February 25, 2008

My Circle of Trees

While I was on a study abroad in Paris in 2001, when I lived with a French family, I used to go to St. Germain-en-Laye, an enchanting town to the west of Paris not far from where I lived. I would walk in the grand park next to the chateau. There is a long promenade in the park - resting on the crest of a hill - which overlooks Paris from afar. At the end of that long path is a revelation. Or at least that is what it was to me. It is a circle of trees - a ring of perfectly planted trees. The trees have somehow, miraculously, grown in the same way and mirror each other almost perfectly. The first time I reached the band of trees, I was bowled over. It was so simple. But it seemed astonishing to me. Peculiar even.

Yesterday, Xavier and I went back there. I had wanted to since I arrived in Paris again (this time, to stay). They were just as marvelous yesterday as before. A circle is, palpably, a symbol. A symbol of plenty of things. To me, love. This may be my most starry-eyed confession, but when I came in 2001, I dreamt of bringing l'homme de ma vie to that place one day. To show him.

But then irony and reality always have their ways. Little did I know it would be a Frenchman to bring me back to this country and these trees - because he knew about them before I did, in the end. (And little did I know that I would be back rather permanently, rather mournfully to begin with...then rather increasingly more contentedly). So, he was less enthralled with my circle of trees than I would have liked, but I console myself by remembering he is French, after all.

TO BE NOTED: This little piece is so sappy. I have taken so much flack for it. The truth is Xavier was making fun of me the whole time. From the moment we started walking down the long path to the trees, he was mocking me with his derisive cultural comments (Americans, are apparently the only people who could be cheesy enough to think a circle of trees represents anything beyond their place in a garden). So that's that.

C’est Très Français

Our friend Pascale is quite obsessed. The scale of her collection d'échantillons de parfum (little bottles of perfume) is impressive and covers the majority of walls in her apartment. This sort of thing is very French. Very. As is she.

February 21, 2008

Bits and pieces from Baugé

Conversation about popcorn. Xavier’s mother comments that I must increasingly be able to discern middle class things – me: “No actually, we were sitting in a movie theater the other night and Xavier told me that popcorn is extremely middle class.” She exclaims: “Oh yes! Absolutely. Entirely middle class. Même plouc! (Even low class!) Eating anything in a theater is middle class.” Vincent (Xavier’s dad) agrees with a solemn nod of his head and adds that there are categories of middle class: low middle, middle middle and high middle.

The middle class discussion has been an ongoing thing since I first met Xavier. Class distinctions are almost non-existent in the US in comparison to how deep they run and are made in France. We are not talking about money here. Not at all. In fact, according to Xavier and his mother, sometimes the most middle class people are those with money. So, I thought I got it – you know, manners or being well-educated or something to that effect. But when you examine the list of middle-class things (appointed by Xavier and his family), I am at a total loss. This is just a sampling of the random (to me, at least) assortment of things deemed middle class…


- le 14 juillet (to be fair, a historically just categorization)
- le Tour de France
- saying “quelque part” instead of saying "d'une certaine façon"
- le mec (the guy) who drives in the left lane but never really overtakes anyone
- engraving a name on a silver drinking cup (first of all, who drinks from silver cups?)
- in the same vein - a gourmette (a bracelet with a name engraved - usually for men)
- M&M’s (X: “What are you eating? Remind me never to eat those again”)
- cutting a clementine without a knife. Xavier’s sister: “…I suppose there are some people in France who don’t use a knife..”
- les brasseries
- white socks (apart from sports)
- the smell of certain people
- “christmas tree earrings” (dangly earrings)
- further, wearing glasses and earrings at the same time
- camping cars
- to rent a house in the south of France
- certain types of dogs, including huskies
- a station wagon without kids
- a matching leather chair and couch
- blonde highlights
- commencing the tour of your house with the garage
- bread
- watching tv and eating dinner at 8pm every night with the news
- french people trying to imitate americans (naming your french children american names and still, of course, pronouncing the names with a french accent: jennifer (jenyfair), kevin (keveen)

*This list will assuredly be updated from time to time.

February 20, 2008

Formation Civique

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of - no, in point of fact, I was required to attend "French Civic Training." Since I was lucky enough to get a Carte de Séjour, I apparently needed to learn a few things about being a quasi-French citizen.

I made it to the class (which started at 9am and lasted until 5pm) a bit late and walked into a run-down classroom to find about 30 people sitting in chairs around the periphery of the room. Most of the people were from past French colonies - west African countries, or places like Martinique, etc. In fact, only a Russian and I broke the geographic trend in the room. (We were also the only two whose native language wasn’t French).

Our instructor for the day (Jean-Luc) was a frog-like man (this had absolutely nothing to do with his nationality…really – just the fact that his eyes were spread too far apart and seemed to pop away from his face…and the fact that his smile stretched as far as his eyes above). He seemed to enjoy the fact I was American. As I entered I signed an attendance sheet and Jean-Luc asked, “Would you like to join us for lunch, although I’m sorry to say in advance it won’t be a hamburger” (and then directed this add-on to the rest of the class, “for the petite americaine”). I smiled and laughed a little bit.

I sat down and watched as a woman from Guyane came to the door of the classroom with her newborn baby strapped onto her back. She entered and Jean-Luc said bluntly: “This is not possible. Trop petit. Too little. He will cry.” He sent her away and said (absurdly), “You’ll have to come back when the baby is older.” (Remember, no one is attending this little gathering because they are interested in the subject; it is a requirement to work and live in France). I guess ‘integration’ is tricky if it involves a baby.

We had to introduce ourselves and talk about what we were interested in learning that day. I said, sort of cheekily, “I’m really interested in learning how to become French.” Jean-Luc responded just as cheekily, “This is not possible for you, my dear.”

The day continued with invaluable instruction regarding French symbols – such as the tri-colored flag and the bust of Marianne, which apparently, at various times, has been modeled after Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Laetitia Casta (showcased below). Given the length of time Jean-Luc spent commenting on each of these French ornaments (the women – mind you), I gathered that these must be significant particulars for our civic training. To be fair to Jean-Luc, the time he devoted these beauties was far less, and with far fewer scenarios, than what he devoted to France’s new first lady, the “ravishing Bruni.” French femininity. I suppose he was right to devote such time to the subject.

Laïcité was the next subject at hand. (Secularism, I suppose, is the best translation for this, although I do not think that word actually quite grasps the sense of the word in French and for the French). There was, of course, the classic school discussion. No overt symbols of religion in schools. Jean-Luc did mention that a small cross, worn around the neck, is perfectly unobjectionable. Handy.

I managed to pull Jean-Luc aside at the awkward cafeteria-style lunch. (Where people were sitting at long, rectangular tables, just staring at each other mostly). I told him that I was really looking forward to learning important ways to be French today and that I hoped that in the second half of the day, we might touch on those things. For example, I continued, how to go on strike, how to deliver unparalleled insults to other drivers, those sorts of things. He laughed at me and asked if I thought I would make it through the afternoon without a coke.

That afternoon, we actually did touch on some of my desired curriculum. One of the fundamental rights of French citizens is the right to strike (right up there with the right to obtain a job – connotation: not a privilege or ability or good fortune - a right).

Anyone with a connection to France knows that strikes are part of the fabric of living. Cities freeze because of metro strikes that can last a few weeks. (Cab drivers were just on strike in Paris). I was delighted that the subject came up – so I raised my hand and asked, “Is it possible to go on strike all alone?” The class really enjoyed my question (and my French at the same time, I am sure). Jean-Luc basically looked like he wanted to give me a high-five. (The worst part is that he answered my question pretty seriously using a hypothetical example of Carla Bruni…if she were a cashier at Printemps and she were the only cashier to strike).

(Another amusing example of Carla Bruni came up when we talked about the balance of powers in a democracy. It had something to do with a car crash and her being responsible in court even though her husband is le petit Sarkozy).

Our session ended with the motto projected onto the white screen, loud and clear:

Choisir de vivre en France, c'est avoir la volonté de s'intégrer à la société française et d'accepter de respecter les valeurs fondamentales de la République.

Choosing to live in France is to have the desire to integrate into French society and to accept and respect the fundamental values of the Republic.

…to which, Jean-Luc added, “There are some countries – the United States for example – which allow small pockets of foreigners to preserve their language, their very culture from their home country – to reproduce things. Not in France. We need to integrate, we need to be all together, agreeing on our culture.”

The day ended with a lag time of 40 minutes (Jean-Luc couldn’t let us leave before 4:45pm even though we had finished early). But, he improvised and created a memorable off the cuff awards ceremony. Each of us had earned a certificate of completion and he called us one by one to collect our certificate, to shake hands with him and to sit back down again. I congratulated my fellow students as they walked past my chair.

February 14, 2008

Wall Street English

So, I’ve begun teaching. Thankfully. Blessedly. There has been an immediate shift in my perspective here. Spending my day surrounded by other human beings, regardless of what they say or how they are able to say it, is remedial for me. It is the classic case of the extrovert. When I am alone, my energy is sucked out. When I am surrounded by people, I come back to myself recharged.

Wall Street English. I love it. The other teachers are British or Irish. And all of the students are convinced, no not just convinced – for them, it is undeniable that the English spoken by Americans is simply a substandard language. They say this to me: “You are American.” “Yes.” “So, you speak American, not English.” This is actually something of a unanimous viewpoint. I am pretty sure the British instructors concur.

So perhaps it is true. American, not English. To be sure, I am learning all sorts of things about my own language that I really had no idea about before. For instance: adjective order. There is an order to adjectives: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material and then purpose. (e.g. She is a silly, short, 42-year-old, plump, pinkish, American woman). Would I naturally put those descriptors in that order? I dare say yes.

I generally teach 6 classes per day. My favorite is the ‘conversation class,’ in which I get to come up with various topics to converse about. Fancy that. Yesterday, we talked about headlines. American politics was inevitably one of the topics on the list. We talked a bit about the primaries and how they function and then, out of the blue, Jean-Pierre turned to me and asked, “From the very beginning France was right about the war in Iraq. Now, do Americans turn to each other and say, ‘France was right.’?” I sort of giggled as respectfully as possible to this question full of hubris. I responded, “I guess most Americans turn to each other and say, ‘the whole world was right.’ ” I really don’t mean to sneer at France in any way, but the French often think France to be a larger and more significant country than it actually may be.

I appreciate French ideology though. (Even if I may not concur). It surfaces all over the place. In a conversation about social issues, a student said directly, “I believe the government will do a better job of taking care of its people’s needs than the market.” It could not be more succinct than that.

Sometimes I visit the “multimedia center” at the Institute. It is a room full of, as you may have predicted, computers. These are special computers with headphones and microphones though, and the bulk of the students’ learning takes place sitting in front of them. They have hours of multimedia instruction (much cheaper than human instruction and this is an American corporation, after all). In general, they have to repeat what is said on the screen aloud. The room chimes with the Frenchies reciting such phrases as, “Get out of my way!” and “I have to find myself a good man.” Enchanting.

The Wall Street Institute is right next to Gare St. Lazare:

February 10, 2008

The Spitfire

When I first met Xavier he told me about this crazy idea he had. He wanted to buy a little English sports car for his dad's 60th birthday. I thought it was just a pipe dream. This weekend I found out it totally wasn't. We went to Frankfurt to make it a reality and drove back to Paris (9 hours) in this little guy. You see, Xavier is not crazy rich. He is just crazy generous...presenting: the perfectly restored 1968 Triumph Spitfire in wedgwood blue.

Even Louise and Jules (niece and nephew) are pretty impressed

February 5, 2008

La Poule

I love la Poule. Xavier introduced me to her. She has been a big part of my life and amusement since we met. La Poule is a very large – larger than life – hen, well, kinda. She is a metaphysical sort-of hen with a killer personality: she is self-important, prideful, genial, ready to lend a (useless) hand, and really, she is always putting on airs. She is totally unacquainted with the size of her own body; she has a complete lack of proprioception. (I can really relate to la Poule in that sense – I don’t do a good job of knowing where my body parts are in relation to things – la Poule and I are completely maladroite (clumsy).)

La Poule has always traveled with Xavier and me – she follows us on any voyage, short or long, and usually spends the length of the trip riding around the baggage claim carousel. One of her classic traits is embodying, actually appropriating (in her psyche), the objects around her. While riding endlessly on the baggage carousel, she roosts on the paneled rubber she sits on and psychologically becomes a suitcase. She actually thinks she is the larger version of the ruby red trunk revolving to her right.

When La Poule skis, she wears oven mits for gloves.

Xavier is close to la Poule – it was a couple of his older cousins (Icar et Matao, below) who initially introduced him to her. She was constantly popping up in their lives (sort of like Shannon and Tiffany for those of you who know about them). But she’s been hanging around Xavier a lot since then.

La Poule is usually seen wearing underwear on her head, thinking it is a hat, making this face:

(and yes, those are my ribs.lungs.xray up there in those first pictures. You see, the frenchies want a picture of any foreign person's ribs before they can start working here. Good idea, if you ask me...and they even let you take the x-ray home afterward to hang above your stove. Cool. And no, neither Xavier nor la Poule can cook.)

Joyce Nally

My older sister Julie just had a baby. This is not just any baby - look at her. She is absolutely glorious and so miniscule. She is 5 pounds - born a month early. She was born a month early in Julie's living room (an intended event). You see, my sister is one of those rare people who entirely and beautifully opts out of very normalized and, often times, unquestioned societal routines. It was a strange thing to hear the tiny, wailing cry of Joyce coming out of my cell phone. I felt connected to her - like she wanted me to lick her little fingers or bite her legs already. This is where France becomes a really far away place.

February 4, 2008

Guys from the Banlieues

These are guys from the Banlieues – the neighborhoods outside of Paris, where, to be frank, much of the French-Arab, Franco African population is assembled. Sarkozy made himself famous (revered and loathed) by showing up during the riots there in 2005 and declaring that he would make sure these parts of the city would be “nettoyées au Karcher” (sanitized with a power sprayer). The t-shirts these guys wear declare which banlieue they come from (numbers of départments (territories) are displayed on the back like sports jerseys); the front of the shirts sport Truand de la galère (“beleaguered gangsters”). I only took a six second video clip of their upcoming music video (which I was delighted to be a spectator at the making of), but at least it’s something. (My French is not yet sufficiently advanced to decipher their fractious words, but I’m pretty sure they are saying they are still mad at Sarkozy).

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