Entries in a Known Hand: On Being a Foreigner


un rèpertoire

11 août 199-     Weekend spent cutting grapevines at a country house in Pertuis. Mouches that took chunks of flesh of my legs, barely bearable heat, endless vignes sauvages, thorn bushes, weeds. The green grapes were incredibly sour, yet from time to time, I had to suck their bitter juice out of the need of pure thirst. It, with the sun anvil-ing on the back of my naked neck, makes for a painfully dizzy drunk that is one half immediate hangover.

Rain has begun again, wiping out the heat. Bubbles slide across the red tiled terrace. The sound of drops falling are in English. Addicted to the mother tongue, at night, sleeping on a terrace, a mattress bed enough, I surf the AM airwaves for radio programs from England, the Netherlands, Canada, Frankfurt, and occasionally Los Angeles. Some nights they come in loud and clear, even National Public Radio can be attained. But nothing is happening in America because, frankly, nothing ever does.

14 août 199-     People in the streets eye me with a modicum of suspicion and perhaps interest as I continue to deposit American mailbags of useless junk into their privately owned dumpsters. Dogs bark at me wherever I go. Morning light is uncharacteristically bright, sight itself can see too far, the scenery is empty with collines and trees and a swelling, tumescent sea. I toss and turn into a half-awake riddled sleep. What is the purpose of fear? The air from the sea is headstrong.

15 août Mardi    Day of the Assumption. No money to buy cigarettes. Daily arrangement of Zen garden of sand within the terrace flower box: sea stone, eroded tile, tree sprouts, a Christ from a crucifix. Some clouds above the sea. Nothing for the day planned. Future is nothing unless it includes being together with a someone, then a world. Night waves are too strong to swim in. Underwater living, if it is without remembrance, is a possibility.

16 août Mercredi     Mornings are most difficult. Men are working on the streets– beginning at 7:30 am jackhammers begin. I have inhabited a room divided in two by a pipe, raised, beyond floor level. My only access to the outside world is short wave radio. The reflection that greets me in the mirror: a stranger becoming more subtle in his disguises. Peut-être that age brings.

A seagull crosses the window. Time is in essence endless work to be done.

17 août     Jackhammer and clouds. Dreams of a fractured self replete with moveable jaw section. So bright in the mornings that I exist like a troglodyte under a pillow and blanket until the heat compels me to rise. Must join the real world to buy croissants, milk, bread, essentials. Realize that I’m keeping a journal toward some kind of resolution. In France, there is nothing to be resolved.

20 août     The night ends with too much wine. Had to pee so bad that I used a rainwater bucket and oh my gosh the noise it made (too afraid to use bathrooms not my own). Discovered a wonderful park nearby: 19th century buildings, palm and bamboo trees (in Europe!), ponds, cypresses, French bunker houses, bicycles from ages past, Monet bridges and catalpa trees made for lounging in. I count on the hours I’ll spend there, in the mornings, alone. No letters arrived today and unfortunately tomorrow is Sunday.

21 or 22 août     Functioning here is a problematic magnified. In the face of history and custom. An outsider. Unable to function at the basic level: to make a call; I cannot understand, though I hear, what people say to me. A hearing deaf mute. Will not eat today, something decided. Water is enough. The radio and maybe even sleep.

23 août     Les marteaux-piquers awake me again. Last night it rained like it rains in the midwest. Lightning close and fantastic. I have been called for jury duty in Utah. Have resolved to resolve nothing.

24 août     Someone calls and informs me that they have had an affair and it resulted in an already aborted pregnancy. Another friend lost a daughter to paralyzation due to a motorcycle mishap and I wonder if these things occur here, but at a much slower rate. Then I selfishly wonder if I have died and have been trapped in a joint French-Italian B-movie production.

25 août     The petit mistral has arrived to dust the city. In the morning, a trip to Samöens, what my limited mind envisions as the Rockies (only much better). It will be my second, after an airplane perspective, view of the Alps. This time it’ll be my turn to see if the passes rise unexpectedly and if the peaks aspire theatrically. Wordsworth in the New Age music of the Romantics.

27 août     In the Hautes Alpes. Much more beautiful than anywhere in the American West. Mountains have definite knife blade-like shapes as if they are sculpted to be sharp. Villages are not so touristic and are worth stopping in because they are as medieval as the fountains they contain. Above them in the distance limpidly hang para-gliders. It’s only fitting that Mount Blanc is obscured by clouds. Swiss chalets surround. The people are real and generous– we stay in a resort hotel (off season) for free! The air is cool and the scenery is movie-like for an American. Unfortunately, hiking is out of the question due to time constraints. A moving tour of paradise from a car window.

8 août     In Val d’Isère. The Alfa Romeo we were driving broke down. This morning, IT IS SNOWING. The surrounding mountains, for they are rumored to be there, are invisible in winter clouds. August. The hotel’s television features news in British.

29 août     Off a motor route, we stop for a picnic and I make a small fire because we are at six thousand feet or higher and it is cold. Almost immediately, men from the forest service discover us and make sure our fire isn’t too big. They wear kepis and are very cordial. We offer them glasses of wine and French bread sandwiches of sausisson. They decline and tell us to be careful. This is civilization. Under pine trees, mushrooms bloom.

2 septembre     Essence might very well be cigarette smoke.

4 septembre     The date is becoming harder to calculate. Have returned to Marseille. Sleep becomes difficult to leave. Went hiking. Here the air is semi-tropical. There are palms and gently swaying pines. My sister sends me a green tomato from her garden in southern California. I will patiently wait until it reddens.

8 septembre     Or perhaps it’s the seventh. No longer convinced of the relevance of time. Spoke to E. Ronsard at the Poetry Centre at the Vieille Charité while we smoked together. Thrilled to discover that Jerome Rothenburg will read in October. Outside, in the streets, an ambulance passes with its bleating of “Errrr-Errr”.

11 septembre     A blanket of clouds over the city and its sea. Discovered the Pastré– an old 19th century château that is now a museum for porcelain works. If the museum is of little interest, it has plantation like grounds that are unword-able. Acres of Aleppo pines and white rock hills, an uncovered canal that seeps through its acreage like a lost river, adjunct building in the form of an Italian mountain getaway. Today, underneath my window, a man went through the garbage can, making an inventory of the stuff I’ve thrown away. He laughed at the old plates, jouets, clothes I released from non-memory. And he didn’t take a thing.

15 septembre     I venture out to a free dental clinic where I am to have my teeth checked. Among the Arabs and Africans who speak French much better than I, there is a large contingent of homeless Poles, in need of care desperately. No one spoke much English. Afterwards, I take an intellectual trip to Les Arcenaux– what used to be a weapons storage facility on the water. It is now, drained ages ago, a very high class part of the downtown, just off the port. The building contains apartments for artists on its highest floors, and underneath a large bookstore/ expensive restaurant where the brightest and most moneyed dine. Pots of burgeoning plants line its cavernous entryway. I am at least three worlds away from the riches it contains.

17 septembre     Across the street from where I am living is a tiny atelier. It is called L’Estaminet, the definition of an artsy pub. Plans to go there and view the anonymous art it has to offer. The day promises to be cloudy but is not. Such changes in the weather can only be gauged in real time. Restaurants and bars packed at one a.m. The city is constantly packed with alive, living people. Bought some candy from a beach side vendor who I am sure weighed a part of his fat thumb in the transaction. The candy, mostly licorice, is exquisite.

18 septembre     It’s memories that cease to stop. I recall friends from childhood in a leafy river town, that I would have never until coming here. Europe is confusion and beauty and more of both. Leafy green and vines. The pond I ran away to once. Strangest thing of all, is that it is here. Manifold. Manifest.

21 septembre   The air here is as cool as a clean eating utensil. They are printing in the newspaper a lunatic’s manifesto in the States. I miss out on such freak shows. The mail threatens bills. I write letters to friends who never write back. The present tense is that: tense.

25 septembre     Mountain air. Sanity guaranteed: books en anglais at the public library. To converse again with Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, others many others is a relief. The loose tiles in the bedroom sound like a strike in bowling when walked upon. A modern art museum and park three blocks away. Today will be a day of collecting plants from the hills. They are such foreign, flowering calligraphies of green.

30 septembre     Despair due to erroneous job leads, boulots that sound good but pay nothing. Uncertain plans like when to go to Paris and not ever wanting to return there. Freedom of not having any money. Another sunny day daring happiness. A walk in the hills after another last cigarette.

3 octobre     A lonely day with only housework to do. The sea is magnificent, a mer agitée, sharp hills of waves, a solitary island swum to be visited by seagulls and no one else, except the dried body of a goat, disappearing crabs just when the eye finds them, straight white eroded nubs of cliffs surrounded by the very definition of blueness. Islands barren of all meaning.

6 octobre     Endless travail. Mopping, scrubbing, painting, lifting, moving, taking many breaks. Continuing the cleansing of an abandoned wing of the house. Thousands of plates (real china), saucers, one dead mouse, six soup tureens. Will paint the steps leading up from the entrance the shade of Matisse’s Red Studio and the blood of this will never leave my fingertips. Rained like rain will rain and I have thus been cordially introduced to the roof’s many leaks. Buckets everywhere.

8 octobre     Today it is London outside. A thick fog purges the city of its scenery and vividness. It enters the room and obscures the windows. It makes seagulls weep with pleasure.

14, 15 octobre     A slight drizzle in Pertuis. The Luberon rises over cloud, a margin indicating place or indicating indication. Appropriate raindrop hits fresh ink on the page. Friday and Saturday were grape picking days: four and one half tons. A sensual affair, sweet stickiness, a lot of sweat. Daddylonglegs live in the vines keeping lady bugs as their companions. Met Lolo the Provençal farmer whose skin was the color of earth. Washed, it would look the same. Two dogs, Beaucerons, slept near us, protecting us from wolves. Clouds kept it cool on Friday; burning October sun and Saturday. Hauled buckets of grapes, two at a time, forty pounds each uphill to a tractor’s cart, through sandy, sinking soil. Extreme aerobics. Saturday afternoon a glad escape back to Marseille to hear R. read and meet Roubaud of OULIPO fame. Driving back the sky was lit with pink neon fog. Walking through the Pertuis paysage, thyme grows to knee level, wild flowers bloom, grapes are bursting on the vine due to sexy ripeness. Sometimes the dogs get so thirsty they eat them. Birds do too.

18 octobre     The day is haze. Walking to the post office, where a game is played. The game goes like this: you give the attractive woman behind the glass (bulletproof?) your letters. She weighs and stamps them. Then, from her seat, fathoms behind the inch thick barrier of glass, she says a number. You, who can’t do math in your native tongue, must guess this number and replicate the guess in coinage. Sometime you even get it right. To celebrate, on the way home, buy bread.

20 octobre     When you don’t understand much of what is being said around you, the television babbles in a tongue of Babylon, voices on the radio are more like music than the music is, the brain, not having to filter out distractions, has much time to exercise this new found freedom. It obsesses, dreams up fantastic scenarios, takes the subconscious on adventures never ventured, turns to mortal thoughts. The frog who was residing on the terrace is gone, or has no comment.

22 octobre     Went swimming after a hike through the hills (mountains in my heart and lungs’ interpretation) of many miles. The rocks are blooming purple with heather and October has so far only yellowed the sumacs. Half fell, descended a cliff that afterwards on my hiking map should only be attempted with ropes. Here, in overcrowded Europe, the calanques south of Marseille to Cassis, a protected area, it is pure rugged nature ranging from desert-like rockscape, to bowers and forests of pine trees. There are no people at all. Found myself in a stretch, a tree-lined balcony of tall pines call the Wood of the Valkaries. Underneath the overhang is a rocky inlet that features a cave and what the map reveals to be a cistern. Over the hills is a water purification plant, so the water may be indeed polluted, and if it is so, then it is sacrilege. The sense one has being here, in this remote place, is utterly sacred, dream-like, a cliché of what a tropical paradise might be. Swam anyway, for the briefest of moments to cool down. There are only birds here and views of islands.

3 novembre     A cockroach crawled out of my sleeve onto my bare hand as I was having breakfast today. And I didn’t even flinch. The mistral visits and has been here for two days. It freezes the unsuspecting to the bone and throws up clouds of dust. There is nothing one can do within its midst except 1) talk about it and 2) complain.

9 novembre     Promise tomorrow of a voyage to the Var, then Mt. Peyroux in the southwest. The sun is constant sometimes brewing up a soup of clouds. The weather is cooling and this must be some type of sign.

21 novembre     Down to calling ads in the paper for a job. A possibility for a theatrical production: met an English woman, who knows an Irish man, and he knows of an Australian trapeze artist, and this might lead to a creative something. None of us speaks the same language. I have taken to walking the city much. On top of learning the language, I’m learning body language because in Marseille, gestures speak louder than words. Tonight’s projects: cut my own hair and superglue my shoes back into walking order.

2 décembre     Drive to Mt. Peyroux in bad weather: low slung clouds and bouts of rain. The countryside to me looks like Oklahoma because I can only see it a quarter mile in any direction. Stay in a friend’s magnificent, in the process of renovation, row house that has a ground level room for receiving visitors (including a piano and fireplace); a second floor that contains the kitchen and bathroom and a study; a third level whose ceiling is wood-beamed and offers a hallway with two sleeping chambers on either side. I have never entered a structure so small, complex, interesting, homey.

We visit a friend of a friend who is an art director for movies in England. Her house is even more medieval and more in need of (ongoing) restoration. She is incredibly beautiful, all the while knowing it, and tells us a story of her wealthy family back home put her furniture on lorries aimed in this general direction. Apparently, in one of her dressers, French officials found a questionable substance and confiscated both the substance and the article of furniture, but did not turn her in. She tells us that the confiscatable material is probably owned by the man she hired to move her stuff, and she is very gracious that the French innately understood this, thus freeing her from a sticky situation. While she tells us this tale, she must go upstairs and press– vocally and mentally– the men she hired to re-do her sleeping chambers according to her English schedule. Her place looks like either a magazine feature, or a period piece (early twentieth century) from a movie in production.

A dog wanders into the kitchen and poops in it. The English woman holds her head in her hands and rubs her temple. Our laughter ends up making her laugh.

After more glasses of wine than we should have had, we return to our friend’s home. We make an appetizer of tappenade and settle into the drizzly evening. We drink more and play songs on her stereo. We talk of America and how wonderful it seems so far from it. After our meal of ground olives, garlic, and anchovies, with bread and incredible cheeses, we retire to our room. On the wall is a painting, covered by a bed sheet, of a nude woman. Her hair, like our friend’s, is red. We ask no questions and sleep to the accompanying rain.

10 décembre     No mail for a week. No buses for days; yet another strike. Meeting with the dream theatre group and reading Shakespeare out loud, which must count for something. Walking the streets of Mazargues for there is nothing else to do or needs to be done. To live. To experience where you are. The lesson France has taught me.

Hiking the hills that are as green as summer. Perfect weather. Birds circle the downtown and rain the streets with shit. After exercising, one needs only to return to a shower, then catch a bus downtown to live the city life. A city rimmed by nature is existence made whole. Not to forget the always interesting painting that aligns the distance: the sea.

17 janvier     Eating store-bought cookies in the hills above the city and they taste like the golden apples of the moon.

18 janvier     Must admit that my bathroom of choice is the one behind the foot of the stairs. The sink supplies cold water only and the toilet is chain pull. There is no room in it for a northern European to move about in comfort. Yet in this tiny chamber, I find the utmost peace: listening to the voices of people in the bakery and the grocery store on the other side. To live privately, among others, like an unintentional voyeur, heightens the senses. I shave, wash my body, brush my teeth, in a wailing stream of ice.

19 janvier     The hills are seductive. I march towards them only to be turned back by rain. Nothing to write.

17 février     Life and its various happenings– too much to record. Cold wind blowing, sunny skies. 11-13C. Letters from the U.S. are becoming quite rare. My friends have forgotten who I am (was).

25 février     Found myself on the banks of the Rhône today. Arles. Comforting to see the familiarity of a large river. Repulsive too: same stink all rivers have, same monotony of the flow, the dull continuity of life made into water. Lion-headed bridge half disappeared. Tomorrow it’s to the Alps. Will try to go skiing in the mountains, if my knees will allow it. It will be such a different place that, already, I want to steal things from it.

28 février   Tonight, my nephew, who is visiting, says to me after I pull some feathers from his pillow, “Is there a bird in it.” He has never before experienced the concept of down.

24 avril   Ventured to Rousillon and absconded from there with bags of deeply red, fine sand. Finally crossed the Luberon by car. Have hiked maniacally through these white hills bordering Marseille. Once I reached the sea on a hellish track of pure talus, all downward, not thinking of the journey back. Once I got to its edge, ate a lunch of bread, cheese, saucisson and cursed the burning Mediterranean sun. The afternoon was hallucinatory in its clarity.

From the plateau of the deadman, I saw the city of La Ciotat, The mountain of Ste. Baume, and Ste. Victoire. These are visions meant for much greater persons than me.

Returning to the city in the same day, I go to the library and find books on Joseph Cornell, most of Kerouac’s better works, even John Fante! I could live like this forever. Each day is an unsuspected gift.

The unknown sea plants I am cultivating on the terrace are blooming purple and yellow flowers. Have never been the parent to such beauty before.

29 avril     All today, rain and clouds that tore themselves to barely expose the tops of the hills. Some hung like UFOs above the city and the nearest beach. A steady drizzle not even enough to make an umbrella worth carrying yet it brings out the colors and true smells of springlife. Flowers and trees and a solitary birch in the wetness and lights of an abandoned Parc Borély bore an ecstatic vision just moments before the night patrolman kicked me out.

2 mai     Clouds tear through the hills Japan-like. Sun occasionally illuminates the city and its humdrum of fog. Much mailing to be done. I’m in a fever of stasis. The doors here seem too heavy to ever dance with or hug.

19 mai     How the specificity of dates account for nothing. Days as constant ebb. For three miserable days, clouds capped the tops of the hills in a stole of cobweb. These clouds sometimes change direction and float in, landward. The weather is warming and one can swim in the still a little too cold water. Wildflowers, everywhere, fields of blood red poppies, activated and singing!

16 17 18 mai     Had an incident in which I nearly came to blows with the bakers who work below. The fact of the matter (to use such a phrase) is that they owe the family above years and years of back rent. Defended the family I live with. Three anonymous men of Marseille origin attacked me verbally, harshly. I cussed them out in bad French. Playing the role of husband, father man. The only pleasure from the incident came with this afterthought: what little some people have in life to become passionate about. For the first time in my life, I acted Latin.

25 mai     Days here are art. I find a tabernacle at a second hand store. The local museum is showing Russ Meyer flicks. There is an ancient, paint-stripped picture frame awaiting pick up by the garbage men that I intercept.

7 juin     These days pass like salt in urine. So many things have occurred: Céline’s funeral, letters arrive, finally, from friends, summer arrives in a day. Just like that. Stomach sickness: I ate severely fresh lamb chops at a nice restaurant and my body couldn’t handle it. Here, the voices of the living filter through the windows in the morning better than any chiming of an alarm clock and I wonder when I will able to truly join them.

22 juin     The unspeakable ambiguity that engulfs me. Have visited Toulouse where I walked that sad, medieval city’s bridges and quays. Some French Arabs ask me if I have a cigarette, to get my attention. They want to sell me hashish. It is a city so much influenced by American culture that it’s spooky.

Back in Marseille, days are spent underwater with marine life, my truest of friends. In the afternoons, I collect plants and firewood from the hills. The city is bursting in music and the temptation of night life. They are throwing a series of fêtes solely for the reason to celebrate life and have fun.

24 juin     Strangely cold day due to the wind. Lightning and thunderstorm, booming, like in the American midwest. Begin a project of peeling horrendous wallpaper, patterns straight from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, from walls in a room. The walls underneath are bright yellow. Letters to friends are written and perhaps there will be a trip to Dijon to see a writer who has befriended my strange existence here.

8 juillet     Summer downpour. Oddly cool temperatures. Strange cloudshows with no applause. Hiking the calanques, resting under umbrellas of pine. Reading much, things I would have never read– Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson. So desperate to connect with English it’s a process much akin to viewing pornography. Not real, but satisfying. Snow is reported in the Alps and the Pyrénnées. Nips of winter in the air that bite at the neck and shoulders. Nature’s attempt at foreplay.

12 juillet     Overwhelming joy– fixed the chain pull toilet so that it doesn’t drizzle on its occupant. Life made tons more bearable by such a minuscule victory.

13 juillet   Blue mountains, turning purple. Pizza on the beach. Rare grooves such as this…

27 juillet   Day after my birthday. Slight rain today- in America there’s an Olympic bombing and an unfathomable plane crash. In France, life proceeds as it always has. Terrible humidity, though, so I sleep on the roof terrace in a tent. Isn’t life swell/swelling?






Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review and The Best American Poetry series. He is the author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France and a short story collection titled Now Leaving Nowheresville. His creative non-fiction collection All Roads Lead from Massilia is forthcoming from Bequem Publishing of Adelaide, Australia, and his book now available from Brooklyn’s Lit Riot Press is titled A Miscellany of Diverse Things.