Saturday, June 11, 2011

Geek's Corner 16 : Le Chat et le Hérisson (with book review!)

Two special puddy-tat videos this morning (no cats were whipped in the production of these clips):

Almost any blog post can be improved by including a hedgehog.

Speaking of French hedgehogs:

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initial review: 12/11/2008 -

I may revisit the 5-star rating in a week or two, but after reading this book through all last night in a single sitting, it seems ungenerous to give it anything less.

Muriel Barbery walks the high-wire throughout - there were any number of places where things could have degenerated into mere sentimentality. Not to mention the assorted philosophical digressions. But the alternating narrators - Renee the dumpy concierge and Paloma the precocious 12-year old - are so charming that I just went with the flow. I granted Mme Barbery my willing suspension of disbelief, trusting that I was in good hands.

And Muriel, God bless her, delivered the goods. An enormously satisfying ending to a highly unusual book.

Now that the book has been translated into English, it seems highly likely that Oprah will pick it. It would be a shame to hold that against it.

Update 12/12/2008:

Well, the five stars didn't even last 24 hours. Although I was swept up enough by the book to read it in one sitting - which should be acknowledged as a major point in the book's favor, by the way - some of its weaknesses become evident upon reflection. Unlike some of the other reviewers, the fairly hefty dollop of implausibility attached to the two protagonists didn't bother me all that much - the author is constructing a kind of fable, after all. But it has to be said that the way Barbery plonks in whole pages of ponderous ruminations on art, philosophy, Japan-worship, just like that is (a) a completely intrusive artifice and (b) a huge structural weakness. Aren't authors suppose to show and not tell?

Then, too, my inner cynic has to cavil just a little bit at the unlikely perfection of the emotional harmonic convergence towards the book's ending. Mr Ozu seems more than a little too good to be true. And, for that matter, once you get away from the hypnotically, charmingly persuasive voices of the two narrators, the thought might cross your mind that maybe the other residents of the building aren't quite the shallow monsters they are made out to be throughout the book. Maybe the much maligned older sister, Colombe, deserves a break as well.

The moral of this story is that I should impose a 24-hour waiting period before assigning ratings. I still give "hedgehog" a strong recommendation, though.

View all my reviews

Friday, June 10, 2011

Looking Ahead

As my time here in Paris winds down, I feel this enormous mixture of sadness and relief. It feels as if I've been living at a very intense pace for the last three months, which is both exhilarating (hence the sadness) and exhausting (hence the relief). Let there be no misunderstanding -- except for that one week in the middle when I was sick, pretty much every waking minute here in Paris has felt like a gift. But when I was planning this whole adventure, I knew from previous experience that roughly 15 weeks away from home would be enough, and I was right. One more week and it will be time to go home. I love Paris, but I'm starting to miss San Francisco.

Things don't always unfold as you imagine they will. This is, of course, one of the great virtues of travelling. It stretches you in new, unanticipated, ways and rising to meet these new challenges is extraordinarily fulfilling. I've certainly felt that way on this trip. I've written before of the pleasure one experiences when doing even the most mundande things in a new country and a new language -- stuff as banal as getting one's laundry done, mailing a package at the post office, or finally having a relaxed, fluid conversation with the secretaries at school can be remarkably satisfying. Then there's the fun of discovering a whole new city, and with it a different way of looking at the world. I could burble on enthusiastically like this for paragraphs, but I think I've made the point.

The biggest surprise for me during this trip was just how much French I've learned in a relatively short time. Before March 10th, the last time I had spoken any French at all was in (I think) 1993, when I visited Paris with my friend Steven. (The less said about that particular trip, the better; let's just say that we were boyfriends at the outset, by the time we got back to San Francisco, we were barely speaking. As I recall, there was a particularly horrible incident at the Eiffel tower... But I digress) Anyway, my initial language goal was to try to get to level B2 by the end of my 14 weeks here. But, as it turned out, that took probably only the first 4 weeks. My fear that Spanish would end up crossing my wires somehow and delay my progress was completely unfounded. The reverse was true -- having gone through the process of learning Spanish actually ended up being a tremendous advantage, in part because of the reasonably strong parallels between both languages, in part because I kind of knew what I should be looking out for this time around.

This is not something to complain about (because - hey - my French is now quite a bit better than I thought it would be), but it has forced me to reassess my plans. I had figured it would take two years to get to the same level in French as I did in Spanish, which would mean I wouldn't have to worry about how to spend my time for at least another year and a half. Now it seems as if I may have to adjust that timeline. Which, fortunately, is not a problem. Italy does seem like a very attractive option. And I obviously need to schedule some more time in Latin America, to keep my hand in in Spanish.

But that's really speculation about what might be on the horizon for next year. For the immediate future, I plan to spend July and August in San Francisco, then return to Paris in early September for about another 10 weeks. There is some question about the continuing availability of classes at my current level at school, so I will probably end up doing some combination of group classes, workshops and private lessons. One-on-one classes are horrendously expensive, but there are some workable combinations available (still pretty steep) that mix, for instance, daily morning group classes with 10 hours of private tuition weekly (to which I will, no doubt, add a couple of workshops, because I am a driven son-of-a-bitch).

Anyway, the gory details are unimportant. The main thing is that I have pretty much decided, within the last week, to come back in the autumn for another 10 weeks. I am working out a suitable course of study with the school, and have contacted the owner of the apartment about renting it again in September. Tentatively, things are looking good, and I hope to have the details ironed out before I leave on the 21st.

So there you have it. Whipping Cats will undergo a brief summer hiatus, but should be up and running again in the fall. Meanwhile, there's still another 3 weeks of excitement to report one, because, though I normally don't blog when I'm in SF (where the minutiae of my little life are exquisitely boring), there is that Ring Cycle looming on the horizon, which I'm sure you will all want to hear about.

But I was out earlier this evening, roaming around in search of new Space Invaders to photograph (I bagged another nine!), so I'm exhausted. Time for bed. I leave you with these two photos, taken earlier tonight:

It's been quite some time since Monsieur Depardieu looked like this.

Bad Boy Street
The French have the best street names!

Geek's Corner 15 : French expressions with "avoir"

These are taken, with slight modification from the excellent French idioms list at

Language Realm French idioms

I have omitted those I consider to be fairly obvious; there is still a ton of them that remain.

avoir beau + infinitive
to carry out whatever act is given by the infinitive verb in vain ("tu as beau lui aviser" - there's no point in warning him, it won't do any good)

avoir de la bouteille
become mellow; grow mellow

avoir de la chance
be fortunate

avoir des antennes
have a sixth sense; have contacts (lit.: to have antennas)

avoir des ennuis
be in trouble; have problems

avoir deux poids deux mesures
use a double standard

avoir du cachet
have style

avoir du cran
have guts; be brave

avoir du foin dans les bottes
have feathered one’s nest

avoir du mal à
have difficulty

avoir envie de
want to; feel like.

avoir fait son temps
have had one’s day

avoir honte
be ashamed; be embarrassed

avoir l’esprit de clocher
be narrow-minded

avoir l’esprit mal tourné
have a dirty mind; have an evil mind

avoir l’estomac dans les talons
be famished; be starving

avoir l’estomac ereux
be famished

avoir la bouche en cœur

avoir la cote
be well thought of

avoir la dalle
be starving; be famished

avoir la dalle en pente
be a bit of a boozer; drink a little

avoir la dent
be hungry (lit.: have the tooth)

avoir la dent dure
be critical; be scathing (in one's remarks) (lit.: have a hard tooth)

avoir la flemme
cannot be bothered.

avoir la frite
be in shape

avoir la frousse
be scared stiff; be scared to death

avoir la manie de
be fanatical about

avoir la patate
be in shape

avoir le bras long
have pull; have influence

avoir le cafard
be down in the dumps; have the blues (lit.: to have the cockroach)

avoir le coeur sur la main
be kindhearted; give the shirt off one’s back; wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve (lit.: have the heart in the hand)

avoir le cœur sur les lèvres
wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve (lit.: have the heart on the lips)

avoir le coup de barre
be exhausted; be wiped out

avoir le coup de pompe
be exhausted; be wiped out

avoir le démon de midi
have a midlife crisis

avoir le dessus
be on top; be top dog; get the best of

avoir le diable au corps
be possessed

avoir le front
have the audacity; have the courage

avoir le trac
have stagefright

avoir les chevilles qui enflent
have a swollen head; be full of oneself (lit.: have swollen ankles)

avoir les dents du fond qui baignent
be stuffed; be completely full (lit.: have back teeth that are swimming)

avoir les dents longues
be very ambitious; set one's sights high (lit.: have long teeth)

avoir les dents qui rayent le parquet
set one's sights high; want it all (lit.: have teeth that reach the floor)

avoir les doigts crochus
be tight-fisted; be stingy

avoir les foies
have cold feet

avoir les jetons
be scared; have the jitters; have the willies

avoir les quatre fers en l’air
be dead

avoir lieu
take place; occur; happen. 1. La Coupe du monde de rugby a lieu en ce moment.

avoir louche
be in trouble; have problems

avoir mangé du lion
have a tiger in one’s tank; have incredible energy

avoir mauvais esprit
be uncooperative

avoir qqn aux trousses
have someone hot on one’s heels

avoir qqn dans le nez
hate someone

avoir sur le dos
be saddled with

avoir un chat dans la gorge
have a frog in one’s throat (lit.: have a cat in one’s throat)

avoir un cœur d’artichaut
be flighty (lit.: have a heart of an artichoke)

avoir un coup dans le nez
be slightly drunk

avoir un fil à la patte
be tied down

avoir un poil dans la main
shy away from work; avoid work at all costs

avoir un sursaut
be startled.

avoir un verre dans le nez
be slightly drunk

avoir une araignée au plafond
have a screw loose; have bats in one’s belfry (lit.: to have a spider in the ceiling)

avoir une dent contre qn
hold a grudge against someone (lit.: have a tooth against someone)

avoir une faim de loup
be ravenous; be famished; be hungry as a wolf

avoir une peur bleue de qch
be scared stiff of something

avoir vent de qch
get wind of something

A Thousand Space Invaders

In addition to the Tuesday grammar session, the afternoon workshops regularly serve up another weekly highlight, namely the Thursday afternoon sorties pedagogiques. These take us out and about on a guided stroll through the streets of the city, usually with the goal of visiting some kind of cultural event or exposition. Yesterday's excursion was one of the most enjoyable to date.

First, a little background. After only a few days, any visitor to Paris will begin to notice a certain type of street art, dotted randomly on street corners throughout the city. Some typical examples:

The distinguishing feature is the inclusion of a little space invader critter in each of the mosaic images. They are all the work of a single "anonymous" street artist, known only as "Invader", who has been brightening the street corners of Paris with these images since 1999. Though they were initially greeted with hostility by the powers that be, at some point public opinion shifted in the artist's favor, and one senses that they have now become something of an institution. Personally speaking, it's always a pleasure when I look up and discover another one, lurking on some unexpected corner. They are scattered all over the city, though I've had better luck finding them on side streets than on the major boulevards. They span a considerable range, both in size and complexity of the design. The artist has "invaded" other cities as well, from Manchester to Perth, with several stopoffs along the way, e.g. to improve the Hollywood sign in L.A.

It turns out that this week marked the erection of the 1000th invader here in Paris. To recognize the occasion, there was an exhibition at one of the local performance art spaces, "La Generale", a converted former electricity plant. My friend Ellen had sent me an e-mail about the exhibition, which I passed on to our teacher Anne, who agreed that it would be an excellent destination for yesterday's sortie pedagogique.

The exhibition was terrific. One entered through a steel cargo container, from whose "ceiling" was suspended a disco ball that projected little space invaders on the container's sides, while one crunched across the floor which was littered with the little tiles used to form each mosaic. It was hard to photograph in a way that does it justice.

Inside, there were numerous examples of more ambitious works by the artist, all realized using the same mosaic tiling approach:

The centerpiece of the exhibition was an immense wall on which pictures of all 1,000 invader pieces had been mounted, in chronological order. It was impossible to capture the whole wall in a single picture, but here is a portion:

One could also buy a map of Paris, indicating the location of all thousand invaders, and watch a video of the artist in action.

The invader theme was ubiquitous:

(Not so) Delicious invader waffles were on sale:

My classmates were happy:

Anne was happy:

Everyone was happy. Well, maybe not everyone:

After dinner, I felt compelled to take my map and go out roaming the streets in search of invaders in the neighborhood. You can see the results here .

I haven't had as much fun in ages!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Special 100th celebratory post : the infamous "cancerous moth" scene!

To celebrate the 100th post to this blog, I am pleased to share this link, to a 3-minute video about the Opera Bastille's production of "Le Crépuscule des Dieux". The final 20 seconds are the best -- watch for yourself as the soul of Siegfried, decked out in his best ABBA costume, makes his slow climb up the Venetian blinds. Decide for yourself whether or not the phrase "like a cancerous moth" is an appropriate description.

Découvrez Le Crépuscule des dieux de Wagner à l'Opéra Bastille sur Culturebox !

Monday, June 6, 2011

L'énigme de Castor Malin

Continued from the previous post. Recall the fiendish rebus challenge of the clever beaver, Castor Malin:

How hard can this be? All one has to do is inhabit the mind of an 8-year old French child. Let's take a deep breath and see how far we can get. Spell it out, children:

Pan - dents - l'oeufs - pr - un - t- un, lait - c'oeufs - riz - i - haie - son - tr - haie - b'eau : ile - s'oeufs - cou - v - r'oeufs - deux - j'eau - lit - fleur - blanche.

OK, now let's apply some of those special French "rules" of pronunciation, where by "rules" I mean completely arbitrary conventions with no internal coherence. It will be helpful to make lots of nasal sounds, bearing in mind that nobody really cares which one you make, if you pull it off with enough panache. Oh, and also, all those consonants in the word for eggs, "oeufs", are completely redundant - they are not pronounced at all, so that the word is pronounced something like Homer Simpson's "Duh!", but without the "D". Are you following this? Let's have another go, shall we?

Pongdong luh prongtong, lay suhriziay song tray bo : eel suh coovruh duh zholee fluhr blanche.

That wasn't so hard, was it? Now, all we have to do is reverse-engineer this gobbledeygook into the correct one of the 48,644 possible French spelling combinations that fits this particular sound combination. (Did I mention that French has more than its fair share of homophones, words that sound alike, but are spelled differently, and have completely different meanings?) This mess is, relatively speaking, a piece of cake. Basically, we just need to sprinkle back in a healthy dollop of useless consonants:

Pendant le printemps, les cerisiers sont très beaux : ils se couvrent de jolies fleurs blanches.

Et Voilà ! There we have it.

In spring, cherry blossom trees are very beautiful: they are covered with pretty white flowers.

That wasn't so bad, now, was it? Picture my smugness at the table, as I finished deciphering this message while I polished off my dessert. I was so self-satisfied that I felt it necessary to share my accomplishment with the waitress. Was I expecting an 'attaboy' for my efforts? Maybe so. What I got was a look of withering contempt, as she turned the placemat upside down and wordlessly pointed to the solution, printed on the bottom.

But, hey, at least my mastery of French is equal to that of an 8-year old.

I left her a lousy tip.

Spring arrives like a gay bison!

At the risk of shocking some of my gastronomically more sophisticated readers, I have a confession to make. Sometimes, there's nothing I crave more than a nice juicy hamburger and french fries. Fortunately, I live right around the corner from the conveniently located "Buffalo Grill", one of an enormous chain of restaurants that spans the entire country of France, which reinterprets classic American dishes for the French restaurant patron. Though my local branch seems to be a favorite hangout for obese Australian tourists, for some reason. (Almost by definition, any obese person in Paris is a probably a foreign tourist; oddly enough, Paris is the only place I have ever encountered fat Australians.)

I love the Buffalo Grill. For a mere 12 Euros I can get a delicious Arizona Burger and fries, with 3 scoops of ice-cream for dessert. And they throw in a free salad. The bill is never more than about 16 Euros and I am always happy when I leave.

As if that weren't reason enough to frequent the place, there are the place-mats, which double as menus, hilarious advertising vehicles, and child-amusement devices. It is this latter aspect that I would like to explore in this post. This evening, I had come prepared with some serious reading material:

But just as I was settling in to educate myself about Germany's strategy to wean itself from its dependence on nuclear energy, this caught my eye:

Apparently, since my last visit, Spring had arrived at the Buffalo Grill. Moreover, this was not your run-of-the-mill, nondescript, kind of entrance. No indeed. Spring had made a flamboyant entry, "gay like a bison". I was intrigued. (Who wouldn't be?)
Suddenly my place mat was far more than a mere table decoration. Its entertainment potential needed further investigation. And when I turned it over, there, waiting for me was the exciting world of the "Buffalo Friends". There was Ours Gourmet, inviting me to navigate the maze so that he could rejoin his squirrel buddy, Ecureuil Panache. In the bottom corner, Aiglon Furtif was imploring me to find the matching pair of trees. Over on the left, Ponette Fougeuse was inviting me to join her in a little Sudoku puzzle.

I didn't have the heart to break it to poor Ponette that I detest Sudoku. Fortunately, right up above her was Castor Malin, proposing to me a fiendishly difficult rebus:

Would I be up to the challenge? After all, one of my frequent complaints since arriving in France has been that I am constrained to "speak like an 8-year old". What if even that modest claim proved to be untrue? The potential for humiliation was enormous.

So, dear reader, what do you think? Did I manage to crack the puzzle without cheating? Perhaps you would like to try it out yourself.

(to be continued)

What's on TV?

Monday nights used to be so much fun, back in the halcyon days of March. I could just plonk myself down in front of the TeeVee, with a bottle of wine and some tasty snacks, and watch the drama that was "Top Chef, France" unfold before me, knowing that I would be entertained until midnight. But all good things come to an end, and after milking the franchise for one final week with the somewhat disappointing "Top Chef, France : Battle of the Champions" (in which this year's champion, Stephanie, mopped the floor with last year's hapless contender), the series was replaced by the vastly inferior "Cauchemar dans la Cuisine" (Nightmare in the Kitchen). For a while I flirted with the all-news channel, but the repetition of the day's events on a 45-minute rotation, initially a virtue, soon became an annoying tic, as did the recent "all DSK, all the time" focus.

So I find myself, scanning the copy of France-Soir I picked up at the gym, to see what might be on in prime time this evening. For some odd reason, known only to the gods of French broadcasting, prime time begins at 20:40. What are my options?

The Closer.
France/Ukraine soccer match (a friendly)
The Devil Wears Prada
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

"Aren't there any home-grown offerings?", you may well ask. Why yes, there are.

L'amour est dans le pré (Love has come to the meadow), a reality show in which French bachelor farmers attempt to find love.
Hard, a weekly drama series, taking as its setting the exotic, if seamy, world of the French pornography industry.

Things aren't looking very promising. But wait, over there on France 3, there is a glimmer of light.

Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Cuisine & Patisserie), documentary, 1h 50m.


The Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France), abbreviated as MOF, is an award given every 4 years to the "best" professionals in a broad variety of categories. It is, in effect, a licence to print money for the handful of contestants who achieve the designation. The categories range from the expected (e.g. cooking, pastry-making, and cheese-mongering), through the archaic (lute-making, wickerwork, cooperage, stonemasonry), with a good helping of more artisanal crafts (lace-making and embroidery, clockmaking, blacksmithing), and a nod to some modern professions (dental works, working with reinforced concrete), as well as a host of other specialties, some of which remain a little opaque. For instance, the mysterious "trappings" and "Santon" categories, or the slightly disturbing "aesthetic body hygiene", which has more of a Scandinavian than a French whiff to it. Some of the category names leave something to be desired, though this could be due to poor translation by the author of the Wikipedia article on the subject.* Was "butchery" really the best choice of word for the category in question? And why is "laboratory technicians and taxidermy" a single category in the 21st, indeed in any, century?

There is an American-made documentary (2009) about one of the MOV contests, called "Kings of Pastry", which comes recommended by my friend Peter C., but which received a lukewarm reception over at the AV club AV club review .

Regrettably, after watching only the first hour of tonight's France 3 documentary, I have to conclude that the same criticisms apply. One marvels at some of the technical mastery displayed throughout, but the program itself is "mi-figue mi-raisin", unable to find a satisfactory register between reality TV and dignified PBS-style documentary. At the risk of betraying the true lowbrow nature of my TV-watching brain, let me just say that they should have played up the reality TV angle more, to make us care about the fate of the individual contestants.

I'm sure it will surprise nobody to learn that the representation of women in both contests, among both the contestants and the judges, was vanishingly low.

*: Yes, yes, I know. Wikipedia, the refuge of lazy bloggers worldwide.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Geek's Corner 14 : French expressions involving food (I) : Fruits and Vegetables

Avoir du sang de navet : to be spineless (to have the blood of a turnip)
Les carottes sont cuites : it's all over, all is lost
Ne pas avoir un radis : to be broke
Une course à l'échalote : a pissing-match, a futile competition
Occupe-toi de tes oignons : mind your own business
En rang d'oignon : lined up in order of height (though this may also just mean "in single file")

C'est la fin des haricots : it's the last straw
Avoir un coeur d'artichaut : to be fickle, flirtatious
Le panier à salade : the police van, paddy-wagon

Ménager la chèvre et le chou : to run with the hounds and the hare, try to serve two masters
Tomber dans les pommes : to faint
Ramener sa fraise : to butt in
Sucrer les fraises : to have the shakes
Des prunes ! : No way!
Faire quelque chose pour des prunes : to do something for nothing
Couper la poire en deux : to meet halfway
Les bananes : medals, military decorations
Haut(e) comme trois pommes : knee-high to a grasshopper

Avoir la pêche : to be full of energy, in high spirits, feeling peachy-keen
Mi-figue mi-raisin : neither fish nor fowl, ambiguous, having mixed feelings about something

Une grosse légume : a big shot
Les oreilles en feuille de chou : cauliflower ears
Aller planter ses choux : to retire to the country
Faire chou blanc : to draw a blank
Mon petit chou : sweetie, snookums