Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Stylin' Gym Gear

As anyone who has the mixed blessing of being my "friend" on Facebook knows, one of the first things I did upon returning to Paris, was to renew my membership at the local Club Med Fitness Club (what I had been referring to confidently as "la gym" until today, when Nolwenn, our improvisations class teacher, gently informed me that going to "la gym" had definite connotations involving female gymnastics and for me to say I had gone to "la gym" was at best creepy, maybe even sort of pervy; le sigh) for another 3 months. In an effort to use public shaming as a mechanism to get myself to go, I have been providing a daily update on my progress over on Facebook. Mercifully, I will spare you the details here.

French fitness clubs don't seem substantially different from their American counterparts; it is a relief to ascertain that sweaty French people are no more or less elegant than sweaty Americans. Representation of the sexes is very different in the Paris gym, not as overwhemingly male as in the Castro - no surprises there. There is a certain amount of low-level flirting in both places, but for the most part people concentrate on their exercises.

In general, I wear one of several nondescript old Genentech T-shirts to the gym. Because, after working there for 17 years, my supply of old Genentech T-shirts is entirely inexhaustible. Seriously; I'm sure any of my former colleagues can relate. That place gave out T-shirts as if they were M 'n M's -- all you had to do was sneeze and you'd get one. Recently, however, for reasons that were almost entirely laundry-related, I found myself compelled to don two of what I consider to be my klassier T-shirts. Certainly two of my favorite T-shirts; I think you will understand why:

I am happy to report that both of these shirts, but the first in particular*, provoke a much more interesting** level of chit-chat with other gym-goers. Thanks are due to Katie and Adam for the first and to Katie's mom, Paddy, for the second.

*: about 50% of people who comment on it appear to do so for cat-loving reasons (nothing wrong with that); about 50% actually seem to GET THE JOKE (a pretty useful filter right there)

**: compare to some random, double-helixy, generic Genentech shirt.

For the record, I was doing very well in closing in on my 21 days gym-going to imprint those positive neuronal behavioral pathways when Satan, the prince of darkness, threw a spanner in the works by having one of his vile minions sneeze on me in the metro, thereby giving me the COLD FROM HELL; however, I got back in the saddle (literally, of the stationary bike) on Friday and am 6 for 6 this week, and I promise never to bring this up again in the blog, because it seems as if I obsess about nothing else already on Facebook.

Magnificent tomatoes --- at a price!!

Take a gander at those tomatoes. The photograph doesn't even come close to doing them justice. They are, without a doubt, the most delicious tomatoes I have ever tasted in my 55 years on the planet. They quite simply eclipse all other tomatoes from my memory and set a new standard for how tomatoes should taste.

But such excellence in tomatoe-dom does not come without a price. For the specimens shown above, the price exacted was my abject humiliation at the hands of a couple of Parisiennes well-versed in putting mere foreigners in their place.

It all started innocently enough. I headed out in the late afternoon to the Marché des Enfants Rouges (I am still unclear as to exactly who these eponymous ruddy children may have been) to pick up some 30-month Comté (the black tar of Comtés) at the fromagerie, having previously established that the maximum age of Monoprix-stocked Comté is 24 months. Having secured my fix of Comté, I was ready to go home when I noticed this appealing maraîcher right next to the cheese shop. Hmmm, I thought, I need to get some tomatoes, and I sidled into the store, to get a closer look.

What I should have done: enter the store decisively, sing out "Bonjour", and wait for someone to come help me

What I did: wander into the store in a fugue state, forgetting to issue the obligatory greeting (this alone marked me as a barbarian, but it gets worse), sidle over toward the tomatoes, upon seeing these very attractive clusters of tomatoes on the vine, and (I shudder now at the atrocity of my own behavior) PICK THEM UP AND HOLD THEM IN MY HAND .....

Only then did I come to my senses, but of course by then it was too late. The vile deed was done. I looked around, as if in a fugue state, only to find myself being stared at ("stared" isn't really the right verb here, but "laser-crucified" isn't in the dictionary) in contempt and disbelief by at least half a dozen French people, each of whose mouths was frozen in a rictus of horror, reminiscent of Munch's "The Scream". The store-owner fixes me in her sights and bellows, in tones that still chill my spine, "Monsieur, J'arrive!"

So I stew in my guilty juices while she takes her sweet time in wrapping those radishes for the garrulous old lady who is staring at me as if I were a particularly loathsome toad (crapaud). The stress takes its toll, so that my palms start to sweat. This in turn starts to dislodge the tomatoes from the vine. So that, by the time the dragon lady comes to put me out of my misery why - wouldn't you know it - a couple of the little tomatoes come loose and go bouncing around on the floor, like so many little pellets of possessed vegetable matter.

I have blocked the following 90 seconds out of my head, apparently. Let's just say that it was bad; very, very bad. Of course, at no point did any French person behave in a way that was anything other than correct. But they have other ways of making you want to curl up and die.

In the night I had a dream. In the dream, I was stuck in an infinitely large fruit and vegetable store, unable to touch the produce, and nobody would come to help me because the way I had said "Bonjour" upon entering the store had marked me as a foreigner, and thus, in all probability, a barbarian.

But man, those tomatoes are simply extraordinary. So, despite the angoisse, I have to think it was worth it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Stationery Fetish

Stationery shops have always had a bizarre seductive appeal to me. I don't know if it's a holdover from my schoolboy nerdishness, when shopping for school supplies before the start of a new school year could keep me engaged for days (important to get the right coloured three-ring binders, and to have enough of those sticky circular reinforcement thingies for the much-pawed pages in which the holes just gave way; not to mention highlighter pens of assorted degrees of eye-assaulting neon virulence).

So when I came across these fine items in Gibert Jeune the other day, for a mere 2,03€, there was no question of leaving the store without them:

"What are they?", I hear you ask. Why, they are handy stencils of the map of France, with the major physical geographic features imposed (on the right), and the various towns and departements on the left.

C'est genial, non ?

David's Surefire Tip for Driving Prostitutes Wild

Carry a large umbrella!

Perhaps I should elaborate.

The plain people of Ireland: Yes, please do, you've got our attention!
WhippingCats Management: Silence, rabble! etc etc

As I was just about to explain, in any large city, prostitutes are going to be a feature of the landscape. Here in Paris, depending on the route I choose to walk to school, I can take the Boulevard St Denis, which will take me right by all the Asian prostitutes clustered outside Gibert Jeune, or I have the option of taking Rue Blondel which is where, not to put a tooth in it, the over-the-hill prostitutes hang out. Actually, the French term for what they do is "faire le pied de grue" (they make the foot of the crane). Or, if I put my mind to it, I can avoid both blocks in question, but on a rainy morning it's not the first priority. So on Thursday morning I found myself launched down the Rue Blondel, where the "girls" were clustered unusually densely, with only my umbrella to defend myself. Let me tell you, they just LOVED that umbrella. They kept leaping out of the doorways to better admire it. Or perhaps it is an accepted superstition among the filles de joie that "un mec qui porte un grand parapluie sera muni d'un grand .... portefeuille*".

In other news, on Thursday evening I was having dinner in my favorite little neighborhood cafe, when I was witness to a touching scene. This enormous, multi-generational, American family party of about 16 people piled into the banquette for dinner. They ranged in age from 8 to about 80 and the quality of their French seemed to decline by generation; the grandmother's French, in particular, was really good. It turns out that she had gotten married in the church across from the cafe and the next day, two generations later, her granddaughter (also present at dinner) was getting married in the same church. This warmed the cockles of even my unsentimental heart. I bade them my good wishes as I left; they were entirely charming and I hope the wedding went off without a hitch.

*: You can look it up; translation engines are a dime a dozen these days.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Special Bonus Poetry Post

It's a rainy night here in Paris. Let's hear what our resident poet, sad-sack* Paul Verlaine, has to add to the mix:

Il Pleure dans mon Coeur by Paul Verlaine

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville.
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénêtre mon coeur ?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine.

It Rains in My Heart (English translation)

It rains in my heart
As it rains on the town,
What languor so dark
That it soaks to my heart?

Oh sweet sound of the rain
On the earth and the roofs!
For the dull heart again,
Oh the song of the rain!

It rains for no reason
In this heart that lacks heart.
What? And no treason?
It’s grief without reason.

By far the worst pain,
Without hatred, or love,
Yet no way to explain
Why my heart feels such pain!

Thanks for that, Paul!

*: He really does appear to have been a miserable poor sod; of course his doomed affair with Rimbaud didn't help matters much.

I think we need a nice cat poem to counterbalance Paul's depressed and depressing omphaloskepsis (= "nombrilisme", en français)

Once a certain cat and cock,
Friendship founded on a rock,
Lived together in a house
In the land of Fledermaus.
Each loved music in his way,
And the cock, at break of day
Chanted: Cock-a-doodle-do!
While his cat friend, in the middle
Of the night, would play the fiddle.
Sometimes they would play together
--Handsome fur and fancy feather--
And the pair would dance and sing
While the house with joy would ring.

from Vikram Seth's "The Cat and the Cock"

Scenes from an Education

In general, I've been fairly happy with my progress with French to date. It's definitely harder than Spanish, but this trip, in particular, it seems as if I have been making noticeable progress. Correct pronunciation remains a major challenge, however, and in recent classes I have been focusing on phonetics, trying to minimize my accent.

Thus, Sunday brought a repeat of the all-too-familiar scene with Daniele -- I take the newspaper, stumble through reading a paragraph out loud, only to be greeted with the critique "C'est pas mal*, mais il y a quelques petites choses ...."  (Not bad*, there are just a few little things to work on ....)
What were these "petites choses" that constitute the main barrier to improving my pronunciation, according to Daniele? Easy enough -- my consonants are fine, I just need to work on my vowels.
That seems doable, right? I left, feeling moderately encouraged about my progress.

Switch to yesterday morning's class with Agnes. The other student had left with a migraine, so it was just one-on-one with Agnes. A perfect opportunity for some phonetics practice, right? I take the newspaper, stumble through reading a paragraph out loud, again to be greeted with the critique "C'est pas mal*, mais il y a quelques petites choses ...." And what, according to Agnes, were the "petites choses" that were holding me back, and needed extra work. Simple -- my vowels were just fine, I just need to work on my consonants!

But at least now I know what stands between me and full mastery of French pronunciation.



*: Note that this is the highest praise one can ever hope to receive from a French person; they all have a common gene that prevents them from ever expressing positive sentiments such as unmitigated approval, unstinting praise or admiration, or - Dieu forbid - actual unbridled enthusiasm. On the French evaluation scale "pas mal" represents high praise indeed.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Book Review : The Queen's Throat

Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality And The Mystery Of DesireQueen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality And The Mystery Of Desire by Wayne Koestenbaum
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I am a gay man. I enjoy opera, find certain operas to be truly sublime. But I am not an opera queen

Koestenbaum writes with a kind of feverish elegance that is impressive. But this book - a set of highly idiosyncratic meditations on opera - just bristles with cringe-inducing stereotypes. In particular, his apparent willingness to embrace the 'gay man as ostracized outsider' role is distinctly unappealing.

I enjoyed two of the book's seven chapters - Koestenbaum's reflections on "The Callas Cult" and the final chapter, in which he singles out moments in opera which he finds particularly affecting, and attempts to explain why. (Though he's not always able to provide a particularly coherent explanation, his passion does shine through, and it's always interesting to hear about other people's favorite opera moments.)

I found the remaining five chapters to be a curious melange of the weirdly fetishistic and the worst kind of deconstructive excess. The following excerpt exemplifies these two problems:

"I've always been fascinated by the spindle hole. Everything on the record's face conspires to highlight it: the price circles it; the label and the round window in the protective paper envelope echo its shape....
The hole makes no single anatomical allusion. It makes many. It isn't reductively equal, even in the listener's unconscious, to any part of the human body. But it has always spoken to me of the emptiness at the center of a recorded voice and the emptiness at the center of a listener's life and the ambiguities in any sexual body, including a homosexual body, concerning the proper and improper function of orifices."

He goes on, I regret to report, to devote even more space to the contemplation of a record's label, its grooves, the turntable, and a myriad of other objects remotely associated with opera. I'd like to say that his passion for opera shines through, but for the most part I found his ruminations oddly detached. The musings of a collector, and not of a lover of opera. Had he focused more on the music itself, and not the trappings that surround opera, this would have been a better book.

But if you like the kind of drivel exemplified by the paragraph quoted earlier, then this is the book for you. I was disappointed.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 28, 2012

Some Stuff you Will Have Missed if you are not on Facebook (not suggesting that you should be, because you actually have a life)

Everything goes better with a top hat.

Or a fedora.

Things could be worse. You could have tit juice conjunctivitis.

If these confirm your prejudice that Facebook is a time-wasting sump of vapidness, well then, my work here is done.

The answer to yesterday's mystery question can hardly have been a mystery to anyone with access to a web browser (if that doesn't include you, how the heck did you get here?). Bruno Magli makes fancy SHOES.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mystery Picture

Good heavens! What could these be? The bodies of dead Franciscans, come to an unhappy ending? No, I bear my former educators/tormentors no ill-will.

Tune in tomorrow, when the mystery shall be revealed.

'Tis the season

Yes, I'm still here, skulking around the apartment. But with a definite added quota of mental energy, even if my cold still lingers a bit.

On Monday, I received a somewhat baffling e-mail. It was from Harry and David, a corporation that would dearly love for you to think of them as just these two avuncular fruit-growers somewhere in Oregon (not the meth-lab ridden Oregon, obviously; the fruitier, lusher, more mythic part). They are kind of like Ben and Jerry, if you replace ice-cream by delicious pears, and Vermont by Oregon.

The Plain People of Ireland: Is there a point to this meandering?
Whipping Cats Management: Security! Get these rabble out of here; I thought blog policy was perfectly clear - the plebs are allowed to "contribute" only in the comments section.
Whipping Cats "Security Officer" (a pimply teen): Right-ho, guvnor!

Anyway, this missive from Harry and David was to inform me that they had prepared my "holiday gift list", and that a simple nod of acquiescence on my part (with some vital credit card info, natch) was all that was needed to send packages of happiness criss-crossing the land. As if happiness were that simple, something to be commodified and dispatched at will.

But my real point is - What the heck, Harry (and/or David)? Hold your horses there just a minute! You sent me this message on September 24th. Just what "holiday" did you have in mind here, gentlemen? Yom Kippur? Since when do I have a gift list for Yom Kippur?

I think we all know what holiday H & D had in mind. But I am going to pretend that marketing for the Christmas season is not already in full swing, and that in fact H & D were exhorting me to celebrate the arrival of autumn.

Yes, indeed. Fall is here. I wonder what the poets have to say about that. Here is John Keats, in a generally upbeat frame of mind:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
How about some Rilke?


Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los. 

Befiehl den letzten Früchten, voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin, und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. 

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Stretch out your shadow on the sundial’s face,
and on the meadows let the winds go loose.

Command the last fruits to be full in time,
grant them even two more southerly days,
press them toward fulfillment soon, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will build none.
Who is alone now, will stay long alone,
will lie awake, read, get long letters written,
and through the streets that follow up and down
will wander restless, when the leaves are driven.

Translated by John Felstiner
19 February 2011
(There are many bad translations of this poem; John Felstiner's wonderful version is a jewel)
In closing, let's hand the microphone over to Monsieur Paul Verlaine, on whose home turf we will be spending the greater part of this particular autumn. Paul, what do you have for us? An "Autumn Song"? Just the ticket.
Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon cœur
D'une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l'heure.
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens,
Et je pleure...

Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
De çà, de là,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte...
Perhaps we could have that in (rough) translation?
With long sobs
the violin-throbs
of autumn wound
my heart with languorous
and monotonous

Choking and pale
When I mind the tale
the hours keep,
my memory strays
down other days
and I weep;

and I let me go
where ill winds blow
now here, now there,
harried and sped,
even as a dead
leaf, anywhere.
God, no, Paul is off his meds again!