18 December 2007

January 1973: arsonist strikes

Another letter and a newspaper clipping from my year in Rouen as an English-language teaching assistant:

Rouen, February 5, 1973

Dear Ma,

We've had another eventful period in our stay here in Rouen — starting two weeks ago, as you can see by the enclosed newspaper clipping. A student was arrested on January 27 for setting fires in various parts of the main building of the lycée.

Headline in Rouen's daily newspaper, 27 January 1973

On the Tuesday night before, he had used kerosene to set the staff room on fire, and he had poured a trail of fuel oil down the two halls and into 26 separate rooms on the first floor. Luckily, the fire was seen and extinguished before it spread.

The lycée Corneille with traces of the second fire

Then on Thursday night he did the same thing on the second floor, burning out the principal's office. This time he had poured a trail of kerosene up the stairs and into his own dormitory on the third floor. Again the fire was put out before it had a chance to spread far. A lot of people could have been injured or killed otherwise.

Some details of the story

The student was homesick. He wanted to be able to tell his parents back in Algeria that there was a lot of trouble in the school and that it was dangerous for him to stay there, so that they would take him home...

I didn't live in the school, so I wasn't directly affected by this story. I didn't know the student who was so troubled. But the whole place was in an uproar over it for weeks, as you can imagine, and I learned a lot of French reading about the fires and the arrest and listening to students' and teachers' stories about it all.

In my letter to Ma, I concluded:

So there you have a picture of the front section of the lycée. Gray, cold, and old.


  1. Did you learn the French language by immersion, Ken? Were the people around you helpful? Nothing like a disaster to send you to the dictionary! I went through the reverse experience and people in Toronto were so patient with my limited vocabulary.Lately, people in French Québec have been a bit hostile if you don't know the language. None of the signs are bilingual anymore.Hot politics!

  2. Claudia, j'ai appris le français comme j'ai pu -- au lycée, à la fac, et en France. J'ai eu la chance d'avoir de très bons amis à Rouen et à Paris au cours des années. Et puis j'ai fait connaissance avec un tas de jeunes Français à l'université d'Illinois, qui étaient venus pour enseigner leur langue aux étudiants américains. Par la suite, j'ai eu un poste de traducteur à Washington, et c'est alors que j'ai vraiment commencé à comprendre le français.

  3. Ah!vous êtes vraiment bon...Je ne peux pas traduire. Je pense français ou anglais. J'appelle la traduction: vivre entre deux eaux! Cela m'a pris dix ans de vie en anglais pour comprendre Shakespeare dans un livre, et deux ans de plus, au théâtre. Mais je suis une anglophile. Alors je persiste. Évidemment vous êtes un francophile depuis toujours. Félicitations!

  4. Ken, you were keeping a blog avant la lettre !
    I really like this series !

    Claude from Blogging in Paris

  5. Claude,
    Vous avez raison a ce qui concerne Ken's blogging auparavent! J'espere de faire votre connaissance a l'annee prochaine. Bonne Annee!


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