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Episode 20: Dessiner un nouveau départ (Drawing a New Beginning)

By Duolingo on Tue 21 Jul 2020

Berthet One always loved drawing, but never saw a future in it. Until he wound up in prison and realized that drawing was the best chance he had at rebuilding his life.

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Transcript

Ngofeen: In 2006, 29-year-old Berthet One was in prison, serving a 10-year sentence for robbery — and he was struggling. The days were long and repetitive. To take his mind off of things, he took up an old hobby: doodling. As a kid, he loved to draw. It was his own little bubble.

Berthet: Quand j’étais enfant, je dessinais beaucoup. J’adorais ça. Je passais des heures dans ma chambre, tout seul, et je dessinais. J’inventais des histoires. Alors, quand j’étais seul en prison, dessiner me faisait du bien. Ça me rendait plus calme.

Ngofeen: One day, Berthet was lying on his prison bed, quietly listening to music and doodling, when a guard, un gardien, came into his cell for the daily security check. The guard glanced over Berthet’s shoulder, noticed his drawing and yelled: “That’s amazing, you’ve got golden fingers!”

Berthet: Il a crié tellement fort, il m’a fait peur ! Mais moi, je n’avais pas envie de discuter avec le gardien. Je voulais juste être seul. Mais le gardien a continué à me parler, et il m’a demandé si je pouvais lui faire un dessin.

Ngofeen: Berthet ignored his request. Drawing was something private. But the following week, the guard asked again. And again, Berthet ignored him. This went on for weeks. Until one day, the guard said the last thing that Berthet wanted to hear.

Berthet: Il m’a dit : « J’en ai marre des mecs comme toi, hyper doués, et qui n’en font rien. Vous gâchez tout votre talent ! »

Ngofeen: “I’m tired of gifted guys like you who waste their talent.” Berthet was irritated, so he used his drawing to retaliate. He drew a caricature of a face-off: Berthet standing proud, pumping his chest — and the guard on his knees, à genoux, begging.

Berthet: Sur le dessin, le gardien était à genoux, et il me disait : « S’il te plaît, Berthet, fais-moi un dessin ! » Quand j’ai donné le dessin au gardien, j’ai pensé qu’il se mettrait en colère.

Ngofeen: The prison guard looked at the drawing and…burst out laughing. He proudly showed the caricature to other guards. One guard was so impressed, he pulled some strings and got Berthet into a prison drawing class, un cours de dessin.

Berthet: Ce cours de dessin a changé ma vie. Dans ce cours, j’ai rencontré des gens qui m’ont aidé à croire en moi, et à utiliser mon talent. Pendant longtemps, je croyais que dessiner ne servait à rien. Maintenant, c’est mon métier.

Ngofeen: Bienvenue and welcome back to the Duolingo French Podcast. I’m Ngofeen Mputubwele. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your French listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate French, and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Ngofeen: Berthet grew up in a tough neighborhood in the north of Paris, but life at home was good. His parents had stable careers, and his siblings — all six of them — stayed out of trouble. But Berthet wasn’t very interested in school. As a career, he dreamed of pursuing drawing.

Berthet: Dessiner, c’était mon rêve. Mais mes parents et mes professeurs m’ont tous dit que ce n’était pas un vrai métier. Et que c’était important de gagner de l’argent, d’avoir une carrière. Quand j’ai entendu ça, je me suis senti découragé. Je ne savais pas quoi faire. Je n’avais plus de rêve.

Ngofeen: As a teenager, Berthet grew disillusioned and bored. While his siblings all seemed certain of their paths in life, he felt directionless. When he was 14 or 15, he started getting into trouble — faire des conneries. First he stole bikes and sold them for cash, which soon turned into motorcycles and cars.

Berthet: Je voyais mes amis gagner de l’argent en faisant des choses illégales. Ils avaient des beaux vêtements, des scooters. Je voulais avoir la même chose. Alors, j’ai fait comme eux.

Ngofeen: It was the 80s, and Berthet and his friends were into all things American. They listened to hip hop, some rapped, others break danced… Berthet wasn’t much of a rapper, but he could draw. That’s how he got into graffiti.

Berthet: Le week-end, je prenais le train pour Paris avec mes amis. On allait faire des graffitis. À l’époque, c’était nouveau, et complètement illégal. J’avais du talent, et j’adorais ça.

Ngofeen: But Berthet’s talent for graffiti wasn’t enough to steer him away from crime. By the time he was in his twenties, he was living off petty crimes and had stopped drawing altogether. He kept a low profile. Mostly, he didn’t want his parents and his brothers and sisters to know what he was up to.

Berthet: Bien sûr, mes parents ne savaient pas ce que je faisais. Ils pensaient que je faisais des études et que je travaillais, comme mes frères et sœurs.

Ngofeen: Berthet didn’t think he was doing anything truly bad. His parents had raised him with strong values. He thought he was living according to them: do no harm.

Berthet: Mes parents m’ont donné des valeurs : être gentil, travailler dur, faire les choses bien. Oui, je volais, et je savais que c’était mal. Mais je n’étais pas violent. Pour moi, c’était important de ne pas être violent.

Ngofeen: One day, in April 2006, Berthet and some friends decided to go after something bigger than cars. Looking back on it now, Berthet wonders what he could have been thinking. But that day, he and his friends decided to go out and rob a jewellery store.

Berthet: On a pris des bijoux et de l’argent. Je n’avais jamais fait quelque chose d’aussi grave. Pour nous, c’était un succès. On ne pensait pas avoir de problèmes.

Ngofeen: But Berthet’s luck didn’t last long.

Berthet: Quelques mois plus tard, la police nous a arrêtés. Ce jour-là a été l’un des plus horribles de ma vie. C’était un crime sérieux. Pour moi, les conséquences pouvaient être graves.

Ngofeen: After Berthet’s arrest, there was a trial. His parents finally caught on to what their son was doing. They were shocked. But on the day of his sentencing, when Berthet faced the judge, his parents came to the courthouse to show their son their support.

Berthet: J’étais debout, devant le juge. Il a annoncé la condamnation : dix ans de prison ! Dix ans, c’est vraiment très long. J’ai regardé mes parents. Pour la première fois de ma vie, j’ai vu mon père pleurer. Et je me suis dit : « Je ne peux plus continuer comme ça. »

Ngofeen: Faced with a long sentence, Berthet decided to turn his life around. In prison, he started a new routine. He went back to school. He got his GED and then he signed up for a bachelor’s degree. Soon, he found himself returning to an old habit: drawing.

Berthet: En prison, quand je dessinais, je pouvais penser à autre chose, et me sentir mieux. Parfois, quand j’écrivais une lettre à ma famille ou à mes amis, je leur envoyais aussi un dessin.

Ngofeen: After the prison guards noticed Berthet’s drawing talent, and got him a spot in the prison’s coveted drawing class, Berthet’s new teacher quickly saw his potential. He suggested that Berthet give him a couple of drawings to show in an exhibition in a nearby town, in the suburbs of Paris.

Berthet: D’un côté, tout le monde me disait que je dessinais bien : mes parents, mes amis, le gardien, et maintenant, le prof. Mais depuis que j’étais petit, tout le monde me disait aussi que dessiner ne servait à rien. Moi, je voulais changer ma vie. Alors je ne m’intéressais pas au dessin, et je travaillais surtout pour avoir mon diplôme.

Ngofeen: Berthet gave a couple of drawings to his teacher, just to placate him. But the following week, his teacher came back with stunning news. People who’d seen Berthet’s work in that exhibition wanted to buy it!

Berthet: C’était la première fois que quelqu’un que je ne connaissais pas aimait mon travail. Ces gens n’étaient pas de ma famille, ils n’étaient pas mes amis. J’étais content, mais je me suis dit : « J’ai eu de la chance, c’est tout. »

Ngofeen: His teacher didn’t think it was just luck. So he suggested that Berthet submit some pieces to a national drawing competition for inmates. It took place during le Festival d’Angoulême, a festival dedicated to comics — la bande dessinée.

Berthet: Le Festival d’Angoulême est le plus grand festival de bande dessinée en France. Beaucoup d’auteurs connus sont présents là-bas. C’est comme les Oscars, mais pour la bande dessinée. Le jury de ce prix spécial était composé de vrais dessinateurs. C’était trop pour moi. J’avais trop peur. Alors, j’ai refusé de participer.

Ngofeen: When his teacher insisted, Berthet refused, but then the guards asked him about it. Then his fellow inmates. So Berthet pushed past his fear.

Berthet: Des gens de trois mondes différents me disaient de participer à ce concours : les gardiens, les prisonniers, et le prof de dessin. Alors, j’ai décidé d’envoyer un dessin. J’ai inventé un personnage : une femme, loin du monde de la prison. Je voulais montrer ce que j'étais capable de faire.

Ngofeen: Soon after sending the drawing, Berthet was transferred to a new, larger prison. There, he met his new prison counsellor, sa conseillère. He knew this woman could have a big impact on his life, for better or for worse. Walking into her office that first day, he was anxious. For once, drawing was the last thing on his mind.

Berthet: La conseillère a regardé mon dossier. Elle semblait très contente. Elle m’a dit : « C’est super, vous avez repris vos études, vous avez passé votre bac, vous prenez des cours de dessin… Et vous avez gagné un prix au festival d’Angoulême ! C’est incroyable, bravo ! »

Ngofeen: Berthet had trouble understanding her at first. He’d won? Apparently, the letter announcing his prize at the Festival d’Angoulême had gotten lost during his transfer, and the good news had never reached him. Now, Berthet knew: he had won first place.

Berthet: J’étais vraiment content. J’ai pensé que je pouvais utiliser mon talent. À ce moment-là, je me suis dit : « Tu vas prendre ça au sérieux. »

Ngofeen: The prize changed something for Berthet. Maybe there was a future in drawing after all. He decided to start drawing comic strips about his life in prison. He’d chronicle the day-to-day life of an inmate, un détenu, and the absurdities of life in prison.

Berthet: Je voyais des choses que seuls les détenus pouvaient voir. J’ai imaginé que j’étais un journaliste en immersion. Je voulais utiliser mon regard critique et mon sens de l’humour. Mon projet, c’était de dessiner la vie en prison, et d’écrire une bande dessinée.

Ngofeen: Berthet kept working on his bachelor’s degree, but with support from his family and a few friends, he worked on his own book-length bande dessinée. Having his family’s support meant the world to him. So did his correspondence with a friend from his teenage graffiti days, Alice.

Berthet: Alice ne sait pas du tout dessiner. Quand elle m’écrivait, elle essayait de faire des petits dessins, mais elle n’y arrivait pas ! C’était drôle, et cela me faisait rire ! Alors, quand je lui répondais, je lui envoyais de beaux dessins.

Ngofeen: Halfway through his prison sentence, Berthet was almost done with a full graphic novel. And he got life-changing news. He’d obtained an early release from prison. Five years early. He was astounded, and thrilled. His brothers came to pick him up the day of his release.

Berthet: Dans la voiture, j’étais comme un chien fou ! Je sortais ma tête par la fenêtre pour sentir le vent sur mon visage. J’avais envie d’aller au restaurant, de voir mes amis, de voir l’horizon devant moi.

Ngofeen: Berthet and his brothers were driving home when a cell phone rang. Berthet assumed it was his parents, who were on a big trip abroad at the time. But when he picked up, it was Alice. She wanted to take him somewhere special. And she wanted him to come immediately. With his drawings.

Berthet: Elle était vraiment contente, parce que j’étais sorti. Elle voulait me montrer quelque chose. Elle m’a dit : « Prends la voiture de ton frère, et viens avec tes dessins. » Moi, j’avais envie de rentrer à la maison. Mais je voulais lui faire plaisir, parce qu’elle avait vraiment été présente quand j’étais en prison.

Ngofeen: Berthet borrowed his brother’s car and went to pick up Alice. She had him drive all the way to downtown Paris. Berthet was irritated, agacé. This definitely wasn’t what he had planned for his first night out of prison.

Berthet: Alice me faisait tourner à gauche, à droite, à gauche, à droite… J’étais vraiment agacé. Et finalement, elle m’a dit d’arrêter la voiture. On était dans une rue très chic de Paris, à côté des Champs-Élysées.

Ngofeen: Alice pointed at a gallery across the street and told Berthet: “You see that gallery over there? It’s the first art gallery dedicated to street art!” Street art, she explained, was what everyone called graffiti now. And people were obsessed with it.

Berthet: Quand je suis entré dans la galerie, j’ai eu un choc. Autour de moi, il y avait seulement des graffitis, mais ils étaient accrochés aux murs, comme des vrais tableaux ! Je me suis approché pour regarder. C’était incroyable. Tous les artistes, c’était mes amis !

Ngofeen: All the artists exhibited had been Berthet’s friends back in his graffiti days. And they were now selling their paintings for thousands of euros! He realized that while he had given up on his art, these guys had kept drawing…and become really good. As Berthet examined their artwork, the gallery manager came up to him.

Berthet: On a parlé pendant presque une heure. Il était impressionné, parce que je connaissais beaucoup de choses sur le graffiti. Quand je suis parti, il m’a serré la main, et il m’a dit que je pouvais revenir le voir.

Ngofeen: When Berthet returned to the car, Alice insisted he turn right back around and show his drawings to the gallery manager.

Berthet: J’étais vraiment énervé. C’était le soir de ma sortie de prison, et je n’avais pas envie de faire ça. Mais en plus, c’était ridicule. Ce quartier était l’un des plus chics de Paris. Cet homme ne pouvait pas s’intéresser à mon travail !

Ngofeen: But Alice wouldn’t budge. So Berthet grabbed his drawings, and headed back inside. As the gallery manager greeted him for the second time that night, Berthet took a leap of faith. He told the manager he was an artist too, one who drew bandes dessinées, known as B.D. for short.

Berthet: Il m’a fait un grand sourire et m’a dit : « J’adore la B.D. Je dois fermer la galerie, mais reviens demain matin pour me montrer ce que tu fais. » Je ne pouvais même pas le croire ! Maintenant, c’était sérieux. Je devais me préparer.

Ngofeen: That night, Berthet thought long and hard about what he was going to tell the gallery manager, le galeriste. He wanted to make a good impression.

Berthet: Le lendemain matin, je suis arrivé à l’heure. Je me suis assis en face du galeriste. À son bureau, il m’a servi un café, puis il m’a dit : « Alors, je peux voir ces dessins ? » Je lui ai répondu : « Attendez. Avant de vous montrer mes dessins, je vais vous raconter une histoire. »

Ngofeen: The gallery manager smiled at him and sat back in his seat. Berthet told him about a guy who had gone to prison, rediscovered his passion while behind bars, and was now sitting in a gallery in one of the poshest neighborhoods in Paris, just one day after being released.

Berthet: Quand j’ai terminé mon histoire, j’ai posé mes dessins sur la table, puis j’ai dit au galeriste : « Voilà. Je vous ai raconté la première partie de l’histoire. Maintenant, c’est vous qui allez me raconter la suite. »

Ngofeen: The gallery manager studied Berthet’s drawings carefully. Then he looked up and told Berthet what would happen next.

Berthet: Il m’a dit : « Dans trois mois, on fait une exposition. » Une exposition ? J’étais comme un fou. C’était incroyable !

Ngofeen: Berthet and the gallerist spent two months preparing the exhibition. On the day of the opening, the gallery was bursting with people. Berthet had invited all of his friends and family, and had told everyone to spread the word. There were journalists as well as representatives from big publishing houses, des maisons d’édition.

Berthet: Il y avait beaucoup de gens. Les gens venaient de mondes très différents. Il y avait des gens de la banlieue, des journalistes, des maisons d’édition, mes amis qui faisaient du rap. Et il y avait même mon oncle ! Il venait du Congo spécialement pour mon exposition.

Ngofeen: In just three months, Berthet had made it from a prison cell to an art gallery near the Champs-Elysées. As he scanned the crowd, he noticed a familiar figure in the back. His father had arrived, just in time to watch Berthet address his audience.

Berthet: Je n’ai pas vu le moment où il est entré. Alors, je ne sais pas depuis combien de temps il me regardait. Mon père souriait doucement. À ce moment-là, j’ai remarqué qu’il pleurait.

Ngofeen: Berthet had only seen his father cry once in his life, and that was at his sentencing, five years before. This time, these were tears of joy and pride.

Berthet: À ce moment-là, j’ai pensé qu’on était tous les deux rassurés. Moi, j’étais rassuré, parce qu’il était fier de moi, et heureux pour moi. Lui, il était rassuré, parce qu’il voyait que je pouvais réussir, et que ma situation commençait à changer. Il n’était plus inquiet pour moi.

Ngofeen: That night, at the gallery, Berthet secured a publishing deal, and his B.D. was published six months after that. It sold 10,000 copies in the first year alone. No one is more surprised than Berthet that a hobby from his troubled youth has become a full-blown career. Today, he makes his living as an artist.

Berthet: Tout le monde a des talents. Il faut trouver sa passion, et se donner les moyens pour réussir. Il faut croire en son talent, et en ses compétences !

Ngofeen: Berthet One is an author and illustrator living in the suburbs of Paris. He now also runs a non-profit that teaches drawing to inmates and at-risk kids. You can reach out to his non profit at asso.makadam@gmail.com. You can also find Berthet on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @Berthetone.

This story was produced by Adélie Pojzman-Pontay, a journalist based in Paris.

This is our last story of this season, but we’ll be back soon with more new episodes. In the meantime, you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app so you can get the next episode delivered right to you. You can also go to podcast.duolingo.com to find transcripts and audio for all of the stories we’ve produced so far.

And of course, we’d love to know what you thought of this season! Feel free to send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com.

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The Duolingo French Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. Our managing editor is Natacha Ruck, our on staff producer is Lorena Galliot, our editorial assistant and storyhunter is Camille Lindbom. Mixers and sound designers are Martine Chaussard and Samia Bouzid. Our production manager is Roman Frontini, our mastering engineer is Laurent Apffel, and this season got extra love from Luis Gil and Mariano Pagella. Our executive producer is Martina Castro. And I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele, à la prochaine!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Adélie Pojzman-Pontay
Narrator & Protagonist: Berthet One
Managing Editor: Natacha Ruck
Mix and Sound Design: Martine Chaussard
Mastering Engineer: Laurent Apffel
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro