Kristen Gehrman, Writer

July 3, 2015

Paris.

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I never quite know how to write about Paris because I love it so much. I love it so much that I can’t bear hearing other Americans say that they LOVE IT SO MUCH. Because of course there are so many Americans here and I actually don’t love them so much. So many school groups of so many teenagers, so much chattering in the metro. Chattering about Orangina, about Nutella crepes, about that “weird homeless guy who was like so weird,” about this “random old lady who just started talking to me in French” and how “I so don’t speak French” (even though I had three years of it in high school), and how they can’t find Tanner, and how McKenzie is being “such a bitch”, how they had a crois-ONT this morning and “Oh my God it was A-MAZING.”

I have a lingering dislike, voire despise, for these school groups–funny that my first coup de coeur with the City of Light was in one of them. I hated that group. I remember waking up every morning on that trip and slipping out of the hotel room at 6 am, roaming the quiet boulevards with my guidebook, studying the street sellers laying out their wares, the mimes caking on their makeup, taking notes on the pigeons, the fountains, the taxi drivers. I only had to slip into the hotel breakfast by 8:30– the chaperones never knew I was gone, or maybe there was one who did and she never uttered a word. There was one snooty girl in the group from a New England boarding school who grew up spending summers in her family’s pied-a-terre in the 16th. While all of the others were suburban white kids like me with disposable cameras and Birkenstocks who shuffled around buying stuff and talking about nothing, she met up with her Parisian boyfriend in the Marais and went to exhibitions at all of the museums that were not the Louvre. Eleven years later, I am that snooty boarding school girl living in the 16th with my Amsterdam boyfriend, working at the Sorbonne, going to all of the museums that are not the Louvre.

 

More to come on the exhibitions I’ve seen lately.

You can read more about my work at the Sorbonne this summer HERE.

 

April 18, 2015

Lausanne Levels

Yesterday, I was walking home along a tulip-lined boulevard through a wealthy neighborhood–the kind of quartier where the roof of one house is the garden of the next, houses and gardens stacked like blocks. Lausanne is a city of levels. Before moving to this neighborhood, I lived on a lower level where pink-lipped prostitutes turned tricks after hours. Up here, the neighborhood circles around a charcuterie, boulangerie, horlogerie, bijouterie, pâtisserie, the whole famille of -eries. It’s a high level kind of place. From up here, you can look down across the lake at night and see the yellow lights of France.

Lausanne is an up and down city, built on steep terrain that probably should have never been built on in the first place. Hills, valleys, tunnels, staircases, elevators, bridges and bridges and towers. Lake views are for the rich, shadows for the poor. Everyone seems to know their place.

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Trying to navigate Lausanne by map is nearly impossible, for two roads that cross on paper are likely to span two or three levels in the city. Getting from A to B is a matter of finding the right passerelle, the right staircase. The city center is a straight hike up from the train station, the cathedral reigns over the old university library. Below is the market square which trickles down to the commercial center, built on a former river that was filled with concrete around the turn of the Century.

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One of my friends once described it as a city coiled up on itself. It’s complicated. It’s cramped. But you get used to it. Some days, the tightness feels almost homey.

March 29, 2015

Translating Street Photography

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“Finestra” by Hakim Boulouiz

I’ve been doing a lot of translating lately. Mostly little projects here and there, but a few bigger ones. One of my favorite recent projects was for award-winning Geneva street photographer Hakim Boulouiz.  He asked me to translate a few of his articles on the art of street photography. His metaphorical style and creative perspective were a nice break from software functions and real estate. Here is a little excerpt of my (our) work:

Translation:

One of the first lessons in photography comes from the famous quote from photographer and ecologist, Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” This magic formula applies to all facets of photography without exception. As soon as we start talking about the “photographic intervention,” we have to question composition, choice, selection—whether to accentuate certain elements or to do away with distractions as we seek to create an impact for the eye and heart.

Original:

Un des premiers enseignements de la photographie concerne la fameuse citation du photographe et écologiste Ansel Adam « You don’t take a photograph, you make it ». Cette formule magique s’applique, en définitive, à toutes les spécialités sans exception. Dès qu’il s’agit « d’intervention photographique », il est question de composition, de choix, de sélection, d’accentuation d’éléments ou d’écartement de parasites à la recherche d’un impact pour l’œil et pour le cœur. 

March 3, 2015

What I Want

For a little while my friend Dan and I were working on a writing project based on Edouard Levé’s When I Think of a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue. It was just a running Google doc with one sentence responses to the prompt, “What I want…”, a sort of ventilator for all of our university frustrations. The only rule was to type at a fast pace without stopping, to not delete anything, to mix up the paragraphs. Here are a few excerpts:

 

What I want is a flight to your hometown, one that leaves directly from my hometown. I can walk out of the airport and get directly in your car, we don’t even have to talk about it. What I want are coin rolls to hold in my fists. What I want is to eat from the hands of the birds. I want to see one day the sun rise lower and stronger than ever before, to see all of the trees melting and collapsing. What I want is to live underwater for a year. That is a beautiful thing to want.

What I want is to stay there long enough to learn the habits of the fish and the barnacles. What I want is to look all the way down to the bottom and to not be afraid. To feel that it is all so close, that I could just touch it. That I could just run the sand at the bottom of the ocean through my fingers.

What I want is to keep my fist balled up tight. What I want is an opponent who looks tough, but is easily defeated, and that all of this fighting happens publicly and with great stakes and rewards for me. What I want is a lard-filled bucket, a top-heavy pine tree, all of the shiny cars in a row. What I want is some cooperation. I want some dramatization. What I want is some fresh air, an unobstructed sunrise, a doll with real hair to carry to the summit, a stand in for my dead granddaughter.

What I want is to go back and give that old woman outside of Victoria Station ten pounds. I don’t often give money to beggars, though I want to be the sort of person who does. I want to ask her if it was her first day begging for money. Maybe it was. Or maybe she had been begging for months now. Or years. What I want is to follow her back in time, to watch her life rewind at high speed, to see her looking fine in white gloves and white high heeled shoes in 1953, the day she and her husband bought their first house with a car port. What I want is to understand. Or go on not understanding. What I don’t want is to always be somewhere in-between.

What I want is a super soaker. I would also like lemonade. What I want is a spinning top for gambling in the streets. What I want this evening is bigger than the sea rocks, all of them. It’s made from basalt and pyroform. What I want is to vomit out the timeless, the precious, the beauty. What I want is that I want to be productive for the human race.

What I want is a house full of Turkish rugs, red, yellow, blue, hand knotted. I want a dog with a diplomatic passport who travels well and lets himself outside with dignity. What I want, then of course, is a great new species of birds; eventually they become bird lords who hover above us, carrying great cooked steaks, dripping down into our sweating, hungry masses. What I want is a green sun early-bacon wing-breaker. I want to fly through a cloud, blind in the grey of it.

What I want is a red gash in a yellow curtain, a pink film over the table service, purple mold on the keys of all the pianos of the world. What I want is coming in through the door.  What I want is scotch tape and a bowl of fruit loops. What I want shouldn’t be so hard. I want to see if that small brown bird will peck at this white strand of meat I hang from the branch. What I want is tingling in my neck. I want slowness. What I want is one good sentence.

 

January 28, 2015

Ella

“Sometimes I believe that skiing is responsible for having made me a rolling stone. As soon as winter arrived visions of skis swishing through new snow filled me with such feverish longings that wherever I was – in Berlin or Paris, or even on board Perlette– I interrupted what I was doing, or stopped worrying about what I was not doing, and went to the hills. Every Sunday in Geneva I would get up at four in the morning to catch the special train to the mountains. How could one not escape from the plains, knowing that above the sticky fog a radiant sun waited for us, his worshippers?”

- Ella Maillart, Cruises and Caravanes

It’s ski season again. And Ella and I agree— there is nothing like ascending above the clouds to find white peaks drenched in sun. For my translation diploma project, I translated Ella Maillart’s first book, Parmi la jeunesse russe (1932) and I just had my defense yesterday. Translating Ella taught me a lot about translating literature: How to capture not only the meaning, but also the writer’s spirit in another language?

Ella is modern, tough, and independent. She says what she thinks and she does what she wants. When she wants to trek across Stalinist Russia, she treks across Stalinist Russia. When she wants to drive a Ford from Switzerland to Afghanistan, no one is going to stop her. When she wants to sneak into Tibet with no papers, she just does it. But her writing, even in French, is a little clumsy. How do I do her justice in English?

Drawn toward Russia in 1929, Maillart was, like many Western intellectuals, curious about the radical changes brought on by Stalin’s regime: “la plus téméraire expériance de temps modernes” or “the most daring experiment of modern times.” However, unlike the Western journalists who flocked to the USSR to report, Ella goes to witness, to write a témoinage rather than a reportage. I wanted to capture her “goût du risque” in English and still stay true to her candid impressions, which she herself admits to be like “les photos amoncelées d’un album jamais mis à jour” or a pile of photos never organized into an album.

Ella rowing on the Moscow River, 1929, age 26

Here are a few excerpts from my translation that I was quite happy with:

“De son oeil fulgurant, il prit ma mesure: –Cela dépend en mejeure partie de vous-même, mais je pense que vous devez pouvoir vous débrouiller partout. Qui ne risque n’a rien.” p. 15

“He shot me a look as if to size me up. “That depends for the most part on you, but I think that you must be able to take care of yourself anywhere. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“Subissons le catarrhe d’un gâteux flasque et polyglotte; d’un souffle épuisé, il drague les glaires de ses bronches, il sort son mouchoir et s’en sert, levant un petit doigt alourdi d’armoiries gravées dans l’or.” p.22

“We are all subjected to the coughing and sniveling of a flabby, polyglottal idiot; out of breath, he sucks on the phlegm in the back of his throat. He takes out his handkerchief and blows his nose, raising a little finger that is heavy with gold family-crest rings.”

“Il faut, paraît-il, se méfier des taxis: lorsque quelqu’un est assis à côté du chauffeur, le compteur risque fort d’être avancé d’un doigt habile.” p.27

“Apparently, you should beware of taxis—even when you are sitting next to the driver, the meter may be turned up by some quick sleight-of-hand.”