March 28, 2008

Julie & Joyce

This weekend I am visiting my sister, Julie, who just had a baby. Julie is so brave. Today, we sat in a seminar on the environment, scientific rhetoric and the Bush administration, at Indiana University, to which she brought her new 2-month old, Joyce. Julie breast fed discretely. Joyce slept. The other students seemed to appreciate her presence, some seemed a bit shocked, others pretended to ignore. But, Julie went on as the person she is - a graduate student who is in the middle of a program, who is also the mother of a new child.

Almost without exception, motherhood/breast feeding and life otherwise are seen as mutually exclusive happenings. This is perhaps a winded debate - but I see the whole thing as absurd watching my sister. It is simply nonsensical to relegate women with babies to their homes/private spaces for the duration of their lives while feeding their children. The reality is that babies must eat, and frequently (like every three hours). And the parallel reality is that my sister and other women are also students, teachers, involved humans and there is no reason that there should be such a division between the two. Julie teaches her undergrads with Joyce wrapped in a bundle at the front of her body.

I admire her entirely, forcefully. She makes waves in her department. People hear about 'that baby' before they meet Julie or Joyce. The discussion today floated toward transformative discourses and activism and Julie sat as a physical reminder of that possibility. She changes the way people think about what is possible in the choice between private/public lives - a choice that many women simply see as a matter of impossibility, and not as choice at all.

March 23, 2008

"A Guide to the French. Handle With Care."

I read an article this morning in the Ideas & Trends section of The New York Times called "A Guide to the French. Handle With Care." Journalist Elaine Sciolino wrote the article as a sign off from her 5-year assignment in Paris. She came up with 8 recommendations:

1. Look in the Rear-View Mirror (history weighs heavily on these guys)
2. An Interview is Sometimes Not an Interview (recounts droll happenings with Chirac & Sarko)
3. The Customer is Always Wrong (simply)
4. Make Friends With a Good Butcher (a meal without meat is unheard of)
5. Kiss, But Be Careful Whom You Hug (a hug is far more intimate than kisses)
6. Don't Wear Jogging Clothes to Buy a Pound of Butter (you are stared at like the elephant man)
7. Feeling Sexy is a State of Mind; or, Buy Good Lingerie (French women seem to hold on to their youth long after it is gone)
8. When it Comes to Politeness, There is No End to the Lessons (no further explanation needed)

This is a link to the article if you would like a read.

I would like to touch on number 3.

I had a traumatic experience at the post office one day a couple of weeks ago, which ended with me returning to work and sobbing to my co-workers.

I was attempting to send four things to the US, but they were important things and I wanted to expedite the process. I paid 40 euros extra for a 2-day envelope, but stated explicitly that there would be no one to sign for them on the other end - simply a P.O. Box.

The woman behind the counter, reveling in the long line in front of her and her ability to control its movement, assured me that this would not be a problem. I gathered my things and stood aside to fill in the envelopes and to read the fine print of the envelope. Inevitably, it explicitly stated that P.O. Boxes were interdit (forbidden).

I examined the long line and tried to capture the woman's attention to no avail. I gave up and got back in the line to wait a second time for a half-hour. Arriving back in front of the woman, she acted as if she had never seen me before and certainly like she had never sold me the item I had in my hands. (In fact, it seemed she did not recognize the envelope itself).

I explained that the envelope would not work, because P.O. Boxes are not allowed. She blew out her cheeks in frustration and said she would have to call the company to be sure (comparable to fedex). I explained that there was no need; it was clearly written on the envelope. Yet, she insisted she would have to call to verify. After the phone call, she explained her conclusion (that it was impossible to use the envelope) as if it were news. She then looked at me and asked what I expected her to do. I stated simply that I needed a refund for the envelope.

She was indignant. A refund? She had never heard of such a thing. She told me to stand aside - perhaps her manager would know what a refund was. And besides, she was suddenly (conveniently) concerned about the length of the line. She said her manager would come at some point to discuss. To discuss? I was confused and growing angry and emotional.

The manager appeared after 15 minutes and my helpful friend pointed at me across the room as if I were a shoplifter in the store. The manager signaled for me to approach the counter with an intimidating gesture. (She, herself, was quite intimidating. She was tubby and mean-faced). I approached and explained the situation; however, my french was growing less and less useful. You see, I can express myself freely in most situations, except when the situation becomes emotional. A foreign language is the first thing to go in such a position.

The manager insisted that I did not need a refund. I insisted that I did. After about 5 minutes of bantering back and forth, and me trying to simply recount what had happened (with no help from the first one), I just started crying. This build up resulted from the sneers of the people behind me and the tubby manager's recommendation, "If you can't count and you can't speak, you should just get out." She also told me forcefully that I cannot cry in the post office.

In the end, she did realize that I needed a refund and took my card and refunded it, but there was no apology - no sign of remorse. She walked away almost triumphantly.

I got home that night and still had tears pricking my eyes. A difficult conversation between Xavier and me ensued, where I tried to recount my tale, but punctuated it with overgeneralizing insults like, "What kind of culture creates and condones behavior like that? Creates a woman like that?" Needless to say, Xavier took it personally.

And I took the whole episode rather personally.

Even when I write about it, long after it happened, I still feel like crying. It was so simple and ridiculous. For goodness sake, a post office and a stupid envelope. But I have this irrational fear that those women represent something here. A way of being or seeing things that I don't know or like at all. Triumphantly right.

My most irrational fear about it all is that I will have children here and they will become like that. That I will look at them and not recognize them. It is totally ridiculous, and I don't mean to suggest that Americans don't have significant cultural faults. But it seems that my own culture's deficiencies don't glare at me with the same harsh, accusing face - I suppose that is simply because it is my own.

March 21, 2008

Fake Businessmen

Ever since I arrived in Paris, I've noticed a certain phenomenon. Fake businessmen. They are everywhere. In the metro. In restaurants. Walking across bridges. Walking and sitting under bridges. In parks. In department stores. And definitely where I teach everyday.

What do I mean by this classification? A fair question.

I mean men who wear suits everyday, but ostensibly have no meetings at all. Men who wear the same suit everyday, who sit in brasseries at peak business hours staring out the windows at legs who pass by. Men in suits who randomly outstretch their arms to make airplane wings in the tunnels of the metro while walking amidst crowds of people. Middle-aged men in cars (and suits), who should act respectably, but banter like 13 years-olds out their window at stop-lights. I mean men in suits riding razer scooters to 'work.'

I also mean men in my classes who have been unemployed for up to 5 years and who claim to be heavy on the job search. Notwithstanding, their shoddy suits continue on.

I mean this:

Take a closer look:

What guy in a suit does not have a cell phone?

I guess my main question is, under these circumstances, why wear a suit?

Salle Gaveau

One of my students, Axelle, is a cellist. She studies at the Paris Conservatory of Music. She played in a concert last evening at the Salle Gaveau. Divinity was served:

Ludwig van Beethoven: "Coriolan" - Ouverture
Richard Wagner: "Siegfried Idyll"
Robert Schumann : Concerto pour piano et orchestre

We sat directly above the piano and watched the pianist's hands contort and fly. To finish, he played a morsel of Liszt to make us cry.

March 17, 2008


Yesterday we went to a park in Paris and saw a French puppet show, starring, of course, Guignol. Guignol is a puppet who has been around, and all over France, since circa 1800. The character was devised by a dentist who wanted to discourage people from being frightened of him (since every time he came around he generally inspired screams of pain). So he would bring this little puppet he made and act out scenes of delight rather than fear for his patients, and then he would rip out of their teeth.

All French kids know Guignol; every puppet show features this guy. He is the guy who pops up in the middle of the really scary scene (yesterday, during the scene where we think the beast, in Beauty and the Beast, is a mean guy) to explain to the kids that the menacing character was really just mistreated as a child, and that in his heart he is a kind and gentle soul. Something like that. No matter the story, Guignol is there to sort things out - a timeless character for the little Frenchies.

One of the most charming aspects of these puppet shows is how they are interactive. The kids literally scream at the puppets to warn them about the bad guy behind them, or to praise them for their actions. It is highly amusing to hear the things they come up with while they watch. (At the beginning of the show yesterday, the stage was mostly dark, with the background of woods. The narrator's voice came out of nowhere. A little girl with big glasses and wide eyes whispered, "C'est le loup qui parle!" (It's the wolf who is speaking). This particular production featured no wolf).

During the intermission, popcorn is handed out (or as one petit bonhomme put it, "pop-de-corn"). I suppose this treat for French children does not quite qualify as being middle class; you can be sure that not one of the parents would be caught stealing kernels from their kids.

There is always physical humor. Guignol is usually armed with a bundle of sticks for hitting the other puppets. These were the scenes (showcased below) at which the kids laughed the hardest. Marguerite, Jules and Louise were delighted - purely.

March 10, 2008

Non-Sequitur Galore

We headed to London for the weekend. I took the Eurostar on Friday morning and then got to Canary Wharf (the new financial center in London) to attend a real estate exposition for my former employers in New York. They are keen on the fact that Europeans get a significant discount when buying US property, given the exchange rate (even more so for the Brits).

While at the exposition, I attended a seminar given by one of these real estate guys you think doesn't really exist (or maybe he is all that does exist in real estate, I am not sure which). He was a Floridian - a guy with a schmoosy suit and haircut and way of being. Dripping with insincerity. He had, of course, worked for Trump in the past. A fake name even: Charles Byron Andrews. His speech was called, "The Great Depression of American Real Estate - How Foreign Buyers are Generating Major Revenue in the US Sector on the Way Down!" . . . Right. His tips included such innovative strategies as 'extensive research' and 'stringent selection criteria.' This guy was going out on a limb. I would say that approximately 2/3 of the room walked out as a direct result of his brilliant ideas.

While in London, we stayed with Xavier's Belgian friend, Marco. He lives on Portobello Road. When we were kids, we watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks religiously (classic Angela Lansbury). If you recall, there is the famous tune in that film about this market road. Portobello road...street where the riches of ages are stowed. Anything and everything a chap can unload, is sold off the barrow in Portobello road...(I found a hedgehog stamp - I love hedgehogs (hérissons). There are many hérissons in France. In fact, they are pretty much just in France. Well, in Europe and Asia and Africa and New Zealand to be exact...but, there are no native species in North America).

Next, something happened that amused me to the bone. We were sitting at brunch on Saturday morning and three ginger-haired ladies of the same sort sat down next to us. They were ginger-blond, frizzy, with blue eyes. They seemed to know each other well. A new woman in a mink coat arrived, a look-a-like, but a bit fancier. She presented herself and sat down - pretty formally, I was thinking to myself. (You see, at my table there were 4 french speaking individuals and, so, naturally my attention was drawn toward the english fountains all around me).

When ginger-mink sat down, the other gingers looked a bit confused, but nothing was really said and nothing really happened. They just continued chatting. After about 5 minutes of talking about nothing, she - included in, but still on the margins of the conversation - quite suddenly stood up, never having removed her ridiculous coat, and announced "Must dash! I have another appointment with a friend and I was certain that I could manage both, but now I'm afraid I feel a bit sandwiched with time." The others looked baffled. As she walked away, one ginger looked at the other gingers and asked, "Who was that?".

How did this happen? I was entranced. I couldn't tell if this happening was attributable to extreme British politeness or something else more theatrical. It was like Ionesco had written their little production without them knowing it. Big toothy grin of applause from me.

March 4, 2008

Entre Guillemets

While teaching English today, we had a discussion of places we would like to go. One of my students, Bruno, a taxi driver, who, for some curious reason, wants to learn English (and no, I assure you, it is not to accommodate his clients in the back seat) said that he would like to go to Yellowstone. Bruno is this sort-of inarticulate fellow in French, and so you can imagine how he sounds in English, and the other students seem to chafe against him. They sit next to him and seemed to be rubbed the wrong way continually throughout the class. They roll their eyes in their not-so-subtle French manner and act as if he is a burden to bear.

I quite like him, despite the fact that he only comes to 'tea time' (an hour where we serve tea and speak English freely with the students) for the biscuits and cookies. Maybe I like him because of that. He is so unpretentious. Sometimes after he has had enough of English for one day, he just gets up and says simply, “ça suffit” (that’s enough) and leaves. He said to me today, 'You like to display words with your eyes. That is good for us.' I took it as a nice compliment, although I’m pretty sure he was making fun of me and my wide-eyed nodding when a student says something correctly.

Bruno elaborated about why he would like to go to Yellowstone. First of all – to see the ‘bee-zon’ (bison). Second, for the ‘gee-zair’ (geysers). It took a full explanation from him using his hands to demonstrate an exploding geyser before I understood what exactly he was saying, even though the word for geyser is the same in English and French.

All in all, I think we can agree – two great reasons to go to Yellowstone.

I also had a good laugh with the other teachers when we were talking about using quotation marks in speech. Americans, of course, use a hand gesture with the first two fingers of each hand imitating quotation marks, while saying what is actually in the quotation marks in their speech - the Brits do the same. However, the Brits do not use the term quotation marks. They call those things "inverted commas."

And the French top everyone. They actually say the words 'entre guillemets' (between quotation marks) in the sentence just before the quotation-marked word.* For example, “J'étais vraiment entre guillemets pas contente” (“I was seriously between quotation marks not happy”).

*Xavier clarified that this way of speaking in French should be noted as a “personal assistant's way of speaking (in the 80’s).”

March 2, 2008

41 Galerie Vivienne

I am not certain you can tell, but this is a children's clothing store with a total of 10 items. Remarkably sparse. I think you might be a fan Stephena.

March 1, 2008

Le Salon International de l'Agriculture à Paris

Xavier, Marguerite and I headed to the International Agricultural Show in Paris today, apparently heralded as a huge deal around here. Tout le monde (everyone, on this occasion-quite literally, in the world) was there. We could hardly move. And all the animals too.

I was far more captivated by the utters and the oinking and the dogs than our little toddler. Really. Marguerite was mainly just interested in stairs. Pretty unmoved by the little squeaks and such of the animals. But, she ran for any rise in pavement or slight inkling of a step and resolutely refused to hold hands. I guess she is so infatuated with steps because she is an apartment kid. Stairs, for her, truly are an indulgence.

So, basically, while Marguerite found steps to climb, I watched the animals. Most of them were farm animals on display - cows called luscious things like Vaches Froment du Léon, Vaches Salers Veau Grelot and Vaches Limousines. There was also the most gratifying dog who rounded up sheep in a pen - an absolute highlight for me. (See video below, please).

This event also happened to be the setting of Nicolas Sarkozy's most recent public gaffe. Poor Sarkozy. As he was mincing among the sheep and cows (and the French population), he extended a hand to greet people in the crowd and was met by an unsupportive frenchman who said, "Touche moi pas, tu me salis" (in rather poor french: "Don't touch me, you'll get me dirty"). Sarkozy, ever the reactionary fellow, responded: "Casse-toi, pauvre con" (a very crude way of saying "Get away from me"). Sarkozy didn't remember that swearing at the public is not usually recommended if you'd like to be popular.


I love this so much.

Around the Neighborhood on Saturday Morning

Le Chat Domestique

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