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]

Tuesday, May 01, 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.)

[Belgian teacher Jean Nicaise has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach French and Latin at Dobyns-Bennett High School during the school year 1958-59. As this is his first time to the U.S., his experience begins in New York City where he and his wife Renee disembark after an ocean voyage.]

Part 1: New York

          Time goes by fast and after six days we dock in New York at 11 p.m. We don't disembark until the following morning. Elbows on the ship rails, we gaze out at the thousand and one skyscraper windows that twinkle in the night like so many stars. A silvery stream flows down from the north. It's the line of cars coming down into Manhattan. The river they cross is blood-red from the cars leaving the city. We can't take our eyes off this fairyland spectacle. We stay up as long as possible before going to bed. When we finally climb into bunk beds and become immobilized, we have a hard time getting to sleep. What keeps us up is our impatience to finally set foot on the promised land and explore the immense metropolis. Will the American reality measure up to the dream?
          We pass through customs and immigration without hindrance. Not until then, on dry land, does Renee start to feel slightly seasick! The customs agents hardly rummage our bags, being on the lookout mostly for fruit or live plants, the only forbidden commodities. They then asked me to produce my lung x-ray! A health official scans it carefully and clears me. It takes some more time to ship our trunks directly to Kingsport. It's almost past noon by the time our taxi drops us in front of the hotel where rooms have been reserved for the Belgian "Fulbrights," the Sheraton-McAlpin Hotel, on the corner of Broadway and 34th St., in the middle of Manhattan.
          We hurry to drop our luggage and freshen up a bit with the intention of going right out onto famous Broadway. But the first place we meet turns out to be a hospital! During the voyage, Odette [a fellow Belgian Fullbright] got a splinter in her thumb. The slight wound became an infected bump accompanied by pain and a fever. Rather than recommend a doctor, the hotel advises going right away to the hospital, and we decide not to let our friend go alone in a taxi on an unexpected tour of the city that would be painful and non-touristy and that would wind up in the Bronx. While the intern operates on the suffering thumb, we stand around in the emergency room entrance that years later would be made famous by a TV show. Not the kind of "behind the scenes" we expected at this point! So much for two good hours of lost time for visiting this near-mythical city, cruel and fascinating at the same time.
          The buildings are beyond human scale, but the city is invigorating in spite of a filthiness that astonishes us. It seems like the whole world is there, swarming among old pieces of paper being blown about by the wind. In spite of the heavy traffic, it's not as noisy as Paris or Rome. The explanation for this I figure out in the lukewarm air-conditioning and padding of our 23rd floor room, where not as much as a murmur intrudes: big American cars glide along noiselessly whereas, in Rome or Paris, Vespas and [Fiat] Cinquecentos, mopeds and [Renault] 2CV's make -- each one of them -- as much noise as ten Chevrolets. In lots of places mounted police directed from their perches the crazy traffic, in which bright yellow taxicabs predominated.
          I'm not going to describe this "tentacular city," the tumultuous model for all the ones denounced by Verhaeren [Belgian poet]. This has been done thousands of times.
          It's very easy to find our way around, since the streets, duly numbered, run approximately east-west, and the north-south avenues -- except Broadway -- cross them at right angles, making blocks. Whenever we got lost, I'd ask for directions and the reply would be something along the lines of "go straight ahead for two blocks, then turn right." The problem is that the blocks can be short or long, so there's always the chance that unexpected kilometers will add considerably to the travel fatigue of an unknown city that's already immense enough. We also often hop on the buses that always run straight ahead, the ones on the avenues never bothering to turn off onto a street. On boarding, you pay ten cents, a "dime," (pronounced daïme) into a sort of coffee mill device placed right next to the driver. No tickets, unless you want a transfer to a street line.
          We cover dozens and dozens of miles during four days, from monuments to museums, from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center, from Greenwich Village to Central Park, from the Cloyster [the Cloisters] to the Museum of American Indians. Both my camera and my movie camera begin their frenetic consumption of film. The general information brochure provided by the hotel touts the places that are the biggest in the world: Pennsylvania Station is the most used in the world; we go see a dance show with the famous "Rockets" [Rockettes] at Radio City Music Hall, the largest theater in the world. We make a quick visit to the public library, the largest library system in the world, and we finish at the church of St. John the Devine [Divine], the largest gothic cathedral in the world, which, it appears, won't be completed until 2020. Not far from there, the Washington Bridge that straddles the Hudson is unfortunately only the second longest suspension bridge in the world.
          It is easy and useless to make fun of this show of records. All countries in the world are quick to glorify such accomplishments when they can. Paris boasts of having, in the Champs Elysées, the most beautiful avenue in the world, an aesthetic judgment not subject to verification. Thanks to the Louvre, France brags that it runs the largest museum in the world. Normandy prides itself on providing, since January, 1995, the longest cable-stayed bridge. But no nation beats the record of records of the Americans, surprising people who are mocked even as they are envied for their energy, mastery, and audacious imagination.
          Worn out from our forced marches and our museum vigils, we discover inexpensive places to keep us going: drugstores and cafeterias rather than the restaurant at the Sheraton, which is too expensive for our meager funds. We are agreeably surprised at the quality of the food, at least in comparison with the bad reputation its been given and with our own brief experience at the American pavilion at the Brussels Exposition. Who is it who has said that in America, you don't eat, you feed? This is true, if you can believe the enormous billboards saying "FOOD" that line the roads leading to a restaurant. "Foods" characterized as "fast" have since invaded our own cities and towns. I suggest that French language rule-makers replace this horrible locution with a suitable French translation: "bouffe-vite."
          Thus we "feed" very agreeably and without looking overmuch to "eat." Our means don't allow us to do that any more in the States (as the Québecois say) than we can in Europe.
          There isn't just one American cuisine, but scores of them especially in "The Big Apple": Italian, Chinese, Greek, Kosher, Creole, Southern, and maybe -- here or there -- Yankee, like Tad's Steaks on 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenue. There we eat a T-bone steak and an enormous Idaho potato in the skin, generously buttered, for $1.65. If you add onto this a Budweiser or Miller beer, the meal is worth the detour, as Mr. Michelin might say. We have simple tastes, and city slickers used to three [Michelin] stars would no doubt think we are hicks.

[Translated from French by Jud Barry]