On Learning to Play Pétanque

Paol Keineg (to the right of me) with poet Jean-Claude Caër and his son. And sun hats.

Every evening, on my way back to my room in Brest, I see men playing pétanque in the park. They’re serious—sometimes, when the game is close, they take out a measuring tape to decide which team has rolled their ball closest to the jack. As in croquet, there is much potential for “accidentally” bumping someone else’s ball, and for wild gesticulation, but mostly the players seem intensely focused on gaining a few centimeters of advantage. And trash talking the other team, cigarettes hanging in the corners of their mouths. It seems you can politely say things in French you couldn't say in English. And the men laugh. And shake hands.

Some afternoons I walk along the castle walls, listening to the gulls scream and flap after dumpster baguettes. There are feathers in the air like snowflakes. One day, I get home to find that Paol, the poet I’ve been translating, has translated one of my poems into French. It’s called “Ransom” in English (“Rançon” in its French incarnation). Here are a couple of excerpts from the French:


Géraniums dans la jardinière et réveillée

par des chants d’oiseaux peu familiers, le soleil par les carreaux,

je n’arrive pas à l’écarter de mes yeux.

S. pleure à l’autre bout du fil. Il réclame

de l’argent. Il voudrait venir voir

La Nuit des morts-vivants.

Tu ne peux pas me laisser seul, dit-il.


Mon père et moi, nous avons trouvé un renard dans la prairie.

Il reposait dans l’herbe sur le rebord de l’ornière.

Je n’ai pas touché le poil qui brûlait devant moi.

On ne voyait aucune marque,

pas de sang entre les dents

« Ceci est la mort », a dit mon père.

J’ai observé,

les yeux plus sombres que des fleurs.

Nous lui avons fait une guirlande avec des suzannes à œil noir,

coupant les tiges avec nos ongles.

Je l’ai regardé étendu dans la lumière du soir,

le feu a pris dans sa robe

brièvement, et puis rien.


I’m so grateful to Paol for working on this, especially because it allows me to see connections and connotations that are amplified by another language. It maybe becomes a little more serious here, and the tone seems a little elevated to me by Latinate words. But for French of course that’s normal—there are no alternative Anglo-Saxon words.

When I started translating Paol’s poems, it was difficult to capture his humor—and stanzas like


it’s vulgar to speak of dogs, but some philosophers lived like dogs and think like dogs, the older I get, the more I shuffle and dance in place and move my arms

tossing everything on the floor, isn’t it a shame this literary aping, me I’m happy in the car, the Blue Ridge three hours away, a hundred miles an hour to keep big words at a distance,

ready to cry at a Cherokee sunset, the bad parts of the American sky, sad like generations of ancestors, catalogued, mustachioed, in their Sunday outfits...




their cries through the lowered window create an emptiness, damned pursuit of happiness, at night you hear the bear beget the bear, the fox beget the fox, all the social fauna drink from the brooks...


lose a lot if they aren’t playful in English as well as in French. So I work on the humor, the irreverence, trying to roll the ball a little closer to the jack. And sometimes those few changes, like those few centimeters, make a difference.

One afternoon, Paol is kind enough to take me to meet an old friend, a poet, on a farm that’s been in his family for years. There’s a beautiful stone house, a meadow, outbuildings covered in red and orange flowers. Kiwis grow on vines that lace through the blackberry brambles. And in front of the house, there’s a bit of flat dirt with boules in a bucket. We drink rosé in the shade. Paol gives me a crash course in pétanque.   

Piglets and Poems

People keep asking if I’m lonely in Brest, but it might have more to do with the city than with traveling alone.  Brest is a city somewhat used to emptiness—almost completely destroyed in World War Two, it was rebuilt in a style people call “Staliniste,” with identical blocks of apartments and concrete bandstands in the parks. In one square, a cement carousel covered with abstract paintings of ponies has a metal hoof dangling from the overhang. Someone’s idea of dramatic public art.

The oldest things in the city are the walls, gracefully landscaped and lit up at night with green and purple bulbs. At their base, the port is busy with recreational sailors and industrial shipping. The cafes are filled with posters of striped-shirted bicyclists encouraging people to order another round: “If you try to slow down, you’ll break your brakes.”

One day I accidentally find myself in the middle of a parade. Kids in traditional Breton dress are pulling paper mache piglets through the streets. On top of a float, a man strips off his French colors to reveal the Gwenn-ha-du, the Breton flag, across his chest. He screams “Nous sommes Breton!” into his mic. Then the dancing starts, and people link pinky fingers to make a circle of swinging arms and stomping feet. The street is covered with trampled green confetti.

I’m trying to translate 50 lines a day, and as I find my way around the city the first long poem in Paol’s book also takes shape. In spite of the parade (or maybe because of it) the city is a good place to work. And Paol is very generous, taking me to meet other poets and artists.

I find that when I talk to people in French, American movies and authors and expressions are harder to recall. Later, when I’m alone, they’re so obvious that I can’t believe I forgot. It’s like my head is a poor tennis player—it can’t run back and forth fast enough between memories in French and English.

Now that I’ve been here for two weeks, things are starting to seem a little more natural. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way people call for the waiter, or the slightly Dickensian attitude of some busy café proprietors. My method of looking up hopefully is clearly not working. Please, Sir, can I have some more coffee?


Two Kinds of Clouds in Kimerc'h

It’s odd to see what another writer has seen, and stranger still to re-envision their imaginings. Even poetry critics who get under the skin of a text and construct an argument don’t always suppose they see the images of the work exactly as the author did. But when you’re translating an author and you get to visit his house, you get a closer look at the sources of his visions.

Paol Keineg, the Breton poet, playwright, and translator whose poems I’ve been working on, was generous enough to invite me to stay with him for the past few days at his home in the village of Kimerc’h. He grew up in this village, going to school ten yards from his house. After living in the US for many years, he has returned here after retiring from Duke.

The house, with its impressive library of French and American poetry, looks out over the hills toward the tip of the Finistère. If Tréguier is a town of vacationers, Kimerc’h is the opposite—families have been living here for centuries. But there are not so many young people in the village anymore, and when we go to dinner at a café (for some of the best scallops I’ve ever tasted, dipped in beurre blanc) the owner says he’s closing soon. His plan: to move to LA.

And the physical landscape is also changing. Brittany used to have many small farmers, but now large-scale agrobusiness is putting a strain on the area. In some places, runoff from the farms makes the tap water undrinkable.

As Paol shows me around the village, he tells me about the school and their repression of the Breton language—a universalism à la Française from which Breton was (and often still is) excluded. Before Paol ever went to school, he saw a teacher hanging a student out the window by his feet as the blood rushed to his head. Speaking the French language was strictly enforced. Now there is a system of schools called Diwan that teach students in both Breton and French.

The more I listen to French, the more my feeling of being in a foreign place is defined by language, by feeling isolated in my American thoughts because I don’t always know what the words around me mean. As Paol and I sit under the mulberry tree in his garden and he (very patiently) answers my questions about his poems, I feel the split between words and places lessen.  When I translate the lines,

              the crow sinks

                                and reappears

                        clouds behind the apples


                of poetic frippery...

I look up to see crows in his neighbor’s apple trees, the boughs heavy with unripe fruit. White clouds pass over the sun. Are these the same crows, and clouds, and apples? The answer doesn’t really matter. What matters is the beauty of the landscape, a beauty that is not to be used lightly, that is not for decoration. 

Côte Rose, Maison Rouge

When I’ve been in Paris for a few days, national vacation month begins. Slowly stores close, and people greet each other like misplaced apparitions—“But aren’t you at the beach?” The sounds of farewell dinners come through the lighted windows.

It’s time for everyone to go toward water, whether it's the "Paris Plages," sand dumped along the banks of the Seine, or the Côte d'Azure. As I leave for Brittany, the Gare Montparnasse is an absolute zoo—screaming children, spilled coffee, women running after trains in their stilettos.

In the town of Tréguier, on the Pink Granite Coast of Brittany, I meet up with Alice Kaplan, one of my French professors from Yale. Some childhood friends of hers have a house there, and they’ve kindly invited me to join their gathering.

The house is made of stone, which looks imposing from the outside, but it opens onto a garden of hydrangeas and rose trees. Since it never gets very cold in Brittany, palms grow alongside apples. The steps from the house down to the garden form a kind of amphitheater, which poet Tony Hoagland and fiction writer Kathleen Lee use to perform a play they have written during their visit. It’s called “La Maison Rouge,” and it includes stolen posters by Toulouse Lautrec, the adventures of fading rock star Jimmy (Jimmi?) Storm, and many sandwiches. The casting draws from the pool of guests—my job is to be the laugh track.

During the day, Alice and I sit in the living room (which we have nicknamed the study hall) and trade translation queries. She is working on a translation of Roger Grenier's Le palais des livres (the English title is Palace of Books) for University of Chicago Press 

 The last morning, we swim off the rocks behind Castel Meur, a house built between two massive granite pilings by an engineer who went to school with Eiffel. The tides are huge here—twenty or thirty feet, and massive rocks jut out of the water. It’s COLD. But once you’ve dunked your head under, swimming seems possible.

As we navigate between boulders, Tony yells out book recommendations for me. I’m laughing and trying not to gulp seawater. “This,” says Alice, “is as close as I get to The Odyssey.”  

ON Kleptomania

I arrive in Paris via Reykjavik, the sunset at midnight slowly becoming the dawn. Immediately, I have to repress the reflex to speak English—when my bag bumps a man’s foot, when I get into a taxi. I tell the driver the address, but worry that he hasn’t understood (it’s such a tiny street, just a few blocks long). No choice now but to wait and hope for the best.

The process of waiting and trusting strangers has always been harder for me when I’m traveling alone. When I’m with other people, the prospect of being lost in a new city seems like an adventure, not an inconvenience. But when you have friends or family with you, they can double-check the route, and you can abandon your bags with them when you go to the café car.

When I’m by myself in American airports and trains, I feel pretty comfortable briefly relying on strangers to watch my stuff or tell me where the train is going. This is partly because I feel in some unsubstantiated way that I know how to pick them—if you have to leave your suitcase alone for a minute, the girl with the college sweatshirt and Vera Bradley bag is a pretty good bet, or the older couple munching sandwiches. Of course, this is a superficial judgment, since these people are just as likely as the rest of the population to be lost kleptomaniacs. Which is to say, not very likely.

In France, I’m much less confident about whom to pick. The businessman reading Primo Levi?  The girl rolling a cigarette? The nice man running the café who gave me an extra espresso? While traveling, this uncertainty is a minor inconvenience, but while learning a second language, it becomes a bigger problem. With native speakers all around me, which ones should I copy? To look at it the other way, College Sweatshirt Girl is surely polite, but if I were a French speaker trying to learn English, I might not want to go around saying totes and ermahgerd. Funny as that would be.

The question of weird idioms and transgressions against the dictionary has even greater consequences for translation. What is normal stylistic usage for one poet might be bizarre for the average French person. So how weird do I make it in English? Is it ermahgerd, ohmigod, oh my god, or dear me? How polite is normal polite?

When I effusively thank my taxi driver (who has found this tiny street without directions, GPS, or any hesitation) I realize I only sort-of know the answer. So for now, I’ll just steal phrases from native speakers like a lost kleptomaniac. And I’ll probably say the French version of ermahgerd. At least once.