“The Pain of the Country”

Tomorrow is September 11, but this blogpost won’t focus on the tragedy of that day 10 years ago that will forever mark me and those who witnessed or were personally touched by the events and their aftermath. I could never do it justice—I could never adequately put my sentiments into words. Silent reflection is how I plan to mark this somber moment tomorrow.

But this anniversary necessarily brings home to mind. Being a stranger in a strange land is never an easy thing, and at moments like this, the disconnectedness is amplified, the distance is more expansive, the ache to go back is more painful. The French have an interesting expression for what we call homesickness. They call it le mal du pays (literally, “the pain of the country”) and, somehow, it seems appropriate this weekend to speak of a yearning for something much larger than even my family and friends—a yearning for my home … my homeland … my country.

This morning as I was reflecting on all this, I was reminded of a sonnet I read during my first semester in school here. It comes from a collection entitled Les Regrets by the poet Joachim du Bellay, who served as secretary to the French ambassador to Rome from 1553 to 1557. In this work, du Bellay writes nostalgically about his homeland, comparing his sojourn in Rome to those of Odysseus (Ulysses) and Jason, two Greek heroes who also endured long periods of time far from home. He pines for the simple but familiar comforts of his country and his village which, to him, are so much finer and richer than Rome with its grand monuments and many luxuries. This sonnet is quite simply one of the most eloquent descriptions of that longing for home that every expatriate feels from time to time. Just as it did when I read it for the first time last fall, this sonnet resonates with me today, perhaps even more strongly as tomorrow’s anniversary approaches. At a time like this, I don’t want the lights and glamour of Paris—I just want to go home.

Below is the video for the song adapted from the sonnet by Ridan, a French singer descended from Arab immigrants. My attempt at an English translation of the adapted lyrics appears below the video.

Happy is he who, like Ulysses, has made a fine voyage, or like he who won the fleece,
And then has returned, full of purpose and reason,
To live among his kinsmen the rest of his age!
Alas, when shall I see the smoking chimneys of my little village, and in what season?
(… season … shall I see the walls …)

Refrain (2x)
But when shall I see the smoking chimneys of my little village, and in what season?
But when shall I see … (when shall I see …)

When shall I see the walls of my simple little house,
Which is to me a province, and so much more?
The place that my ancestors built pleases me more
Than the audacious façades of Roman palaces;
Fine slate pleases me more than hard marble,
My gallic Loire more than the latin Tiber, my little Liré more than the Palatine,
And the mildness of Anjou more than the sea air.

Refrain (2x)

I have crossed the seas with the strength of my arms,
Alone against the gods, lost in the tides, entrenched in a hold,
And my old eardrums pierced to no longer hear the Sirens and their voices.
Our life is a war, where it is up to us to worry about our fates,
To make the right choice, to be wary of our steps, and of all that water that sleeps,
That pollutes our paths supposedly paved with gold.

Refrain (2x)

—Translated from Les Regrets, Sonnet XXXI by Joachim du Bellay (1558)
and “Ulysse” by Ridan (2004)

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

4 thoughts on ““The Pain of the Country”

  1. did i ever tell you that you were the one i heard about 9/11 from? it is a distinct visual memory in the Slaughter hallway, when it was just one plane and i assumed it was some stupid error until we went to the computer lab and couldn’t get online. then jeffries actually held class but it became clearer that it was bigger and there were all sorts of rumors floating so the rest were called off.

    1. I remember that. You were one of the first people I saw that morning after I drove to school. I had seen it on the Today show while I was getting ready for class and, being in a kind of shock and unable to call anyone because the lines were too busy, I didn’t know of anything else to do than go find people with whom to share what I’d seen.

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