Author Archives: matsallehrempit

Dealing with pain


I have always considered myself a kind of a warrior. In the pacifist, but a bit tough & willpower-driven sense. And as I was treading slowly down the ski slopes, carrying my snowboard under one hand & letting the other arm hang on the side, I could only keep my mind blank… “No choice, get down the slope, don’t think.”

Being alone, I can only be strong. There’s no choice but to deal with it yourself, to do what is to be done. I was lucky enough that only 10 minutes was needed to bring my little self to a medical center. Or was it 15?  In those times, you don’t really understand what a minute means.

Being in pain is somehow one of the experiences that resembles meditation the most. You can only focus on the present moment, on yourself. Sitting on the bed & waiting for the doctor, with my body in a state of shock & my breathing laborious & fast, I did try meditating. I have to say I failed, big time.

That’s when you realize a few things about pain.

You can experience 2 kinds of pain. The one when you can behave & control yourself. And the one when you can’t.

The latter kind, you can still manage to carry yourself. And then, when you reach help, that’s when your mind just gives up its power & you start crying and shaking. I have to say, the moment 2 assistants grabbed my arm & the doctor pushed & twisted my wrist back into place, that was the most painful time I’ve experienced so far in my life. You don’t think, you just scream & cry. You don’t understand the pain, it’s so everywhere that you don’t know where it is. But don’t worry: no need to understand, you’re all about instincts at that moment. Only some strands of logic prevent you from kicking the doctor in the face or asking him to stop. It just has to be done…

I have discovered I am dealing better with strong pain if people have pity on me, feel bad for me, and then I can pretend to be strong. Telling them I’m fine, that it’s not that bad, helps me believe it.

But the more people pity me, the more I feel they’re trying to convince me I should truly feel bad, and that’s when I start shaking them off, sometimes a bit coldly. And then people don’t mention it any more and, inside, I’m then wondering if they don’t understand how frustrating & depressing it is to fight with this all the time. The illogics of dealing with pain…

Something tells me this is gonna be a long fight.

But then, that’s when you learn.

How to ask for help.

How to estimate your limits.

How to be grateful.

How to be patient, as lack of pain doesn’t mean complete recovery.

How to discover new activities, or new ways of doing old ones. Keep it new, with the eyes of a child.

Yeah, maybe it’s a good thing I broke my arm?


The smell of dry leaves


Autumn has crept it. Or barged in. It’s so difficult to say this year…

Three weeks ago, we had 29°C in the shadows, a bright blue sky above, not a gust of wind – full summer in October!

Today, we had 1.5°C this morning… and a bright blue sky above and just a little breeze. It looks like summer… until you step outside – and then it feels like winter.


I remember, when I was a kid, autumn was associated with clouds, drizzles, occasional storms, and coolish temperatures (around 12°C).

Feeling sleepy earlier.

Snuggling up and reading a book next to the fire in the real-stone chimney in the living room.

Opening chestnut burs with my sneakers and coming back home with a plastic bag full of them. Letting them dry in a wooden crate in the attic, getting rid every day of the ones eaten by a worm.

Running on the dunes with eyes wide open at the gigantic waves crashing on the rocky coastline.

Shuffling my feet in the dry brown leaves, wishing I would have the sharp eyes of my grandparents, who would never fail to spot a boletus (an amazing mushroom).

Unidentified mushroom – I also wish I had the encyclopedic knowledge of my grandfather!

Fallen leaves in a pond – Cevennes


Things change, don’t they?

While temperatures have fallen sharply and chestnut burs cover the ground, I still feel in an in-between season. The transition between summer has either been too slow (no change of weather, no rain), too fast (25+°C drop), or slightly normal (the fruits & leaves falling).

In a background part of my mind, I feel confused. Which season is this?

The only thing that will never change, in a way, is the shorter time we have of daylight every day. The sunlight has been magnificent these last 2 weeks. Horizontal, hiding, subtle, golden.

I am in love with light.

Even on this picture, taken at 10.30am, you can see how horizontal the light is…

Light… That was actually the reminder. We are in autumn. Getting up in the morning is more difficult, even when you got your usual amount of sleep. Your body goes into sleeping mode before dinner.

Snuggling next to the fire still feels like the best thing ever.

Chestnuts are still as difficult to open.

You still feel grateful at the amazing light offered by a one-hour sunrise.

In the end, things don’t change that much…

Dry leaves, fire, chestnuts and acorns, the crisp cold in the morning.

I love autumn :)

Moss and leaves – Huelgoat forest

Acorns by the thousands

Old couple’s walk in the low light of mid-afternoon – Huelgoat forest

For the smile of a Roma


I saw her from afar, and I knew what was coming. As I drew nearer, I stole a glance at her. She was sitting directly on the cobblestones, in a black dress, a colorful scarf wrapped around her head. Maybe in her 50s? It was difficult to say at a single glance.

It is the glance that singled me out though, in the crowd of passers-by. She looked up and called out with a smile in her voice: “Bonjour mademoiselle !” (Hello miss). I threw a quick uneasy smile back and walked away, in shame.

I had decided. I knew I wanted to get to know the homeless & the beggars of my own country. To make a connection, to give money whenever I had coins in my wallet. To give them a smile and a human connection, as I do with the homeless in Kuala Lumpur.

And yet, at the first sight of the “confrontation”, I shied away. And, as before, as most French people do, I gave myself the same old excuses. “She is a Roma.” “She belongs to a mafia-style group.” “The money is not going to her, she will have to give it to someone else at the end of her day.”

I walked to the corner of the street… and stopped. That was not me. Seriously? What was I doing? In my own country…

I took a 50ct coin out of my wallet and turned back.


Beggars see people every day, they look at passers-by’s face all the time in the hope of catching their eyes. As soon as she saw me, she recognized me. Or maybe it’s my skirt, flying everywhere as usual, that drew her eyes. She watched me coming back, a smile on her face.

“Merci, c’est gentil” (Thank you, it’s nice)

I gave her the coin.

And it was not enough. I wanted to talk to her. I had nothing to say. I went ahead, feeling stupid at the generalities I was giving in the hope of creating the connection.

“Do you stay here all day long?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Oh wow, time must feel so long sometimes.”

The stupidities we can say too often…

“Where are you from?”


I could only sigh. I knew, and I knew the difficulty of her life here.

“Good luck, I hope everything will be fine.”

“Thank you, it’s really nice.”

She had such a musical voice, full of kindness, just the slight trace of a foreign accent.

She sounded like a mother.


I walked away, smiling, feeling lighter, knowing I had done the right thing… and yet something was amiss. This random connection had not been complete, I felt unfulfilled.

And while I was walking on the cobblestones, under the sun, wondering what it was (Too small a coin? Not enough time talking? Should have I sit with her?), it suddenly felt really important. What was I missing?

I stopped on the next Square, settled in a corner & watched people go on their life, thoughts floating in my head.

And then it struck.

I wanted to ask her for forgiveness.

I wanted to say sorry for all the horrible things my country is doing to Romas, for the way France is treating them, for the random deportations, for the racism, for the families separated, for…

That’s when I started to cry, in the middle of Rennes, feeling empty inside.

The sun kept on shining above…

Finding France back in my garden


A few steps out of the airplane, and France greets you in a most fitting fashion. A passport control, 10m out of the plane gates, conducted by two fully uniformed policemen. You observe them and, in an almost absent-minded way, a song plays in your mind. “La France est un pays de flics. A tous les coins de rue, il y en a 100.” (France is a country of cops. At every street corner, there will be 100 of them).

Welcome in France!  Welcomed by policemen, what are the vibes I got? What were the symbols they conveyed? Lack of trust, need for safety barriers, a police state, and a rejection of foreigners. They are just symbols, but they were there.

A fitting welcome, indeed.

Every time I come back to France, sights jump at me. Things I had forgotten, things I had always overlooked, suddenly stand out against the background of familiarity. Why are tree leaves already brown by mid-September, when the temperatures are still warm? Why is the sunrise light taking so long to give way to the “full day” light? Why do people answer in French when I talk English to them? (I love this part!)

People strike me. My first thought was “Oh my god, French people look so French!” Obvious, you would say? It was actually just the first overlook of the crowd, when this familiar mix of French features could be found on so many faces.

And then you start taking into account this whole melting pot around you. Every time, I rediscover it. Brittany is a peninsula, isolated, with its own people and culture. We’re mainly white crepes-eating Christians. The Parisian crowd is, by contrast, so heteroclite. So many black people. So many Maghrebi. So many Middle East features. So many Asians. So many white faces with a few foreign accents.  So much diversity…

I sit on my small sit as the subway rolls its way towards Montparnasse train station, and I stare. I smile at the obvious habits, at the gossips exchanged between friends, at the sleepy eyes on the way to work. French people have a special way of speaking, something so familiar and yet slightly irritating to me. I guess it’s just this stupid teenager-like rejection feeling that speaks in me. But, while I used to put a barrier between me & “the others” around me, I now look at them with compassion and a feeling of connection. Staying in Asia has made me a better person already.

Finding familiarity in the unfamiliar, finding unfamiliarity in the familiar. I don’t know what it is anymore. But I can’t help smiling at this feeling of rediscovery of what is somehow still mine. At the people that are still, somehow, my own.

Come on the journey. I’ll make you discover France through my renewed eyes.

Brittany countryside flashing by the train windows

Clear blue skies above and the church of my village

The roof is full of lichen & moss as the village office doesn’t spend much money on it anymore.

In an increasingly atheist country, villages have new priorities.

National dish in Brittany: crepes…

… and they always come with cider. Always :)

Snapshots of my “What…?” moments:

– Staring at a plug on the wall, wondering where the plug switch went. We don’t switch off/on plugs here…

– Hitting the wall 5 times before finding the light switch. They are about 30cm lower than in Malaysia.

– Wondering why the sunrise light lasts from 7 to 9am, instead of just 30min.

– “Hi, could I get a cappucino?” “Oh… Heu, oui, bien sûr, mais attendez un moment, je ne sais pas les faire, je vais demander à mon collègue.” “Errr… Ok?”

– Thinking a road in my village is now a one-way street because I saw a car driving on the “wrong” side of the road…

– Discovering that croissants bought at my local bakery are about 12x better than the ones bought anywhere in Malaysia :)

– Witnessing the constant change of light & weather in the sky. The wind is so strong up there that coton-fluffy clouds race by. Low dark gray blankets of mist give way to radiant blue skies.

– French people don’t feel comfortable with hugs… *big disappointed face* They give you a distant hug while trying to kiss you on the cheek at the same time.

– It’s 14°C (morning & evening) to 19°C (afternoon). Rainy, sunny, windy, all together.

– Banks open only 4.5 days a week (closed on Monday & Saturday afternoon), and close by 4.30pm. Lazy useless people. Yeah, I have a grudge against my bank. They steal too much of my money.

– Motorbikes are 50cc with miniature wheels, or full-sized big ones. No 100-125cc… And they always come with a baby-face teenager :p

– News on the radio in the morning are only local crime & incidents. Depressing much at 8am!

– Crepes are the best dish ever in the whole world. I withdraw any comparison I might have made with tosai :)

Acorns. Autumn is coming :)

Disconnection, or how to lose touch with reality


One morning, you wake up in hazy Kuala Lumpur, walk slowly on your balcony and gaze at the Petronas Tower in the distance, observe the Chinese uncle doing his exercises in the sunrise light, smile at the kids in uniform waiting for their morning bus. One morning, you are living your life in Malaysia and it is exactly at it should be.

And the next thing you know, a very few hours later, you are staring at a signboard, written in your own language, wondering why you can’t understand where the train station is. How do foreigners even manage to find their way here is a constant mystery to you…

 I am back in France and, for a while, I lost touch with who I was, where I was, what I was doing. I didn’t know what reality was. It felt both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. The huge cut in your life, extending over the span of less than a day time, puts you in an emotional limbo. How could you have been talking to friends in Malay less than 16 hours ago, hugging people at a mamak place only last night… and now you are where 80% of your life memories come from? It feels real and it feels wrong. It feels as if all Asia is a dream you are waking up from. You know life in Malaysia is real, and yet you doubt it. It is just… not here.

We all dream to live many lives. You want to be a professional footballer, a constant traveler, a successful businessman, good at photography, this or that. But you know you can have only one life, and you resign yourself to it.

I do have two lives. And when I jump into one, the other one feels so much at odds, as if I had just stopped watching a movie where I had identified myself with a character.

I live in Malaysia. I am a translator, a volunteer, a motorbike rider, a mamak dweller, an advice dispenser, a lover of my friends, a language addict, a discover of religions & cultures.

And I live in France. I am the proud daughter of Brittany, an ex-biology student without a job, a forever gypsy that doesn’t fit in society, a critic of my own people, a smile that isn’t understood, a Buddhist animist that marvels at old-stones churches, a forest hiker, a wild-beaches lover, a friend who doesn’t know where her friends disappeared, and an oddity her family often hardly understands.

I am, I am, I am… What am I?

What if we didn’t actually need the answer to this question?

I have been fighting this weirdest feeling of duality and unreality since I last glanced at those 2 familiar faces in the airport. For as long as the “jump” lasted, I felt I was nobody. I knew I was going back to France, but that was mental knowledge. My emotions, my intuition were just plain screwed up. I kept on half expecting something to happen, because “being back in France” was so out-of-touch with my life that I couldn’t visualize it. I knew the plane was not going to suddenly turn around and go back to Kuala Lumpur and, yet, I half expected it.

Weirdest feeling ever.

It is only when I met my aunt that I reconnected with reality. A hug to my cousin, a kiss to those familiar faces, and I was back into normality.

This is where I realize that my reality lives with the people that surround me. “France” is an abstraction that I can’t connect with, that I don’t own. Belonging to my family, yes, this I can comprehend. Between my 2 friends smiles at KLIA and the warmth of my aunt embrace, I had been in limbo.

Now I am home again.

True, it still feels weird but I expect it to disappear tomorrow, when I wake up & go to bed in the same house, surrounded by the same people. Feeling the spirit of Penn-ar-Bed (“Beginning of the world”, the Breton name of my county) and the smell of the ocean in the air. Yes, I will be home.

I have to say it though. In those 5 years of living abroad & coming back to France, never have I felt this feeling of disconnection that strongly. It totally swept me away and turned me upside down, made me float in disbelief at the confusion of my thoughts.

What made this time different from the others? Probably because KL truly feels home, in the intensity of my sense of belonging there. My life there is strong, and that’s why it clashed so much with my old life in France. Two strongly rooted lives in my little self. The transition was out of this world…

End of the honeymoon


I quite have to confess it. I have started craving for normal sleep patterns. A cup of coffee while working in the afternoon. A few things to munch on while catching up with friends over lunch. Yes, I know, today is the 26th. And the last day of fasting is most likely going to be on the 29th.

A few days more.

I’m just holding up because I’m stubborn like that…

In Islam, the last 10 days of Ramadan bear a special meaning. It is said that, in one of those 10 nights, Allah will send on Earth as many angels as there are grains of sand. The catch is, you don’t know which night it is supposed to be.

Mosques fill up at nights, people gather in prayers & contemplation, some hurry to finish reading the Qur’an, and most find energy for this last push of fasting.

Not being a Muslim, I don’t have anything to hold on for those last days of Ramadan. Lying in my bed, last night, I was wondering how convenient it was that this “special night” is unknown and that you have to do make special efforts for, really, 1/3 of the month. Some ways to give spirit for the whole end of it, and not just for one night, to keep people going through the difficulties of nearing a month of a body in “starvation mode”. It’s clever, in a way.

So, yes, I rely on my stubbornness. I’m really a girl from Brittany for this matter. Once decided, don’t think about it twice if it’s going to make you waver.

So what’s up with my fasting? Well, I had decided at the very beginning that I would fast the whole 29 days. Traveling to Singapore & not sleeping straight for 2 nights? Takpe. Women’s non-fasting days? Takpe. Feeling sick? Takpe la. I fasted through the last 26 days, and I’m quite happy with this :)

I am still able to go running (20 minutes), to climb up the stairs instead of taking the lift, to work even more than usual (start early morning, gives you a productive spirit for the rest of the day!), to -basically- almost run a normal life.

I am mostly not hungry or thirsty during day time, it has become pretty much a second nature. I’m just battling with the mental pleasure of eating, not with the physical one. Like those who stop smoking & have overcome the nicotine dependence, I’m now struggling with the habit more than the need…

I read earlier that, during a period of fast, the body lowers the metabolism rate to accommodate the needs & to answer as required. It doesn’t mean you have less energy, you just use it more wisely & with a better pace.

(Caution: this means, your body will still have a lower metabolism rate during Raya: it will stock all this food & break it really slowly, as it doesn’t know you’re stopping fasting)

No, really, food & drinks? Easy game!

But I can get my sleep back?

I’m so tired of being tired… There is so much to do at night, so many conversations to have around cups of tea, so many friends to catch up with. You just can’t go to bed before midnight. Or you could, but then you have to be ready to miss your social life for one month, as you don’t really meet people during day time (what for?). I was not ready for this, had not mentally prepared myself for it.

I needed the people, the social activities, the conversations.

I kept on going out at night.

As a result, I’m sleeping around 1 to 2am, 2 hours later than usual, and wake up at 5.30am (3-4 hours early :p). That makes my nights shorter by 5 to 6 hours. I can’t obviously take naps of that length during day time, I only sleep 1 to 3 hours.

As a result, I dropped from a continuous 8-9 hours to an interrupted 4-6 hours.

Trust me. Really not cool.

Those last 2 days, I consciously missed sahur and have been eating only once per day as a consequence. The idea is, being hungry lasts about 30min, and comes & goes. When you’re tired, you’re tired all day long. Better catch up on sleep & eat less. I’m still drinking as much :)

But, yes, only 3.5 days to go!

On Monday night, throughout the country & all over the world, people will be waiting for the sighting of the new moon. This is what marks the beginning of Syawal, the next muslim month, and so the end of Ramadan.

Traditionally, you really had to wait until the very last night to know when Ramadan would end. Nowadays, technologies make it more precise & almost everyone expects Monday to be the last day of fasting.

I could imagine my face on Monday night if someone told me, “Oh, no moon, we have to fast another day!”. Wait, what?

Hopefully, technology is reliable enough :)

The Syawal moon on September 10th, last year, taken in Islamabad. Credits: Asif Mahmood.

On the other sides of Ramadan, I have been following up. But I could have done better… :)

As far as I remember, I tried not to lie, not to gossip and (more importantly because more difficult), not to talk bad about people behind their back. Not that I do it often ;) But, lately, I found myself complaining more than usual. I put it on the being-tired-and-all but, still, trying to get a grip on this.

Meditation-wise… one time, 10min. Damn… Definitely something to improve on!

Reading the Qur’an? I’m still in Surah 2, ayat 200+. Going slow… I don’t have the religious need to finish it before the end of Ramadan :)

Going to the mosque & reading/observing during Terawikh? About 5 times… I kind of know how to wrap the scarf around my hair now. It helps I’m always wearing one around my neck :)

Asking questions about Islam & fasting? Countless! Still trying to ask people how was their childhood fasting :) Wanna share in the comments? I feel I don’t have enough stories to draw the bigger picture of “children’s approach to puasa in Malaysia”.

Left to do: going back to Masjid Wilayah and taking pictures at night. By far the most beautiful mosque I’ve been in! Oh, well, Putrajaya is not far behind…

A Qur’an waiting for readers in Masjid Bukit Damansara

And for all those who are driving to “balik kampung”… Drive safe :)

Of respect and choices


Say, you are a Muslim. Say, you are fasting, giving up on food, water, bad thoughts, bad words. Say, there are colleagues at work, friends or members of your family who are not Muslim and who are not fasting.

How would you feel if they were eating or drinking in front of you?

How would you feel if, because they forgot or because they think it’s only a joke, they offer you water or a snack?

How would you feel if, basically, they were not acknowledging your efforts and the difficulty of it?


I think most people would see the common sense in respecting people’s choices, in allowing them to pursue them and in not trying to take them astray. After all, isn’t it all about respect?


So, now, tell me.

Why are some people not being supportive when someone stops smoking?


Why would they keep on smoking just in front of them?

Why would they keep on offering cigarettes, cigars or other alternatives?

Why, basically, don’t they show any respect to the difficulty of it?

Why don’t they try to make it slightly easier for them?

Where are the support and the care I see all around the Muslim community during Ramadan?

Yes, what is so difficult for some smokers to just help those who want to stop?


To stop smoking is a battle. Fasting is a 13 hour struggle. To stop smoking really takes months.

Be a bit supportive, people…


To my 4 friends who took the plunge on August 1st, keep on going. It’s a few months of struggle for more than years of freedom.