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Month: September 2008

there are no rats in paris

Drafts piling up. Today was spent chasing apartments, avoiding dog poo, buying turn-of-last-century documents and notebooks about how great The Crusades were and chronicling l’Outre Mer conquests/savageries. And voila, the first pair of crocs I’ve seen in ages. Rive Mal-a-Droit. Juxtaposition is lazy, I know.

I spent my Saturday night at Gare d’Austerlitz. Rolled in about eight, bought a ticket, and baulked when I saw the next train wouldn’t be leaving for another three hours. What kind of chicanery?! I tried to sneak onto other trains, but not a one pointed in my direction. Fuck. Phone dead, I stuck my carte bleue into a public phone and made the requisite local and longdistance calls. Magazines, the communist paper, a paperback. I prepared to settle in for a long wait.

I blamed Moussa for making me late for the earlier train. I had been so starved for sharp conversation.

That afternoon: NY cap sunk low alloverprintcamohoodie, he jogged backwards beside me for a good Blvd Voltaire block before I finally took out one earbud to listen to him. “Jolie fleur!” he called out. Vous etes une jolie fleur. What are you doing? Are you going somewhere? Can I talk to you for a minute?

The fleur part was true enough, so I took out the other earbud and paused.

Moussa, 27, from banlieue, he comes downtown to hang with friends on weekends. A few of them kept shuffling over or calling to him from the bench they sat on up the street, and he’d run off briefly, face and hands apologetic, to faire business. We talked sociale and literacy and public health and boredom in the banlieue and young people and soccer and how to flip different masks and uniforms depending on the circumstance or threat. So many of the same plotlines, modified by language, migratory paths, textiles. But so same. He wanted to take me out for a coffee, he said, but he wouldn’t break fast for another hour. We parted ways with a salam alaikum, an alaikum salam, a pound.

I turned toward Bastille, carrying the deadweight of my dossiers (requisite for my (infuriatingly fruitless) apartment search) under one arm. Earbuds back in, back to the mixtape still rolling. Five train, direction Porte d’Italie. My favourite metro moment comes after Quai de la Rapée, once you pull out of the tunnel and onto this lovely, weathered, graffiti-smothered bridge over the Seine. Layers of decay, gray waters, sparkling sunshine, and the slow, sexy sway of the train, right to left, as it crosses. Next stop, Austerlitz.

Amadou, 21, hit me up by the entrance. I was leaning, holding my reading materials, looking outside for an exit strategy that didn’t exist. Not two minutes and he was offereing me hash, mixtapes, and his phonenumber. He wanted to know what I was listening to.

“Weezy. Vous connaissez?”

Ah, word word word, or whatever the French equivalent of “word” is. “Do you like Rick Ross?” he asked, and then pulled out his little mp3 player. Boombox 2008. He put some Biggie on and was amazed when I called it. I asked for French rap and he obliged, getting me extra excited over the Comorien joints. He had most of one front tooth missing and got a faraway look in his eyes when I messed up a word or conjugation. He wouldn’t correct me, he’d just let my fuckups roll off the sides and move along with the conversation. “I thought Canadians were supposed to speak French?”

Back inside the gare, there was nowhere to sit but on the concrete floor. There are no benches — benches are for resting, they’re places for people to congregate comfortably, an invitation to loiterers, the homeless, the aimless. With nowhere to sit they’re left to wander, pace, float around like ghosts.

After three hours at the train station, I started to feel like a ghost too.

you’ve got to know where your towel is

I’m late on this. Kardinal was on Jay Leno last week and, oops, he mmmmmmashed it again:

I won’t get into how boring I think Akon is (okay I will: he’s really boring), but I do want to take a moment to profess my love for an under-appreciated hero: the likkle white towel. I got misty-eyed when Kardi whipped out the soca and started twirling that piece of cloth like a helicopter over his head. The sight of it made me sigh with nostalgia.

Oh, the towel.

Hip-hop towel, sweat towel, fête towel, call it what you will. It has long been not only a trapper of moisture but an accessory and a symbol. When you bring one of those towels to a jam, everyone knows you mean business. If a gang of people walk in with them — woowee! Keep your stamina up, kid, cause you know that party’s going to go allll night. I guess it’s something like the equivalent of bringing lawn chairs to a parade. If you’re about it, you’re about it.

Toss it over one shoulder, let it hang around your neck, drag out your back pocket, or flex a two-hand grip and lean into it. Wave your towel in the air when you’re feeling good, or wrap it around someone who’s looking good. It is multi-purposed — though not multi-use. The towel has always got to be fresh.

Big love to all my towel-rockers on dancefloors all over the world. Keep dabbing, yanking and twirling. Don’t stop til the ugly lights come on.


that’s why they call it your mother tongue

Vai through o park, a laneway, atras das hythro poles. Chega a casa safety. Nao tomas o tunnel a noite, okai?


My aunt speaks Portuguese with a French accent.

While my parents left Portugal for Angola and then Canada, my mother’s sister immigrated to France with her husband. Three or more decades later, she’s already forgotten so much of her mother’s tongue. The bits she does speak make her sound as though she just picked up a few lessons on a “Learn Portuguese in 5 Easy Steps!” tape. Neither of her two sons speak a word, and at some point, they all changed their last name from Ferreira to Ferry. When she greets me in the morning she sings “Bonjour, Suzanne!” Never Susana.

“They call it your mother tongue for a reason.” I remember reading that line in a book somewhere, a collection of essays and reflections by bilingual authors, writers that had been thrust (or had thrust themselves) into environments where they could no longer use their native language, or started to forget the words, or had to write in words not entirely familiar to them. They wrote about the idea of home in words.

It is called your mother tongue, they wrote, because it is the first to introduce you to the world around you. It teaches you the names of things, the colour and temperature of your emotions, the shape of your thoughts. It carves and paints your reality.

My mother’s tongue is my first one too, and it painted my world — though with some twists. Here’s my messy language timeline:

Portuguese, as an infant, started learning at home. English, five, started learning in kindergarten and from cartoons. French, six or seven, started learning in the first grade I think. Spanish and Arabic came much later. Somewhere in between, my parents picked up some English and Italian.

By the time I turned 10, my head was good and cluttered with too many words for the same things, and my mother tongue began to take on a new form. It shifted from elementary Portuguese to more of a hybrid — a mix of three or more languages, hand movements, sound effects, and exaggerated facial expressions. I speak it fluently, as does my family and a lot of the kids I grew up with, all of us making it up along the way. Our accent is exclusive to Toronto — specifically, within the borders of Rogers Rd, Oakwood and Ossington, Dundas, Lansdowne. It’s as hyper-local as a language can get.

* *

I spent a few weeks this summer working as a translator/ interpreter for a group of Brazilians. I had worked with the same group the year before, so I tried to anticipate and accommodate their accent, their grammatical quirks, their style of expression.

“Ehhh, Portugal!” they call me. “Oi, Portuguesa, tudo bom, tudo bom?”

My accent, of course, is nothing like a Portuguese-from-Portugal accent. I don’t even speak real Portuguese words half the time — something the Brazilians are happy to point out. It was only a few years ago that I realized the words my parents had used for “sneaker” or “appointment” or “cheap” were actually just the English words with heavy accents. It reminded me of Acadian French in how makes sense where you come from, but is totally inaccessible everywhere else.

Both Junot Diaz and Ta-Nehisi Coates have said that they’ve long been accustomed to not understanding everything they hear or read, to not picking up every reference or SAT word. That’s why, if their audiences don’t exactly pick up on everything they say or write, it’s no thing. It’s fine to be confused or left out sometimes. We feel that all the time.

In my assignments for journalism school, I’d always get called out for not explaining the meaning of every “exotic” word in parentheses, so as to demystify it for my reader. My prof would scrawl, in red: What’s a salwar kameez? Help the reader. My silent retort was: If my reader doesn’t know what a salwar kameez is, they’d better find out. Instead, I always obliged with a definition.

[Sidebar: as happy as I am that Da Kink In My Hair scored itself a TV deal, and with Global of all networks, I’m a little put-off by the “speak patois” section of the website. I mean, it’s by no means exhaustive, and some of that shit is pretty funny and poignant, but I imagine it came out of a request from Global execs for the ladies to “de-mystify” their language for a broader audience. I think those who watch and can’t decode the patois bits should enjoy their confusion. It’s good for you. Shouts to Oakwood & Vaughn! Brrrrap!]

Language and communication are too elastic to be held down by borders, to alive to be held down by fear. Hybrid-weirdo-language or not, my mother’s tongue is my own. It’s speaks volumes to where I come from, how I’ve been raised, and how my world is painted. That’s not something you let go of for nothing.