Welcome back for another post from the Monday Inspirations series. Today’s post is by Solveig Werner. You can check out previous posts here.
When I first arrived in France, 12 years ago, I had very limited knowledge of the French language. Luckily, I was in a school that provided intensive French lessons, meaning that my classmates and I had a total of 11 hours of French per week. We were quickly introduced to the many facets of the French language and culture. Conjugation tables and grammar rules were very important, but we were also initiated to great works of French literature. With the help of authors and poets amongst them Maupassant, Emil Zola, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine, we gradually learnt to understand and master the French language.
Every week, one hour was dedicated to the reciting, reading and interpreting of poetry. as well as discovering the life of the poet, or the circumstances surrounding the creation of the poem. None of us were well versed in French, which lead our teacher to focus on things such as pronunciation and the meaning of the words, before moving on to the deeper meaning of the poem. We studied many different poems and encountered many different poets, but none marked me as much as L’Albatros by Charles Baudelaire. By the time I finished high school, I had studied it three times in class and one time with my grandmother.
My grandmother was always keen to push me to excel, and was genuinely interested in knowing what I learnt in school. As I had enjoyed L’Albatros a lot, I showed it to her. She was intrigued, and together we translated the poem into German, so that we could understand it even better. We wanted to understand every word, every metaphor, every deeper meaning. Were there things that I had not yet seen in school? What did the poem tell me? Together we unearthed elements that I had not encountered with my teachers. With the help of this poem, my grandmother taught me a very valuable lesson: how to read between the lines. From then on when I was reading a poem, a short story or a book, I was always keeping my eyes open for the hidden truths and messages.
For my 18th birthday, exactly one month after the death of my grandmother, my grandfather gave me a very special book. It was Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, the second poem inside this collection is L’Albatros. At the age of 19, in August of 1957, my grandmother purchased this book on a trip to Paris. She bought it from a bouquiniste on the Quais de Paris. It is probably not worth much, some of the pages are very badly cut and others are not cut open at all. In the book I found a photograph of my grandmother sitting in a Parisian café, radiant with the beauty of her youth.
Today every time I think of Charles Baudelaire, or of L’Albatros, I think of my grandmother. It also reminds me of how with poetry I learnt to appreciate and understand French, and lose my (heavy American) accent. In a certain way, when you are a foreigner in a new country, you too can be misunderstood and uncomfortable, just like the Albatross and the poet in Baudelaire’s poem.