Saturday, June 4, 2011

Le Crépuscule des dieux (Valhalla at the Bastille)

Twilight of the Gods was pretty damned good. It started at 6pm and we got out at midnight. It was opening night, so there were lots of bravos for the singers. Then the producer, set designer and costume guy came on stage and the whole opera house erupted into the most amazing chorus of boos I've ever experienced. It was hilarious. But it was definitely a partisan crowd -- they obviously didn't care at all for Siegfried (who did seem pretty weak, as best as I could judge), but loved Hagen (Hans-Peter Konig), who got spectacular ovations after every act (you could see that the guy who played Siegfried was totally jealous). Also, Sophie Koch, the woman who played Brunnhilde's sister Waltraute, was extremely popular with the crowd, but I think this may have been a case of 'local girl makes good', as she was born and trained in Paris. I don't see how anyone could sing Brunnhilde and not collapse by the end of the evening - she does pretty much all of the heavy lifting in the opera, but when you think that it's 4.5 hours of music and she's onstage for almost all of it, it's phenomenal. But Katarina Dalayman took it all in stride - she was amazing.

The production was kind of minimalist, in an avant-garde kind of way -- everyone wore modern dress, which was a little disconcerting at times. Siegfried wore a business suit and trenchcoat throughout, and the Tarnhelm was just this weird gold scarf that he would use to cover his face. All of the other special effects were done via this enormous semi-transparent video screen that took up half the stage, on which they could project images, but through which you could still see the singers behind the screen. It worked well for some aspects, mainly those involving fire and water. But some of the effects were simply ludicrous -- Siegfried's death scene, for instance, which goes on for about 6 or 7 minutes, as the orchestral accompaniment plays. They attempted to project a kind of 'stairway to heaven' effect on the video screen, but any kind of 3-D perspective was completely missing, and they had the Siegfried image who was climbing up the screen decked out in a kind of late 70's "Abba at their worst" white outfit, with this bizarre horned helmet. The resulting effect was like watching a cancerous moth slowly try to make his way up your Venetian blinds. It was ridiculous, as was the whole Valhalla crumbling bit, which they did by having very inferior video-game Vikings show up on the screen to be shot by a hand with a pistol in the bottom right corner. People were just closing their eyes to listen to the music at that point.

Nonetheless, the whole thing was pretty awesome. The music makes it all work, somehow, despite the length. A lot of mixed-up archetypes, that don't make too much logical sense, but are still resonant, which makes me think the whole cycle will be lots of fun, when I see it in San Francisco. "Rheingold" is on June 28th, a week after I leave Paris -- the entire cycle runs from that Tuesday through the following Sunday.

The Bastille opera house is terrific - I was in row 25 in the parterre (what we would consider the orchestra section in the U.S.) and it was ideal. The seat in front of me was magically vacant, the only one that I could see in the whole orchestra section. So I had an excellent view. It was hilarious during the intermissions to watch people break out the little picnics they had brought, as they fortified themselves for the subsequent acts.

It's around noon on Saturday, so I am headed out to the Musee Guichee (Indian and Asian art) for the afternoon. Later I hope to catch up with Gabriella for one last drink before she leaves for the U.S. tomorrow (Nancy left on Thursday). But when I get home, there's still the 180-page program book to leaf through. It was another 15 Euros added to the already steep ticket price (which you can probably decipher on the photo above). But nobody said culture was cheap!

A demain !

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Brief Update

Today is a public holiday here in France (the feast of the Ascension), so we have the day off school. It was nice to be able to sleep in, but since it's a glorious day outside, I will shortly be headed out in search of a little fresh air. Later on, I will have homework to do, and a video to watch (Jacque Tati's "Mon Oncle", borrowed from the collection at school), but it's time to get out of the apartment for a while, once this post is finished.

Last night I went with Ellen, a former Genentech colleague, to a concert in the small amphitheater at the Opera Bastille:

The entire program was devoted to piano pieces by Schubert, two sonatas (both in A major, one early, one late) and the Wanderer Fantasy. The pianist was terrific. The whole concert was great, particularly because I had worked on one of the sonatas while taking lessons in graduate school. As an encore, she played an Impromptu that I have also worked on sporadically, so I was a very happy camper indeed. But then, one would have to be a robot not to be moved by Schubert's piano music.

School continues to be both fun and rewarding. We changed teachers on Monday, and the new teacher, Manuel, is excellent. Lots of writing assignments this week, so I've been spending my evenings with the dictionary, trying to master the art of writing "a la francaise". The main trick seems to be arranging everything into little argument triads. The major difficulty is to find appropriate connecting phrases so that one ends up with a style that is fluid, not choppy. This problem of achieving syntactical fluidity is one of the hardest things in every language I've studied to date, and I will return to it in a future post.

Speaking of returns, I have been giving some serious thought to the question of what to do next, and a tentative plan is taking shape. I've enjoyed my time in Paris so much that I'm thinking seriously of coming back in the fall for another stint. Possibly for about 10 weeks, roughly from early September to mid-November. I've talked to the school director about it and have contacted the owner of this apartment, to see if it might be available again in that timeframe. I'm hoping to reach a decision on this before I return to the U.S.

But now it's time to go outside and enjoy the sunshine on this fine Ascension Thursday. The Botanical Gardens? The Jardin du Luxembourg? I suspect there are no bad decisions among the options.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Un troussage de domestique

Un troussage de domestique

This is the breathtakingly arrogant, dismissive, phrase used by Jean-Francois Kahn, one of France's best-known intellectuals of the left (co-founder of the leftist weekly magazine "Marianne" and no relation to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, though a longstanding friend of his wife, Anne Sinclair), to describe what he "felt sure must have happened" in that hotel suite in Times Square.

The phrase can be roughly translated as "lifting the skirt of a domestic", evoking the kind of "droit du seigneur" behavior of those golden days when the right of the (male) ruling class to engage in unconsensual sex with the help went unquestioned.

I am pleased to relate that this particular remark triggered a firestorm of criticism here in France, to the extent that this week's edition of "Marianne" contains a blathering, self-pitying column by Monsieur Kahn, wherein he claims to have been the victim of a witch-hunt, and - sadder, but one hopes a little bit wiser - announces his retirement from writing his weekly column for the magazine.

The misogynistic arrogance of the the caste that constitutes France's "intellectual elite" is, as I said, just breathtaking. There was also the public pronunciation by former culture minister, Jacques Lang, to the effect of "why jail a man, it's not as if anyone was killed", not to mention the nauseating special pleading of douchebag Henri-Bernard Levy, complaining that the American justice system was corrupt, because of its failure to recognize the special status of his VIP buddy, Strauss-Kahn.

It all makes me sick to my stomach.

Google-translate misses the point as usual, rendering the phrase "un troussage de domestique" as "of a sweeping domestic". But then it translates "droit de seigneur" as "law lord", so what can you expect?

Chez Picard

Let's get one thing clear from the outset. This is not a post about this gentleman.

Not that I don't think Patrick Stewart is talented - I have seen him in a BBC televised version of "Macbeth" and he was terrific. I just can't abide Star Trek, in any of its incarnations (with the notable exception of last summer's film, which was pretty amusing).

Instead, I would like to draw your attention to a venerable French institution, the Picard chain of food stores. Here is a picture of a typical interior:

Note the oddly antiseptic nature of the place, strangely reminiscent of an operating theater. This is because the only food sold in a Picard store is frozen food. But if you immediately think of fish fingers and frostbitten, freezer-burnt, frozen peas, think again. We are talking about France here, folks, and the one thing the French will not tolerate is inferior food. So the inventory at Picard is heavily biased toward high-quality gourmet items. A google search yields the following condensed history of the chain:

Picard’s history dates back to the 1920s when the Picard family delivered ice in the Seine and Marne Region. After World War II, as technology progressed, they began delivering frozen food. In 1973 Annand Decelle purchased the home delivery business and created Picard. The company began placing its name on products 12 years later. In 1998 the chain adopted the logo that it has used ever since: a snow flake symbolizing the world of frozen freshness and, within it, a little orange-colored diamond symbolizing life. Carrefour bought the operation in 1994. Ten years later it was sold again, this time to a company called BC Partners. Like other freezer centers, Picard sells more than 1,000 items. Each year Picard adds more than 150 products and removes items that do not meet a need.

There are apparently more than 800 Picard stores throughout France. This afternoon I stopped off at one on my way home from the Opera Bastille box office. Imagine my delight when I found the following lurking in one of those surgically sterile freezers,

a treat I hadn't come across since the balmy days of autumn in Madrid in 2009.

Naturally, I couldn't resist. So I filled my little basket with a 4-pack of delicious citrussy treats and a few other microwaveable frozen goodies and headed to the checkout. The checkout lady then spent 5 minutes trying to persuade me to invest in a special "thermal" bag, to protect my purchases on the way home. Even though I explained to her that I lived at most a 7-minute walk away, she was visibly distressed by my failure to buy the special insulating bag. It was as if I were inviting the deadly Salmonella bacteria into my gut right there in front of her, and she was powerless to stop me. A friend had warned me about this peculiarly French obsession with preserving the temperature of frozen food items (the special thermal bags are ubiquitous in regular supermarkets as well), and it was hilarious to experience it first-hand.

But sometimes you just have to live dangerously. In fact, as a little reward for finishing this post, I think I may just have to indulge in one of those frozen lemon treats right now. Even though I know that they spent at least 7 minutes at ambient temperature earlier in the afternoon. If this should turn out to be my last post, you will know why!

At least there are no cucumbers in the house.

Ragnarök (Twilight of the Gods)

Today, on the grounds that one's only lasting regrets in life are the things one fails to do, I decided to dip into my little treasure hoard back in San Francisco to buy a ticket to the Opera Bastille for this coming Friday evening:

The featured opera is Le Crépuscule des dieux (Twilight of the Gods), which clocks in at around 4 hours and 30 minutes, so at least I will get my money's worth. One might reasonably object that seeing the final opera of the ring cycle here in Paris will ruin the suspense when I go to see all four operas in SF later in June, but I think we all know that things don't exactly end happily. I sincerely hope that at least 10 Euros of the obscenely high ticket price have been set aside by the Opera Bastille to provide some decent special effects -- the destruction of Valhalla, not to mention the Rhine overflowing its banks to quench Brunnhilde's funeral pyre, shouldn't be a cheapskate affair. There needs to be some pizzazz, in addition to the vocal pyrotechnics. Needless to say, I will be devoting some significant amount of time between now and Friday to fireproofing my outfit. One wonders if they will be deactivating the sprinkler system in the building for the duration of the performance. It's all very exciting, and I promise to report back in full after the event.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Geek's Corner 13 : French Expressions Involving Pussycats

Acheter chat en poche : to buy a pig in a poke
Appeler un chat un chat : to call a spade a spade
Avoir des yeux de chat : to see well in the dark
Donner sa langue au chat : to give up (e.g. on a riddle)
C'est de la bouillie pour les chats : it's nonsense
C'est du pipi de chat : it tastes like dishwater
C'est toi le chat ! : you're "it"!
Un chat à neuf queues : a cat-of-nine-tails
Un chat de gouttière : an alleycat
Chat échaudé craint l'eau froide : once bitten, twice shy
Le chat parti, les souris dansent : when the cat's away, the mice will play
Un chat retombe toujours sur ses pattes : a cat always lands on its feet
Les chiens ne font pas des chats : the apple doesn't fall far from the tree
À bon chat, bon rat : tit-for-tat
Avoir d'autres chats à fouetter : to have other fish to fry
Avoir un chat dans la gorge : to have a frog in one's throat
S'entendre comme chien et chat : to fight like cats and dogs
Il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat : nothing worth making a fuss over
Ecriture de chat : illegible handwriting, chickenscratch
Ne pas réveiller le chat qui dort : let sleeping dogs lie
La nuit tous les chats sont gris : at night all cats are grey
Il n'y avait pas un chat ! : there wasn't a soul there

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Musée des Arts et Métiers

Yesterday I visited the Musée des Arts et Métiers. It's a kind of "History of Science and Technology Museum" that's just around the corner from me. Like so many French museums, it's located in this amazing building, the former Saint-Martin-des-Champs abbey. It houses the collection of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

Though Arts et Métiers is sometimes translated as "arts and crafts", the collection really focuses more on the history of technology, and houses a huge collection of gadgets and technical instruments from times gone by such as clocks, measuring devices, mathematical and scientific equipment, and the like. It's huge. The permanent collection is organized under the following rubrics: Measurement, Materials, Construction, Communication, Energy, and Transportation. From a scientific perspective, the emphasis is definitely on the physical sciences, with little or no attention paid to biology, and there is a distinct focus on technology, rather than pure science. In other words, it's an engineers' paradise. Something which was entirely evident by listening in on some of the other visitors - there seemed to be a huge number of very geekish German-speaking engineers. Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" would have felt right at home; in fact, he may have a French doppelgänger.

Despite the museum's enormous size, it was no Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. There was far too much of this kind of thing:

Whole hallfuls of cases of different kinds of gears - who could possibly find this kind of thing exciting? My other criticism of the museum is that, despite its potential, there was little there that would excite a kid, or spark an interest in science. Indeed, the few kids that were there seemed uniformly bored out of their gourds.

But the afternoon was not a complete loss. There were some definite highlights. One could see the original equipment from Lavoisier's laboratory:

Given that he met his end during Robespierre's "Terror", it seems harsh that his equipment was ultimately treated with more care than the man himself.

The history of computing was well-represented:

It seems possible that your cellphone now has greater computing power than that Cray supercomputer. Even if that's not the case, it surely outstrips this:

Domestic gadgets were not forgotten:

Shamefully, this is how some of us still believe the ideal telephone should look!

The transportation section was also pretty decent. I have uploaded some photos here.

My favorite part was probably the "Cabinet des Automates":

More photos are available here

But the clear high point was at the end of the exhibit. Foucault's pendulum!

Located in the church of the former abbey, it was quite impressive, despite the fact that it is no longer the original pendulum bob that is on display. According to Wikipedia,
on April 6, 2010, the cable suspending the bob in the Musée des Arts et Métiers snapped causing irreparable damage to the pendulum and to the marble flooring of the museum.

To read more about Foucault's pendulum, here is a link to the Wikipedia article: Foucault's pendulum .

I wish I could say that I stuck around long enough to witness the precession at first hand, but the museum closed at six! I did score some nice refrigerator magnets in the giftshop, though.

All in all, despite the interminable gearbox displays, it was a fun afternoon!

Geek's Corner 12 : A Weekend with Monsieur Perrault (French Literary Tenses)

In addition to the usual list of difficulties encountered when learning any foreign language, French has a few specific wrinkles of its own. In particular, there are certain verb tenses that have fallen into disuse, so that they are no longer used when speaking, but may still be encountered in written French, particularly in older texts.

Most intermediate French students will have seen at least one of these, the so-called "simple past tense", or passé simple. Although it has been completely replaced by the perfect tense, the passé composé , in spoken French, it is still reasonably common in modern texts, though it can come across as being slightly pompous. But, for example, in an article about the DSK brouhaha this week I came across the following phrase

Nombreux furent les chefs d'Etat qui eurent droit ... (Many heads of state were entitled to ...

which has both verbs in the passé simple. Given that it's still used in modern writing, inclusion of the passé simple as part of the curriculum seems entirely reasonable.

But the passé simple is not the only French "literary tense". No, indeed, there are four others: the passé antérieur (now replaced by the plus-que-parfait, or pluperfect), the imperfect subjunctive (now replaced by the present subjunctive), the pluperfect subjunctive (now replaced by the past subjunctive), and the so-called second form of the conditional past (something clearly dreamed up solely for the purpose of making life more interesting back in the days before television and video games).

For anyone interested (and there's always at least one reader who is), there is a very nice overview here , by the indefatigable Laura K. Lawless,'s French Language Guide. Ms Lawless is, in my not-so-humble opinion, a prime candidate for sainthood, God bless her.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, primarily, because I take a certain geekish pleasure in it. But also because, during Thursday's class with Laurent, we read part of Perrault's "Comtes", as a way of introducing us to the whole morass of French literary tenses. So I was moved to go out and buy my own copy, which I've been reading over the weekend, and enjoying thorougly.

Many of your favorite Disney tales are included: "Sleeping Beauty", "Cinderella", "Tom Thumb", "Puss in Boots" (oh wait, wasn't he in "Shrek"?), as well as "Little Red Riding Hood", "Bluebeard", and a handful of others. But don't necessarily expect those Disney happy endings. The Perrault version of these tales errs heavily on the side of cruelty and brutality. There's more than one's fair share of incest, cannibalism, and good old-fashioned gore. For instance, that hunter or woodsman who arrives to save Little Red Riding Hood and her grandma at the end of the Brothers Grimm version? Completely absent from Perrault. In his view of the world, wander from the path to chase butterflies or talk to wolves and you'll come to a grisly ending.

The illustrations are the original drawings by Gustav Dore, and are terrific.

Finally, on the topic of "Little Red Riding Hood", I came across the following photo, which dates from the winter of 1968, my first term at boarding school, and which I present, in all its horrifying detail, without further commentary. The psychic scars run too deep*. But can you guess which of the characters depicted is now one of Ireland's best-known architects, a figure of international renown?

*: For instance, I was forced to sing, in my adorable boy soprano voice, to the tune of "Just a Song at Twilight"

I am getting loooone-ly
for Red Riding Hood