Saturday, April 9, 2011

Faire le bilan (taking stock)

Tomorrow I will have been here a month, so this seems like a good time to take stock. In case it hasn't been clear from the individual posts to date, I've been having the time of my life ever since I arrived here in Paris. I have the general schema for my little excursions down by now:

  • find a language school

  • find a suitably located apartment to rent

  • make the appropriate arrangements on the home front

  • make the necessary mental adjustments to overcome my inherent hermit tendencies

  • get up and go

  • figure out the right length of time to stay (typically 2 to 4 months)

  • persuade friends to come visit, once I'm established
Sometimes it's the fourth item on the list that can be the hardest. This time, #3 was more complicated, because of having to get ready for the painters at home, but with help from Brad and Jay, things actually went very smoothly. But there's always an element of chance in these little excursions of mine - there was the nightmare in Santiago, when it seemed as if everything was conspiring against me, and I had to beat an early retreat. Here in Paris, it's been the exact opposite - everything fell into place, and both the school and the apartment have far exceeded my expectations.

But, as always, it's the little things that make a difference. There's the unexpected charm of the people here - in all the little everyday interactions that one has, everyone has been extraordinarily helpful, and just plain nice. There's the unexpected delight of French television - I'm not saying the quality is necessarily always that great - but somehow I enjoy it tremendously. For instance, the semi-final and final episodes of "Top Chef, France" kept me riveted each time for an entire evening (both shows lasted for over 3 hours, and were superb). Or last night's "Un Tresor dans la Maison", which was a fascinating cross between "Hoarders" and "Antiques Roadshow". Or the little Spuds McKenzie dog on the French version of "Wheel of Fortune", who dances excitedly whenever a contestant wins the car, or vacation in an exotic locale - it's very weird, but also totally hilarious.

It's also been highly satisfying to notice that I'm learning French at a much faster rate than I learned Spanish - experience with the latter is obviously helping out a great deal with the former. Finally, there is Paris itself, which is everything I had hoped for, and more, especially now that spring weather has arrived. One feels incapable of conveying its particular charm adequately in a blog. But blessed to be here, and to have the chance to enjoy it.

I'll finish this post by including a paragraph lifted shamelessly from an e-mail I sent Paddy last week, which captures my excitement about being here:

Just got back from the movies and dinner with some of my more congenial classmates - Juerg, a charming lawyer from Berne; Nicola, an English woman who is studying French and Russian back in London; Joyce from Sydney, who in addition to speaking almost perfect French, runs marathons in her spare time and will be running the Paris marathon next Sunday, and Karen, an altogether delightful woman from Sweden . The conversation, entirely in French, ranged from what to eat when training for marathons and ultra-marathons, to the role of working women in each of our various countries, to the virtues of Flann O' Brien and Colm Toibin, to the difficulties of translating Roddy Doyle into Russian. In other words, a perfect illustration of why one needs to get up off one's a$$ and out in the world every so often.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Geek's Corner (1)

Welcome to the inagural post in what I hope will become a recurring feature of this new blog. Though I realise its appeal is unlikely to be as broad as that of, say, Operation Baked Goods, I am confident that it will appeal to at least some small fraction of my readers. You know who you are.

Vocabulary lesson

Croque-monsieur: a toasted ham and cheese sandwich.
Croque-madame: a toasted ham and cheese sandwich topped by a fried or poached egg.

Croque-à-cheval: the name for a croque-madame in certain parts of Normandy.
Croque-mort: an undertaker.

Given that one sees the first items on the list above regularly abbreviated as "crocs", it is hard not to conjure up an image of an undertaker as the crocodile of death.

Yesterday I finally figured out that "le Marais" means "the marsh". As a Corkman, I am ashamed not to have figured this out sooner. (The Irish name for Cork, "Corcaigh", also means "marshy place".)

Finally, you may be interested to know that the character Tom Marvolo Riddle from the Harry Potter books is known in French as Tom Elvis Jedusor. This is, of course, to preserve the anagram:

I am Lord Voldemort = Je suis Voldemort

Jedusor is also a phonetical play of words on the French "jeu du sort", a game of chance.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hilarious Misunderstanding

Another fun day of classes. Though I do confess to having skipped out of the second half of the grammar workshop, because the pluperfect tense has never given me difficulty in any language - it is always entirely regular, and the rules about when to use it could be grasped by an intelligent monkey.

So I had to me the hairs cut instead. No more expensive in Paris than in S.F. As the lady was cutting it/them, there was much amusement at the reception desk of the salon, where a prospective customer had brought in her laptop, and was exchanging mysterious 6-digit codes with the owner. They would enter in a code, guffaw uncontrollably, then try a different one. Finally, the lady cutting my hair explained to me that these were different color codes. Perhaps understandably, I immediately started to jabber on about how (paint) colors in the U.S. all had these poetic names named for nature or food, like eggshell white, oatmeal, peach, or avocado. Which led to a minute or so of hilarious misunderstanding, until it finally clicked in my head that they must be talking about hair colors.

I must confess that I do enjoy a good hilarious misunderstanding - it's one of the little pleasures of travelling abroad, and this was my first halfway decent one here in Paris, even if it was more contextual than linguistic. It wasn't quite as amusing as the hair-related h.m. that ensued in Spain, when I walked into the barber's and informed him confidently that I wanted him to cut to me the horses, because it had been two months since I had had to me the horses cut.

But still, one takes one's amusement where one finds it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Operation Baked Goods

Former readers of MAINLY ON THE PLAIN may be wondering if I intend to incorporate one of that blog's more popular features, OPERATION BAKED GOODS, into the current blog.

After giving the matter some consideration, I have reluctantly decided against doing so. There are two reasons for this. The first borders on the obvious. What would be the point? Since, unlike the Spanish, the French have no apparent objection to the use of butter (in copious amounts) in the production of their baked goods, the deliciousness of the result is never in question. So devoting blog space to document something that everyone already takes for granted, namely that French pastries are among the best on the planet, seems pointless, and possibly obnoxious. It smacks of gloating.

The second reason is that, in July of last year, I finally joined a local gym in San Francisco, where I made the acquaintance of Maggie, who became my personal trainer. Maggie is extraordinarily good at her job*, and during the months that followed, we have had many delightful conversations on the subject of food choices, wise and otherwise. It is with great regret that I came to the (obvious) conclusion that carrying out an extensive local investigative campaign on behalf of OPERATION BAKED GOODS would, necessarily, conflict with the more deserving objective, which might be termed OPERATION WISE FOOD CHOICES.

Because I aspire to many more years of healthy blogging from assorted foreign destinations, in the end the correct decision was obvious. I have to vote in favor of OPERATION WISE FOOD CHOICES. For related reasons, I have decided to take advantage of the special "trimestre" rate on offer, and to join the local Club Med gym just two blocks away, for the remainder of my time here in Paris. After all, when I return to San Francisco at the end of June, I can hardly waddle into my first session with Maggie looking like a total bloated mess, now, can I?

* she is what the French might call "une femme formidable".

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why I Loathe Zach Braff

Questions have been raised about the loathworthiness of Zach Braff, causing me to resurrect my first online rant on the topic. It is, obviously, just that - a rant, no more, no less. As far as Nick Hornby is concerned, there are other works of his that I enjoyed a lot. I have highlighted the material pertinent to my loathing of Z.B. in boldface. Possibly I have way too much time on my hands and really should go to bed now.

High FidelityHigh Fidelity by Nick Hornby

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Nick Hornby writes about losers and makes them lovable. But not this time. I couldn't stand the self-pitying little git, his loser wanker record store buddies, nor their ridiculous fracking lists. Reading this book felt like being trapped in an elevator with the pathetic Scrubs douchebag (Zachy McWhinerson, or whatever his fracking name is) for an entire weekend. You know the type - the constant puppy need for the approval of every critter on the planet, all the time. It might seem like a charming vulnerability, but don't be fooled. It actually signals a pathological narcissist whose solipsism and incessant neediness will bleed you dry.

I know, I know. Many fine books have been written about unlikable characters. Anyway, it's about the character's emotional growth. Etc. etc.

All true. But when you find the central character so annoying that just reading about him makes you twitch, it's probably time to switch to another book.

Your mileage may vary. For all I know, you're the kind of person who watches marathon "Scrubs" reruns. If so, you'll probably love this book.

View all my reviews


In the U.S., the phrase "white bread" has distinctly pejorative connotations. One thinks of the blandness of suburbia, the insufferable whininess of Zach Braff ... Actually, never mind, one tries - if one is sensible - never to think of the appalling blot on the culture that is Zach Braff.

Not so here in France, home of ze baguette. Here one discovers that white bread is one of life's eternal pleasures. In my neighborhood, the best baguettes are found in the bakery section of the local Monoprix supermarket. There are 4 daily baking times, and if you are lucky, you might just find yourself arriving when a fresh batch is being taken, piping hot, from the oven. So piping hot, in fact, that you have to carry your freshly purchased baguette home under your armpit, to avoid burning your fingers.

Another fine baguette option is available at the rival supermarket down the street. Their baguettes are not made on-site, but are delicious nonetheless. The company that makes them is called "Croustifrance", which - I think you will agree - is a fine name in every respect. In between episodes of slathering on copious amounts of butter and strawberry jam this morning, I noticed, slightly to my chagrin, that Croustifrance is headquartered in Ghent. A town which, last time I checked, is most definitely situated in Belgium.

What gives, Croustifrance? Though your product is no less delicious, this smacks ever so slightly of deception. I feel like I did when I discovered that the "best cheese comes from California cows" ads were all filmed in New Zealand. What ever happened to the concept of truth in advertising?

Today being the first Sunday of the month, it is the day when entrance to all of the Paris museums is free. We were reminded of this fact at least 4 times at school on Friday, and exhorted to be out there early, to beat the clamoring throngs. I find this logic baffling. If ever there was a good reason to stay home from the museums without feeling any guilt, surely the knowledge that each and every one will be thronged to capacity with the huddled, freebie-loving, masses must be considered a valid argument.

I am not a complete sloth, however. I do plan to join some of my more congenial classmates for a trip to the movies later this thundery Paris afternoon. Rumor has it that the film may even be in French.