I felt like I must have injured a body part when I awoke in the half-drowsiness of dawn this morning?  I scanned my senses and then came to realize it was not a limb, it was the absent phone, SIM card ejected after numerous tries (who knew paper clips came in so many different diameters?), all drying on a crocheted coaster in the office. 


I can blame the lingering weakness of the thumb joint after surgery, which is what this post is really about, but honestly...I amaze and astonish myself too often.

Appearance of thumb: almost normal, although I can tell its angle is not yet quite kosher. All the flexibility has not returned. But I can knit again!

Pain: none unless I overuse it. And this pain is different from before. It is more like a muscle after a work-out, like strengthening is trying to happen instead of something that is broken.

Strength: gaining little by little. The pt and surgeon are both optimistic that full strength will return after about a year. I can do everything I could before, just not with as much weight as normal. In important terms for me: I can hold a baby, but a toddler is out of the question. 

If a box is delivered and held out for me, I'm fine with a small book but not 18 lbs. of glue (you don't want to know). If a phone is held at the wrong angle, it drops. 

Grocery carts can be endured for a short trot around a small store, but not the double-sized Costco sort. I had to haul my bath tissue from the far, far end zone to the register today snugged up against my chest like a Flemish giant rabbit.

My therapy putty has become my best buddy. I have also graduated from a 1-lb weight to a 2-lb one, but I need to increase the number of times a day I do the exercises. 

Am I glad I had the procedure? The very small, one-member jury remains out. If I truly can live a less-limited, more productive life because of having done this, then I will declare a victory. Truth? It is still a nuisance for now.

Are you thinking about joint surgery? Which joint? Have you had one replaced? Do you have any underlying hypermobility that made it all that more interesting?

Photo credit: BrickBard on Pixabay

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Syllabus has Been Approved, Rejoice and Enjoy

What began as a "sure, it might be great to share what I know with local students," soon became, "wait, what have I gotten myself into and how am I ever going to figure it all out in time for spring semester?" While I have been painstakingly working through foreign concepts like class calendars, grading rubrics, and a thing called Moodle (created for "education management"), I have been planning the lessons themselves and interpreting a full court and occasional conference schedule. Time for creativity has been at an all-time low. Since October, apparently, as I see the blog header still has a pumpkin barn photo.

Yesterday approval was finally granted of my opus mediocris, and my mind is free again, for two minutes, to enjoy writing, knitting, family (no, not true, they bring me joy every single day, regardless of work) and last night, a magnificent evening of breath-taking music at the symphony. It was glorious!!! This is my OFFICIAL RECOMMENDATION to go experience as many classical concerts as your remaining years, months and days allow. I even finally slept, calmed by the resounding waves of Brahms Third Symphony and the tempestuous Violin Concerto No. 1 of Shostakovich echoing through my slumber. I slept afterwards, not during, or at least, not too much during. It is fairly common to see closed eyes around one at the symphony.

My sweet girl is home for the weekend and having surpassed us all in sock-knitting after completing NINE pairs for Christmas gifts, she sat and showed me how complete a toe-up sock that I began years ago. She knows how to do a German short-row heel in her sleep! I myself had to watch the video three more times when we became separated for a bit mid-afternoon. 

It has been a rich, rich, rich year in experiences, sights and love. Our family is growing in challenging ways as we traverse trials and tribulations, but also in good ways, as we return to be together as often as we can. The fact that all of us can be in the same place at the same time for a meal is so good. And...something I did not think would feel right does; having one, two or four of them around for a trip or a weekend is also good.

This new definition of "family" as a more fluid concept is freeing and opens up more avenues to joy. I can be right here, in the moment with the ones who are present and less regretful of missing the one who may not be. This was my first Christmas ever spent away from one of my children. I missed my oldest with all my heart, but taking delight in being with family to celebrate the holiday took precedence over that bit of longing. We were in France with our French family all reunited, eating more food than required for sustenance or gluttony, and I was enveloped in a warm glow of the spirit of the season. I even went for a nice post-dinner hike with my father-in-law across the countryside, pine forest and boggy fields, tiny village and lone cottage with smoking chimney.

Interpreter Travels? Yes, indeed. As soon as I was freed to drive again post-surgery, I was back out the door and on to more courthouses and conferences. Last week was spent just in Iowa courts and I drove over 800 miles. What does this mean? This means a ton of audiobooks...and one tired interpreter at the end of certain days.

Although a typical week may have less than forty hours of actual interpreting time, a good deal of preparation goes into our work before we begin, especially for a deposition stemming from a particular industry or a conference on any topic under the sun. And then we come home and attack the invoicing.

Was this the fun end I had planned for this post? There clearly was no plan, although the photos from my birthday dinner would make a nice addition, it was a lovely day! All three of my sons were there. Never mind, the photos seem to involve me laughing uproariously with a very large sombrero on my head. If you would like photos of France and Spain (Basque Country in Spain), head over to Instagram instead. Blogger has only produced the most mediocre photographic quality from what I have uploaded lately. You can see France, the dog, kids, all of that, here instead: French Dialogues.

Bon dimanche!