Violence and Fear

Sevilla - August 1988

This is where I faced random violence for the first time in my life. Violence?

The place is Sevilla, Spain. I’m taking pictures as usual. Popeye and Swee’ Pea are waiting for me as usual. My camera is brand new and quite expensive. I walk towards the wall and then... two men on a motorcycle. I don’t see them. They are coming from behind my back.

Popeye understands at once what will happen. He’s still quite athletic. He runs towards me and grabs me out of the two men’s reach. We run to our car because they are coming back. I manage to get into the car just in time. Swee’ Pea is scared. (He is 8 yrs old.)

Popeye drives away. The two men will follow us for the longest time, probably hoping to get a second chance.

We go back to the hotel. I’m badly shaken.

Of course, the following morning, we go back to Sevilla and I start taking pictures again but I have to admit that I am a little bit on my guard.

This kind of violence happens every day and everywhere to everybody. Who hasn’t felt threatened one day in his/her life? Once? Twice? Several times?

When it happens, we start blaming the ‘unknown’/the ‘other’.

In Sevilla, the two men belonged to the Spanish gipsy community, so far away from my very quiet French suburbian life.

Fear of the other/unknown gets very toxic in our life. It may even drive us to fall down a spiral of exclusion. We tend to dislike so much whatever is different from us because it may become a danger for us. It may, which doesn’t mean that it will. But... one never knows...

I have noticed that we tend to be more scared of the ‘unknown/other’ when we live in a rather protected and safe environment.

Remember, darkness scared our ancestors. Light was the key to survival.

As soon as dark streets were lit, we started feeling better because we did not realize that petty thievery could and would happen in broad daylight as well.

My grandfather, Bon-Papa Mathieu, used to tell us stories that had happened to him while he was getting wood down to the city and bringing back money and goods for the village. All this with his team of horses.

He was attacked several times by highwaymen. He was lucky enough to slip from their hands.

Those stories were scary.

When we were growing up, we were absolutely sure that our ‘world’ would be very safe, much safer at least.

Well, it is not a safe world. We live in a violent world.

We feel its violence even more because we are basically nonviolent people.

And we feel that we are very unfairly treated which is true. Because this is not the way we would act. We would not steal. We would not rob. We would not... so many things that are done to us.

But please, when very unpleasant things happen to us, let us not pass judgment on people as a whole.

Let us refrain from passing judgment on foreigners, strangers, people who are so different from us.

We have to resist to temptation. No social exclusion. No cultural exclusion. No racial eclusion either.

The first time Les Tertres were burglarized, the policemen went directly to check on one of the most influential and respected families in the village. Wrong move. The young man they were thinking of was already in jail for another burglary.

Quite a joke, isn’t it?

Not for his parents, of course. They had to live with his shortcomings and the constant mockery from the villagers.

You see, there are no Arabs in our village.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Where Did The Church Bells Go?

And why didn’t they stop at Les Tertres on their way back from Rome?

Easter Sunday was a beautiful day - sunny and warm. When he woke up, Popeye said to me: «Why don’t we take a walk around the garden? Maybe we’ll find some Easter eggs there.»

I looked at him, quite flabbergasted. And then: «This is a joke!»

We laughed but at the same time, we felt a littlke bit sad because it’s been many years since the bells have left eggs in our garden on their way back from Rome.

To those of you who live in countries where bells don’t fly to Rome and back, I’ll have to explain this very French (and Catholic) tradition.

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. This happens on Easter Sunday.

Before and after Easter Sunday, there are many very important days in the catholic liturgy.

On Maundy Thursday (the Thursday preceding Easter Sunday), the church bells become silent and only resume their ringing on Sunday to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.

From a theological standpoint, their silence mean that the faithful are crying over Jesus’ crucifixion.

French children are taught that on Thursday, the village church bells fly away to Rome to be blessed by the Pope (Head of the Catholic Church) and on their way back, during the night between Saturday and Sunday, they scatter chocolate eggs all over gardens and houses where children live.

Some chocolate eggs even end up falling through chimneys and opened windows in city apartments.

No need to be a believer, a true Christian. Bells are loving beings, filled with holiness and they give their eggs to all children alike. (Well, at least this was still true a century ago - the XXth century when Swee’ Pea was a child.)

On Sunday morning (Easter Sunday), bells start ringing and ringing and ringing. Christ is risen.

On Easter Sunday morning, children wake up quite early (some a long time before Mass time) and go hunting for eggs (ie looking for eggs wherever the parents have hidden them).

Bells are flying quite high on their way back from Rome and eggs are scattered everywhere. But children love so much looking for them (and finding as many as they can) that they are very, very active. Amazingly active especially when there are several children around the place.

When we were growing up, the bells started scattering chocolate bunnies and chocolate bells and chocolate hens. The hens make sense of course because of the eggs. The bunnies were probably picked up from bells flying from Germany to Rome since the Easter Bunny is more German than French.

When children have outgrown the habit of «hunting» eggs, you still can buy chocolate eggs and hens and bells and rabbits. Actually, the Easter season starts quite early in stores, just the way Christmas starts early in our Western consumerism.

When you go visiting people, you are supposed to give them Easter eggs just like this one... just the way you give away chocolates for Christmas and lily of the valley on the 1rst of May.

I even wonder if children even listen to the bells nowadays. I doubt it.

One great thing about Easter eggs - If you don’t have much money nor much desire to spend money on chocolate eggs, you still can have eggs to hide in your garden. You buy eggs, boil them hard in water with natural  coloring. There they are, edible and nutritious Easter eggs and fun to find in the garden.

As soon as we bought Les Tertres, we always had wonderful egg hunts of course... even when it was raining hard outside. (It rains very often at Easter time in Brittany.) The eggs would be hidden all over the house if not in the garden and trees.

And sometimes we really wondered when the children would get tired of hunting eggs, especially when they became teenagers. But they kept the tradition alive for quite a long time.

I think that the last egg hunt happened in 1993. Swee’ Pea and his friends were 13ish. Well, it was a lot of fun!
1993 - M.A. and his booty

This year, Easter was very sunny and warm in Brittany but the church bells didn’t stop over Les Tertres... On Sunday, we heard them ringing from the steeple,  2.4 miles away because a very strong southwest wind was blowing.

I don’t want to believe our garden was empty because we don’t have children around any longer.

This makes more sense and is a lot more satisfying, don’t you think?


"Lost?! What do you mean? We are lost?! Next year, I'll buy a GPS!!"

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


"Queremos el cielo que veía Chanquete"

One morning in Madrid, on my way back to the hotel, I almost collided with a few demonstrators.

A handful of demontrators with a few banners. Very quiet. On the corner of two streets. Trying to establish a contact with passers-by.

Obviously it was all about air pollution. I don’t know whether it was about pollution in Madrid or in Spain in general . One of the banners said: «Nos estan fumigando.» («They are smoking us out» - no relation with tobacco though since other banners were pictures of the traces aircrafts leave in the sky.)

I suffer so much from respiratory allergies due to city air pollution that I kind of laughed. I was breathing so well in Madrid. Not many cars around besides cabs. Nothing to be compared with the terrible pollution in Paris and Brussels due to traffic congestion.

So I looked at the demonstrators, took a few pictures. I did not dare to start talking with them. I am too ashamed of my rusty spanish. It’s good enough to walk around but definitely not apt to a political discussion with students. (They definitely looked like students.)

And while I was walking away, I noticed a policeman who was obviously getting ready to hand a ticket to one of the demonstrators.
I then read the banner the girl was holding. It said: "Queremos ver al cielo que veía Chanquete." ("We want to see the sky that Chanquete was seeing.")
Quite different from the other banners all about air pollution.

The sky that Chanquete was seeing? I tried to remember what I knew about Spain and famous Spaniards.

I called Popeye: "Tell me, who is Chanquete?"

He had no idea even though he’s almost more Spanish than French.

So, what is left to do when you have access to the web in your hotel room?

Google «Chanquete» of course.

I was expecting to discover he had been one of the first Spanish environmentalists... since he obviously was no longer alive but was still fondly recalled during an anti-pollution demonstration.

How wrong one can be!

Chanquete is totally fictional. He was the hero of a Spanish tv show from the 80’s called ‘Verano Azul’ (Blue Summer).

Antonio Ferrandis was Chanquete .

Chanquete was an old fisherman living in his old boat, in a small village in Andalucia (Southern Spain). Teenagers came to vacation there. The whole weekly show was about lessons taught by a very wise old man to those kids to help them have a better life.

Chanquete died at the end of the show. I imagine that "lesson time" was over... The 90's were looming.

"Verano Azul" still is very famous and it is aired every summer in Spain. It also was on the air in France as well... in the early eighties. (I know now that by not watching tv, I have been missing a lot...)

When something goes wrong in the world... like a pollution problem, I always wonder about what my great-grandfather (Bon-Papa) would have thought about it. And I know that I kind of look back on his life with nostalgy - even though he had to go through two major wars.

Spanish people also have a grandfather to look up to - Chanquete, of course. It makes it far easier for everybody to understand that once, there was a better world, environmentally speaking.

Muchas gracias, Chanquete.

*Good Luck, and Good Night.


"Do not regret getting older. It is a privilege denied to many." Unknown

I love Greek mythology. There is always a story that fits my daily life and thoughts.

Right now I’m quite into Oedipus (and Sophocles because one of my nieces is playing «Antigone» right now).

For those of you who are not this interested in mythology, Oedipus had a long life filled with tragedy. Well myths are seldom happy stories but they are filled with wisdom.

To make it short, Oedipus is travelling to Thebes. At the city doors, he meets a Sphynx.

(This creature asked a riddle to every traveller on his way toThebes. Since the answer was always wrong, it then killed its victim.)

The riddle: «What walks on four feet in the morning, on two in the afternoon and three at night?»

Oedipus’ answer:
«Man - as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs; when he gets old, he relies on a walking stick.»

Right answer, of course. End of the Sphinx. Thebes is free again and the story goes on...

This riddle and its answer are the story of our life.

We are born. We grow up and we get old.

Some say that at the very second we are born, we start aging and we are on our way to death. Which can be true to a scientific mind but very unsatisfactory for people like you and me.

And then tragedy strikes.

Someone takes his own life.  Others die in accidents.  People suffer from cancers or terrible diseases. Wars and revolutions claim lives - children, adults and old people.

I remember lying on an hospital bed, 52 months ago, while emergency physicians were trying to stop a raging infection after some cancer related surgery. I felt so tired and feverish that I never even realized that I was dying.

Somehow a miracle happened and I survived.

I still had a very hard chemo to face and my future looked rather bleak.

Then Popeye (who hadn’t left my side for a long time) said something that I found quite interesting at the time and which has never left my mind ever since.

«From now on, every day of your life is extra. Now you have to live as fully as you can.»

Those of you who know me are already aware that I’m surviving from a very bad cancer.

To all of you who are alive, feeling good or sick, young and old alike, I only have one thing to say...

«Do not regret getting older. It is a privilege denied to many.»

I feel so glad my hair is turning white. I feel so glad I have lines on my face. (Well sometimes I’d really like to look much younger!)

I feel glad even though I know that I will no longer do a lot of things I enjoyed doing...

Because all this is extra and I AM ALIVE and GETTING OLDER every day.

Wishing I’ll get even older and older. And welcoming the very idea of getting older with so much joy.

Because so many people around me never had this chance and will forever be 6 months old, 9, 18, 37, 40, 62, 81 years old...

This post is dedicated to my dear sister Myrna who kind of woke me up with her last post. Thank you for writing about "Do not regret getting older."

This post is also dedicated to my dear Yvonne who should have been 82 today.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." Winston Churchill

When our Canadian boy announced on Facebook that he’d be taking part in a cycling trip through Quebec to raise money for cancer research, he dedicated his pledge to his friend Eric who died of cancer not too long ago (and quite young).

While I was reading his pledge, it brought to my mind all my friends who have been fighting this terrible illness, so terrible that in France, people still hesitate to name it clearly. Cancer’s name is ‘a long illness.’

It upsets me a lot since I believe that you can’t fight something with no name.

So cancer it is and cancer it will be.

As I said before, many friends fought or are fighting cancer. Some won the battle. Some are on their way to victory. Some were defeated and died.

I come from a family who has been totally cancer free which amazes me a lot mainly because I do not enjoy being the exception that proves the rule.

We were cancer free but a few members of our extended family did have to fight cancer.

When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, a cancer specialist thought it funny to welcome me into the ‘big cancer family.’ I hated the idea but it is true that somehow cancer patients are bound together, a little bit like family members. We all go through the same anguish and fear, the same treatments (more or less) and we all hope we are going to pull through.

When a cancer patient dies on you, you are loosing a part of yourself too.

My cousin Pierrette who was ten years older than me belonged to this cancer family.

She was my cousin’s wife (on my mother’s side). They met in high school when they were 14. They became very good friends and then they fell in love or maybe it was the other way around.

My Bonne-Maman’s brother, Martial and his wife, ‘adopted’ her when my cousin brought her home to meet them when he learnt her story (quite impressive considering that this happened in 1948).

She was an orphan raised by her sister who was 10 years older than her. The two girls had lost their father, mother, sister and brother to cancer in a very short time.

My cousins  got married very young, right after graduating from high school. They went to the same university. They taught PE in the same high shool. They were briefly separated when he had to do his military service. But he managed to come home every week-end. By then, they already had two sons.

Both were accomplished athletes with national and international fame. He was a volleyball player and she was a famous swimmer.

They were happy people. As I grew up, I got very close to her. When you are a teenager, you desperately need role models. She was my role model.

In 1964, they decided to try to have a baby girl. Well, they got another baby boy!

He was six months old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer? At the time, little was known about what was to become a national scourge.

We were devastated. It was so unfair. There she was, so young and athletic and living such a healthy life. Of course, there was her family history but the cancers they had died of were not related to breast cancer.

I was sixteen at the time. My Bonne-Maman and I, we left home to spend a few weeks with them. The children needed us, especially the baby.

Surgery had been extensive and quite rough. This was the only way known to try to cure cancer at the time.

She was a fighter and pretty soon she resumed her life without caring too much about all her scars and pains and worries. I remember her laughing about it all, saying that anyway they had decided not to have a large family.

In France (and maybe elsewhere), when you get cancer, you are kind of ostracized. In the 1960’s, the school system didn’t want her to go back to teaching PE. She fought hard but to no avail. She was feeling perfectly fit but she had been through cancer and this was the end of her teaching career.

She then decided she could do a lot of good to unwanted children... children with Down’s syndrome. She took classes again and she found a job in an institution. She taught them well. She loved them and never complained. An unwanted woman working with unwanted children.

She was feeling so good though that we started hoping that she would survive after all. We did believe that some day, someone would discover THE therapy... This was the end of the 60s.

We hoped and hoped.

One day, she felt really sick again. Cancer had come back. Metastases. By then they had started using chemo, a deadly treatment at the time. She needed a lot of blood transfusions. So we went and gave our blood. It became so natural to give our blood... One phone call and off we went to the hospital.

She was a fighter and she survived quite a few years. In between chemos, she tried to live a normal life for her children’s sake. She was too weak to resume teaching but she still was hoping that one day...

But for her, there would be no miracle.

I still think a lot about her. Over the years, the pain and the hurt and the anger have softened. She was very present in my heart when they told me I had breast cancer. Because I knew what I was in for.

I was very surprised though when I discovered that chemo no longer was the appalling form of torture she had been through.

But I was even more surprised when I realized that doctors were still completely at a loss to explain cancer and the chances one had to survive.

I know that during those past seven years, she has been alive in my memory and many times I have found strength in her fierce will to survive.

In Southern France, we have very strong Northern winds. When you are playing ball on the beach and the ball flyes away to the sea, it’s impossible and even very dangerous to swim and try to catch it. Its speed on the waves is amazing and it disappears very quickly... on its way to Africa. (This is what we used so say!)

My dear cousin was the only person we knew who was able to recover our lost balls. She was such an amazing swimmer even when she had been through extensive surgery a few months before.

Maybe some of you will think she was crazy. I believe she was the bravest woman on earth. She was a fighter.

Everytime things would get very rough for me, I’d bring back to life my cousin Pierrette who had so much spunk in her to dive into a very cold sea to bring back their runaway ball to her children even though she was  so disabled.

The cure we had been hoping for when she was still alive hasn’t been found yet. 47 years later.

A lot of things have improved though, enough to give hope to whoever is diagnosed with cancer. New screening tests. New chemos. New treatments.

And now all I have to do is to close my eyes and rejoice because my cousin never failed to recover our vanishing balls after all. For years and years.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Roommates or baby-sitters?

When Swee’ Pea called us to let us know that he would be coming to Paris for a workshop with his lab, we were overjoyed!

Just imagine! All in all, we were sure to have him around for almost three long weeks. First week in Paris for his workshop. (Then one week of work in Nice - we’d survive). Then back to Paris because he had to get ready for the entrance examination to the CNRS (the French ‘SERC’ or ‘NSF’) which was scheduled during the first week of April.

One last call before he left California and we decided that being in Paris during workshop time would not be a good idea at all. This was mid March.

We did go to Paris to pick him up at the airport and we left by train in the evening, I think.

Surprise, surprise! We showed up in his antediluvian, rudimentary and beloved Land Rover... he had not seen nor driven ever since he went to California. This kid will never realize how much we love him!

Back to Belgium, Brussels was dreary and cold as usual. So I kept on working hard in the house and Popeye went to work as usual.

We came back to Paris while he was working in Nice. We did not act on a whim. It was check-up time at the hospital for me. And Popeye needed some servicing too!

The week went by very quickly. Swee’ Pea came back for good for two very small weeks but he was there.

I am very foolish, I know. I had kind of planned a few days in Brittany (because I thought that Brittany would do a lot of good to our exhausted and stressed out son). Popeye was feeling a little bit left out but he had planned on taking a few days of rest from work if...

Well, Brittany was a NO-WAY, i.e. ‘I’m so stressed out that I can’t bear going to Brittany. It’s too quiet there. I need to keep fueling my stress. This is how it works, Mum, you know.’

I did not know but I nodded and thought that those two weeks were bound to be quite interesting.

I never said anything about one night at the Opera. Nothing about going out to a nice restaurant. I never said anything about having friends over for the fun of it... I never said anything. Good girl.

I warned Popeye about Swee’ Pea needing to fuel his stress... which might mean that the two of us should be packing and off to Brussels again

We had a long talk with our stressed-out-and-exhausted son. He asked us to stay with him in Paris.

And once more we came to the conclusion that the day you have a baby, you have a child for you to take care of all your life long. Of course, we already knew this but sometimes you tend to forget the facts of life.

Now, don’t take me wrong. Swee’ Pea is extremely independent and quite capable of taking care of himself. He has been living away from home (us) and on his own for quite a looooong time, all things considered.

We realized that by merely staying in Paris, we would help him go through the ‘ordeal’. He would have survived on his own of course but he needed to spend a lot of time working and getting ready for the BIG day. He had this PPT presentation to prepare. To prepare is not the right word. If you know Swee’ Pea, you’ll understand that he had to bring it to perfection.

We would have to adapt ourselves to hard days ahead!

Actually, it was kind of fun if fun means living parallel lives, trying not to collide... Popeye went to work. Swee’ Pea worked on his PPT presentation. I lived my life while doing some weird kind of 'baby-sitting'.

Actually, Swee’ Pea wasn’t hard to live with. I only had to learn not to talk too much. Hard, hard, hard. Very hard.

It also was very strange to live my own life in a rather cramped apartment while not being quite on my own.

We did get along just fine though. It was amazing because we hadn’t live this close and this long together for years.

I discovered that silence is a NO when you are working but lucky me, I liked his music.

I volunteered to do his laundry and he liked it.

I didn’t know what to fix for lunch since he’s mostly veggie (vegan?) now. No problem. He was very accommodating. And it was allright. Popeye took care of supper. And it was allright. too.

Yes, things went pretty smoothly... Let’s say that from time to time, his stress and ours did clash but not for long and only very occasionally. Miracles happen!

Then the day of reckoning came! Two boards of examiners to face. One in the morning. The second in the afternoon. Swee’ Pea did amazingly well... except that you don’t get accepted in the CNRS this easily, especially not the first time. We all know that but nevertheless, it went fine. The PPT presentation proved to be apt to the occasion.

Too bad our roommate had to fly back to LA, ASP which meant... the following morning.

And now we miss him... a lot.

Who would have thought it would be so much fun to have a stressed out roommate again? Who would have thought it would be so much fun to do some kind of ‘baby-sitting’ too?

Lucky us.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


No April Fool's Day for me - The miracle happened again!

I should be used to check-ups by now. I’ve been living with cancer for 7 years now, haven’t I.

And I obviously liked it so much that during those 7 years, I had two cancers, the last one with metastases.

Actually I did not like having cancer but I can’t help it. I have to make fun of it because otherwise I would go bonkers.

I remember my favorite joke... lame joke, I know.

In France, people are crazy about their horoscope, maybe not as much as our Chinese friends though... So every time I would be asked what sign (of the zodiac) I was born under, I’d answer: ‘Well, I’m Cancer with Cancer ascendant.’

‘You can’t. It’s impossible.’

‘Oh yes? Let’s then say that I am Cancer with cancer.’


Now I hate myself for joking this way. My poor excuse: I do not believe in signs of the zodiac. And at the time, it was obvious something was wrong with me. Like wearing a (non Islamic) head scarf when it’s really, really hot outside. Or not looking good after all!

People, open your eyes! And don’t ask stupid questions.

Now that the nightmare is getting more and more distant (44 months since last chemo, in April), I go through less check-ups... One every three months.

I try not to skip them. Sometimes I do. Oops!

I will not forget the last one, this one. The March 2011 one . Blood test as usual. MRI and CT scans. The whole work. Very important and scary.

Because yes, I still get scared.

I spent the previous week making my family and my friends very miserable.

‘What if? What if?’

Well, I was feeling pretty miserable too... (and very selfish and very stupid... because I needed to hear those words: ‘Everything will be fine.’ I needed to hear them again and again even though I did not believe them anyway.)

During the week of the check-up, it did not get any better.

I got so scared that even when my favorite radiologist who is so good and talented and so straightforward, looked at me with a big grin on his face and told me that everything was ok, I did not believe him.

I told everybody everything was fine but I did not believe it.

I went home and read every one of the reports. I always found one word or two that could actually mean something was wrong, really wrong. This was the way my distorted mind kept working night and day and day and night.

On Monday, Popeye and I, we went together to my appointment with my oncologist.

We were in this big waiting room along with another woman. Obviously in chemo (wig and harassed look).

I wanted so much to talk to her except that this new waiting room makes it hard to bond with people.

She was called into the doctor’s office. By then I was a total wreck and I had the hardest time understanding why.

I had been told that my MRI and scans were good. My blood test was excellent. Why was I feeling so stressed?

The woman came out, looking very tired and depressed. The oncologist was very nice to her, which is always a sure sign that something is really wrong. I’ve lived through this, remember.

Then he turned to us, a huge grin on his face: ‘Well, there you are! Come in, come in, both of you.’

A big hug and then I felt like crying. Stupid me. Why had I been so stupid? Why had I spoiled my loved ones’ life?

This man is very bright and intuitive. One look at me and he said: ‘Oh no. You did it again. You are a fine photographer. Keep to photography. We are doctors. Trust us and let us decide whether or not you are fine.’

Then he laughed and said that I’ve always been as stubborn as a mule which is also probably the reason why I’m still alive, after all!

He ended up scheduling the next check-up in September. Quite a big change. Six months from now. Amazing.

Cancer is already going away from my mind and will stay away for many months now.

I only loose my head at check-up time...

And you know what? If the oncologist had told me that cancer was really back, I would have looked at him: ‘Back to fighting again. When do we start?’

This is really crazy, I know but I can’t help it!

I’m not flawless after all.

Oh, really?

*Good Luck, and Good Night*