vendredi, décembre 16, 2005

Tis the Season

I've mentioned before the similarities between the French and the Japanese, and while I've never lived in Japan, I stand by my assertion that the two cultures share a fondness for useless, strange, and totally inappropriate gifts.

Take for example the recent issue of "A Nous Paris", a free newspaper distributed in métro stations all over the city, whose current issue features gift ideas for the holiday season. Some of them were cool, but most were simply trendy superficial things you were supposed to want so you could be à la mode. (Meaning 'in style' in French, not 'with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side', in case you were confused.)

So, if you were a trendy Parisienne, you were encouraged to buy for the loved ones on your list:

Um, yeah. An "I'm Happy Weirdo" robot.

Doesn't that just scream weird Japanese teenage girl?

And then there is the real pearl of a gift you can be proud to offer to anyone on your list. Described as 'very original' and 'irresistible', it's the ....... drum roll, please........

'Gangsta' oven mitt

Perfect for all those epicureans who don't have room for a lawn jockey. Ahh, racism. The gift that keeps on giving.

Seriously, folks, check that shit out. How irresistibly original! Use this to pull out that casserole from the oven. Wear it with pride as your serve your guests the holiday dishes you prepared from the recipes in the back of "Marie Claire." I mean, really.

Joyeuses Fetes and Happy Holidays from the land of liberte, egalite and fraternite!

jeudi, décembre 01, 2005

Punch Bowl

I threw my first party in Paris last Saturday. The reasons were twofold : my best friend is leaving to do a PhD abroad, and it's December and I wanted some egg nog.

Since I am the way I am, serving the same cocktail to over 4o guests, I was thinking : PUNCH BOWL. It seemed only natural, and so a propos.

Much to my surprise, what in some circles back home is a standard item to be included on wedding registries is quite old fashioned here in Old Europe.

I started by searching on the web. When you have no car and getting from point A to point B takes at least thirty minutes on the metro, you sort of want to make sure the store has the item before you make the effort of going there and lugging it all the way back home.

My first couple of searches got me this:

Gee, serving egg nog in this Imperial Russian, um, soup tureen (?) sure would add a special touch to the party, now wouldn't it?

or this:

Good old M37A here sure is a pretty old punch bowl, but she's a wee bit expensive for what I had in mind. Antiques are pesky like that.

And this set, on sale on Ebay for a mere 600 dollars, is, well, just, well... Yikes. Blue?

So I decide to go the Huckabee's like "everything store" here in Paris, the BHV, thinking if they don't have a punch bowl, no one will. BHV is an experience. It gives the idea of personal space entirely new boundaries.

But when I asked a sales clerk I managed to find lurking in a remote kitchenware corner if they had any punch bowls, I got that Gallic widening of the eyes and lower lip thrust that means something akin to, "No clue, lady." Turns out, in Paris, they call them 'salad bowls with a soup ladle.'

This got me curious. Why would something that was a regular feature of birthday parties, wedding showers, holiday celebrations and office parties back in the good old South of the US of A be totally obsolete here?

And I realized it totally depends on how you colonize your territories.

See, here in France, the word "punch" is indelibly linked to rum - rum from Guadaloupe or Martinique, both former French colonies. A "p'ti punch" is a drink made from rum, sugar and lime juice. None of this fruit juice, 7Up and lime sherbet for the kiddies, thank you.

Which got me thinking again. Where did the word "punch" come from?

Turns out, kids, that the word "punch" comes from the Hindi word for "five" - panc - designating a drink made from arrak, tea, sugar, lemon and water. (A must-try for a future party, methinks.) This concoction was brought back to England by sailors with the British East India Company. The better explanation for its prevalence in the New World, however, seems to me to be from German immigrants, who drank something called "punsch" made from several fruit juices and spices, often with liquor or wine added.

The party, by the way, was a blast. It was a nice mix of people, and not everyone showed up at the same time, so space was never a problem. I'll definitely be throwing many more in the future.

But just a warning for those of you who will be attending American holiday parties with punch bowls present:

egg nog + champagne = bleah.

dimanche, novembre 27, 2005

Melancholy at the Grand Palais

I've been taking advantage recently of the cultural things Paris has to offer. (Eastern European rock installations not included).

I have been to two different exhibits at the Grand Palais, attended an artist's expo in a chic but rundown apartment not far away in the exclusive 8th arrondissement, and went to a party at an artist's loft in the outskirts of the city, where this weekend they are having an open house with an artists' collective.

The first expo at the Grand Palais, entitled "Melancolie", was, well, how can I put it? Interesting, very extensive, and a little exhausting. The idea was to show how important of a theme "melancholia" has historically been in the arts, be it painting, music, philosophy, theology, sculpture, etc. The exhibit was huge, and spanned the ages. How much time they must have put into deciding what pieces to include, I can only imagine. But I sort of liked trying to picture the board of people involved, sitting around a conference room table, discussing what works to use.

"I absolutely cannot understand why you refuse to see my point about the Dührer, Charlotte!"

"Jean-Charles, please don't slam your fist like that. I think you'll find the Otto Dix supports the exact same idea, plus it's available on loan for the time we need it!"

Yes, these are the things that swirl around in my head at 7:30 at night at an art expo. Consider yourself warned.

The first thing I saw upon entering was a Grecian urn depicting Penelope at her loom, appropriately melancholic, waiting for Ulysses' return with her son Telemachus at her side.

Off to a nice start, I thought.

I found it interesting how the stance of melancholy one takes, the head tilted to the side and resting on the hand, hasn't changed at all since ancient times. But then again, why would it have? In any case, it was fascinating to see the pose repeated so consistently throughout.

I was impressed with the variety of the works chosen. There were the predictable Dührers and Goyas and Van Goghs, but I thought Edward Hopper was a nice addition. And I was a little surprised not to see a whole bunch of Schiele. But then again, he was being displayed next door, at the "1900's in Vienna" exhibit, alongside Kokoschka, Moser and Klimt.

There were of course an enormous amount of things that went completely over my head. Each part was organized into sections, and there were long cerebral explanations of the view of such and such aspect of melancholia seen through the spectrum of such and such an age, or such and such philosophy. There was a huge panel that discussed the theological ruminations of "black bile", as melancholy was sometimes translated, and how during the Middle Ages is was considered a sin. Yawn.

The absolute best part, though, was how many people were jotting things down into little notebooks or handheld computers, even into their fancy cell phones. I can assure you not all of them were art students, either. You gotta love a country that is so much into culture, philosophy and knowledge in general that they not only line up in the cold for hours to see an art exhibit after work, but that they actually take notes.

It's just so cute.

mercredi, novembre 16, 2005

The Rules

I had a date tonight. With a friend of a friend, who was rather good looking, and danced like a pro. We had met at a Caribbean party, where he and I danced danced the zouk for quite a while. It's very up close, with the woman's legs on either side of the man's like the lambada. Things got a little hot and heavy, but the party was ending, and it was far away. In parting, I gave him my card with my email addresses. After almost a year, I still haven't memorized my cell phone number.

About a week later, he sent me an email, giving me his cell phone number. I replied giving him mine, but letting him know that I had two friends staying with me for a few weeks, and that if he wanted to see me for a tete-a-tete, it would have to wait. I didn't hear back for about a week and a half, so I sent him another email, reiterating that he was welcome to call and we could do something all together, but that if he would prefer just me, I was looking forward to hearing from him after my friends left.

Total radio silence.

Ironically, I saw the friend who introduced us this weekend and he asked if I had heard from the guy. I said I had sent two emails and gotten no reply. He gave me a perfect throwaway line - which I am really sick of hearing - that maybe the guy in question didn't feel up to par.

I don't know if the two of them talked, but the day before yesterday, the guy called. I told him I wasn't sure he was interested since I hadn't heard from him. He said something about being really busy and not wanting to contact me until he really had time to get together. Then he asked me out to dinner. Tonight. We set the time and the place, and on my way there, I called to make sure it was still on. He replied he was getting ready and would be on his way.

I found the place (miraculously in less than 15 minutes) and arrived a good ten minutes ahead of time.

I sat at the bar to wait. I am a polite person, so I waited to order a drink until he got there.

Forty minutes later, (giving him the benefit of the doubt since I was early), I called his cell phone. Straight to voice mail. In a tight voice, I said that I was already there and had been waiting half an hour, and that he would find me at the bar.

I watched table after table come in, have drinks, talk and leave. The owner of the place kept stealing glances at me, no doubt trying to come up with theories as to why someone would stand me up.

I gave in and ordered a drink.

I checked my cell phone. No voice mail message; no text message.

An hour and five minutes after the appointed time, I called again. Straight to voice mail.

"Alain," I said, my voice tense, "this is Penelope. I have been waiting for over an hour now. I am giving you ten minutes, and if you're not here, I'm going home."

By this time, the owner had already eaten his own dinner. He came around from behind the bar.

"Well," he said, shaking his head, "Monsieur is trying to make himself desirable, is he?"

I shrugged.

"It's appalling. Really. He should be ashamed of himself."

In reply, I asked how much I owed him for the drink.

I paid, put on my scarf, gloves and coat, and threw my cell phone in my purse. Try and call me now, I silently dared him. As I was zipping up my purse, a Bangladeshi flower seller came in. I turned to go.

"Mademoiselle!" called the owner from behind the bar, "Here." He handed me a red rose.

"Awww!" said the waitress. I swallowed hard so my eyes wouldn't tear up.

"Thank you," I said.

You wanna know the rules?

Make me wait half an hour without calling : inconsiderate, but you might have a good excuse.

Make me wait an hour and fifteen minutes for your sorry ass : Fuck you.

My red rose is in a pretty vase on my dining room table to remind me of the shallowness of men who think their shit doesn't stink.

And of the kindness of strangers.

The Picture of Your Name

I read this on another blog a while back, and I just had to try it. It's definitely for one of those bored-at-work or waiting-for-boy-to-call moments of killing time. (I'm not saying which moment I am having right now - so there.)

Here is what you do:

Go to Google and do an image search on the following things:

Your first name

The town you were born in

The title of your favorite song (don't fret over this, no one will know)

Your grandmother's first name

Kinda cool, huh? Anybody but me notice a theme here?

mardi, novembre 15, 2005

Talking Rocks

Paris is not burning.

But there is a strange little installation of talking Latvian rocks set up in the square in front of the Louvre. Nine large rocks of different sizes, each with a different face projected onto it, tell the story of Latvia, its history and folklore.

There was something disquieting about it. But it was still very, very cool. Especially when I just stumbled onto it on my way to have a drink with a friend.

That's the thing about Paris. You never know what you'll find. So it's a good idea to make sure you always have these three things handy:

1. A camera (in case you stumble onto a Latvian rock installation, for example)

2. A notebook to jot down overheard conversations, bad English translations of menu items, or words you want to look up later.

3. An umbrella (need I explain?)

dimanche, novembre 06, 2005

A Chance Encounter

Pastel colors on the canal

I went to Saint Petersburg to work a conference of financial directors. The first few days were full of tasks like putting together gift bags and checking last minute details. The administrative staff was camped out in the conference room with nametags, maps, computers, fax machines and dedicated phone lines.

On the first day, I was still in awe of the hotel, and trying to take in the surroundings and figure out how to address people I ran across. It's still kind of odd for me to speak English when I'm abroad, so in the elevator on my way back up to the fifth floor conference room, I would simply nod my head and smile if anyone got on.

Perhaps for this reason, when a man got on at the second floor, he asked if I worked at the hotel. Maybe I looked like an employee, or had some determined expression on my face as if I had somewhere important to be.

"Oh, I thought you were Russian," he said when I answered in American English that I did not, in fact, work at the hotel.

It turned out he was from Texas but had been living in Saint Petersburg for six years.

"It must be fascinating. Is it?" I asked.

"It's a hard life," he said, "It's difficult here. But it makes it better when you're in an elevator with a beautiful woman."

I smiled. The elevator reached my floor, much to my relief.

"Well, I hope you won't need to call me - because of what I do - but if you ever need anything while you're here, don't hesitate to contact me," he said, handing me a business card. I turned it over to the English side. He worked for an emergency clinic.

"Oh, goodness," I said laughing, "I hope I don't need your help."

"We were rated the best private clinic in the country by the American Embassy," he said proudly, as the elevator started to make sounds of protest at him holding open the door.

"I'll keep that in mind," I said.

Later at dinner, one of the financial directors came up to me to say he might need to leave early, showing me a spider bite he had gotten a week earlier that had swelled up. He now also had a rash on his arm.

"I might have just what you need," I said, pulling out the card and showing it to him. "They were rated the best private clinic in Russia by the American Embassy." I offered to call them and set up an appointment.

He thanked me, and made a joke about assistants and their resourcefulness. I decided not to tell him it had more to do with being picked up in a hotel elevator than being a good assistant.

"Frank?" I said loudly into the phone from the ladies room. It was the first place I could find that was quiet. "I'm sorry to call you this late, but it seems I do need your services after all."

I explained the situation, and he told me what information they would need to set up an appointment.

"I'll check with the person in question to see if he would prefer to come in the morning or during the lunch break, and I'll call you tomorrow morning to let you know." My American voice bounced off the polished marble walls, and I wondered who could hear me.

The next morning, I made an appointment to come at noon. I reserved a car with the hotel, a sleek black luxury car with tinted windows, and I felt ridiculously like a drug lord gliding through the streets. Frank had told me to call him when we were on our way, so he could meet us personally. He offered to give me a private tour of the facility while the financial director saw the doctor. This made me a bit uneasy, but I didn't know how to politely get out of it, considering what a favor he was doing me.

The building was non-descript from the outside, but once inside, it was apparent why it was so well thought of by the American Embassy. The waiting room was a sleek, bright and luxurious atrium, with a coffee stand, uniformed hostesses and overstuffed leather couches. A very elegant middle aged woman walked in wearing a sable colored wool cape edged in identical colored fur. She sat down on one of the couches, crossed her long sleek legs, and opened a fashion magazine. I could tell it was not her first visit.

The paperwork was filled in, and the director went off to see the doctor.

Frank turned to me and put his hand on my arm, "It's good to see you again, even in the circumstances," he purred.

"Thank you for your help," I said, smiling tersely and taking a step away from him.

"Let me show you around," he said, moving his arm behind me as if to grab me by the waist and pointing ahead to show me the way. I moved quickly to the doors leading inside the clinic.

He showed me the dentistry wing, the dermatology wing, and the sports therapy wing, complete with mud bath and whirlpool facilities, all the while reciting facts and figures as if reading from a pamphlet. In the stairwell on the way to see an example of a patient room, he turned to me and tried to compose his face into a look of genuine interest.

"How much do you think it costs to have hip replacement surgery in the US, Penelope?"

"I really have no idea, Frank," I said, a little annoyed and wondering whether he had been a member of Toastmasters back in Texas.

"Well, in the US, it can cost up to $60,000, and here we do everything for $13,000. We're a state of the art facility, but our prices are very reasonable. We have a lot of tourist business."

I raised an eyebrow. "Tourist business?"

"You know, elderly tourists who fall and break something, they all come here. We have a good relationship with the hotels."

"Ah," I said. Thank you, Frank, for making me now actually think about where I would go if I needed emergency health care abroad. These are not things I think about.

As he was showing me the MRI equipment, apparently one of two or three in the whole country, I remembered the woman in the lobby and the frankly beautiful patient rooms.

"So tell me, Frank, I'll bet you do a lot of plastic surgery here, don't you?"

He didn't seem to expect the question. "Well, a lot of the Russian stars and the well- to-do come here for that, but they also come for the medical facilities. I would say plastic surgery makes up only about 30% of our revenue."

"Hmm," I replied.

Bored with talk of the clinic, I asked him about living in Saint Petersburg.

"It's very hard. It's really violent. I've been assaulted six times. Electricity goes off periodically with no warning, sometimes in the middle of winter. Real estate is a nightmare. Even this clinic - we rent the space, and totally renovated it, but despite an official lease, the owner could simply raise the rent astronomically or take back the building whenever he wanted. People urinate and defecate in the hallways of apartment buildings. 80% of pharmaceuticals in public pharmacies are placebos. It's a jungle. All the Americans I have ever met who got transferred over here only made it six months."

I had a newfound respect for good old Frank from Texas. I wouldn't be able to handle those conditions, either.

It was time to collect the director. I found him in the lobby calling his doctor in France on his cell phone.

"What did they say?" I asked. It really was the scariest looking angry red welt on his arm, the size of a big walnut.

"They wanted to cut it open and drain it and give me some more antibiotics. My doctor prefers I fly back tonight to Paris."

We had a brief discussion with Frank about price and antibiotics, until the director finally thanked him and assured him it had nothing to do with doubting the quality of the facility, but that he preferred to follow his doctor's advice.

I got on my cell phone and changed his ticket, called the hotel to have the car pick us up, and said my goodbyes to Frank.

"Thank you very much for everything you did for us. It was very kind to take so much of your time for us," I said, sticking out my hand for him to shake.

"If you should have some free time, I would love to take you dinner," he said in reply.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible," I said, "but thank you again for everything." I was grateful he made me look like a highly competent assistant, but not that grateful.

The black luxury car was waiting for us on the street outside, humming and beckoning us with its warmth. It was beginning to get cold.

As I watched the buildings file past as we drove back to hotel, I wondered who lived there and if they had heat.

Nyevsky Prospekt

samedi, octobre 29, 2005

Санкт Пэтэрбург

Welcome, multinational corporation employees!

There is something to be said about business travel. At least the kind I have been fortunate enough to do. Sure, you have to work a little, but that consists of making sure the seating arrangements at dinner are politically correct, or double checking that the transportation company has taken note that so-and-so's wife's flight got delayed. It's not like I had to make a presentation, or defend my department's going over budget.

Instead, I got to drink company sponsored Водка. And encourage middle aged financial managers to do the same, under the disapproving eye of said middle aged financial manager's wife. "Pierre, it's only noon!"

Free Водка aside, I fell in love with Санкт Пэтэрбург. And the Armenian brandy at the luxury hotel bar.

The city outside the hotel was at times beautiful, mysterious, but mostly unknowable. Walking on the Nyevsky Prospekt, the city's main drag, I managed to decipher words like "hotel" "restaurant" and "cafe" with the rudimentary Cyrillic I had learned before coming, and it was thrilling. But while I might have been able to identify "Радиссон" as being the "Radisson" hotel, I couldn't explain why there were an abundance of young blonde girls on horseback at three o'clock in the morning, their un-mounted friends walking beside them, obviously coming back from a night out at the clubs together. I found out later from one of the tour bus drivers that the girls work during the day in the parks giving tourists carriage rides, and at night, sans carriage, the horses become their mode of transport.

An alternative, apparently very common, is to hitch a ride. Those who have cars stop to pick up random people. They negotiate on a price, and take you where you want to go. The night I ventured out to a club, lines of cars were parked along the Nyevsky Prospekt, waiting to take club goers to their destinations.

Adventurous as I might be, I did not partake of this particular local custom. My Russian does not go beyond "hello" and "thank you", and besides, I was walking distance to my hotel.
I leave you with two tantalizing images, and a bit of a teaser for the next episode.

Canal on Neva River

Aptly named "Church of Spilt Blood"

Tune in later to find out how a chance encounter in the hotel elevator led to me taking a financial director to country's finest private clinic!

lundi, septembre 26, 2005


Last night I called a good friend. One of those friends who understands my idiosyncracies. One of those friends who is just as complicated and multi-faceted.

I said to her, "You and I, we are not light."

I meant that we felt the weight of being, and sometimes it's heavy.

But there are times I feel light, like I'm floating. Like the time my photo was taken with Rio de Janeiro in the background. At the exact moment the shutter clicked, I thought, "Here I am, in a place I've always wanted to visit, speaking a language I didn't speak two months ago. All because of me."

Today, my friend sent me this. And it transported me.

And for a while, I floated.

Thank you.

mardi, septembre 20, 2005

Movin' On Up

I think if I were looking for work in Paris, I would learn to be an escalator repairman. Because I swear to god at least twenty of those things are broken at any given moment in the city. It's the damnedest thing.

The one leading from the metro station to the plaza where I work (or vice versa) is broken at least half of the time, which in my morning or evening stupor, I tend to not notice until I have heavily placed one foot on the first step, making that tell-tale thump, and nearly falling on my face to realize the thing isn't moving.

I remember in college one of my eight roommates had never been on an escalator in her life. (Small town Wisconsin, what can you say?) I thought that was so fucked up and weird. But I was a snot then. And, (have I mentioned?) very fucking cold.

Then there is the mall - yes, the mall- that I walk through every day to get to the metro station to go to work. Those escalators are broken half the time, too. Once, I was wearing some nice new shoes I had bought whose heels happened to fit snugly into the grooves of the escalator steps. When the escalator reached the bottom floor to deposit me on solid ground, I stepped off, and heard "pop! pop!" as the rubber soles came off the bottom of my stilettos one by one, and I was left standing on two nicely adorned nails to grudgingly click-clack my way to work.

dimanche, septembre 18, 2005

Sense of Direction

The other day after work, I didn't feel like going straight home. It was a pleasant warm evening, and I felt adventurous, so I got off the metro at Louvre Rivoli, thinking I would have a drink at Le Fumoir, and perhaps meet some interesting people. I had been there once by myself and met a really interesting older engineer who gave me the addresses of some good world music clubs. I lost the piece of paper, of course, but it was a pleasant way to pass the evening. It reminded me of Apres Diem in Atlanta where I was always sure to have a good time.

I looked into Le Fumoir, which was packed with people, so much so that I couldn't even reach the bar. I decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood and come back later. I had no particular destination in mind, and even if I did, I have zero sense of direction, so I wouldn't have been able to find it anyway. One of the other reasons I really like Le Fumoir is that it's right outside the exit of the Louvre Rivoli station, so even someone like me can find it easily.

I strolled along the banks of the Seine. The bouquinistes were shutting up their stands for the evening, the tourists having gone back to their hotels to take a nap before venturing out again for dinner. I passed a cafe, and as I turned the corner, the waiter standing outside said,

"Bonsoir, Princesse."

I laughed and muttered bonsoir, passing him to stop at the window of a perfume shop next door.

He suddenly appeared beside me and said,

"May I offer you a drink?"

I looked, up, surprised. "You want to buy me a drink?"

"It's on me," he said.

I am on a budget, I reasoned, so free drink = why not.

He led me to a table inside, and brought me a bowl of potato chips.

"What can I get you, Princesse?"

Cute the first time, the princess thing was getting old quickly.

"A kir, please," I replied, and opened my book. He hurried away. Through the window, I watched him serving an American couple on the terrace, reciting the desserts in English with a smile, charming them into a chocolate cake and ice cream.

Back at my table, he set down my glass and said, "So, Princesse, do you like the spontaneous things in life?"

"Yes," I replied, "otherwise I wouldn't have accepted your offer." I smiled, but braced myself for what was surely coming next. The drink might have been free, but I was sure there was a price of some kind. Sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me.

"And are you coquine?" This is a word I have been called before, but I am not a hundred percent sure of its meaning.

"What does that mean, exactly?" He looked taken aback. I don't have an American accent in French, so it really throws people off when I do that. "I'm not French," I explained, "so I'm not sure I understand what you mean."

"Well," he said, looking around, "I'll be right back."

I chuckled to myself as he went to check on his tables outside. I read my book and snacked on the chips until he got back.

"So, Princesse, what do you do for a living?" he asked, standing back to look me over.

"I'm an administrative assistant," I answered.

"You really look like an administrative assistant," he said, his eyes traveling appreciatively up and down me.

"And you really look like a waiter," I replied with a smile. I quickly added, "I used to be a waitress, and I had the same uniform: bow tie, black vest, white apron. I learned a lot. Especially about people." I smiled up at him, waiting for him to get to the point.

"It's a nice career," he said, "you meet all kinds of people."

"Mmm hmm," I replied. I always forget this is not a noise the French people make. It sounds totally dismissive, as if to say, yeah, what-the-hell-ever, instead of being a way of agreeing or encouraging one to continue.

"So, you see, I take photographs," he said. Now we're getting somewhere, I thought. "Photographs of beautiful women like you. It's my private hobby - I'm married, you see - but I do it very discreetly. I especially like women in suits. Are you an exhibitionist?"

I took a large swallow of my kir, and looked up, feigning as if I had never thought about whether I was or not. "Noo," I said slowly, "that's not really my thing." It was absolutely true at that moment.

"Oh, that's too bad," he mused, pratically drooling, "I'm sure you'd be very good at it."

"Do you meet a lot of women who accept?" I asked.

"Oh yes," he said, "I pay 150 euros per photo, or take them to dinner."

"Expensive hobby," I said. "And what do you do with the photos? Do you keep them? Do you frame them? Do you put them on the web?"

"They are for me," he replied, "but I have to be discreet because I'm married. It's my little secret."

I nodded, in my pop psychologist way, but I didn't believe for a minute they just stayed in his camera.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Patrick," he said, extending his hand.

"I'm Penelope," I replied, shaking his hand. "Thank you for the drink, Patrick, but I need to be going now."

"I'm here every day except Monday," he said, "if you change your mind."

"I'll know where to find you if I do," I replied with a smile, secure in the knowledge that there is no way I would ever remember how to get back there.

mardi, septembre 13, 2005

Fodder for Ridicule

Rightly or wrongly, I consider myself a better than average cook. I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen, who taught me most everything I know. She had recipes from all over the world, and almost every kitchen utensil known to man, not to mention a kick-ass gourmet kitchen. We made rum and chestnut cream tortes, feijoada, crepes suzette, roasted goose, pecan pie so good she had people begging her to ship them via mail, butternut squash soup, fondue, zingy Lebanese tabouli, and all kinds of dishes ranging all the way from shark to sushi. Her penchant for trying new things had its funny side effects, namely the most extensive vinegar collection in the Western Hemisphere. Once, my sister and I counted 16 different kinds.

So as you can see, I am no stranger to cooking. I actually really enjoy it when I am cooking for an occasion. I find it less rewarding when it's just for me, but budgetary concerns have forced me to confront the limitations of my miniature Parisian kitchen (which is more aptly described as a corner of a room). Despite its small size and odd usage of space, it has relatively large cabinets, and two whole ceramic ranges! (insert ironic tone here.) I recently acquired a little toaster oven, a hand-me-down from a friend whose parents moved back to Mexico, and it sits on my counter, taking up precious room. I was skeptical when I saw it - it looked good for little more than heating up croissants and blinis - but I discovered to my delight that my small Pyrex dish fits inside. So recently, I concocted a nice little dish of chicken, tomatoes, olive oil and feta, put the glass cover on, and baked it for 30 minutes. It came out tender and flavorful. I was more than pleased with myself and my little oven-that-could.

I have a good friend who lives in a 16m2 studio (~160 sq ft) and makes a mean quiche lorraine. She beats the eggs, heavy cream, lardons, emmenthal and herbes de provence in a bowl, and puts it in an oval dish fitted with a pre-made pâte feuilleté crust. She pops it in her (slightly larger) toaster oven, and 30 minutes later, we all have a tasty treat to stave off drunkeness a little longer.

Encouraged by the Greek chicken success, and my friend's repeatedly perfectly turned out quiches, I decided to make one in my Pyrex dish last night. I had gone shopping at the corner store on Saturday when I realized I had almost nothing to eat and thirty minutes before the store closed. It's not open on Sunday, and I hate grocery shopping on Monday night after work because it's full of stressed out scowling people, and the shelves are half empty. So I rushed through the store on Saturday night, and the shelves were almost bare. There was no chicken or beef to be had, only lonely looking turkey and pork cuts. So over the announcement that everyone should immediately proceed to the checkout counter because the store was closing, I quickly bought the ingredients for the quiche. I hesistated over whether my friend's is so good because she picks a particular kind of lardon over another. Salted or smoked? I went for salted, partly out of loyalty to my Southern heritage (ya'all ever had country ham? Dang, it's salty!) but mostly because smoked stuff scares me. I'm always afraid it will remind me of that smoke in a bottle stuff. Bleah. I grabbed what I thought was pâte feuilleté, salted lardons, emmenthal, eggs and heavy cream and obediently proceeded to the checkout.

Last night, I happily mixed the ingredients, lined the Pyrex pan with the pre-made crust, and popped it in the oven. I checked on it a few times, and it didn't seem to be cooking very fast. The shelf of the oven was at a height that made the top of the crust almost touch the heating bars, so I should not have been at all surprised when I smelled burning later. I took it out, but was heartened that the top of the quiche was a nice brown color and it seemed to be cooked throughout. I set it out to cool. When I went to see if it was cool enough to eat, I began to pick off the burnt parts of the crust, and that's when I felt it. That telltale heaviness of uncooked ingredients. I looked closer. The crust on the insides and bottom were almost raw. Okay, so my Pyrex pan is small, but it's not really shallow, and the inherited toaster oven is no convection masterpiece. Then I see the wrapping of the pre-made crust sticking out from the trash : pâte brisé. Oops. That's more for tarts and pies. No wonder.

Determined to salvage it, I picked off the burnt crust, put on a saute pan to heat, and scooped the whole darn thing out - intact - into it. I covered it, and let it cook. When I once again smelled the crust burning, this time directly on the bottom, I took the spatula and peeled back the crust. I scooped up the inside onto my plate in two parts and threw the burnt pâte brisé away.

My concoction, though not a quiche lorraine, turned out to be a very thick, rectangular shaped, yummy baked omelette.

But still, fucking up a quiche is fodder for ridicule. So be nice until I figure this kitchen corner out.

mercredi, septembre 07, 2005

My Country

I don't know how to express what I have been feeling over the past couple of days. I have alternately felt numb, incredulous, helpless and deeply ashamed.

I have seen so many photos that have made me quickly turn away to bury my face in my hands and cry. I can only imagine the state I would be in if I had TV. There was the one photo of a poor scraggly dog that had been tied to a railing on the interstate for six days and was barking for someone to save him. My heart broke into a million pieces.

Then there was the shot of evacuees waiting to be flown out, piled onto cots seven high. It looked so much like the images of ships carrying slaves on the Middle Passage that I immediately burst into tears.

That the current administration fucked up is no surprise. That the people who could not leave New Orleans were black and poor is no surprise. That the blacks are portrayed as 'looting' and the whites as 'scavenging' enrages me.

"Everyone knows," my caustic co-worker said to me today, "that the Americans are the most racist of all." This from a woman who refuses to drink out of her bottle of mineral water if it's left out overnight lest the North African cleaning crew help themselves to it. "You never know with those people," she whispered conspiratorally.

Like Mary Landrieu, I feel an urge to slap someone upside the head.

But with everything this whole disaster is revealing, I certainly cannot argue that we don't have a serious problem. More than a problem with race, however, I feel from a distance here in this country where tenants who fail to pay their rent cannot be evicted in the winter months, a kind of shame that we treat our poor people, regardless of their skin color, so callously. There are many things wrong with the system in France, I grant, but their idea of the role of government is to provide for and protect its citizens. I wish ours were.

There are some rays of hope. A long complacent press seems to be getting some balls. Ordinary citizens have directed much of the discourse in the blogosphere. New Orleans might recover.

I hope my country recovers its conscience.

mercredi, août 24, 2005

Antwerpen is Swiet and Seksie

On a stroll through the charming historic streets of Antwerp, I came upon this shop.

I now have two new words I can add to my Flemish vocabulary!

In case you need a hint as to what kind of shop it was, here is a small one. (Or rather, a large, inflatable pink one.)

And yes, folks, that is an edible bikini. You have to really, really like Sweet Tarts.

Or how about a nice warm, crusty loaf of bread?

There were many more delights inside, but I didn't want to be too much of a geek by going around giggling and snapping pictures of chocolate hoo-has, impressively faithful in their rendering as they might have been.

And to just roll with the theme here, it was on this trip to Belgium, famous for its mussels, that I finally understood why on earth the word 'mussel' is a synonym for hootchie in French. I don't know why I didn't get it before. I guess I got too hung up on how the shells fit into it. But as I was hungrily scooping out the actual tasty morsel from its shell, I looked at it closely, in all its flesh-colored, shell-less glory, and I finally got it.

And yeah, man, they are so right.

And now, a test:

You thought the same thing I did, didn't you? (I know you did.)

And just to cement the impression I am giving of myself as a total snickering teenager, peeping through keyholes at people getting undressed, here is another sign that cracked me up. This was found in the nice fancy hotel's elevator, letting guests know where to go to get all sweaty with strangers of both sexes in the hammam, jacuzzi, sauna and swimming pool.

Head on down to the 1st floor to where things are happenin' at the:

Get some Antwerp Action at the Astrid!

(snicker, snicker!)

mardi, août 16, 2005

Antwerpen is Uitstekend - Continued

Here is the town square, the Grote Markt, with City Hall and its statue of Brabo, the town legend. I have been told I am overly fond of photographing statues. This is my Truth, and it has been since I first unsteadily held a camera in my little grubby hands. I like statues. So there.

Second, here is my fabulous shot of something. I don't know who it is, but check out that photo!

Then, here is my oh-so-artistic shot of some of the buildings on the Grote Markt square.

Man, I love digital cameras. They do all the work for you, and you get to sit back and say, I did that!

Me, in awe of Brabo. Cause he's a statue.

More coming up, kids!

Antwerpen is Uitstekend!

Okay, I had to look that up, but it means "Antwerp is excellent." I don't speak Flemish/Dutch to save my life, but I had fun imitating the sounds and making up fake Dutch sounding words with lots of "j"s in them.

I just got back from this very cool, very pretty, very funky city only three and half hours away from Paris. And I took some pretty good photos, too, at least for me.

Let me start you off with this one.

Ronald says,

"Wilkommen in Antwerpen!"

And as a nice little segue, Belgium is famous for its golden delicious:


And now that you've had a snack, you wander over to the flower market, where you can buy, for the low, low price of 2 euros:


But, wait!

That's not all.

Antwerp is very hip, young, creative and fun. There are many art galleries where, should you so desire, you can buy sculptures with multiple noses.

And that, boys and girls, is your virtual tour of Antwerp for today. More photos and many more stories to come.

Stay tuned!

jeudi, août 11, 2005

Banksy is Ballsy


Since I'm not doing anything productive at work because it's August and there is no one here, I was browsing around the blogosphere and internet. I just discovered this really funny, really talented, really outrageous graffitti artist who goes by the name of Banksy. He's been causing a furor over in London, but check out what he just did on the controversial wall in the West Bank separating Palestine and Israel.....

You should really also have a look at his other work, which include fake exhibits he sneaks into galleries and museums such as the Tate and the Natural History Museum, including prehistoric proof of man's penchant for shopping, and the the evolution of the common sewer rat. The entomology exhibit of "Withus orwithoutus" is simply brilliant.

But I have to admit at being disturbed by the paintings he vandalised. Walls, advertisements, and the like are cool, but don't mess somebody else's work up, man.

Nevertheless, it kinda makes me want to take a Eurostar over to the Motherland.....

mercredi, août 10, 2005

Faces and Fesses* on M° Ligne 1

No one really talks on the Paris metro, except of course, the tourists. They anxiously stare at the line map until you'd think the thing would start fading from being looked at too much. They obsessively count, over and over, how many stations they have to go until their desired stop.


Then there are the ones who pile on in little groups, and the minute they are inside, a woman in shorts and tennis shoes will nervously ask,


I love that one, because, what's the big deal? If you miss it, just get off and ride back in the opposite direction. It's as if this newfangled idea of mechanical public transport is a big bad godless invention that we just don't quite trust enough to do what it says it's going to. Can't trust those Frenchies too much, ya know, they surrendered to the Germans in a heartbeat. So let's just check that line map again and see if it hasn't changed around on us, while we had our backs turned, those turncoats.

In general, the unspoken (literally) rule is that you must read something, or at the very least stare at your shoes, or those of others around you. Or stare out the window.

I prefer staring at the people. I've always had this problem - looking at people too much - and in school it used to get my honky ass in trouble.

"What the hell you starin' at? You need to go to da eye doctor?!"

I think the French equivalent of this, which I always imagine being uttered by an agressive teenage girl, is,

"Tu veux ma photo? Ca durera plus longtemps!"**

Thankfully, no one has said this to me yet, but I'm waiting to get it one of these days.

I just can't help it. I love faces. I fantasize about being a really good photographer and asking different people to pose for me. I want to capture them and look at them for hours. I want to keep their faces for myself.

In college, I had two whole walls entirely covered in faces I had found in magazines, interspersed with personal photos of me, my mother, my father, my cat, and the requisite Eiffel Tower. I remember especially loving a strawberry blonde model named Marie-Sophie Wilson who I thought looked like my mother when she was young.

I really loved the one with the statue. I was a touch melodramatic at the time. And really, really fucking cold.

When I was an exchange student in Paris long ago, there was a phenomenon of "les frotteurs", the men who would use the packed metro as an excuse to rub up against you from behind. I had thought it had gone out of style, but alas, no. Just the other morning, I caught a totally innocuous looking businessman in Coca-Cola bottle thick glasses looking at me on the platform. I tend to play dumb and ignore it, unless of course he is a hot businessman, in which case the ride to work is peppered with furtive glances and lightning quick smiles. But Jean Coca, as I'll call him, boarded the same car I did, and stood by me, holding on to the pole like the rest of us fanned out like a starfish from its center. I had my back to him and was reading my book when the train departed, and he used the movement to rub his finger ever so lightly over my butt. I calmly moved away from him to face him, continuing to read. He turned his face away and looked out the window, keeping that position until I got off.

I don't know why this doesn't piss me off more, but it just doesn't. I don't actively want my ass rubbed by strangers on my way to work, like some kind of good luck talisman, but I just don't think it's all that much of an insult. I kind of understand, actually. In the way that I want to own other people's faces, he wanted to touch my butt. So did Patrick Bruel, but that's another story for another day.

So in addition to staring at people and imagining myself to have some photographic talent that I most decidedly do not, I also entertain myself by pretending I am a casting director for a French period film. I imagine the young boy with the apple cheeks and bee stung lips in an 18th century royal valet costume, complete with tights, and I know, just know, that he's perfect for the role. Or I imagine the girl with piercing blue eyes and dark lashes in a peasant costume, sleeves rolled up and breasts pushed up in a fetching decolleté. I picture the pasty older man in a Louis XV wig, and the plump older woman scolding chickens in a dirt courtyard.

I think I watched way too many historical drama mini-series on A&E.

* fesses = butt cheeks (don't we have a better word for that?)

** "Do you want my photograph? It'll last longer!"

lundi, août 08, 2005

You Know It's August When....

There are two people on my floor at work. It's deserted and my phone has only rung twice. Unbelievable.

See, it's August, and in France, everyone goes on vacation in August. Because of this, the prices to go somewhere even two hours away are ridiculous. I am trying to save money since I will have to pay an arm and a leg for my French taxes next year. And to be perfectly honest, the rebel in me resists the pressure to go on vacation now just because the rest of the country does. To add to it, apparently if you go through a travel agency to book some package of train or plane plus hotel, you PAY A PENALTY for being single. Yep, folks, you read that correctly, because you are not currently fucking someone you want to spend more than 24 hours with in a locale other than your home or his/hers, you pay a penalty. Nice.

So, here I am, the only other assistant on the floor except for the assistant to the CEO. I've brought in some CDs to listen to, and I am going to try to learn some Russian, as I might be going there in September for a conference.

I'm trying to find little projects to do while avoiding the one I don't want to do at all - the filing. Have I mentioned how much I hate filing? Especially here. It's a literal pain. See, the file folders are not the kinds we are used to in the US, which hang in drawers. Here, they prefer filing cabinets where you hang the folders vertically, like this and as illustrated in the picture on the right. (I have a picture on my blog, people! I have a picture on my blog!) Problem is, the stupid folders have velcro on each side, so if you're doing a lot of filing, you are constantly scraping off a few layers of skin as you try to separate them.

At my wits end one day, my knuckles nearly bleeding, I asked a co-worker why on earth there was velcro on each side of the hanging folders.

"So they hang properly," she said, as if this was obvious to everyone.

Well, sure, as long as those folders look pretty.

So, in an effort to avoid shredding my knuckles raw, I am ordering office supplies. (Making sure to not order anything having to do with the act of filing, of course). This being France, and my being on the Executive floor, we have an espresso maker, with real cups and little spoons. So I decided to order some nice little products for the coffee maker, which we use not only for ourselves, but primarily to serve to people waiting to see our bosses. I don't know what I would do without coffee and Perrier to distract different bankers from the fact that my boss is 20 minutes behind schedule. Plus, the waitress in me sort of likes serving them nice frothly espressos with a smile.

When my friend worked on the floor, she had the whole shabang - hot chocolate, tea, little cookies, chocolate squares, and chocolate covered almonds. I noticed my boss has a sweet tooth, so I thought I'd order some chocolate squares to serve with the espressos, as well as more practical items like de-liming powder. I go to the website, which is chic and has nice Buddha Bar-like music. I order some extra spoons and some little almond biscuits, but when I try to order the dark and milk chocolate squares, it tells me they are temporarily unavailable. Disappointed, I click on the "more details" button. In nice fancy French, it says, "in order to provide you with the superior service and quality of products you expect from Nespresso, chocolate is not available for ordering in the summer months."

You know it's August in Paris when you can't even get chocolate delivered.

lundi, juillet 18, 2005

Le Bal des Pompiers / The Fireman's Ball

Now here is a French tradition I can really get into - The Annual Firemen's Ball.

The idea is simple. Each neighborhood's fire station opens their doors to the public on the 13th and 14th of July starting at 9PM and throws a humongous ball lasting til 5AM. DJ's are hired, lights are strung up, bars are set up, and firemen in each neighborhood gussy up in their uniforms for the local girls, serving them champagne and beer with a flirtatious smile. (Okay, minus the hats.)

Women talk about the Firemen's Ball with voices filled with hope, as in "So-and-so met her fireman at the Odéon Ball last year, and they're still together!" Parisian firemen are apparently the most sought-after, perhaps in part because it is the hardest brigade to get into, and the one that keeps their recruits in the best physical shape.

As a first hand witness, I can attest that the brave firemen of the 6th arrondissement and their champagne pouring skills are very well selected indeed.

I love the idea of a public service opening its doors and saying, come celebrate the National Holiday with us. Better yet, let me serve you alcohol in uniform! (Vive la France!)

Hell, let's get totally sloshed, dance to themes from Grease, Flashdance and Thriller, and while you're at it, get a load of my abs as I dance on top of the bar for you as a service to the community!

It's a nice little tradition that feels all historical and Old Europe-y. Think about it - a public ball in an enclosed courtyard, the eligible young men in uniform, the giggling girls - only the meddling mothers and Colin Firth were missing!

I wonder if there aren't a suspicious number of calls coming in for fires in young women's apartments on the 15th of July.....

mercredi, juillet 13, 2005


As you will see on the sidebar to the right, there is a link to a novel I started a while back. I abandoned it temporarily after discovering how much AOL was charging me. (Don't get me started on how much I hate them). So, long story short, I haven't gone on the site where the novel is hosted in quite a while. For some reason, today I did. I found in the comments section a message from an anonymous person who obviously knew me a long time ago. It got my imagination all fired up, and now I am absolutely determined to find the person who wrote it so I can turn off my head. Some references in there really got to me. I'll reproduce it here, in case that same anonymous person has somehow found my blog as well:

Anonymous said...

I believe this Baron is no good for you. You should be with me. I am a Prince and long to sweep you off your feet and take you to my country... the most beautiful country you could ever know. Come with me my love to the land of Laboritorio. We will drink fine wine and watch the sunsets from Laboritorio. Many years ago near a frozen lake on an Isthmus you said you'd come to Laboritorio. Will you join me now?

-M.S. Prince of Laboritorio
(if this makes sense to you, let me know I've found the right Pen-a-lope)

Penelope said...
To the Prince of Laboritorio,

You have the right Penelope.

Now how do I find you?

I'm dying here. Please put me out of my misery and reveal yourself. My head can't take this.

dimanche, juillet 10, 2005

The Color of Gold

"Gold is not a color!" Kate insisted, stomping her foot on the slightly muddy surface of the playground, "My father's a jeweller, and I should know."

I didn't really see what her father being a jeweller had to do with my answer of "gold" to the question of which crayon color was my favorite. I liked its different-ness, its metallic reflections, the way it would make a whole coloring book object shine when you pressed down hard enough, and filled up the princess' engagment ring or the prince's crown.

Kate said "I should know" to just about everything, and even though I had just recently met her, I was beginning to suspect that maybe she should, but that didn't mean she necessarily did. It was one of those adult phrases she liked to parrot, and inevitably it would stun most of our classmastes into silence for its brashness. No one dared respond that her father was not in fact a jeweller, but the very effeminate window dresser of a local jewelery shop. I suppose we must have sensed that do so would break some elementary school code of letting people have their illusions. There was Besty who thought she could fly, and would swoop around the halls and playground, her arms extended like a brave eagle. She would run and flap, and shout into the wind, and none of us was ever tempted to tell her that she was still on the ground. She also thought she was a character in a television show, and sometimes insisted on being called "Mrs. Marple." There was Bryon, who was obsessed with Spiderman, and would cover his notebooks, compositions and backpack with remarkably well drawn sketches of the superhero in different poses. No one pointed out to him that he was obssessed with a cartoon character. We avoided bursting each others' bubbles, there was an unspoken solidarity among the few white kids that it was hard enough to be a "honkey" without having your security blanket of an illusion being yanked from your little hands.

The day I met Kate was the first day of kindergarten, and I excitedly came home announcing I had made a "Chinese" friend. Petite and fragile, with a rather large head and ears that stuck out, Kate had worn her too short hair in pigtails tied so tight to the sides of her head that they actually pulled her eyes into slants.

In comparison, I was tall and blonde and outgoing, and I suppose I felt rather like I had stumbled upon a real live China doll I could carry around and protect, and play with until I got bored and left it sitting on a shelf somewhere in my room, remaining on the periphery of my conciousness, jogging a memory whenever I passed and caught its eyes.

To be continued....

mercredi, juillet 06, 2005

Ripped in Two

The other night, I fell asleep holding Stéphane's hand. I dreamt I was in the back of a car with the windows open, and a violent rainstorm was raging outside. It was night, and I was wearing the grey and black polka dotted silk scarf he had given me in Troyes to console me after getting a haircut I didn't like. I had burst into tears when the hairstylist had finished, thinking I looked too masculine, crushed at haven been given bangs without consent. Afterwards, he took me to the textile town's well-known outlet stores to buy his mother a Mother's Day present. Deciding against a colorful silk nightgown, we found an accessories store, where he saw me fingering the grey and black polka dots of the scarf. He bought it for me on the spot. I half wanted to tie it around my head in 1950's style to hide my hair, but decided to be brave instead. It was just hair, after all.

In the car in the dream, I had the scarf in my lap, and was once again fingering the polka dots, when suddenly, the wind picked up and the scarf was wrenched from my hands, flying out the open window and up into the stormy sky. I lunged for it, grabbing it with one hand and holding onto it with all my might, when there was a sudden clap of thunder and bolt of lightening, and the scarf ripped in two.

The next day, Stéphane told me he had seen his ex-girlfriend while I had been away in the States, and she had asked him to come back to her. A few days later, he did.

I haven't worn it since.

dimanche, juin 19, 2005

Stomach Belly Tummy

They say that English is more precise than French, but check this out.

A friend had a stomach ache, and I asked a mutual friend how she was doing.

"How is Arantxa? Does she still have mal au ventre?"

My friend looked at me askew, and corrected,

"She doesn't have mal au ventre, she has mal a l'estomac,"

"Stomach, belly, same thing," I said, with a wave of my hand.

"Tut! Tut!" she corrected in that tsk-tsk sort of way the French have, "it's not the same thing at all."

"Yes it is," I said, totally sure of myself. "If you have a stomach ache or a belly ache, there is no difference."

"No, no," she replied. "This part here is the estomac," she explained, touching right below her ribs, "where it's connected to the esophagus and leads to the small and large intestines. Your ventre refers more to your belly, where your fallopian tubes and uterus are. She would say she has mal au ventre if she had menstrual cramps, for example, but mal a l'estomac if it had something to do with digestion."

I swear she said this. I can't remember the last time someone actually mentioned their esophagus. But then again this friend has a touch of hypochondria, so she knows her shit. (Pardon the pun, really.)

It occured to me that in English, as far as I know, we do not make the distinction. Nor do we ever, as I can recall, touch right underneath our ribs to indicate digestion problems. In short, we have no clue about anatomy, or are much less fascinated by all things digestive than the French. A French person once even told me that laughing was good for the digestion. Which of course made me digest even more.

I even checked in the dictionary. "Ventre" is "stomach, tummy or belly" and "avoir mal au ventre" is "to have a stomach or tummy ache." Further down, "uterus or womb."

"Estomac" is translated exactly the same : "Stomach, tummy". "Avoir mal a l'estomac" is no different: "To have a stomach or tummy ache."

As a last resort, I called Arantxa herself.

"Okay, question," I said in Spanish, "do you have mal al estomago or mal al vientre?"

"Al estomago," she said, in a definitive way.

"So there's a difference in Spanish too?"

"Of course," she said, "you say estomago if it has to do with digestion and vientre if it's has to do with your period or things like that."

Okay. I stand corrected. We do not know where our stomachs are. We just bitch about cramps. I think we even touch the right part of our bodies for that one.

Chew on that for a while....

(Sorry, couldn't resist)

Ad infinitum

Your average French person uses these fancy Latin and Greek words to indicate different ailments and inflictions. I have only recently been able to decipher this part of office talk.

Someone recently suffered an "infarctus." From the expression on the face of the person telling me about it, and the use of the word "suffer" I figured it was serious, but I had no idea what part of the body it affected. I asked, of course, and learned that it is a "myocardial infarction" or a "coronary thrombosis". In other words, the brother done had a heart attack.

My favorite, because it seems that it is the next favorite subject to vacations, is "gastro" or "gastro enteritis." I figure this has to do with the estomac but is it a stomach flu? Or do you just have the runs? And exactly why do we talk about this so much?

Then, we have the ever popular "angine", which is a really scary sounding word for a sore throat. My dictionary informs me it is also means "tonsilitis and pharyngitis", which as far as I can tell, are scary English words for a damn sore throat.

But there is one instance in which I am less annoyed at the French scientific specificty. I remember when I learned the French word for Down Syndrome was "Trisomie 21". I was eating a cheeseburger with a French friend on our lunch break, and we saw a kid on the playground that obviously had the disorder. I explained that we called it Down Syndrome, and when he asked why, I ventured a guess that it was the guy who discovered its cause. He then told me the French called it "Trisomie 21."

Calling it Trisomie 21 couldn't be more exact or precise. With two words, you are informed and presumably reminded that:

- human chromosomes have been identified by number
- chromosomes come in pairs, and when they don't, things get funky
-when chromosome 21 has a third, extra copy, it causes a disorder that affects the shape of the skull, eyes, and nose, learning ability and muscle tone.

I prefer that to vaguely wondering who Mr. Down was.

dimanche, avril 10, 2005

Ask and You Shall Receive

I was looking through the window of a shoe store, trying to decide if the gold strappy pumps would go with the dress I was thinking of wearing to my sister's wedding, when I heard a woman's voice behind me.

"You have beautiful eyes, but they have sadness behind them."

I turned around to face a short Roma woman of indeterminate age. She could have been thirty; she could have been fifty. I smiled at her.

She studied my face and continued,

"There are two men who love you, but you are not with them. They are not available to you. You are an upfront person who appreciates honesty and directness in others. You are not interested in money, but in happiness and love. This is what I am sensing from you."

I didn't say a word but just looked at her. I had been thinking recently that it would be fun to have my fortune told, but didn't want to pay anyone for it. And here it was, offered up on a toney street where I had gone to buy a mini oven.

"Show me your love hand," she said.

"Which one is that?" I asked, cocking my head. She looked at me like she knew I knew.

"The left one," she said, taking it and pulling me gently aside out of the stream of passersby. I leaned against the building as she opened my hand.

She traced her finger down a line, "I see here you will live a long life. And here, I see you have suffered much in love." I watched her weathered nails move over my palm. I wondered what the passersby thought we were doing, crouching in the doorway next to the shoe shop. I remembered a game my mother would play with me when I was very little.

"You see these little pinks?" she would say, grabbing my wrists and bending my hands a little towards me, "you know what they're good for?" I would be near esctasy, as I knew what was coming next. She would bend down and place a kiss in each palm, clap my hands together and exclaim, "Nothin'!" It would make me squeal with joy.

The Roma woman continued, her eyes moving rapidly over my face as she said flatly, almost reciting, "This man, the one you love, he loves you but he is not available now. You were with him, but he couldn't show his feelings to you. You want to be with him. I can help you."

Here we are, I thought. I had been waiting for the catch.

"There is something blocking you. There is jealousy blocking you. You have been betrayed and hurt by jealousy in the past."

"I haven't been betrayed," I said, laughing.

"You didn't see it that way. You don't like to see the bad side. I see you will go far away and live in a foreign country."

I laughed again. "I am in a foreign country."

"I know," she countered, "but I mean somewhere far away."

I shrugged.

"I will help you clear away what is blocking you. Put three pieces of money in your hand."

Oh why not, I thought. If you can respond to some fake Dalai Lama email by sending it to ten friends so something good will happen, you can let a Roma woman do her thing on your hand.

"I don't have much," I said, leaning down to get my change purse out of my bag. I never have much cash. Some things never change.

"No, not coins," she said, "they bring bad luck. I mean bills."

"I only have one," I said, "and it's a fiver." I had already pulled it out, and she had already seen it.

"I need three bills on your hand to help you. You can get them from an ATM. I give them back to you. You keep them. Trust me."

You can withdraw money from an ATM in 20 euro increments. I calculated that would mean withdrawing at least 40 euros, and with the fiver, came to 45 euros. If she ran off with that, I would be very mad at myself. I'm all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, but I've been had before by the let-me-take-this-curse-off-you set. I didn't plan to fall for it again.

"I give you my word as a Gypsy," she insisted. I wondered for a brief moment if she was being ironic.

I clasped her hand in mine and smiled warmly at her.

"No, thank you," I said, "I know you want to help me, but I'll take my chances."

"I can free up what is blocking this man from being with you," she said.

If only it were that simple.

"We are not witches, you know, it is not evil what I do," she tried.

As if this were the problem.

"No," I said, shaking my head slowly.

"Why not? Don't you want to be with him? I can help you."

"I don't want to be disappointed," I said.

"It will work, believe me." I didn't have the heart to tell her what I really meant.

If she had stolen my money, it would have really depressed me.

I believe if you get to the heart of people like her, ones that aren't used to being trusted or approached or touched, if you acknowledge their humanity, they will rise to it. And all kinds of walls and weights and negativity will fall away.

"No," I repeated, "I will let things happen as they may. But thank you."

"How about giving me a little something for reading your palm, then," she said, eyeing the five euro bill I had folded in my fingers.

I searched her face. I looked deep into her eyes and held them. I am no fool, I thought, and neither are you.

"Here," I said, placing the bill in her hand and closing her fingers over it.

"Be well," she said.

"You too," I replied, and stepped into the homewares store to buy an oven.

The right size to make meals for one.

lundi, avril 04, 2005

I Am A Goddess

It's official. I rock.

Why? Aside from being unquestionably hot and a near-genius, it is because I DROVE A CAR IN THE CHARLES DE GAULLE ROUNDABOUT. You know, the one with the Arc de Triomphe in the middle? The one you say to yourself you will never drive through whenever you are in it as a passenger?

Yes, moi, little moi, drove through it for a total of twenty seconds of screaming and being guided by a Spanish friend who kept pointing wildly at the car in front of us saying, "Just follow him!"

Not only that, but I rented this hot little convertible for a cheap price on a SUNDAY in Paris without even knowing that it was hot or convertible. I know crap about cars, so when faced with two choices on the rental internet site, I chose the one named for the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a soul. See how clever I am?

All of this because I had received an invitation to a lunch and open house for a chateau outside of Paris. I had inquired about it for an upcoming financial seminar I am supposed to organize.

I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. It would have been nice to make it a romantic getaway, but lately I am about as good at romance as I am at reading maps.

So how else to get to a chateau an hour and a half away from Paris but a rental car and a good friend as co-pilot?

So Alice and I set off at 11 AM this morning, armed with maps, movie-star scarves and sunglasses, a blanket and picnic basics in case the whole thing sucked and we decided to escape to a nice little field somewhere.

It was a gorgeous day, and so were we in our little Ka, the top down and our scarves flapping arrestingly. The handsome invitation said the lunch started at noon, and never the first to arrive, we estimated if all went well, we would make it there by 1 PM. The rental car was due back in Montparnasse at the latest 5 PM or we would pay for it twice.

We took the wrong way a total of five times, almost ran out of gas once, and couldn't get the CD player to work.

But we made all sorts of other discoveries.


  • If you take the wrong highway within thirty minutes of leaving the city, don't fret. An eclair break in the parking lot of a suburban shopping center does a world of good.

  • If you think you should stop for gas or to pee, by all means, do. You will be much, much happier.

  • If you end up waiting to do both, you will risk having to pee behind a building in front of the entire countryside while being entirely too conspicuous in a move-star get up of scarf and sunglasses. You will then risk being so flustered at almost running out of gas in the middle of nowhere that you cannot figure out how to take off the gas tank cap, which is located on the other side of the car from the pump, and will have to enter your bank card code twice because you have taken too long to yank the hose over to the driver's side, all while a line of ten cars of local villagers is waiting behind you.

  • If you have endangered your life by pissing off local villagers in your fancy city car, get out the chocolates you brought along and dig in while tearing out of the parking lot as fast as you can. Go in any direction.

  • Often times, detours for emergency gas can actually put you on the most direct route to your destination.

  • If you arrive at 2:15 PM for lunch at a high-end chateau that wants your company's business, the valet will simply smile at you and show you the way.

  • If there no place to sit at the lovely tables set out on the lawn around the tent with the delicious food and wine, a cat hair covered blanket that you so smartly brought with you makes do nicely on the grass.

  • Freshly-picked strawberries and sweetened sour cream is a lovely accompaniment to a glass of Macon-Villages on a sunny Sunday in the country.

  • You might discover that a seemingly unremarkable chateau is the place you vow to spend at least one terribly passionate weekend with someone very dear to you, if not use it for your wedding - if you ever get married again.

  • Laying on a cat hair covered blanket in the sun in the countryside at 3:30 PM with a good friend and a glass of Macon-Villages are not ideal conditions to make you actually leave in time to get your rental car back to Montparnasse before 5 PM, and you probably won't even care.

  • If your CD player doesn't work, and you're in a really cool convertible car with a good friend on a sunny day, you can belt out Edith Piaf songs while gesturing dramatically into the wind.

  • ALWAYS stop at that gas station ahead to pee. Even if you don't have to yet. You will.

  • If you are stuck in Paris traffic jams with the clock ticking away to paying double for your rental car, the last thing you want to think about is how much you really have to pee. And how much money you would pay just to be able to pee. Right then and there.

  • If you turn in your rental car an hour late, but you both look too adorable with your scarves and sunburnt noses, the guy behind the desk won't even charge you. And will even let you use the employee bathroom.

  • If you manage to drive in Paris and the countryside, get lost and find your way, almost run out of gas, but find a service station in the middle of nowhere, almost miss lunch but eat and drink well, get cool gift bags just for showing up, croon long-forgotten songs into the wind, and avoid paying for the rental car twice, you will feel on top of the world. After you pee.

  • Accept random invitations in the mail that at first you think might be too much trouble. There could be a little magic lurking behind them.

Little Miss Perfect

The other evening, after getting lost in a two block area of the Marais that I had only left a mere three hours before, I ended up all the way in Republique and had to take a taxi to the restaurant where I was to meet my friends for dinner. I arrived an hour late, embarrassed, flustered and blistered. Setting down my packages, which spilled onto the floor and trapped my chair into a position that wouldn't let me sit down (it was that kind of day), I was introduced to Shania, an acquaintance of one my friends at the table. A young Bangladeshi-American woman in her early twenties, she smiled smugly at me as I fumbled around trying to sit down. I had been warned in advance that she was a little stuck on herself, mainly for being the first female from GA Tech to win a full scholarship to Cambridge in mechanical engineering. I settled in for the show.

For a full two hours, we were treated to an endless string of less than subtle references to her travels around the world (Paris, London, LA, NYC, DC) all which were dropped strategically into the conversation as if she knew them intimately, even to the point of calling Paris her "second home." She mentioned speaking French "with no mistakes" and even added that people from the Southern US speak French so horribly that she often asks them to stop. I stared into my glass and cleared my throat. We learned that she ran several miles a day, was an expert coxwain, and spoke Spanish to her students in an underpriveledged neighborhood of DC. I was half expecting to hear she was a gourmet cook, had published a book, and had a pilot's license, but I suppose she didn't have enough time to get to that. Glaringly absent was anything that would have been a bit too close to what I imagined were some rather raw nerves, such as calling Dhaka her "second home" or being fluent in Hindu, Urdu or Bangla. Much to my amusement, her mother was with her, and often mentioned "the village" and even, to my delight, regaled us with a story in graphic detail of having a large mole on her chin removed that had started to sprout hairs. Thank goodness for mothers.

Shania put McKinsey consultants to shame for knowing and doing it all. Personally, I prefer people who have fucked up a little in life.

I don't think I was alone. As we were leaving, she stopped to buy a ticket for the metro from the distributor. Waiting by the turnstiles, it was obvious she was having trouble, but not one of us moved to help her.

dimanche, mars 20, 2005

Spring Has Sprung

You know it's spring when:

  • Every other person you see walking down the street in front of the Jardin de Luxembourg has either a bunch of daffodils, a silver bucket full of daffodils, or a daffodil in their buttonhole. In other words, daffodils.

  • The cafes and restaurants finally take down the plastic sidings of the patios and open their doors and windows to the outside, making the whole thing into a terrace.

  • You have a sudden desire to buy an ice cream cone and eat it while humming and lazily strolling down the street.

  • The bakeries and chocolate shops have bell shapes in the window. Did you know that the French custom for Easter is not a bunny who leaves goodies in baskets, but the anthropomorphized (no lie) BELLS OF ROME which fly through the sky and leave chocolates for lucky little non praticing Catholic children? It could be cute, but, um, it's just sort of weird instead.

  • The sky is no longer grey.

  • You go to a discount store and buy pretty things you don't need, like coasters and decorative plates.

  • Some people are actually smiling for no apparent reason.

  • The "Grands Magasins" such as Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marche put up ads announcing the season is here, showing girls on bicycles with lots of unstockinged legs exposed to the wind.

  • The ice skating rink in front of the Hotel de Ville has been dismantled, and is replaced by hundreds of roller skaters and skateboarders.

  • You suddenly feel a desire to open the windows and clean your whole apartment on a Sunday morning when you like neither Sundays, mornings nor cleaning.

Oui! Spring is here!

dimanche, mars 13, 2005

Taxi! Taxi!

I love taxi drivers in Paris - they talk, they explain, they ask questions, they tell you stories, they make you laugh.

This is why I find them so charming - if you engage them, you're in for a pleasant ride. And you are practically guaranteed to learn something you didn't know.

One driver did a whole comic routine imitating a Chinese man trying to speaking French. He had me clutching my stomach and gasping for breath. Had he left it there, it would have been easy to dimiss as an example of French cultural arrogance or racial stereotypes, but instead, he followed his skit with a very well-informed analysis of Chinese versus French culture, complete with concrete examples of Mandarin and Cantonse phrases, their various nuances, and why this affected the way the Chinese man had expressed himself. We talked of the Chinese New Year being the year of the chicken and why sales were slow of chicken figurines in China. It's a Madarin word for prostitute. The French taxi driver, a rather unremarkable looking man in his 40's, spoke Chinese. You have to admire a country whose educational system churns out so many well-rounded educated people, even if they end up being taxi drivers.

One bitterly cold evening, we caught a taxi and gratefully settled into the warmth of the back seat. Curious how cold it might be, Stephane leaned forward to check the display panel : it read 20 degrees celsius (about 80 degrees Farenheit). He turned to the driver, a young African man, and said,

"Are you sure your themometer is working properly?"

The driver looked, and burst out with melodious, resonant, rich laughter. It was of course gauging the temperature inside the taxi, which we all knew. His laughter was so infectious, so alive, almost giggly in its alternance of low and high tones, that we laughed at absolutely everything that was said from that point on until we reached my apartment door, where as he pulled up behind the Jaguar belonging to the restaurant owners next door, I said,

"Right here behind my car will be just fine." More peals of bell-like laughter. He wiped the tears from his eyes. We tipped him generously.

Another time, I got into a taxi driven by a younger North African man, who proclaimed a weakness for customers "spoiled by Mother Nature" (i.e. beautiful), who explained that he had become a taxi driver after losing his job as a computer programmer. He described the exam a driver has to pass in order to be qualified. They must learn over 40 different routes by heart. They must fill out blank maps of the streets of Paris, noting clearly which ones are one-ways, and dead-ends. They are quizzed on the quickest route from, say, Republique to the Marais. He claimed it was the hardest exam he had ever taken, including the baccalaureat.

They don't mind telling you what they think of soccer teams, politics, ethnic groups, or world events. They will tell you about their homes, their left behind villages in Algeria, Senegal, and Portugal. They even give away some secrets of the trade. One driver explained to me how every taxi has a lit up display in its back window indicating when the driver started his rounds and how much time is left on his shift. It starts with the date, then the time their shift started, and the time of the last pick up they can accept.

They have a weakness for young mothers with babies. I have known at least two who broke the rules and either accepted a check when they weren't supposed to, or picked up a young mother as a fare after their shift had ended simply because it would be unacceptable not to help a young mother. Pregnant women in their last month, however, are to be avoided, as they might suddenly go into labor and ruin the taxi's interior. A small enough window between compassionate gallantry and indifferent practicality.

Far from what you would expect, though, they are not hardened to people or emotions. Recently, after a rather emotional parting, I found myself crying in the back seat of a taxi on my way home late on a Wednesday night. The driver did not say a word until he stopped to let me out.

"Pardon me, Mademoiselle," he said hesitantly, "but why are you crying?"

"I just said good-bye to someone I love," I replied.

"It's none of my business," he said with a smile and a wave of his hand, "but don't you worry. It will all work out. Just give it some time, and then it will all be solved with a phone call, you'll see."

I think I even believe him.