25 February 2006

Didya miss me?

It has been a busy week, as you can probably ascertain from the lack of postings. Here's what's been going on...
  • I found a job that I want to apply for back in the US. This will be taking up most of my time for the next few weeks, since I have to take the windows of opportunity that I can to use the computer. Part of me can't believe that I'm actually dusting off my resumé already, but then I remember that it's a good opportunity, so I'm going for it. If I get it, I'll be teaching geography full-time, beginning this fall. Keep your fingers crossed!
  • I continued working on my grave photography project. I got a long list of requests from a guy in Spain, so I've actually had to go in to the "conservation" to ask the cemetery employees for help. This is good for my French skills, so I've been trying to make it a point to go alone (i.e. not with Colin). If anyone else who speaks French is with me, I tend to look to them far too quickly for help when I don't understand something. In this case, I have to do it myself, and it's not so bad.
  • I was passed on the street by a serious criminal. How do I know this? Simple. There were three dark blue gendarme vans, sirens blaring, that raced up Gal. Leclerc the other day. The middle van was closed; the front and back van had their sliding doors open, and men with semi-automatic rifles were squatting in the doorways, ready to shoot. I don't know what or who was in that middle van, but I sure as hell wasn't going to go find out!
  • Didge has gotten fat again. Oops. Last winter, he gained 10 pounds because we fed him the same amount and didn't exercise him. I'm not sure if he has reached that record yet, but I'd rather not find out. So, Didge will be getting more exercise now, despite the fact that it has rained nearly non-stop for days now. (And when it's not raining, it's COLD!)
  • I've learned to make French tartes. My first attempt was to make tarte aux fraises (strawberry tart), which turned out almost perfect. Rachel, Colin and I analysed the taste in great detail while watching women's figure skating, and I made adjustments based on our observations. Tonight, we try tarte aux pommes (apple tart), using a modified version of the recipe from the tarte aux fraises. We're taking it over to Colin and Maggie's place tonight for dinner, so I'll have to report the results another time. If it turns out as well as I hope it does, I'll post the recipe here. I'll wait to post the pictures, too, since I can't get them to upload right now anyway.
  • The bird flu is in France now. This is going to be quite a problem for the fois gras industry, no doubt. Colin read today that Japan has already cut off all of their imports from France's poultry industry.
  • In spite of that last point, we are going to the Salon d'Agriculture tomorrow (the agricultural fair) with Colin and Maggie. Apparently, this is a really big event, and all of the French politicians are expected to show up and do something "earthy" to prove that they are still connected to the little folks. I'm just looking forward to seeing how they get the animals to behave in a convention center.

So, that's what's going on in our neighborhood! Once I get my job application put together and sent off, I should be back on track for blogging regularly. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the e-mails! If you haven't sent one yet, there's still time to win a postcard! :)

23 February 2006

Menu #3: Poêléé savoyarde

Here's a simple French recipe that Amy and I have fallen in love with. It comes from the Savoie region (the portion of the French Alps south of Switzerland).

Ingredients
  • 1 kg (about 2 lbs) potatoes
  • 2 onions
  • 250 grams of meat (we usually use a smoked saucisse de Savoie and lardons, which are cubes of bacon)
  • 250 grams Beaufort cheese (I've also seen recipes suggest Abondance; for those readers in the US, a mild cheddar might work alright; provolone or something similar would be good; gruyère and swiss, too)
  • 25 cl dry white wine
Instructions
  1. Dice the potatoes and meat.
  2. Sautée the onions with olive oil in a frying pan with high sides [I usually use more than necessary, since other ingredients will be added later and we don't have an appropriate non-stick frying pan; this adds some nice flavor, too].
  3. Add the potatoes and meat. Brown over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cut the cheese into thin slices.
  4. Add the wine and cheese slices. Season with pepper and cook covered for 10 more minutes. Stir during the last few minutes.

Voilà, a hearty and simple meal that generously feeds four and is perfect in the depths of winter!

Dessert

I recommend a chocolate fondue after this meal. We also love the dessert that is known by so many names here in France: coeur fondant, gateau au chocolat fondant, etc. [imagine a rich brownie-like cake that oozes hot fudge when you press your fork into it...miam miam!].

19 February 2006

Death as Decor

In keeping with the macabre theme of my last posting, I'll catch you up on a tour that Colin and I recently took. Despite the fact that the Parisian Catacombs are a mere three subway stops away from us and easily within walking distance, we hadn't actually taken the tour until last Friday. As you'll note from the sign, this is a place that can leave a "strong impression" on nervous people. There was another sign warning "fragile" and "weak" people that this is a physically strenous tour. In response to these slightly odd word choices, I say simply this: folks, babelfish.altavista.com is just a guideline. If you're making permanent signs, get someone who knows the language to proofread! (I'm not saying I would do any better in French, so I'll just check my ego right here.)

The walking tour takes you through a small portion of the old limestone quarries in the 14th arrondissement. In one disturbingly large section, there are piles and piles of human remains that were excavated because they were contributing to groundwater contamination close to the river.

If there is such a thing as an 1800s tourist trap, this is certainly it. The whole thing is set up to be gruesomely entertaining, with a nod toward the fact that you're walking through a mass grave of sorts. The entrance, as seen to the right, is dramatically marked with white diamonds on a black background. Over the doorway, all-capital-lettered French words announce ominously, "Stop! This is the empire of the dead." Like the other tourists around us, we all read the sign aloud in a foreboding voice to the rest of our party and translated it as appropriate.

The big surprise to me was how orderly - dare I say artistically - the remains were arranged. Skulls are used to make patterns of hearts, triangles, and so forth within the piles of arm and leg bones. Of course, I expected to see piles of remains, but not artfully arranged piles. Here's an example of one of the patterns:

The urn in the front used to have a flame burning in it constantly. No, it wasn't an eternal flame à la JFK, but a fire designed to keep air moving through the quarry tunnels. Functional, not reverent.

The other amazing observation for me was to see how high the bones are stacked. (Colin, who is 6'2", is standing next to a typical wall of bones in the photo below.) The statistics say that there are somewhere between 6 and 7 million people down there! And, we only saw a small portion of it. It made me a little sad, knowing that these were all parts of unique individuals who are now reduced to a macabre display for the entertainment of tourists.


Despite my cynicism in reporting, I enjoyed this tour. I think it's worth the time, but I wouldn't put it on the "must see" list for someone's first time to Paris. When we were in the regular quarry tunnels (sans bones), I had pleasant flashbacks of my caving days in graduate school. (If you're a caver, rest assured that this is completely cush caving! No mud, no water crawls, and definitely no pretties!) Colin noticed that teeny little soda straws are starting to form on the ceiling of parts of the quarry tunnels, just like they do in the limestone caves back in Missouri. Of course, anything that gets to a decent size will break off as soon as someone over 5'10" tall walks by, but I don't think that the tourists are ever going to visit just to see the stalactites!

17 February 2006

Documenting Cimitiere Montparnasse

I've picked up a new project on a whim. A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a website called Find A Grave (findagrave.com). This site is a database of cemeteries all over the world, which allows you to include photos, biographies, and virtual flowers. When I initially discovered the site, I just looked up famous people. Later, I went back and searched for relatives, without turning anything up.

My interest was renewed this week when I realized that I had a bunch of great photos from Cimitiere Montparnasse and Pere Lachaise that I could share. After uploading pics from the entries that didn't already have gravesite photos, I realized that I was in a unique position. How many people have tons of free time to run aroud and take photos in Paris at their leisure? So, I decided that it would be fun to take as many "famous people" grave pictures as I could.

Right now, I'm focusing my efforts on Cimitiere Montparnasse, since it's in my arrondissement and also easy to walk to. I took 62 photos today (yikes!), using the celebrity map that the cemetery guard provides. (By the way, the map is terrible -- there are tons of mistakes.) Interestingly, I've found that a lot of the famous people don't even have entries in the Find-A-Grave database, so I've been adding people as I go along.

Some of you might find this project to be morbid and disgusting. Personally, I feel like I'm helping to fill in historical gaps, even though it's on a small scale. Plus, I think the website is a handy reference for researchers: not everyone has the time or money to travel to Paris just to see the gravesite of his or her person of interest. As a bonus, I'm learning about a lot of other people's contributions to the world, big and small alike. It makes me feel good to provide information that most people don't have access to on a regular basis.

I've also been somewhat interested in my geneology, since I don't really know much about my roots. I added entries for my paternal grandparents (though the memorial pages are slim because all of my records and pictures for them are in storage in Michigan). Both of them died in 1999, and I have to admit, I really miss having them around. These two little tribute pages are my own little way to keep their memories alive, even though very few people will probably ever surf to their pages. Plus, who knows, maybe I'll find long-lost relatives when they trace themselves through those entries?

Anyway, I encourage you to participate in this neat project if you feel so inclined. If nothing else, you might enjoy making a virtual tribute to your late heroes.

16 February 2006

Add La Tour Montparnasse to your list!

Back in December, I discussed the best things to climb in order to get a good view of Paris. At the time, I hadn't climbed La Tour Montparnasse, so I couldn't offer my assessment at the time.

I did it yesterday.

It's fantastic!

After careful thought (at least 2 minutes worth), I've decided that this climb ties the Eiffel Tower for best view of Paris. The cost for this elevator ride is 8 euros 50 (full price for adults, with discounts for students, kids, etc), and much unlike La Grande Arche de la Défense, it's worth the money. Here's why:
  • The roof is fairly large, so you can look around without having to squeeze past other people. I'm sure it will get a lot more crowded during tourist season, but it was great yesterday.
  • The roof has sketches of the skyline, so that you can orient yourself for taking pictures. Of course, it's easier to do if you know the city, but I think the sketches help.
  • Inside, on the 56th floor, there are lighted, labeled photos of the skyline under each of the big windows, so if you don't know Paris very well, you can still find major points of interest.
  • The view from the inside is really great, so if it's really hot or really cold and you're not in the mood to be in the elements, you can stay indoors.
  • If you think La Tour Montparnasse is ugly, then this is the best view of Paris for you: this building won't be in your skyline photos!
The only drawback I really noticed was that you can't actually see the river because you're not quite high enough or close enough.

I posted all of my pictures from the roof to our Photosite, http://caroust.photosite.com. There are a few other newer photos, too, if you're curious. In the meantime, here's a shot of the train station at Montparnasse, as seen from on high.

So, here is my revised recommended list for "The Climbs of Paris":

Tie for First Place: The Eiffel Tower and La Tour Montparnasse
If you want a daytime view of the city, go for Montparnasse. Given the notariety of the Eiffel Tower, La Tour Montparnasse is likely to be less crowded. Plus, there will be fewer aggressive salespeople trying to strongarm you into buying a cheap plastic model of it.

Second Place: Arc de Triomphe
I can't help it: I really love this view. If you don't want to pay the money, or stairs are an issue, a cost-effective substitute is to ride the escalators up to the top of the department store Printemps.

Third Place: Notre Dame
This climb is strictly to see the gargoyles up close. The view from the very top of the tower is no better than what you'll get anywhere else, but you'll be looking through plexiglass while standing in a super-tight walkway. (You can just look at the gargoyles, get a good view of the city from that level, and then skip the top all together.)

Fourth Place: The dome of Sacre Coeur
It's a pretty inexpensive climb (5 euros), but the view from the top of Montmartre is just as good. (Montmartre is the hill that Sacre Coeur sits on.)

15 February 2006

In memoriam Georges Auric

[Posted by Colin]

Today would have been Georges Auric's 107th birthday. Since many people are unfamiliar with him and since he's the subject of my dissertation, I thought I'd offer a few words...

Auric was born in Lodève, a small town in southern France. His family soon moved to Montpellier, where Auric began studying music at the Conservatoire. In 1913, a music critic encouraged the precocious pianist and composer's parents to move to Paris, where Auric could continue his studies at the Conservatoire National Superieur. The family arrived in May 1913, just in time for Auric to attend the premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring].

That fall, he enrolled in Georges Caussade's class at the Conservatoire and he soon received his Parisian premieres as both performer and composer. In October 1914, he performed a recital for the Société Musicale Indépendante. In attendance were the conductor Inghelbrecht; the composers Albert Roussel, Charles Koechlin, and Louis Aubert; Maurice Ravel was Auric's page-turner. The following March, in a concert sponsored by the Société Nationale de Musique, Alfredo Casella (on piano) and Mme Paule de Lestang (the star of the day at the Lyon Opéra) performed two sets of Auric's songs. Two articles on Erik Satie, written by Auric in the fall of 1913, were published in the Revue Musicale de Lyon and in the Nouvelle Revue Française. 1914 also saw Auric join Vincent d'Indy's composition class at the Schola Cantorum.

World War I caught Auric by surprise and did much to shape the anti-German/pro-French sentiments that would define his music in the early 1920s. Following his 18th birthday, in 1917, he was called up by the army. He was initially stationed in Le Mans, but influential friends assured his safety by securing a transfer to a desk job at the War Ministry in Paris. By 1919, Auric was at the center of the Parisian avant-garde. His circle of friends and acquaintances included such luminaries as the painters Picasso, Braque, and Laurencin; the writers Cocteau, Apollinaire, Radiguet, and Max Jacob; the philosophers Jacques Maritain and Léon Bloy; the composers Stravinsky, Milhaud, Honegger, and Poulenc; as well as prominent patrons of the arts, such as Serge Diaghilev, the Beaumonts, the Princesse de Polignac, and Misia Sert. Auric's place in history was already assured, as the dedicatee of Cocteau's infamous musical manifesto, Le Coq et l'Arlequin.

In 1920, with the encouragement of Cocteau, music critic Henri Collet wrote two articles in which he coined the name "le Groupe des Six." This tag—referring to Auric, Louis Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre—was a public relations hit, and remains recognizable to many concert-goers today. The group, however, was really more of a collection of friends. After one collaboration, the 1921 ballet Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel [The Wedding Party at the Eiffel Tower], Durey left the group over artistic differences. The intransigence of Auric and Poulenc toward Ravel's music soon drove Tailleferre out, too. By 1924, Milhaud and Honegger were also pursuing other artistic directions.

Auric's career was hardly finished by the dissolution of les Six, however. In 1921, Serge Diaghilev commissioned a ballet from Auric for his famed troupe, the Ballets Russes. The work, Les Fâcheux, was finally premiered in January 1924 and was such a success that Diaghilev commissioned a second. Les Matelots premiered in June 1925 and, again, was such a success that a third was immediately commissioned. Even though La Pastorale's May 1926 premiere was an overwhelming success, there would be no further collaborations—Auric's growing fame encouraged him to demand increasingly higher fees. Diaghilev, who preferred young (and less expensive) talents, passed on further collaborations. I should note, however, that no other composer received three commissions from Diaghilev in consecutive seasons; and Stravinsky was the only composer to receive more commissions than Auric (6 over nearly 20 years).

After a brief turn to opera produced three mediocre comic operas, Auric sought a new medium. Thinking first of absolute music, he wrote a piano sonata, the Sonate en fa, 1930–1931 (a new recording is being done this summer by Julian Jacobson, I am anticipating the best!!). At about the same time, he and Cocteau collaborated on a film, Le Sang d'un poète [The Blood of a Poet] (completed in 1930, but not released until 1932). Another film collaboration, René Clair's A Nous, la liberté! (1931), set Auric on his new career path. From 1934 to 1940, Auric was involved in about twenty film projects. Many of these scores show his turn toward a populist musical style, while the films reflect his increasingly public leftist political sentiments.

Auric spent much of World War II in southern France, the region that was always his spiritual home and his escape from Parisian life. During the war, he was involved in a musicians' resistance group, the Front National de Musique, and composed music for several films that contained subversive, pro-French messages. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Jean Cocteau and Jean Delannoy's L'Eternel Retour [released under two different English titles: Love Eternal and The Eternal Return]. The film is a modern version of the Tristan and Isolde legend, recapturing the medieval French myth from German hands (the most familiar version of the legend remains Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde). Auric's music during WWII turned increasingly toward an aesthetic modelled on Debussy's music. Though Auric had, following World War I, condemned musical impressionism as German music transplanted in France, he now encouraged French composers to adopt this "essentially French" aesthetic.

Following the war, Auric's film career rolled forward. With Delannoy's 1946 La Symphonie pastorale, he received the Music Prize at the 1st Cannes Film Festival; the same year, he composed the score for Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête [Beauty and the Beast]. A 12-film contract with Britain's Ealing Studios led to such classics as The Lavender Hill Mob, Hue and Cry, and Passport to Pimlico. Many of these film scores were recorded a few years ago by Philip Lane and Chandos Records. He composed for Hollywood, as well, creating the "continental sound" desired by John Huston in Moulin Rouge and by William Wyler in Roman Holiday. His music, a dominant force in 1950s French cinema, would eventually be recognized through the Music Prize at the 1950 Venice Film Festival (for Cocteau's Orphée) and an Emmy nomination (for the 1963 NBC documentary The Kremlin). All told, he collaborated on about 136 films and 7 television projects. You can find a relatively accurate list at the Internet Movie Database.

Outside of films, Auric's career continued its upward path to the end. He composed several successful ballets in the 1950s and his masterpieces are the two-piano Partita (1953-55) and Doubles-jeux (1970-71), along with the adventurous series of pieces titled Imaginaires (six pieces from 1968 to 1976). He was elected president of SACEM (the organization that manages copyright and royalties for musicians in France) in 1954, and was reelected numerous times before being named Président d'honneur in 1979. Elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1962, he served as that institution's president in 1967. From 1962 to 1968, he was Adminstrator of the Réunion des Théàtres Lyriques Nationals (meaning that he was in charge of both the Paris Opéra and the Opéra-Comique); under his tenure, the two theatres finally rebounded from the artistic drought they'd been suffering since the 1920s. He was named a Grand Officier in the Légion d'Honneur and in 1979 was also named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1979, he published Quand j'étais là, the first volume of a projected two- or three-volume memoirs (this was the only volume published).

Auric died on July 23rd, 1983 and was interred with his wife Eleanore Vilter (a painter better known as Nora Auric; she died in 1982) in the Cimitière Montparnasse in Paris.

14 February 2006

Happy Valentine's Day!

I hated Valentine's Day when I was teenager. As is the case in most American high schools, every girl -- single and attached alike -- spends all day hoping and wondering if she will get flowers. Finally, during the last period of the day, the lucky ones receive a slip of paper from the main office that tells them (and, by inference, everyone in the room) that they have a bouquet to pick up in the cafeteria. Ah, woe unto the boy who fails to make that key purchase for his girlfriend, as it is never an optional expense. You can kiss your relationship goodbye if she doesn't go home with an armload of roses and baby's breath.

Of course, all of the single girls get sick of going home empty handed pretty quick. As such, they learn to "revolt" by dressing in black on Valentine's Day to boldly make the "who needs love, anyway?" statement. In truth, all of these "goth-for-a-day" girls just wish that they were carrying the "oh-so-lame" floral display home, too. (Trust me, I know. I used to be one of them!)

What makes matters worse is the fact that Valentine's Day in the US is hyped for at least a solid month before the actual day. I'm sure it would be promoted longer, but Hallmark hasn't quite figured out how to manage marketing Christmas and Valentine's Day at the same time. I know everyone complains about the commercialization of holidays, but I never fully realized its effect on me until this year.

Normally, Colin and I don't really celebrate V-Day in a big way. (One memorable year, he bought me gourmet chocolate-covered strawberries, despite my insistence that it wasn't necessary.) For me, the months of promotional advertising and merchandising that US companies do ends up sucking the life out of the holiday all together -- the givers are stressed out from rushing around and shopping for the "perfect gift" that doesn't really exist, and the receiver ends up with unreasonable expectations that can never be fulfilled. I'm just ready for it to be over by the time it arrives.

Fortunately, the Parisian businesses don't feel compelled to over-promote, so I actually felt romantic enough to go to Lenôtre and splurge on a cream-and-fruit cake in the shape of a heart. In turn, Colin surprised me with some gorgeous roses and a box of Lenôtre chocolates:


But the best part was that none of it seemed contrived. I wasn't expecting anything, and neither was he. The holiday wasn't hanging over our heads for weeks. It just came today, and we both actually felt un-jaded enough to make thoughtful purchases to express our affections.

So, here's to love -- real love, not the kind that you can buy in a box at Wal-Mart.

13 February 2006

26 hits, 2 e-mails ... you do the math!!

Oh yes, I can see you now, my dear reader. Yes, you! The one who is "supposed" to working right now, but instead, is checking to see if there are any updates on the blog. So far, there have been 26 of you today alone.

And yet, I have two e-mails in my e-mail inbox. Two.

Now look, I know that your life probably doesn't seem as glamorous as mine (yes, that was intended to be dripping with sarcasm), but I still find you interesting! You know what's going on in my life ... what's going on in yours? What am I missing by not seeing you every day?

So, here's the new contest: the person that sends me the best e-mail gets a postcard. There will be multiple winners because I have five categories:

* Best long e-mail (just remember that quantity doesn't always mean quality)
* Funniest e-mail
* Best short e-mail
* Best cop-out e-mail (i.e. you technically send me an e-mail, but it's not really in the spirit that inspired this contest)
* Rookie of the year (i.e. the person who, by actually sending me an e-mail, will disprove one of my theories about him or her: 1) I assumed he/she was dead. 2) I assume he/she had joined the witness protection program, 3) I assumed he/she did not have an e-mail address or had joined a cult that viewed the Internet as the devil.

Remember, you can't win if you don't play!!

11 February 2006

Maybe I AM a geographer after all!

My latest acquisition from the library is a book called Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. The authors' purpose is to explain why the French are the way they are, using the question that I've been pondering recently of why "we" love France but not the French.

So far, I can't decide if I like the book or not. I've read chapters one through six, and only found one particularly provocative idea thus far. Before I get to it, though, I have to share some of the background information that led up to it:

"[W]e read an excellent book on French-American cultural differences called Cultural Misunderstandings, by French ethnologist Raymonde Carroll. ... She says the typical American couple seeks to display harmony. American spouses rarely contradict each other in public, but instead try to show support for one another. Arguing and criticizing one another in public is regarded as distasteful, if not dysfynctional. It's something you do in private.

"The French expect exactly the opposite: there's something wrong with a couple that doesn't contradict one another in public and constantly displays harmony. In their minds, a relationship should be strong enough to withstand differences, which are only normal in a couple. All the better if differences are displayed in public with wit and spirit--it makes conversation more interesting. It's not that French spouses disagree all the time and that Anglo-Americans never argue. The behavior is just restricted to different spheres (43-44)."

I think that this assessment of American couples culture is dead-on. It is most certainly a bad idea to call your spouse out in front of other people in the US -- definitely a way to end up in the proverbial dog house! Plus, we tend to feel very uncomfortable when another couple has an argument in front of us, as if we're witnessing something that we shouldn't be.

As for the French side, it's tougher for me to verify because my French is not strong enough to have first-hand information. I can say, however, that I've read this "theory" in many different books on French culture, so I think there is at least some truth to it. With that assumption in mind, here is the point that I found interesting in this book:

"Americans are definitely irked by the French habit of contesting the United States on every issue, but what really bugs the French is that the Americans seem to expect everyone to agree in every instance. We started to wonder if Raymonde Carroll's theory of couples' behavior didn't also apply to France and the Unites State's [sic] on the international stage. Americans want nothing more than a perfect show of harmony among allies. The French think that if the relationship is strong enough, it should be able to withstand strong differences in public (45)."

I definitely agree that Americans want a unified public front among its allies. If you have disagreements, that's OK: but work them out privately, so that we look strong to others. Need proof? Look no further than the familiar patriotic phrase, "United we stand, divided we fall." The message is clear. We have to come together on major issues in order to succeed.

So, maybe France's dissention with US policies, when viewed through a different cultural lens, should actually be viewed as a compliment. The French believe our relationship is strong enough to withstand public disagreement. So, from the French perspective, we have a healthy relationship! How about that? It's food for thought, anyway.

On the flip side for this book, I found chapter two, "The Land on their Mind," to be very disappointing. The basic assertion of the chapter is that the French are closely tied to the land, i.e. they have an attachment to their land. But what do they mean by this? What kind of attachment? What does "land" really mean to the French? What is their relationship with it? All I could think of was William Cronon's book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. He did such a great job of explaining how the colonists viewed land as something to be improved through intensive cultivation and development, and that, in turn, they viewed the Native Americans as lazy and irresponsible for not using the land appropriately (by the colonists' definition). It's been a while since I've read this book, so I don't remember all of the details very well anymore. But, you really got a strong sense of how the European colonists felt like stewards of the land, and as such felt a moral responsibility to improve it as part of their intrinsic role as civilized human beings.

But, there is no explanation along these lines for the French connection to the land thus far. The authors mention that farming activities are extremely important, but they don't talk about how the "peasants" (a supposedly complimentary term in France) view their relationship with the land itself. Do they want to live in harmony with nature? Do they believe it is their destiny to improve the land? Does Mother Nature reign supreme, or can mankind tame her? What is the root explanation for the French attachment to "terroir"?

After rolling these questions and others around in my head for a few minutes, something became crystal clear to me. I was asking the questions that geographers ask! A lot of people take time off to "find themselves" by traveling through Europe, and amazingly, I may have just done that today.

Holy crap. I might actually be a geographer after all.

10 February 2006

Les Jeux Olympiques -- En direct!

I know, it's a weird thing to be geeked about this, but I had a lot of fun watching the opening ceremonies *live* on TV tonight. In the US, we almost always have to watch it on tape delay (a fact that isn't made very clear by the networks at the time). Plus, they are "just down the road" in Italy, so it's fun to be on the same continent. I don't know why. It just is.

So, since many of you are just leaving work, I know you haven't seen coverage yet. In that case, let me ruin it for you!! Just kidding. I think the part most worth watching is the lighting of the torch. When it is actually done, the fireworks are pretty cool. Later, Luciano Pavarotti sings "Nessun dorma" (a gorgeous aria by Puccini) that literally gave me chills and brought a tear to my eye. OK, so it's one of my all-time favorites, but man, that guy sure can sing it!

Take me to another place, take me to another land

Quick tip to French business entrepreneurs: even though you know an assortment of "American" things, you still need to do a little bit of homework to make sure that they go together logically. Case in point:


Behold, Le Tennessee. Colin and I stumbled upon this establishment on Wednesday evening while killing time before dinner. Note that you have three distinctly American elements here: 1) The state of Tennessee, 2) A cowboy being thrown from a bucking bronco, and 3) jazz. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't generally think of Tennessee as the home of jazz-loving cowboys. (Insert your own Brokeback Mountain joke here.) The only way this would get better is if the menu features Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza. Of course, now I wonder if there are any "ethnic" restaurants in the US that commit the same errors of association.

In more disturbing signage news (subtitled: company abbreviations that wouldn't fly in the US):

I don't know about the rest of the female population, but the word "Pap" refers to one thing, and one thing only. And I sure as heck wouldn't base my vacation plans around that.

08 February 2006

A Commercial Break

Colin and I honeymooned in New Orleans, so I've always had a bit of a soft spot in my heart for that city. Much like the rest of the world, I was deeply saddened to watch the devastation unfold on TV when Hurricane Katrina hit that region. While the property damage is staggering, the human suffering that played out during the first week was sickening. I don't think I will ever forget watching video of people piling into the Superdome, mostly because one journalist incorrectly observed that "people from all walks of life" were piling in there. This couldn't be further from the truth: we were watching the poorest of the poor take what option they had left. I knew at that moment that I had no concept of just how many people struggle to survive on a daily basis - never mind in the wake of a lethal hurricane.

Unlike a lot of tragedies that have unfolded in my short lifetime, Hurricane Katrina's devastation has really stuck with me. I wanted to go down to the region right after the storm, but it was within my last month of work before I made the move to Paris. Taking the time and the money to go was not possible. Now, I find myself toying with the idea of going there after I return to the US in July. I don't know where the money will come from, and I don't know what I'll do if I go. But I'm searching for ways to help and keeping my heart and mind open for the right opportunity to present itself.

In the meantime, I can help spread the word that help is still needed. Here are just two of countless worthy organizations that could use your help, expertise, money, or material donations:

COMMON GROUND

http://www.commongroundrelief.org/how_you_can_help/

So what if you can only afford to send a box of nails? That will help rebuild part of a room in someone's home, so the impact will be there.

HURRICANE HELP FOR SCHOOLS

Additionally, there is a comprehensive list of schools online that need supplies. I challenge each of you to work with friends, family, work colleagues, and so forth to put together helpful kits for just one school on this list:

http://wdcrobcolp01.ed.gov/CFAPPS/disasterrelief/schools/index.cfm

So what if you can only send one notebook or one pencil? That gives one more child the material that he or she needs to learn during a time in their lives that they are most receptive to new concepts and ideas. (How many of us wish we had learned a foreign language as a kid, when it would have been easier? Imagine if we felt the same way about basic English or math?)

Sorry for getting on to the soapbox when it's not really the topic of my blog. This has been on my mind a lot lately, so I felt compelled to write about this. If this entry has inspired you to do something, please feel free to share in the comments section.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled "American in France" blog, already in progress...

07 February 2006

Paris Dog Parks

Information about dog parks is tough to come by in the US, much less in foreign countries. I had never heard of the concept until I stumbled upon the one at Twin Lakes in Columbia, Missouri. While I was initially hesistant to let Didge run off-leash, I haven't regretted the decision. Not only does he get the quantity and qualilty of exercise that he needs, but Didge also gets the opportunity to learn how to properly interact with other dogs. It's quite a lot like taking your kid to a public playground: sure, there is a chance that he or she will get hurt, either by self-inflicted clumsiness or by the occasional kid that doesn't play well with others. But the benefits far outweigh those risks, and as such, I continue to take my dog. (Many US cities worry so much about the liability concerns that they won't set up leash-free dog parks. Unfortunately, Ann Arbor, MI, is one of them! Fortunately, nearby Saline has a leash-free park that works just fine.)

Yet even though dogs are on par with royalty around Paris, it's not immediately clear where you can and can't take your pooch. I didn't find leash-free areas until very recently - January, to be exact. So, in an effort to help my fellow man's best friend, here are maps and directions to two leash-free dog parks in Paris, France.

Jardin du Carrousel
1er arr.
Métro Tulieries or Pl. du Palais Royale

In this map (created with the help of Maporama.com), you can see the Jardin des Tuileries highlighted in green. Dogs can be in *parts* of this garden, but if you go by the officially posted rules, they should be on-leash. (I've seen lots of dogs of all sizes running off-leash there, though.) The spot where you can let your dog run leash-free is the large gray rectangle just to the right of this green space (where the word "Paris" appears in bold).

Here is a sattelite shot of it, thanks to Google Earth. The diagonal lines that you can see are tall rows of hedges. The trick to this, however, is that it can get tough to keep track of your dog! So, make sure that your dog either responds well to you calling him, or be sure to have treats to lure him back.

I haven't seen any official postings that sanction leash-free play here, but both police officers on horseback and national guard soldiers have walked right past Didge and Sophie off-leash without saying a word. (I've uploaded video proof of our encounter with the latter: Not even a semi-automatic rifle can scare Didge!) Be sure to bring some plastic bags with you to clean up after your dog as needed, as they don't have bag dispensers here. Of course, as a guard at the Tuileries once told Maggie, you don't really have to clean up after them ... but you should, as a good dog owner!

Le Parc de Bercy
12e arr.
Métro Bercy

Here, you can see Le Parc de Bercy in green. (Again, thanks to Maporama.com for the map.) The dogs can only play leash-free in the top section - there is a fence that marks the start of the Yitzak Rabin memorial garden, which doesn't allow dogs. No matter - there is plenty of space here for dogs to run around and have a great time.

I've uploaded a fairly long video of Didge playing in this park with Sophie. It's not very interesting, but you can get a feel for the space that's there. The best part, in my opinion, is that we are allowed on the grass - a true rarity in Paris. Most grass is "en repose" right now, which means that no one is allowed to set foot on it. In the summer, only people can be on grass: dogs are interdit (forbidden).

Here is the Google Earth sattelite shot. When you get off at the métro stop Bercy, I recommend taking the Omnisports exit. From there, you just go around the arena to the left (you'll have to climb a few stairs, but not many) and the park will be behind there.

This is my favorite dog-friendly park in Paris so far. It has plenty of room for the dogs to run, and you don't have to worry about them getting into a spot that they aren't allowed in. Plus, there are no busy streets nearby, so if Didge started to get away from me, I'd have a chance to get him before he wandered into traffic.

I've heard that this park gets really busy in the summer. I'm sure it will continue to be so, especially once the pedestrian bridge crossing the River Seine is completed. That will connect this park with the Bibliotheque Nationale, so it's bound to attract researchers for their lunch breaks. Watch for that to open in October 2006.

Of course, you can walk your dog on just about any city street, and if you have a small dog that can fit in a sherpa bag, they can join you on all public transportation. Didge is too big for that option, but it seems to be no problem whatsoever to have him ride the métro with me. (I know it's officially not allowed, but people do it all the time.) Mainly, I recommend avoiding busy times if you're going to do this -- Didge lost a good chunk of tail hair on a particularly crowded car one afternoon in December.

I've checked out other parks, and here's what I can tell you about dog access:
  • Jardin des Plantes, 5e arrondissement - no dogs allowed.
  • Jardin du Luxembourg, 6e - dogs allowed on-leash only in one section along the east side of the park. Watch for signs! They are small and hard to find. There are only two entrances on the east side of the park that dogs can enter, so use those spots as your guide.
  • Parc Kellerman, 13e - no dogs allowed. All of the entrances - save one - are marked as such. (Guess which entrance Colin and Didge took one afternoon?)
  • Cimetières (Montparnasse - 14e, Montmartre - 18e, Père Lachaise - 20e) - no dogs allowed. (Kinda makes sense, though ...)
  • Parc Montsouris, 14e - yes, as long as they are on a leash and not on the grass.
  • Jardin Atlantique, 14e/15e - no dogs allowed, except on the central sidewalk that goes through it in a straight line. (Colin says it's not worth taking your dog along.)
  • Bois de Vincennes (12e) and Bois de Bologne (16e) - dogs allowed, except for some marked areas. I haven't been to Bologne yet, but the Bois de Vincennes was an excellent place to take Didge. These are the forests (well, woods would be the better word) on either side of the city, and there is plenty of room for dogs to run and explore. We took Didge off-leash some of the time, though I don't remember if it was officially sanctioned or not.
Additionally, dogs are allowed in the gardens at Versailles. I haven't figured out if I can get Didge on the RER C line out there, but if so, we're totally going to take him out there sometime!

Ending a 6-year-old debate

Yesterday, my beloved dog turned 6 years old. No, we didn't throw him a birthday party or anything over-the-top dog owner-ish. We were actually quite lazy, and spent most of the day either reading or calling Didgeridoo an old man. I had originally planned to write a tribute blog entry to my boy, but the inspiration just wasn't there.

Instead, in puppy's honor, I've decided to end a 6-year-old disagreement. Our dog's full name is Didgeridoo, after the Australian aboriginal instrument (he is, after all, part Aussie). My college roommate, Katrina, actually picked this name out, so neither Colin nor I can take credit for the idea beyond going, "Hey, good idea! Sold!"

The real dilemma is a spelling question. We call him a shortened version of his name on a daily basis, but Colin and I can't agree on how to spell it. I say it should be "Didge" and he says it should be "Didg."

So, I ask you, my faithful readers, to help solve this dilemma once and for all. Please, cast your anonymous vote for how we should spell Mr. Doo's nickname:

Which spelling should we use for the short version of Didgeridoo's name?
Didge
Didg
Free polls from Pollhost.com
Don't worry, we can't tell who votes what, so you don't have to feel guilty about siding with one person or the other.

And even though Colin says, "I don't have to accept the results of this poll," I for one am willing to take the chance that the rest of the free world agrees with my spelling.

Alternative spellings, as well as nicknames, can be suggested in the comments.

Happy voting!

03 February 2006

Like France, but hate the French?

Today, there was a new comment posted to the earlier discussion about Francophobia in the US. (I know who posted it, but since that person signed anonymously, I'll refrain from revealing the identity.) Here's an excerpt:

"My last reason for my dislike of the French is my own experiences. I have been to Paris twice-- once in 1963 and again in 1994. Each time my contacts with the people were for the most part not pleasant. I encountered that anti-American attitude. I have also met many Americans who have had the same problems. In 1960 a good friend of mine visited Paris. The dislike of Americans was so strong that the American Embassy suggested American tourists eat there for their own safety."

I can't speak to the experiences that Americans had in the 1960's, though I trust this source's description. I know that the 60's were a particularly unstable decade in French history, so I can understand why Paris wouldn't have been the most pleasant place to visit. This person's experiences in the early 1990's, I suspect, has a lot to do with the fact that he/she was traveling with an extremely large tour group that consisted of mostly teenagers. I don't know about you, but when I run into a tour group *anywhere* in the world, I'm not exactly thrilled. It doesn't matter if the whole group is polite -- there are too many people in one place, and they are in my way!

What I can address, however, is why so many Americans seem to have a lousy time when they visit Paris today. It's a direct result of A) poor planning, and/or B) little to no attempt to understand and work within the cultural norms of a different society. (It may also involve their participation in a large tour group, but I'm speaking specifically to individuals who come overseas to travel.)

Poor planning is pretty straightforward: if you don't have maps, reservations, enough time, enough money, etc ... you're not going to have a good time because your trip won't go smoothly. You'll miss trains, skip meals, and wait for hours in long lines for things that don't impress you when you're hungry and irritated. My advice for this is simple: do your homework! Don't just book plane tickets and assume that spontaneity is going to be the most fun. You don't have to plan out a minute-by-minute itinerary, but it helps to know when things are open, how to avoid long lines, and so forth. If you're planning a trip to Europe, I HIGHLY recommend purchasing the Rick Steves' guidebooks, as well as visiting his website at ricksteves.com. This guy knows Europe better than the back of his hand! So, to quote him:

"Guidebooks are $25 tools for $3,000 experiences. ... Too many people are penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to information. I see them every year, stranded on street corners in Paris — hemorrhaging money. It's flipping off of them in €100 notes. Con artists smell a helpless victim and close in. These vacations are disasters. Tourists with no information run out of money, fly home early, and hate the French. With a good guidebook, you can come into Paris for your first time, go anywhere in town for the equivalent of a dollar on the subway, enjoy a memorable bistro lunch for $10, and pay just $60 for a double room in a friendly hotel on a pedestrian-only street a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower — so French, that when you step outside in the morning you feel you must have been a poodle in a previous life. All you need is a good guidebook covering your destination."

Having said all of that, please feel free to e-mail me with questions if you're coming to Paris soon. I'm happy to dispense advice, for whatever it's worth! :)

Little to no understanding of cultural norms is the other major cause of American dislike of the French when traveling abroad. I'm not saying that every last French person loves America - in fact, there are quite a few people who hate it. (To be fair, there are a lot of *Americans* who hate America, too!) However, there are a lot of little unspoken rules that tourists regularly violate in Paris. When they get a negative reaction as a result, they assume that it's because the French are rude. OK, sometimes they are. But sometimes, they have a good reason to be - we were rude first!

"Outsiders go wrong by looking at France through their own optics. It is always a jolt for veteran travelers to find that culture shock in France is more severe than in Saudi Arabia or Bolivia. Elsewhere, things look and sound different, so you expect them to be different. France looks like home, or at least like familiar old postcards and paintings. Surprise..." (Mort Rosenblum in Mission to Civilize, as quoted on the back cover of Culture Shock: France by Sally Adamson Taylor)

This quote really struck a chord with me because I genuinely think that this is the reaction of countless American tourists when they come to Western Europe. After all, these are our ancestors, right? How many of us "Americans" can trace our lineage back to the British, the French, the Germans, the Irish, the Greeks, etc? And even for those Americans who trace their lineage to other continents, no doubt they expect to get a lot of the same attitudes and customs that they have come to know in the US because of this common heritage. We expect France to be similar to the US. The only real difference is the language barrier, right? And English is really the universal language anyway, so we should be fine, right?

WRONG! There are different customs, traditions, etiquettes, attitudes, and so forth here in France, and if you don't know about them, you just might stick your foot in your mouth without ever realizing it. That's why, when I have guests visiting, I give them a few ground rules to get them going in the right direction:

RULE #1: Greet the "help"
When entering a store, look for the nearest salesperson and greet them with "Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame." (Simply saying "Bonjour!" can come across a bit terse, so don't be afraid to add on the Monsieur/Madame.) When you leave the store, be sure to say, "Merci, Monsieur/Madame. Au revoir." If you really want to, you can also add on "Bonne journée" (have a good day), but saying goodbye is sufficient.

Why? In general, there is more of a personal sense of ownership of businesses. Walking into a someone's store is perceived similarly to walking into someone's house: you wouldn't just walk into someone's house without so much as a glance in their direction, would you? So, not saying hello or goodbye is often perceived as being rude. Granted, this is less of an issue in big department stores, but it's still nice to acknowledge the salesperson's presence when walking in.

RULE #2: Learn a little lingo
Learn a little bit of French before you come. I know, you won't be fluent. Don't worry about it - neither am I. Make an earnest attempt to speak the home team's language, even if you're reading straight out of a phrase book that you bought at Barnes and Noble. I recommend practicing outloud with another person, so that you can get used to the sound of your voice before you have to put it out there for the "natives" to hear.

Why? Let me explain by offering an example in the US. How many times have you heard Americans complain about "all those immigrants" who come into the country and "don't bother" to learn English? After all, if you're going to live in America, you have to speak our language. We're not going to cater to you. So, why expect the French to react any differently? It's frustrating for everyone involved when you can't communicate the simplest of ideas. Make an effort, and 99 French people out of 100 will appreciate it and try their best to help you. Also, if you make the basic effort, many Parisians will recognize your accent and start speaking English to you. If you tick them off by insisting on English from the first moment you speak, they are far more tempted to pretend that they have no idea what you're saying. (Colin knows someone who has witnessed this first hand.)

Also, if you know some basic French vocabulary, you'll be able to read signs and figure out where to go on your own. Result? Less time wandering around lost, nevermind working up the courage to ask a stranger where something is.

RULE #3: Don't be put off if you aren't immediately embraced
French people don't even embrace each other right away. Unlike Americans, who will invite complete strangers into their homes for a party, the French much prefer to have a few intimate friends instead of tons of acquantances. You can see this in our demeanors, too: Americans tend to smile and be more assertive, whereas the French see an inexplicably smily person as either stupid or up to no good. The French "coolness" has nothing to do with their deep-seated disgust for the US - they just don't throw themselves out there quite like we do. (On the bright side, if you make a French friend, they will be the best friend you can imagine!)

There are so many more things I could relate, but instead, I'll recommend a book to check out. It's called Culture Shock: France, written by Sally Adamson Taylor. The Culture Shock books are a series - there are different versions for many different cultures (including New York and Chicago). I haven't read any of the others, but I've heard that the one for Australia is also quite useful. At any rate, you'll get a lot of practical, useful information out of this book that will help you understand why the French react the way that they do to specific things. Knowing some of the major differences between your culture and the one you are going to visit can go a long, long way to turning a decent trip into the trip of a lifetime.

In closing, I offer this last bit of advice: remember that there are jerks in every neighborhood of every city in every country. If you run into one of them, don't let it ruin your day. Find someone in a better mood, try again, and remember that one or two people can't possibly represent an entire nation any better than you can represent all that is good or bad about the US.

Postscript: After Colin read this blog entry, he said he felt like he was reading plagiarized work. So, as a disclaimer: I tried really hard to cite every idea to its appropriate source! If you recognize anything that should be attributed but isn't, please let me know. The vast majority of this isn't my own unique thoughts, but a synthesis of what has stood out to me from all of the French culture/travel books I've read.

02 February 2006

See-through underwear probably isn't very warm

I've recently been on the hunt for some new undergarments. This is one of my absolute least favorite activities, mostly because it's all so blasted expensive. Additionally, trying this stuff on in the winter isn't exactly my cup of tea. (I much prefer 20 degrees celsius to 20 degrees farenheit.) But, with les soldes looming all around me, I figured now was as good a time as ever to save a little money on one of the more annoying accessories that goes along with being female.

I scouted out the vitrines of various stores, biding my time until I finally found a place that I liked. Fortunately, it materialized in the form of Darjeeling Lingerie, a chain store with a branch on the Rue d'Alésia. (Admittedly, this store largely got my business because they have the heat cranked way up.) Yet even though I begrudgingly made my purchases a couple of weeks ago, I can't seem to shake the habit of looking in the lingerie store windows around town. This ongoing research has led to the following realization: Parisian women do not like underwear that conceals their assets.

I find this possible fact to be a bit mind-boggling. Aren't there any women in Paris who want at least one measly pair of granny-esque panties? Surely there is someone besides me who wants a pair of underwear with a backside that either A) consists of more than one thread and/or B) uses fabric that isn't 100% see-through. It's not that I'm fundamentally opposed to "sexy" underwear, but it isn't always the most comfortable option out there. Besides, where's the mystery, nay the excitement, when the guy can already see the full package before the underwear comes off?

Far more disturbing: what do the Parisian grannies wear?

Oh wait. I forgot about the outdoor bins in front of the local bazars. There you have it: the bazars have the corner on the granny panty market in Paris. What a choice: pay a fortune for a scrap of fabric, or go cheap by pawing through a bin on the side of the road.