Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations.  [Sic] means the previous word appears as per the original. Italics show when Nicaise himself uses English.

Spoken English: The real thing [Nicaise's French title for this section, "L'anglais tel qu'on le parle," is the name of a popular, much-revived vaudeville play by French playwright Tristan Bernard]

          I was on the best of terms with one of my neighbors, a friendly retiree and former mechanic named Hubert Quillen. He was a straightforward fellow who peppered his speech with grammatical errors that even a foreigner could easily detect. When we first met, he asked me what church I went to; I think that he, like Mary, didn't go to one himself. Shaking my hand, he said to me:
          - Call me Hubert, Mr. Nicaise. By the way, what's your first name?
          - John!
          The French name "Jean" is unpronounceable for the average American. Moreover in America it's a female first name with the same pronunciation as the one universally given to the cowboy pants so many men and women wear today.
          - Well, John, there're two things you must know. Never say "a Yankee," say "a damn Yankee."  [In a footnote Nicaise writes that contrary to the European practice of lumping all Americans into the single word Yankee, Americans use it only for Northerners, and Southerners give it a pejorative connotation.] And never say "a Negro," say "a big fat nigger." [Having given these sentences in English, Nicaise then translates them into French.]
          He added:
          "Those damn Yankees don't speak the same language as we do! Anyway, how do you expect to get along with people that put sugar on their cantaloupe?"
          I've never tried eating this juicy fruit with salt, the way they do in the South.
          Hubert helped me find and buy a used car, a 1955 Plymouth, for four hundred dollars, which was 20% less than what I'd sold my Opel for.
          [Here an uncaptioned photo shows Nicaise behind the wheel of his 1955 Plymouth.]
          In the light of Hubert's linguistic advice, I wasn't surprised at the problems I encountered understanding the people I spoke with. A French-speaking Belgian visiting France will find that the French don't speak the language the same way as at home: the French have lunch when a Belgian has dinner; they have dinner when we have supper. Our chicory is their endive, our pots are their casseroles, our casseroles then become their deep-dish. At the [French] butcher shop, a Belgian faces all kinds of unknown cuts. At the grocer's, if I have the misfortune to order a score of grams of something, they look at you funny until you correct yourself and say twenty.
          As for the American language, the humorist Frank Loxley Griffin has written a pamphlet called Learn English Before You Go that gives advice to Americans planning to go to England. Admittedly, Griffin and Hubert exaggerate, and everyone speaks more or less the same language everywhere but with accents as different as someone from Toulouse [the south of France] compared with someone from Dunkerque [extreme northern France]. Here the natives always seem to have an accent that drags like the blades of their ceiling fans. They use expressions that are purely Southern and litter their speech with idiomatic expressions, or slang, that aren't taught in schools or in language methods like Assimil. The youth, like youth everywhere, have their own jargon and speak more "slang" than the adults.
          Most of you have learned that in right, bright, night (sometimes written nite in the US), the "i" is pronounced "aïe." Not in Tennessee! What you hear is closer to râte, brât, and nât. To render the sound of the personal pronoun "I," Margaret Mitchell writes it as "Ah" in Gone with the Wind.
          At the beginning of September, Mary left for Belgium. She had introduced Renee to her acquaintances, most importantly to her old friend and our neighbor Rose Quillen, a former schoolteacher who now worked at the post office. She was to be our mentor -- our nanny -- throughout our stay. Mary had also made Renee familiar with the city and its shops, especially the supermarket, a novelty for a Belgian in 1958. She'd taken her around the surrounding area and up into Virginia. Gate City is the nearby town where she went to buy her whisky.
          The French spoken by this teacher of French was really quite elementary. I needn't have been embarrassed at my English, which after all was not the language that I taught. We only conversed in English. I did fine and was at ease everywhere. But Renee had only studied the Assimil method for three months, and without the records, which were too expensive! Of course those were three months during which she applied herself with her usual perseverance. But I would always regret that the short learning period, together with her timidity and lack of confidence in her ability, did not seem to me to prepare her to be thrown into a foreign language, especially when there was somebody right there who taught French. Indeed, even when the ladies were by themselves, they spoke English to one another! It was all for the best, as it turned out, because it gave my wife the assurance she needed to get through the overwhelming change in her very tranquil life provoked by her adventurous husband.
          Very sorry to see Mary go -- because she was delightful and we had gotten attached to her -- we then found ourselves alone in the house. We had rented it from her at an attractive price, but it lacked the comfort that we expected to find in the United States, and even that of our home in Chatelet. We didn't bother to look for an apartment that might have been more comfortable but more expensive. With just one salary, particularly the modest one in Tennessee compared to that of other states, we wanted to save as much as possible so as to be able to visit other parts of the United States.
          As it was, we made do with the bare minimum: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a big kitchen. The living room was poorly furnished: a worn-out couch and the indispensable rocking chair. There was no television even though in 1958 most homes had them. The radio was shabby.
          There was also a study where Mary had so much stuff that it was unusable. I can't recall if that's where her library was. Anyway, I never borrowed a single book.
          The old steam boiler for the natural gas central heating system didn't like us very much. When the thermostat, set at night to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, decided it was time to get going, the too-abruptly-expanded cast-iron radiators protested with such a loud clanging that it woke us up.

[Translated from the French by Jud Barry]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

Nicaise was a Belgian exchange teacher who taught at Dobyns-Bennett during the 1958-1959 school year. 

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations.  [Sic] means the previous word appears as per the original. Italics show when Nicaise himself uses English.

Segregation

          I tried to understand the attitude of white Americans who did everything they could to prevent a middle-class black from moving into a "white" neighborhood. They said it was because the day after tomorrow their property value would diminish by half. How could you put up with being ruined?
          Truth be told, the newspaper of my little adopted city reported racist excesses so as to deplore them. Industries such as Eastman Kodak, among others, with numerous workers and management from the North, had inspired a more broadminded attitude. In addition, French and Belgian engineers worked at Blue Ridge Glass Corporation, whose majority stockholders are the French Saint-Gobain and the Belgian Saint-Roch.
          Blacks made up hardly five percent of the population, since historically agricultural property was too small to use slaves as laborers, compared with the cotton states. Rather, they came from Georgia and worked as domestics for the local bourgeoisie. It wasn't until 1959-60 that the timid beginnings school integration began. The colored students were admitted gradually, beginning with the first grade. It wasn't even done this soon in many cities in the South. Thus, in October, 1962, encouraged by Ross Barnett, the racist governor of Mississippi, rioters occupied the campus of the university of that state to prevent access to the premises by James Meredith, the first Black to be registered there. Two people were killed and 20,000 federal troops were sent to restore order!
          Georgia became famous a bit later in the rear-guard struggle against integration. In 1964 a certain Lester Maddox, the owner of a fried chicken restaurant in Atlanta, armed some of his customers with pickaxe handles to hit any "nigger" who tried to eat at his establishment. It was the same year (only 30 years in advance of the widely-condemned South Africa) when, finally, the Civil Rights Act, signed by President Johnson, made official segregation illegal! In 1966 Maddox, despite his political inexperience, succeeded in being elected governor! His speeches, both before and after his election, bore the stamp of segregationist rhetoric; they fortunately were not followed up with action and did nothing to slow integration. Blackballed during the following election, he opened a tourist shop in an Atlanta suburb where he sold, among other things, miniature autographed pickaxe handles.
          [In a footnote to this paragraph, Nicaise writes: Reported by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, two of my former Kingsport students, in 1000 Things Everyone should know about the South, ed. Baltam [sic] Dell Publishing Group, Inc, New York, 1996. Their idyll, ended by marriage, had begun in school …]
          Before the Civil Rights Act, playing fields, sports teams, nurseries, schools of all levels, and libraries throughout the South rigorously separated the "races."
          [Nicaise adds a note: I use quotation marks here because the word "races" is unacceptable. There is "the human race," within which several groups are differentiated.]
          I went to teach Whites at Dobyns-Bennett High School. For their high school, Blacks attended Douglas High School, which was clearly substandard, as we will soon see.
          Three days before back-to-school, set for September 1, the teachers all meet to prepare. The new ones get acquainted. Speakers come to share their experience. One of them describes to us in great detail the proper way to use the blackboard; another tells us how to cut little people out of paper. Have I somehow come to the wrong school? Have I come to the elementary section by mistake? No, I am actually at a High school, the upper level of secondary school.
          There wasn't any segregation at this initial school year get-together. The "colored" teachers were also invited to Dobyns-Bennett. During our entire stay, this was the only time that I ever saw such a mix. A black colleague, Oscar Gill, asked me if I could help him with a new assignment, teaching French. He already taught music and math, even though his white colleagues were assigned one or rarely two subjects, as is the case in Europe. He had studied French for a few months in the course of his own education. I invited him to my house the following Sunday. He came with his wife, a delightful woman who was also a music teacher in a colored school. In the meantime I had read into the microphone of a tape recorder, borrowed from Dobyns-Bennett, all the content from the textbook we would both use, French for a Modern World. I wonder how the poor teacher made out because I only saw him again once. I met him on Broad Street, stopped, shook his hand and asked how the French lessons were going. He seemed to me to be embarrassed; he very quickly went on his way. Nevertheless he sent me some examples from his "six week test." The title was "An exam in French (the sixth week." "Part I : The vocabulary [misspelled]: give the English." There followed a list of 30 words (chair, pen, etc.) among which was breakfast [misspelled]. Such spelling!

[Translated from the French by Jud Barry]

Wednesday, June 06, 2018


Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations.  [Sic] means the previous word appears as per the original. Italics show when Nicaise himself uses English.

Bible Belt

          Churches play a leading role in the social life of the United States. They provide insurance, make loans at low interest, and help out families with financial or emotional problems. Atheists are lumped together with communists as the worst of the worst. Even though it comes at the end of the century [when Nicaise was composing the memoir] the following anecdote applies. In his famous TV broadcast Inside the actors' studio, James Lipton interviews famous personalities of stage and screen. On the show he goes for the real stuff, so that one star might admit to him his alcoholism, or another his homosexuality. At the end of his interview with the "famous" (according to him) Bernard Pivot, James Lipton's last question is one that everyone has heard before: "If God existed, what would you like to tell him when you die?" Such a doubt as to the existence of God is not something that would be said on the air in front of millions of Americans. Instead the question would be, "If heaven exists, what would you like God to tell you when you get there?"
          The people living in the region where we are staying are particularly devout. We are in the Bible Belt. In Tennessee, the Butler Law of 1921 made it illegal to teach Darwinism in the public schools! A young teacher who broke the law, Thomas Scopes, was fined 100 dollars, which was half his monthly salary. During our stay, the Tennessee section of the [American] Association of University Professors tried to get the backward law repealed, not because science demanded it but because it was "opposed to the freedom of thought and speech guaranteed by the Constitution." Their request was rejected, even in 1959! The Court's reasoning affirmed in writing that "the theory of evolution is contrary to the teachings of the Holy Bible and to our Christian way of life." The Butler Law was finally repealed in 1967. But in 1981, still, a powerful fundamentalist lobby in Arkansas succeeded in passing a law imposing the teaching of Creationism together with evolution. Thus, in spite of the latest findings in cosmology, paleontology, and biology, the public schools would have to teach that God created the universe in six days and all living things in their current form. All mankind is descended from the one Adam, thus the name Adamism that is given to this idea. Fortunately, the law was rejected on Jan. 5, 1982, as being contrary to the Constitution's first amendment clause regarding the Establishement [sic] of religion.
          A poll of the Southern Focus Poll reported, in 1996, that 66 percent of Southerners still believe that the Bible is "scientifically, historically, and literally true."
          [Here, in a note, Nicaise writes, "Distinguished Israeli archeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman support the contrary idea that such events as the flight from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan are legends compiled in the 7th century B.C. Their 432-page book The Bible Unearthed: Archeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel was translated from English and published in 2002 by Editions Bayard."]
          Even more surprising is that some university settings profess the same opinion, if one is to believe Guy Sorman, who reports that "at Cornell, a leading university, opinion polls regularly conducted among students in biology show that three-fourths of them believe either in a strict Creationism as per the Bible, or that evolution has a goal.
          In addition to Darwinism, race-mixing is also contrary to the way of life in Tennessee.
          [Here an uncaptioned photo shows two men walking past two bathroom doors, one marked "MEN" and the other "COLORED."]
          Erskine Caldwell's novel The Weather Shelter effectively describes the hatred that the "Brave Men of Tennessee" (the ironic title of the French translation) have for a white man, Grover Danford, who has a child, Jeff, by a "negress," Kathlee. She is in fact a mixed-race schoolteacher who is almost white. "The Bible does not allow a White to lie down with a Black," proclaims the village preacher, who must've had a hard time reading the Holy Bible. He rouses members of the Ku Klux Klan to hunt down the teenager in order to lynch him. Black racism appears as well in the reaction of Kathlee's father: he refuses to shelter his fleeing grandson.
          The reality matches the fiction, as was shown in 1959 by another court action, this time in Nashville, the state capital, which is well-known for its full-sized concrete replica of the Parthenon, and which has become famous for its country music and the number and quality of its recording studios. Myles Horton, the founder-director of a public school, was prosecuted following the complaints of scandalized witnesses. A photographer projected before the Court a film showing -- as reported by the newspaper whose clipping I have right now in front of me -- "different activities of the school, near Monteagle, notably Negroes and Whites swimming together in the school's lake." Oddly, the photographer was an agent of the Education Commission of Georgia, a neighboring state.
          In his testimony, the same spy recounted a litany of attitudes "disastrous for the country." For example: whites and Negroes having a group discussion in the library. He added, "Southern tradition has taught me that it is necessary to separate the races at school, church, and Sunday school." Another witness expressed "his belief that the director of the school was intimately associated with people who advocated the destruction of the United States as we know it." The ideas of McCarthy are still very much alive, even though the famous and malevolent Catholic senator who persecuted numerous artists accused of being Communist sympathizers was disavowed by his own party and censured in 1954 by the Senate. Too late for someone like Charlie Chaplin, who had already left America for good.
          Another farcical example comes not from Tennessee but from Alabama. A children's comic strip for children under five told the story of the marriage of a rabbit with white fur to a rabbit with black fur. The state ordered the public libraries to remove the book from their open stacks because the simple tale violated the principle of segregation!
          It's easy to be derisive about these attitudes when someone is from a country that is all one race. Racism and xenophobia lie at the deepest levels of human nature. It's the animal concept of "territory."
          In 1950, while looking for a place to live in Chatelet, I was looking through the ads and saw a few offering apartments for rent that specified "Italians stay away." Of course, I stayed away as well! Then, starting in the 1980's, when African immigrants or Turks moved into those parts of our cities where unemployment was widespread, violent racist demonstrations were widespread throughout Europe. In the beautiful Mediterranean region that attracts so many tourists, a fourth of all voters chose a party whose only platform was "France for the French! Immigrants leave!" We Belgians have little reason for complacency when a similar proportion of the people in Anvers were seduced by the slogan of the neo-fascist party Vlams Belang [Dutch for "Flemish Interest"]: "Flanders for the Flemish." In Germany fanatics have set fire to homes occupied by Turks, their gangs operating on the same model as the hateful Ku Klux Klan!
          Yes, we are racist, too. Too often do you hear someone say, "I'm not racist, but …" This is hypocrisy! I prefer to say, "I'm racist, like the rest of the world, but I realize it and I'm healing myself." Thus, when I see a couple made up of an ebony-colored Black man and a White woman, a certain something shocks me. The thought occurs -- quickly suppressed -- that the woman has chosen her companion poorly, that she hasn't found someone of her own color. Has such a thought never occurred to you, O Reader? Or, as Baudelaie wrote, "My reader, my fellow hypocrite!" Come on now, let's be frank. I just confessed, didn't I?

[Translated from the French by Jud Barry]

Tuesday, May 29, 2018



Jean Nicaise caption" "The housewife who sweeps the sidewalk could never be an American!"


Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
by Jean Nicaise who was a Fulbright exchange teacher at Dobyns-Bennett during the 1958-1959 school year. 

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations.  [Sic] means the previous word appears as per the original. Italics show when Nicaise himself uses English.

First days in Kingsport

          We are far from imagining such a dark future on August 28, 1958, when we arrive in Kingsport.
          On the way to Mary Johnson's house, the air we breathe is pretty disagreeably polluted. The smell of acetone lessens some in the residential neighborhood, which looks the same as those in all small American cities.
          Movies have made them familiar. East Wanola Street, where Mary's modest house is built, is no exception to the rule: a street bordered with maple, sycamore, and locust trees that sing a symphony of colors every October (Indian summer); houses of whitewashed wooden boards sitting in the middle of a lawn. No fences between the yards.
          [Here there is a picture of Nicaise's wife Renee sweeping the sidewalk, with the caption, "The housewife who sweeps the sidewalk could never be an American!" A second picture with no caption shows Nicaise himself in front of the house.]
          After crossing the usual porch, you go directly into the living room through the protective screen door [literally "mosquito" door].
          This arrangement produces the first comedy act of our stay.
          In spite of the supposed Prohibition, Mary immediately offers us a whisky, the first one Renee has ever drunk. And at this precise moment someone rings the doorbell.
          - Oh my god, says Mary, I forgot: it's the laundry man. He's also the deacon of a church. Quick, hide your glass! The law isn't strictly enforced, but a teacher oughtn't scandalize a man of God.
          The laundry delivery man enters. There are introductions. "Professor etc. …"
          - Ah, glad to meet you. What's your Church?
          The question is addressed to Renee, who understands perfectly but who panics at being asked something that, where we come from, is considered an abnormal indiscretion. She says to me in French:
          - Jean, he's asking me what church we go to! What do I say?
          We know that it's unseemly in America to say that you have no religion. Isn't the country's motto, engraved in stone over the seats of judges and printed on paper money, "In God we trust," which means that "We place our confidence in God," or that "We rely on Him"?
          I respond on behalf of my flustered wife:
          - Any.
          I think that I'm translating "aucune," [none] which is the truth perhaps better left unsaid. But while I think I am boldly demonstrating my frankness, in fact I've forgotten one of the subtleties of the English language and the good lessons of my teachers. "Aucune" means not any, (adjective) or none, the pronoun. I quickly realize that I have answered "any of them," because next the laundry employee is smiling and saying:
          - Then you can come to mine …"
          From this moment forward, on the advice of Mary, who apparently doesn't go to church, and also since luck has bestowed upon me a neutral response, I give this same answer anytime anybody asks What's your church so they won't think bad of me. It's one of the first questions lots of people ask after they've told you their first and last name. My answer always gets the same invitation: Then, come to mine!  It would be unseemly to reveal that we are unbelievers.
          In a city of 60 thousand inhabitants, or thereabouts, there are 42 churches, including only one Catholic church, Saint Dominic. The others are one or another of the different Protestant varieties: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal (similar to Church of England), Mormon. There is a Church of Jesus Christ, a Church of Christ, the likes of which could raise doubts as to whether the others worship the Redeemer at all. There is a First Church of God, which in spite of its claim was the last one built and one of the least attended, competing with a First Christian Church and also the First Assembly of God. Here I'll stop my very incomplete list. The Chamber of Commerce gives the number of members of each church along with an assessment of its wealth. The most frequented and also the wealthiest ($289,000 in 1958) is First (yes, yet another "First") Baptist. The First Pentacostal [sic] Holiness has the fewest members (25) but isn't the poorest ($6,000), which is Morisson [sic] City Christian with $5,000 despite its 80 members.
          We do accept some invitations, at first out of politeness and then for pleasure, because it is part of the experience of our stay. Moreover, I enjoy the congregational singing. Absorbed in the given selection, sometimes I sing along. It also registers with me that such an invitation is a sign of respect. Sunday church attendance is a worldly event. After the service, while the children learn their catechism in Sunday School, everybody drinks coffee and nibbles cookies. Unfortunately it's not possible for me to go to a black church, whose style and rhythms I would have enjoyed. My white hands would certainly have clapped along with the black ones. But whites and blacks would have found my presence to be incongruous and probably suspect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Mary Rowan Johnson and Jean Nicaise in Room 202 at D-B - 1958.


Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations.  [Sic] means the previous word appears as per the original.

Arrival in Kingsport

          And so it is that while the association of ideas has me sunk in my memories of the adventures of Scarlett O'Hara and Red [sic] Butler, we arrive in Bristol, the terminus of our train trip. Mrs. Mary Johnson, the teacher whose place I am taking, is waiting for us on the platform. What a nice surprise! No need for a sign to identify us since she could notice quite well our European awkwardness, and she greets us warmly. After the usual greetings, I foolishly say to her:
          [in English] - I came to fight with General Robert E. Lee and his courageous Confederates.
          This outrageous proclamation provokes a moment of sharp surprise followed by a burst of laughter. Thus from the outset am I adopted by the Deep South in the person of little Mary Johnson. Every time she introduces to her friends "the Belgian teacher who is replacing me," she adds, "And do you know what his first words were? 'I came to fight with Robert E. Lee and his courageous Confederates. Ha, Ha, Ha!'"
          It doesn't take long to recognize that the memory of what we call the War of Secession, and which Americans call the Civil War, still remains extremely strong in the conquered South, although its 100th anniversary was due to be celebrated in three years. It's even possible to say that the wounds it caused haven't yet healed. The red Confederate flag, barred with a diagonal blue cross struck with stars, is unfurled at many such occasions as balls, marriages, and funerals.
          The city of Bristol where we disembark is cut in two. The border between Virginia and Tennessee runs down the middle of Main Street! Mary points out the Virginia side of this important street, with its considerable collection of "pubs;" meanwhile the Tennessee side is devoid of them. Thus we learn that the State or rather the county where we are going to live is still under Prohibition!
          Mary drives very carefully and scrupulously observes the speed limit. All the other drivers are doing the same, since no one passes us. To a European it seems like the speed limits are quite slow.
          Several advertising billboards announce the approach of cities and towns. We are especially surprised to see, along with ones promoting Coca Cola or Camel, immense signs with the words: "Jesus Saves," or "Try to be there when Jesus comes." And to be sure of being there when Jesus comes, it would be a good idea to follow the advice shown for lovers: "Don't drive cheek to cheek."
          Upon our arrival in Kingsport, we are assaulted by the lingering odor of products related to the evil alcohol: methanol and acetone. An enormous Eastman Kodak factory fills the atmosphere with the emanations of solvents used in the manufacture of cellulose acetate-based textiles, film, and plastic. This first, olfactory contact with the city where we'll have to live for a year is truly not all that agreeable.
          This city is really quite young, not only on a European scale, but also on an American one. Its history reproduces in miniature that of a New World approaching dominance of the Old by virtue of the vigor, courage, and perseverance of a population descended from pioneers.
          The first whites, almost all proud WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) of Irish or Scottish origin, didn't settle on the site until 1748. They found a fertile valley basin protected from the winds by wooded hills of oak and chestnut and watered by the two branches of the Holston River, which flows into the Tennessee, itself a tributary of the Mississippi. It is here that the Holston became navigable for flatboats and opened the way to the West. The Cherokee Indians were at first well-disposed with regard to the pioneers. However a war broke out in 1761. It was only ended in 1777 by a treaty that left the natives bereft of their best land, and as a consequence the white invaders lived with no guarantee of safety until 1812. Today the Cherokee are kept on a reservation to the east of here, partly in North Carolina. Slightly more than 1500 of them make a living from small-scale agriculture and tourism in a wooded, gently-rolling region, the Smoky Mountains, which is comparable to our Ardennes even though it is obviously larger. Autumn gold is scattered in the splendid foliage of these mountains so often crowned by a veil of fog, hence the name "Smokies."
          On the Holston a river port was begun that was first known as the Boat Yard, then as King's port, not because any king had stayed there, but because its owner was one Colonel King, a veteran of the American Revolution, and this was quite simply his port.
          Small industry sprang up, centered essentially on the river traffic and the shipyard: a sawmill for processing the abundant primary natural material; a foundry fueled by charcoal; blacksmith's, a flaxseed oil press, a tannery; a cotton mill and a flour mill. The river provided the necessary driving force. [Here Nicaise in a footnote explains that the English word "mill" can mean a place for milling or for manufacture.] A village of 50 families grew, with its two stores, two churches, two saloons, and two doctors.
          Alas, in 1861 came the Civil War. The population took an active part in the war. It was torn between its allegiance to the Federal government and its love for the South, where it was rooted. Divided by the suspicion and hatred that characterizes all civil wars and decimated by military raids, the little community emerged bled dry by the worst internecine conflict ever to grip the American people.
          The new railroad toward the West, which went through Bristol but bypassed the little village, made things even worse because it displaced the river. Kingsport only emerged from its ensuing sleepy isolation when a private company, as appropriate in the country of free enterprise, set its sights on a railroad connection between Charleston, S.C., and Cincinnati, OH. The line was never completed, but in its initial stages it crossed eastern Tennessee from south to north and joined Kingsport to Bristol in 1909. From here the village began again.
          The first industries to start up are a brickyard and a cement plant, which find on the spot the necessary clay and gypsum. By rail comes a stream of other primary materials from nearby locations: sand, rock, and silica for making glass, and abundant, high-quality coal extracted from surface mines in nearby Virginia and the other neighboring state, Kentucky. The re-birth happens almost as quickly as the demise. And then the enterprising people of the revived village have an idea characteristic of the pioneer spirit. In 1915 they have urban planners from the famous  Massachusetts Institute of Technology draw up a plan for an entirely new village.
          It was a plan that from the outset made allowances for a foreseeable expansion. Zones were clearly delineated. The residential section comprised lots with generous dimensions. It was well-separated from an industrial area that was amply furnished with land near the train station. Between the two would be built a commercial zone centering on a large avenue, Broad Street. There would be no buildings taller than two stories. The United States isn't, as some people imagine, a country of skyscrapers. These appear only in the largest metropolitan cities.
          Already in 1915 large areas close to the residential section (from two to five hectares) were set aside for future schools. A location of ten "acres" (about five hectares), sheltered from noise but not too distant, was planned from the outset for a public hospital. Private clinics were considered adequate until 1933, when the hospital's construction began. The site had been preserved for eighteen years against all manner of covetousness, and so it will be in the future, making it permanently capable of successive enlargement. It went from 63 beds in 1934 to 109 in 1941 as a result of the influx of manual workers brought in for war production. In 1945 the carrying capacity was 147 beds and was at 209 in 1950. There are 300 beds in 1958. These seemingly tedious figures show better than any long-winded discourse, through the example of the expansion of a little village starting from nothing, the dynamism spread throughout a young, hard-working, extraordinarily enterprising nation to which Europe owes the preservation of its liberty and prosperity. Let us recall 1917 and 1942 to the "anti-America first" followers of Sartre. Indeed, let us emphasize the stupid delusion of the famous philosopher by citing a passage in an article from the June 22, 1953, issue of the paper Liberation, which he founded in 1946: "Don't be surprised if we shout from one end of Europe to another: look out, America has rabies. Let's cut all ties that attach us to it, lest we ourselves are bitten and become rabid." Adds Raymond Aron, from whom I borrowed the quote, "Even though it came after Stalin's death, this text belongs to ultra-Stalinist literature. Nothing is missing, not even the ritual murder. Americans hold the same place in Sartrean demonology as Jews held in the Hitlerian demonology." What a damning judgement made by this Jew of his former chum from the Ecole Normale Superieure [France's top school for the preparation of teachers]. Everyone knows that Sartre claimed to prefer the dictatorship of Stalin to "that of de Gaulle." He didn't live long enough to see his unexpected disciples. But in fact you will find the same kind of twisted ideas coming from the pen of … Kadhafi, the Libyan despot at the time of the invasion of Grenada by the GI's: "The coming to power of someone like Reagan in a great, tyrannical power indicates the decline of humanity and marks the return of barbarism. savagery, and the irrational. Only a world alliance that could invade the United States and establish there the principles of humanity, liberty, and justice, and wipe out the evildoers and the Nazis will be able to save civilization and human liberty." [A footnote cites the quote as follows: Letter (October, 1983) from the Libyan dictator to Mitterrand, cited by Jacques Attali in Verbatim I, Fayard, editor, 1993. Reagan returned the favor to the kind Colonel, in the New York Times of April 10, 1986, by calling him the "mad dog of the Middle East."]
          And again, in 1999, the European Union, no matter how unanimous, was quite incapable of making Milosevitch see reason without the military help of the USA. Without sophisticated American air power, the cruel Serbian dictator guilty of genocide would have continued in Kosovo the "ethnic cleansing" begun in Bosnia with 200,000 dead.
          Alas, America--up to now without rival, too sure of itself--will take a fatal step in 2003. In launching a war against Iraq without the support of the United Nations, George W. Bush will unleash universal hatred of the USA and provoke the mobilization of the Muslim world. This invasion, I fear, will be the first battle in a War of Civilizations that runs the risk of soaking the 21st century in blood.

[Translated from the French by Jud Barry.]

Tuesday, May 15, 2018



Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations. Italics show when Nicaise himself uses English.


Part 2: Washington, D.C.

          The next stage of our initiatory trip we will reach by train: Washington. "Be sure to leave on a train of the company that sold you the tickets," we have been advised, the reason being that several private companies run lines to the same destinations. We must not miss the Pennsylvania Railroad.
          Again it will be a Sheraton that houses us during our stay in the federal capital. This time all 200 or so exchange teachers from every country invited by Sen. Fulbright are gathered together. In the course of one well-lubricated evening, a Norwegian whom the Gestapo had tortured by hanging him by his feet got into an argument with a German, who had the clumsiness to tell him, "Norway? What a beautiful country. I spent the year 1943 there!"
          Who has not experienced a similar lack of tact on the part of our former occupiers? Thirty years later, in France, the guest of a shared neighbor, a former Luftwaffe pilot and I will drink a glass of champagne together. Learning that I once lived in Chatelet, he says to me,
          "Ah! Chatelet, I know it. I was based at the Florennes air base during the war."
          "Well, if I had met you then," I say, "I'd have wanted to see you dead!"
          Our host, on hearing this response, is unable to suppress a scandalized exclamation.
          The citizen of the [German] Federal Republic [West Germany] answers back, "But I understand completely, Mr. Nicaise."
          In conclusion I raise my champagne glass and say, "Prosit! [Cheers!] Here we are today getting together with no animosity. Doesn't this prove the stupidity of war?"
          "I am in complete agreement. To your health!"
          The German-Norwegian quarrel in Washington didn't end as peacefully: a third person had to intervene to separate the two drunk antagonists. It was just a slight hitch in the otherwise beautiful cosmopolitan harmony in which the English language facilitated cordial contacts and beyond, to judge from the rapid and flagrant formation of international couples. So much the better if world peace is to be won that way rather than through marriage!
          I run into our German at poolside.
          "I'm not racist," he says, "but there's no way I'm swimming: there are too many blacks."
          The Sheraton is at the time hosting a conference of black academics. As we will learn, such a racial mix was definitely beyond expectations in the South. The employee who made the reservations didn't realize that it was a black association. He paid for his blunder by getting fired. It hardly seems right that segregation should be allowed in the federal capital where the population is majority black.
          We haven't been brought together in Washington to frolic in the swimming pool in beautiful weather, cheered by the cicadas' song, nor to work at drinking cocktails that sometimes favor tender touches and sometimes nationalistic blows.
          We are invited to attend informational programs given by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. I quickly realize that our briefing in Brussels, given at Mrs. Deflandre's behest, was very complete. Here I go to the first session, which closes by taking a picture of our imposing group on the steps of the department building. My preference is to devote these last few days of vacation to seeing the city.
          The first thing we do is visit the Capitol, which houses the Congress. Notified ahead of time, Sen. Fulbright arranges to have a press photographer take a picture of him together with the two of us and Anne-Marie [another Belgian Fulbright].
          Taken at a distorting, low angle, the picture robs my wife of her natural slimness. [Here Nicaise inserts the photo just described, taken outside on the steps of the Capitol with the dome in the background.]
          Washington is an absolutely beautiful city. It was built on virgin land beside the Potomac, near Mount Vernon, the village where President Washington's residence was built and which we visit. Placed in the middle of a majestic lawn, it overlooks the river. We take a cruise on a tour boat to get back to the federal capital.
          It was a French architect, Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the layout of the capital of the USA. He was inspired in part by considering Paris and the military tradition of the 18th century, for which  assuring the defense of the city was a paramount concern. The layout has wide avenues raying out from circles to enable cannon to fire in all directions. Until now the city has never suffered an assault, thank heavens. Its architecture is inspired by Greco-Roman art: the Corinthian columns and pediments topped by friezes or bold bas-reliefs are seen at the Capitol, the National Gallery, the Supreme Court building, the Treasury Department, the wonderful "memorials" of Lincoln and Jefferson, the National Archives. All of these buildings are constructed in the middle of gardens and parks. The Jefferson Memorial is reflected in a lake, the Tidal Basin, fed by a tributary of the Potomac that determines its depth and bordered by 3,000 cherry trees from Japan, given by the city of Tokyo in 1912. Its rotunda is engraved with these words from the author of the "Declaration of Independence": I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
          We devote the better part of an entire day to the National Gallery of Arts that the travel guide appropriately describes as "a triumph of architectural beauty." Air-conditioning adds its comfort to our strolls through admirably-arranged galleries hung with the masterpieces of painting from primitives through Impressionists. It's a panorama of Dutch (no less than sixteen Rembrandts), Flemish (notably two beautiful female portraits by Rogier van der Weyden), Italian (in particular the Alba Madonna by Raphaël), Spanish, English, and French art. You go from room to room in silence and peaceful contemplation because there are no bunched-up groups of more-or-less distracted people gathered around a guide who is shouting himself hoarse. At the entrance you rent a set of headphones and listen to commentary (exclusively in English) broadcast by radio.
          Not only is photography allowed, you are given instructions and precautions to take when using a flash.
          At midday we eat lunch in the museum cafeteria so as not to waste time looking for a theoretical place for food in a part of town dedicated exclusively to art, to the memory of great men, and to the administration of the federal State.
          I've held on to the memory of another discovery, the Folger Shakespeare Library. This library collects books printed in England between 1475 (incunabulas) and 1640, hundreds of manuscripts, and items related to the author of Hamlet, including a model of his theatre.
          We leave Washington with greater regret than we did New York.

          In the sleeping car, I run into my first linguistic difficulties in trying to understand the jargon of the black employee serving us. At breakfast I'm not content with ordering bread and jelly. Like a good American, I opt for two eggs "sue le plat," fried eggs. This simple order draws a question of which I understand only one word, which sounds like "down?" Questions are a real trap. With everything else you can gather from little, vague head movements or grunts when the person you're talking to has figured out your approval or disapproval. A question requires a response -- that's the problem! When I ask my server to say it again, I hear what sounds like "Snup o down." All I can do is repeat "fried eggs." This is obviously not what the Negro expects. He shrugs his shoulders, goes away, and brings me … two fried eggs. Later on I learn that the question was "sun up or down?" meaning, as you've probably figured out, "soleil dessus ou dessous?" It's obviously a challenge to figure out why your server is quizzing you on cosmology when all you've done is order two fried eggs! Confronted with my incompetence, he had decided that I would eat my eggs with "the yellow on top."
          I start to worry about the effectiveness of the book-learned English that had satisfied my [Fulbright grant] selection jury. Gone with the Wind, I thought, had familiarized me to some extent with the language and the accent of the South, which Margaret Mitchell tries to render in the dialogues of her famous novel. But now I feel like I don't have a clue. Even if you don't speak a word of English, you know that "oui" is translated "yes." Well, no it isn't! It's yah. The pronunciation is somewhere between yè with a very open è and the German ya. To my great shame, I have myself taught that yes is translated oui. But Parisian adolescents and dullards use ouais, and of course everyone has known since Villon [French poet of the 15th c.] that il n'est bon bec que de Paris [only Parisians know how to talk good], isn't that right? It's also wrong to say that "petit" (p'tit) is translated by little. In America it's lil'l and is written that way in some dialogues.

[Translated from the French by Jud Barry]




Tuesday, May 08, 2018


Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages, part 2
Jean Nicaise

(Translator's note: I use square brackets [ ] to enclose clarifications or explanations. I use italics when Nicaise himself uses English.)

           In February, 1958, my attention was caught by a flier from the Ministry posted, like so many others, in the teachers' lounge. It announced the possibility of a stay in the US for high school teachers, who were invited to apply for a Fulbright scholarship. That was the name of an American senator who wrote a generous law stipulating that, rather than return to America the money recovered by the sale of American surplus from each of the theaters of the war [WWWII], it would be used to fund an exchange program for students and teachers from these countries. Resources drawn from war materiel would thus benefit a peaceful operation: the encounter of intellectuals of all origins and cultures.
          The flier was intended especially for English teachers, but that did not prevent me from becoming a candidate. I was asked to send the US embassy a file with my references and to write, in English, what my motivations were. Among those, I was careful not to say that I'd always dreamed of spending Christmas at the beach in Miami surrounded by pretty girls in bathing suits. That wasn't serious. It would be a whole lot better to say that I was motivated by a strong desire for pedagogical experience, which, all things considered, was not false; that I wanted to add to my German experience one from the new world. I referred to some ideas drawn from a good source on the organization of American schools, the absence of a Federal department of public instruction, the excellence of American pedagogy, for which I cited some well-known examples, notably their famous pedagogue and philosopher John Dewey. Unfortunately, I had read his "Essay on Education" in French. In English I'd skimmed -- while I was in Germany -- an American work whose title I'd forgotten, but not the name of the author, thanks to Maurice Chevalier: Mr. Valentine. Fortunately I'd jotted down on notecards the main point and a number of extracts, and I "forgot" to indicate with quotation marks the obviously very correct English that I'd borrowed directly from him.
          The principal filled out a form that the panel had sent to him. Although it was supposed to be confidential, he showed it to me. So many compliments! I had suggested that he emphasize that I had taken a summer course at the Sorbonne taught -- among others -- by the famous semiotician Roland Barthes. He wrote: "Always eager to improve himself, etc. …" I have ridiculed him enough [elsewhere in the memoir] to be able to thank him here.
          All that was left was the dreaded oral interview. I am summoned in March to the University Foundation.
          The test begins in a catastrophic way. I was expected at 2 p.m. and had had class until 12:30. I easily make it to Brussels in an hour, steering wheel in one hand and sandwich in the other. But I hadn't counted on the problem of parking near the Foundation, where I'd never been before. I have to drive around for 25 minutes searching in vain for a legal parking place. My nerves are totally shot. I am going to be late and thus give a pitiful example of my punctuality. "They" are certainly going to fail me. In my despair, I decide to park without regard to legality.
          The moment I arrive, running up to the floor where the test was given, I hear my name being called.
          "Hurry up!" says the usher, "This is the second time I've called you!"
          I can't swear that those were the exact words of his reprimand, but that's the meaning.
          Introduced into the torture chamber, I notice a board table with ten or so gentlemen and one lady, who I learned later was the US Embassy's very severe and devoted person in charge of cultural exchanges, Mme. Dorothy Moore-Deflandre.
          Invited to sit down, panting and out of breath, I stammer, "Excuse me, I'm out of breath, I taught at Chatelet till half past twelve and couldn't find a place to park my car correctly."
          This relaxes the atmosphere a little bit: my lateness was justified by professional obligations that I wouldn't have dreamed of dispensing with.
          Half of the jury devote themselves to a crossfire of questions. There's always a substantial number of members who don't say anything, those invited for reasons of status rather than for any supposed competence. These aren't always the most indulgent ones, either. I have to defend my written application. No one suspects the involuntary help given by Mr. Valentine--in any case nobody reproaches me for it. I leave the room not knowing if my defense and my English have been convincing.
          It isn't until June that I find out that I've been chosen to teach French and Latin in Kingsport, in Tennessee. Renee [Mrs. Nicaise] immediately thereafter dives into Assimil and learns that her tailor is rich. [Assimil was a popular language-learning method in which the first phrase learned was "my tailor is rich."]
          As for me, I throw myself into my old atlas, which shows me the state running east-west, that is, from the Appalachian Mountains to the MIssissippi, south of Virginia and Kentucky, but it doesn't show Kingsport. I wound up having to dig out of the embassy library a short description of the little city, very close to Virginia, and gather some facts about Tennessee, one of the most backward states in the US! One of its cities was however known all over the world: Oak Ridge. It was there that the atom bombs were built that reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ashes and led Japan to surrender. Fans of Elvis Presley probably knew that their idol lived in another city in the far west of the state, Memphis.
          The next thing I do is to thank in my heart of hearts good old M. Buysse from my high school in Thuin, who had shown me the way to continue to learn English after graduation, regardless of whatever other higher-level studies I might undertake. He had an original method: "You know enough English to read novels; read detective stories to start with. You'll want to know how they end: Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie. Use a dictionary for words you don't know only if you can't figure out the meaning from the context, just like you did when you were learning French as a child." I had happily followed his advice to the letter and had persevered in reading without limiting myself, fortunately, to just detective novels. He was the one who had opened the door to this marvelous adventure. Marvelous and still unusual in 1958, when charter tours weren't taking crowds of tourists across the Atlantic.
          My third response is to experience increased anxiety in the face of two concerns: the prospect of a hasty departure (August is not far off) and the surprise of having to teach Latin to Americans.
          I hope that my school won't resemble the one depicted in the recent movie Blackboard Jungle, whose sonorous soundtrack had launched rock and roll into the whole world with Bill Haley's Rock around the Clock. Some student-hoodlums break the precious jazz records that one of their teachers, straying from the beaten path, has made them listen to in order to try to interest them.

[Translated from French by Jud Barry]