Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I am outraged, I tell you, OUTRAGED!!!

OK. So at dinner I really thought I was suffering some kind of mental breakdown. Right there, in my little "Mieux rédiger" (write better) manual was the unequivocal sentence "les pingouins nagent et volent. Ils peuplent les régions arctiques (le pôle Nord)". That is to say, "pingouins" swim and fly and live in the arctic, by the North Pole.

This seemed implausible, not to say downright wrong, so I checked my trusty Petit Robert (dictionary of the froggy language, for frogs). There it was again:

Pingouin: gros oiseau marin palmipède, à plumage blanc et noir, habitant les régions arctiques. (A fat marine bird, black and white in color, living in the arctic regions).

WTF, French people? What the hell are you going on about? Does everyone in France actually believe that penguins live at the North Pole?

Would you like to know the resolution of this little riddle? Well, would you?

Here it is. And I swear I am not making this up. Because, really, how could anyone? It is because

I'm sorry, people of frogland. Normally I quite enjoy battling with your strange froggy patois. But enough is enough. I AM OFFICIALLY F***ING OUTRAGED.

And just what IS the French word for "penguin", I hear you ask. Well, it might be "manchot", though the primary meaning for that in Petit Robert is "someone who has lost one or both arms".

I myself will be carted off in a straitjacket if this kind of thing keeps up, I swear to God.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Scholastic Progress

So, following long-established Parisian tradition, I have had this very nasty cold for going on 10 days now. The kind where your ribcage hurts from all that coughing.

"But David", I hear you ask, "is this likely to have a negative impact on your learning experience at the Sorbonne?".

Maybe it will, but so far things are going just fine, I think.

When interpreting those 19.5/20 scores, please bear in mind that, by constitutional amendment, French teachers are not allowed to give 20/20, certainly not to mere foreigners.
If I might be permitted a word of spontaneous elation : BOOYA !!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book "Review" : "Le Cid" by Pierre Corneille

So, Le Cid, whose real name was obviously le Kid, before he fell into the hands of those lithping Cathtilians, doesn't quite have superhero-level powers, but he's a pretty bada$$ mofo all the same. I thought he was going to go all Hamlet-y on us about avenging the insult to his papa's honor, but heck no - he has polished off that pesky duke before we're even halfway through Act II. Then it's time to go off and fight those dusky Moors to protect the kingdom, home in time for a few laurel wreaths and to deal with rival suitors (because his lady-love, Chimène, has fallen victim to the dramatic requirements of the genre, and though she loves him dearly and no other, is obliged to petition the king to have him killed because see escapade 1 earlier, he killed her papa in a duel, which he clearly had coming to him, and she is generally forced to come up with all kinds of love-thwarting objections to spin out the plot, until thankfully the king himself intervenes and tells her to get over it already, so that the two lovebirds can be united, which is I suppose what makes it a tragicomedy, and here we go with my parenthesis problem again).

Anyway, this is a poor excuse for a book report, but I enjoyed the heck out of Le Cid, and who knew 17th century French drama could be so much fun. 
That dude slapping the older dude in the picture (the infamous "soufflet" that is the McGuffin for the whole piece) is Don Gomès, papa of Chimène, and he gets his comeuppance satisfactorily quickly.

There's also a bunch of technical stuff about switching from regular rhyming couplets to other, more complicated, rhyming schemes, but I figure we will learn about that in class tomorrow.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Montmartre (just pictures, really)

On Monday afternoon I decided to walk all the way to Montmartre (Sacré Coeur) and back. I think it was my favorite stroll so far this trip.

Many more pictures at this link:


Let's not be coy. We all know that, just before coming to France for the first time, I did the unthinkable and joined Facebook. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and to be fair, I think it does serve a purpose. But one negative side-effect has been that this blog has suffered, languishing at times for long periods of neglect. (I am making a conscious effort to do better this trip).

Facebook has its pros and cons, and I certainly don't want to exaggerate its benefits. The great majority of my posts over there represent nothing more than banal commentary on the quotidian details of my life, dressed up in a kind of brittly amusing, see-what-a-witty-guy-I-am prose, all the while conforming to the unspoken rule of Facebook, which is that everyone is out there CONSTANTLY DOING EXCITING INTERESTING MEANINGFUL THINGS AND HAVING ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF FUN AND/OR RAISING INCREDIBLY TALENTED, PHOTOGENIC, DELIGHTFUL OFFSPRING WITH WHOM THEY SHARE AN INFINITE SEQUENCE OF ADORABLY GOLDEN MOMENTS. Because people don't go on Facebook to share their defeats.

So you can be thankful that you are spared most of the nervous chatter that makes up my Facebook feed. With that caveat in mind, I am now going to cheat, and copy a few recent FB posts directly into this post. Because I'm lazy, and because I think they do convey something interesting or potentially amusing. For you FB users, it will be déjà vu from here on out.

Thursday October 10th:

From an e-mail to Paddy right now:

"I am noticeably less anxious than at any time since coming to Paris. Because today finally confirmed that my plan, hatched what - about 15 or 18 months ago - is NOT suddenly going to turn to shit or crash in flames. Which I suppose my inner demon had been secretly fearing all this time. Now he can just shut the f### up for a while (not that he isn't skilled at 
conjuring up other things to obsess about, but he has been put in the corner for now)."

And if you are thinking "only a bozo could be anxious in Paris", you're not wrong. And it's not that I haven't had a good time this past month, it's been great. But there was that niggling worry* that maybe this Sorbonne thing might not have been such a good idea. That worry is now gone. So, yea!

* My capacity for niggling worries is stupidly large.

Friday October 11th:

My phonetics placement test today was hilarious. About two sentences in, the prof asked me if maybe my mother had been French, because usually anglophones had all kinds of problems which I didn't seem to have. The rest of the time she kept racking her brains for sentences to stump me with, eventually she had to call over two of her colleagues and we all had a hilarious time. Finally they decided that my nasal consonants could use some work, so with obvious relief were able to assign me to a group that would be working on that.
Also, mercifully, I got bumped up from "advanced" to "superior" (or will be on Monday). In the new group I will have the same teacher, but there are only six students, many of them adults like me (nobody in the previous group was over 24). 
I have been accused of many things, but never - until today - of having a French mother.

Friday October 11th:

Went to see a bunraku performance at the Theatre de la Ville tonight. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. However, 25 minutes is an awfully long time to watch two marionettes die in a tragic suicide pact (particularly when part of theritual involved them ripping her sash-thingy and then tying themselves together with it; this gets difficult when each marionette is being manoeuvred by three not-so-unobtrusive ninja-type handlers, so now you had six people trying to make us believe the knot was being tied by dainty puppet fingers - it was like some kind of hideous topology problem gone horribly, horribly wrong, and given that they were going to die by stabbing anyway, what was the point really, though I did enjoy when the music sped up to a nice jaunty rhythm to accompany the frenzied stabbing part, and it's way past time to close these parentheses). So anyway, it was quite unlike anything I had seen before, but did manage to be quite moving and here is a link:

First World Complaint

This picture exemplifies a trend in product development that can only be deplored by sensible consumers everywhere:

On the right is a bottle of Desperados, a delicious beer available here that is rendered all the more delicious by the addition of just a tiny soupçon of tequila. The pleasure of a nice chilled Desperados can be even further enhanced by the addition of a slice of lime. A fact apparently not lost on the manufacturers, because the related product, shown on the left, does indeed involve the addition of a little lime to the mix.

If only they had stopped there, the only debate would be about the relative merits of fresh lime versus added "lime" flavoring. But this debate turns out to be purely academic. Because, as is so often the case, SOME GENIUS IN MARKETING JUST COULDN'T LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE. No, they had to go ahead and add MINT to the whole concoction, thereby entirely wrecking the delicate interplay of beer, tequila, and lime on the tastebuds and MAKING THE WHOLE THING TASTE PREDOMINANTLY OF MOUTHWASH.

Enough already! We don't want chocolate-wasabi rice Krispies, or beetroot-peppermint corn chips.
Sometimes less really is more.

Thank you for your attention.


Gaspard et Charles

So my first day at the Sorbonne turned out just fine, and now they have my correct e-mail on file. More about this later, but as I am just on my way out the door to class (and to have my phonetics test this afternoon, to see how much remedial work will be necessary throughout the semester), I will leave you with two new pictures of Gaspard. Yesterday evening I had dinner with Ellen and Leslie, went back to La Bonne Cécile. The menu had changed from summer to autumn (so no more delicious gazpacho), but Gaspard was still there to welcome us.

He really is a very cute doggie.

And finally, a few words from General De Gaulle:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Not an auspicious beginning

Dear Sorbonne administration,

I know you are French and everything, but surely that only excuses so much bureaucratic ineptitude. It wasn't as if you had promised me a lot, or that my expectations were high. But I thought it reasonable to think that you might follow through on the one little thing that you did promise -- to send me the timetable of classes by today so that I would know when and where to show up tomorrow when classes start.

I would suggest that, given the not inconsiderable fees you charge foreign students for signing up for you damned courses, the scenario in which I am forced to send the e-mail below is not an acceptable one:


Je me suis inscrit pour le semestre d'hiver 2013, pour lequel le cours va commencer demain, et je n'ai pas encore reçu aucune information concernant mon horaire (malgré votre promesse que l'on recevra aujourd'hui). Cela a comme conséquence que j'ignore le lieu et l'heure de la première séance.

Je vous serais reconnaissant de toute aide que vous pourriez apporter à cette question.
David Giltinan

(le numéro sur ma carte d'étudiant est XXXXXX, je suis inscrit au cours F010)
{I enrolled for the winter semester of 2013, for which classes will start tomorrow, and I have not received any information about my schedule (despite your promise that I would receive it today). This has the consequence that I do not know the place and time of the first session.

I would appreciate any help you could provide on this issue.}
Or, to put it succinctly, you ain't nothin' but a bunch of hound dawgs.
I loathe incompetence.
There, I feel much better now.  Thank you for your attention.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Strolling through Paris

Here are links to two albums which have been posted elsewhere (on a social media site which shall not be named). They should be viewable even by those who shun and abhor said nameless social media site; hopefully the act of doing so will not have lasting nefarious consequences for you, or your computer. Though you might want to check for crumbs in your cookies folder, you can't be too careful.

Stroll # 1 (Wednesday October 2nd) :  to the Rimbaud poetry mural and back

Stroll # 2 (Sunday October 6th)   :    to the Tuileries and back

Finally, here is a photo of Gaspard, who welcomed my friend France and me at dinner on Wednesday evening (at la Bonne Cécile):

I can't quite decide whether or not he has an extra paw. What do you think?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review : "Among the Mad" by Jacqueline Winspear (a Maisie Dobbs mystery)

Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs, #6)Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know if the Maisie Dobbs books fall in the 'chicklit' category or not, but I have a secret weakness for them. I am reading this one on my fancy new Kindle, which is skinnier than I would ever have thought possible. Life is good.

The burning question, of course, remains the same. Will this be the book where Maisie finally gets laid? Will she even get a chaste peck on the cheek? Lord knows, it's time - it's been 14 years since the end of the Great War, and the shell-shocked fiance who was confined to the loony bin was killed off a few books back. Surely, even the virtuous, feisty, wise Maisie HAS NEEDS.

But I'm not holding my breath. Much as I enjoy Jacqueline Winspear, it's clear by now that she's more interested in studding her books with those colorful period details mined from the bowels of the Bodleian than broaching a topic as indelicate as allowing Maisie a bit of nookie more than once a decade.

Not that we don't enjoy those lovingly researched period details - they warm the cockles of our BBC/Masterpiece Theatre/PBS-loving hearts. In general, Ms Winspear has a fairly light touch. Her books are fun to read, and this latest instalment is no exception. It seems churlish to point out that it would have been better to relegate the whole dead baby/bereaved mother subplot to whatever Dickens story it escaped from. A writer as talented as Ms Winspear has no need to resort to that kind of emotional manipulation.

added, July 16th, 2010:

Now that I've had a few days to digest "Among the Mad", I feel I should add that I think it's one of the best in the series. The main plot (escalating acts of terrorism by a wounded WWI veteran, involving the release of nerve gas, first targeting members of the government, then the general public, with a down-to-the-wire manhunt to find him before his planned New Year's Eve finale) could be taken from today's headlines. The slow buildup of tension is extremely well done - Winspear has a gift for pacing, and her account of the interactions among the various parties involved in the chase (Scotland Yard, the Special Branch, government research labs, Maisie and her assistant) is entirely convincing.

You could turn on your TV on any given Tuesday evening and find an episode of NCIS* whose plot is virtually identical to that of "Among the Mad". The forensics would be much glitzier, and the threat would be some kind of bio-weapon, but the themes and issues explored would be remarkably similar. We are used to thinking of Ms Winspear as someone who brings the past to life in her stories - the themes explored in this particular story still resonate in 2010.

*: another guilty pleasure of mine; comparison with NCIS should be considered as high praise (but it's frankly a relief that Maisie Dobbs doesn't have an iphone, particularly if you're a closet Luddite like me).

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hannibal Lecter's Bedside Table (not for the squeamish)

On Wednesday, I went with my friend Ai to visit the Museum of Medical History at the Sorbonne. It was a stark reminder that we can be glad we actually live in the age in which we do -- some of the exhibits were downright grisly. Here are some of the tamer items on display:

a rather dashing prosthetic hand, from the 17th (?) century

the less said here, the better

a surgeon's battlefield kit, from the Napoleonic era

with a rather dashing surgeon's hat.

The Victorian obsession with trepanning was well-represented.

And we were reminded that the very first chainsaw was developed for "medical" purposes (for performing Caesarean sections, if you must know). See also the first few minutes of this episode of QI:

Here's a rather charming olde-worlde hearing aid

Need some headphones for your new Apple gadget?

Or would you like to figure out just what horrific ocular ailment you have?

But - hands down - by far the creepiest item on display at the medical museum was this initially fairly innocuous-looking table:

Hmm. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Yes! That's right! The delightful inlay is made up entirely of human body parts.

And there, I think, we can safely leave the matter. Be thankful that I spared you the equipment for removing kidney stones.

But if you are really curious, more photos can be found below. Be warned, you click on that link AT YOUR OWN RISK:

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Glorious Week in the City of Light (Part 1)

I am in the middle of a two-week break from classes, as I get the distinct impression that once classes (finally!) begin at the Sorbonne, things will get quite busy. There will be homework assignments, for example, in addition to an average of 4 hours lectures/phonetics lab a day. Last week the weather was gorgeous, so I thought I would just upload some photos, with a little bare commentary. I don't feel up to piercing commentary on French social mores just yet -- maybe later on in my stay.

On Monday, I had to check in at the building where our classes will be held, to do the mandatory level placement test. I was somewhat taken aback at the relatively young age of the others doing the test, and at their relatively low level of French (judging from their questions). But the professor who administered the oral exam was encouraging, indicating that "at your level", there will be a higher level of "mature students". I do hope she is right; nothing against twenty-somethings, but they tend to socialize when others of us are already tucking up in bed. Anyway, the building where classes will be held seems pleasant enough:

After the test, I walked all the way home, through the Jardin de Luxembourg:

As I approached this fountain, it was still turned off, but then this little guy appeared, winked at me, and vanished underground to turn it on, as if he were doing so just for me!

If I am not mistaken, this is a statue of Mary Queen of Scots. Not sure how she ended up in the Luxembourg.

Back past the Palace of Justice

and these animal guardians of the Marais

in time for an aperitif at one of my local cafés:

This iconic fountain, known as a Wallace fountain, was just feet from my table; in fact the waiter was concerned I might get splashed. They are dotted all over Paris, and have an interesting history, which you can read about here

Well, that's probably enough for one post. To be continued ...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Expat Survival Strategies : the BBC on YouTube

No matter how much fun it is exploring life in a foreign city, there are times when you yearn for the comforts of home. In my experience, Sundays can be particularly tricky -- sometimes you wake up missing home, and the day seems to stretch ahead of you interminably. But I have developed some coping strategies (as you do). One of the things that keeps me entertained, and without which my life would be distinctly poorer, is the availability of fresh episodes of some of my favorite BBC programs on YouTube. Not talking about "Doctor Who" or "Broadchurch" or "Sherlock Holmes" or "Downton Abbey" here (these last two are actually available on French TV, which is otherwise forgettable, except of course for the weekly Friday night "NCIS" marathon). No, it's the smart and often hilarious quiz and panel shows that keep me happy.

My three particular favorites are:

QI, hosted by the inimitable Stephen Fry:

Only Connect, the world's toughest quiz, hosted by the delightful poker wizard, Victoria Coren Mitchell:

and the slightly more juvenile, but always funny, Mock the Week, hosted by my compatriot, Dara O' Brian:

On those cloudy Sunday afternoons, when I miss my friends in SF (and my kitty), these fine programs help cheer me up enormously.

Why not give them a try? You might enjoy them too.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Au Clair de la Lune (et d'autres chansons enfantines françaises)

During our sortie pédagogique on Thursday, I came across a little series of postcards illustrating common French children's songs, some of which are shown below:

That's a very aristocratic-looking shepherdess in the last picture. Shades of Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon.

Lazy Sunday

Let's open with an appropriately jentacular image:

Slightly blurred, but I hadn't had any coffee yet, so not unrepresentative of my state at the time.

This conjures up an image of a pleasant hour or two, spent leafing through Le Monde, re-acquainting myself with the amusing details of la vie en France, right? Sadly, this was not the case. As I have probably mentioned before on this blog, Le Monde is one of the great disappointments of daily life in France. It may not be one of the worst daily newspapers in the world (surely the San Francisco Chronicle is high in the running for that particular dubious honor), but it is certainly one of the most boring. We're talking excruciating tedium here, folks, this is a paper where it seems as if the reporters are in constant competition to see who can churn out the most unreadable, turgid, prose.

"Why should this be?", I hear you ask, "the French are not known for being particularly stupid". My theory is that it's a result of bad habits drilled into every French student during the last two years of high school. Not only are they forced to learn a style of writing that reached its apogee during the 18th century, they are also inculcated with the belief that this is the only acceptable style of writing for anyone wishing to be considered a credible intellectual. This brainwashing process is so effective that no member of the chattering classes ever seems to have the nerve to challenge it. The results are predictable and horrifying : page after page of pompous, leaden, unreadable prose in all the major newspapers and magazines, the nauseating spectacle of the same inner circle of bloviating, self-important, "public intellectuals" (predominantly male and caucasian) monopolizing the airwaves night after night .... you wonder how people stand for it.

To be fair, a few liberal and/or satirical publications ("Liberation", "Le canard enchainé") manage to break this stereotype, but these are rare beacons of light in a sea of fog and confusion.

But enough of this rant, let's move on to more pleasant topics. What is going on here?

Yesterday afternoon there was a great little "celebration of culture" along the Quai de Loire, which borders the Canal St Martin. This little origami boat was cruising around; the crew would throw these little origami boats (each with a poem written by a French child) onto the water. Each of these little boats had a hook on it, and there were people on the quay handing out fishing poles for passers-by to catch the little mini-boats. It was very sweet.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Yippi - i - yay!!!!!

Question: What can you get if you have a valid Irish passport, an advanced degree from an American university, a working credit card, and a willingness to charge roughly $2200 to that credit card?

Answer: You get to be a student at the Sorbonne!!!!

With a student ID card to prove it.

Je suis, comment le dire, un campeur heureux.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

For all you art lovers out there.

Your average Whipping Cats reader is, I like to imagine, a cultured sort. All about gallery visits, long walks on the beach, and a big dollop of Merlot when all that culture gets to be too much. This link is for you, dear average Whipping Cats reader:

The Plain People of Ireland: Begob yes, sure we're all about the culture, provided there's none of that filth that you find all over the place these days. Didja ever see that wan picture, "Dogs Playing Poker". That's art for you right there, see?

Whipping Cats Management: For once and for all, will ye bloody well shut up? Ye know ye are not allowed in the main body of a post. Only in footnotes and comments, damn ye!

PPoI: Alright, alright, no need to lose yer calm. Just keep yer shirt on!

WCM: Le sigh gallique.

Sortie Pédagogique

This afternoon our sortie pédagogique took us on a tour of the covered arcades of Paris. Some of them are very beautiful:

But of course the best kind of sortie pédagogique is one where one gets to do a little shopping along the way:

A package from "A la Mére de Famille". Looks promising. What might be inside??

Delicious onion jam!
I will think of you, Betsy O' D., when I eat it, never fear!