Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, January 31, 2011

Alien

A very old and dear friend of mine (American) once said to me, over too many glasses of red wine, “I don’t like you very much when you speak French.”  When I asked her what she meant, she replied that she thought I had changed and had become someone completely alien to her.
Alien.  I was thoroughly shaken by that comment.  Is this what happens to someone who has lived a very long time outside of his or her culture of origin? Is there a part of us that becomes odd and unrecognizable to our oldest friends and family as we become more and more competent in the ways of our host culture?  Is there something “foreign” in our outlook and our mannerisms that disturbs our oldest friends and family?
To take it one step further, did something very fundamental change in our personalities when we crossed over into another culture and language?  I am not talking about surface assimilation and I am not talking about getting over culture shock.
This is the question I ask myself:  if I had stayed in the US and not moved to France in my early 20’s, would I be today, at 45, fundamentally the same person with the same character and personality?  Are the changes that come with integration/assimilation so deep that whatever it is that makes me an individual is someone radically different from the hypothetical person I would have been if I stayed home?
It is impossible to test this hypothesis. I did leave and I could not have spent the last 20 years in two places.  But here are a few ideas that I play with.
Deep assimilation into another reality is a radical destruction of the old persona and the gradual reconstruction of a new one that is more appropriate to the context.  Does one ever consciously think that, no, here I draw the line and I will not change?  Yes.  I think this is why immigrants hold fast to their religious beliefs or, in my case, a visceral attachment to the concept of “free speech”.   
Wherever you draw the line, the whole process is very destabilizing to those of us who live it.  It makes me question every single damn day, “What am I?" There are moments I crave the ignorance of those who have never ever left home.  Where is my center?  Where is the part of me that will never change wherever I am?  Every person an individual, says my North American upbringing.  But how unique is the individual molded by culture?
We adapt so well.  It is frightening how quickly we change to suit the circumstances.  
And how we become strangers to our compatriots.
“...the image of a constant human nature independent of time, place, and circumstance, of study and professions, transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion, that what man is may be so entangled with where he is, who he is and what he believes that it is inseparable from them... Whatever modern anthropology asserts - and it seems to have asserted almost everything at one time or another - it is firm in the conviction that men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not in fact exist, have never existed, and most important, could not in the very nature of the case exist.”

Clifford Geertz
The Interpretation of Cultures

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Flophouse in Morocco - Departure

Just before I left Casablanca I had a very interesting conversation with one of my classmates at EHTC who has been following this blog.  He seemed to be concerned that I was only seeing the positive and that I was missing the larger picture.  He is absolutely right.  One week is not nearly enough to acquire a true understanding of the people, the culture and the country.  

However, I came disposed to like Morocco and I was not disappointed.  Not once.

I also find it terribly ironic (after being warned repeatedly about Moroccan cab drivers) that the first thing that happened to me when I returned to France last night was to get a taxi driver who "got lost" on the way to Versailles.  He actually tried to charge me 100 Euros for a trip from Roissy. :-)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Flophouse in Morocco - The City

After leaving the mosque the rest of the day was spent on a whirlwind trip around the city.  We passed leisurely through the old quarter on tiny side streets, drove by the port, looped around to see the palace, looped around again and headed for the ocean where I walked along the beach and sniffed the cold clean salty air of the Atlantic.


The Bazaar
I also did some walking around the bazaar.  Mustapha dropped me off at the main entrance after assuring me that I could wander as I wished and that he would be right there if I had any problems.  The bazaar was a grand collection of narrow streets and small shops selling jewelry, clothing and carpets.  Everywhere I went I was met with a "Bonjour" and a "Please come in" wave.  No one seemed offended when I politely declined.  I stopped in front of one jewelry shop and the owner asked me if I was looking for anything in particular.  He ran down the list:  clothing, jewelry, etc.  After I said no to each and every one, he gave me a resigned smile and said, "Tapis volant?" (How about a flying carpet?).

Under Construction
As a general rule of thumb, I measure a people's optimism about their country's future by the number of ambitious public works and private construction sites and a dearth of local people grumbling about it.  Casablanca is definitely "Under construction." I saw plans and sites for:  a new port, a new tramway, a mall, and a train station (future TGV) not to mention many new private houses and apartment buildings.

Mustapha said that much of this is driven by the King who has launched a plan for the modernization of the city and takes a personal interest in his plan's progress.  We were caught in more than one traffic jam caused by work on the tramway and people seemed to be relatively good-natured about the inconvenience.

King Mohammed VI
Most of my impressions about royalty are shaped by the very public goings-on of that family in England.  So, imagine my surprise when we stopped at an intersection and I saw two motorcycles sweep past, followed by a very stylish (but not ostentatious) black car which was apparently being driven by the King himself.  I personally have never met a Moroccan (from cab drivers to engineers) who had a bad word to say about the King who seems to have his people's genuine respect and esteem.

To finish the tour we went just outside the city limits to a hill with green fields and horses and sheep running free.  I could see the whole city - a sweeping panorama with the sea to my left and the city in all its glory.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Flophouse in Morocco - The Mosque


The day began at 9:30 AM when my trusted counselor and guide, Mustapha, stopped by the hotel to pick me up for a trip into the center of town.  First stop, the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world.

Full disclosure, this is the first time I have ever visited a mosque.  


About 20 years ago I glanced, just once, at the interior of a very small but beautiful mosque in the northern part of the city of Seattle but I did not dare to enter.  So, I had no idea what to expect.  No preconceptions.  Just a sense that being allowed entry to a sacred place was an exceptional honor.

I arrived just in time for the 10:00 official tour of the Hassan II Mosque which, unlike many mosques, is open to the public.


I wish I had had a tape recorder during the visit.  The guide, Mohammed, was exceptionally warm and gracious. I heard more of the elegant French I have come to expect, and he made us all laugh and feel at home as he led us through the main areas and down into the lower levels.  


I noticed as well that he made an effort to single out each person in the group, asking questions or including a person to illustrate a point about the mosque. 


Mine was:
"Madame, do you see the writing in Arabic above that column?  
Do you know what it says?  
It says "Interdit aux blondes" (Forbidden to blondes)."


After we had a good laugh, he smiled and said, "What it really says, Madame, is, 'All this is made possible by God.'"

My writing skills are unequal to the task of doing justice to this extraordinary structure.  I am sure you can find better descriptions in books and on the Net. Here is one. I shall, nevertheless, do my poor best to tell you what I saw and what I felt.


My first thought was: such elegant simplicity and luminosity, such spacious grandeur.  As we moved around the inside of the mosque and approached the walls and the the ceilings, I completely changed my vision and suddenly everything became complex - a dance of intricate, changing patterns repeated perfectly. The grand chandeliers above my head reminded me of Dale Chihuly's work.
  
Three of the four elements, air, earth, and water, were all represented:  the roof that opens to reveal the sun (or the stars), the stone columns and floor, the carved wood of the gallery, and the river that flows down the center aisle.  


And all the technology was cunningly hidden from view in the middle of the patterns that graced the ceiling and walls.  Necessary but secondary - nothing that would distract a visitor (or more importantly a believer) from the visual beauty and harmony surrounding him or her.

I left the mosque with a sense of peace as though some hungry part of my senses and spirit were fed in the brief time I spent there.  I will come back and I will try (if allowed) to visit the grand mosque in Paris when I return home.

Tomorrow: the old quarter the sea and the bazaar.

And a passing view of the King, Mohammed VI...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Flophouse in Morocco - Purpose

It all started in Tokyo.


I had been dreaming for nearly 10 years of going back to school. But the time was never right.  I looked at brochures, I consulted web sites, I talked to people who had done it, but there was always something else going on at work or at home that had me shelving my dream and soldiering on.  


Then one day I realized that, by default, I was on what Ferriss calls the Deferred Life Program.  This is when you tell yourself the following, "Some day when I get rich/am successful/get promoted/the kids go to college/I retire, I will go back to school/travel more/start my own company and it will be a fine adventure."  


In the interim, of course, you churn in frustration waiting for that magical day when you can stop living your practical, responsible, comfortable existence and do the things you've always wanted to do.   In Tokyo in 2007 I decided to stop dreaming and start doing. 


So I applied and, to my astonishment, was accepted at the Temple University Japan MBA program in Tokyo.  I was having the time of my life when another opportunity presented itself and we moved back to Paris.  But I was not about to give up.  After getting over the reverse culture shock I went looking for another program so I could continue my studies.  One of my professors in Japan suggested the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees International School of Management.  I met with the Dean, Tawfik Jelassi, and a few months later I was back in school.  


At the end of 2010 I had only two classes remaining and I thought it would be a shame to finish up my coursework without taking advantage of the fine network of sister schools that ENPC has all over the world.  So I asked to take my very last class at the Ecole Hassania des Travaux Publiques in Morocco (EHTC).  Dean Jelassi gave his blessing and Said Dhaibi of EHTC made all the arrangements.   Monday morning I flew out of Paris and Monday evening in Casablanca I was being welcomed by Professor Stuart Chambers and the participants of the EHTC Executive MBA program.


"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world;  the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
George Bernard Shaw



Monday, January 24, 2011

The Flophouse in Morocco - Arrival

Outbound this morning on the 7:25 Air France flight from Paris and arrived right on time at 9:45 local time.

Woke up near the end of the flight, looked out the window and thought, "I must have taken the wrong flight. This looks like Ireland."

Passed the controls, found a cab and headed into town.  It had rained the day before and everything was green and lush and stunningly beautiful.  And a good 7 degrees warmer than Paris. 


Shared these observations with the cab driver and we started chatting away. I liked his French (elegant) and I liked him (an older courtly gentleman).


Just before we arrived at the hotel the cabbie gently gave me some fatherly advice:  no walking around after dark by yourself in this neighborhood, keep your cell phone and computer out of sight and so on.  Then he laughed, looked at me slyly in the rear-view mirror and said, "Nothing against you, Madame, and nothing against foreigners in particular.  It's just the way things are."

For the advice, the obvious concern and the great conversation I was more than happy to pay the slightly (only slightly) elevated fare when we arrived at the hotel.  

I know a number of Moroccan expatriates through school and work in France and my overall impression has been that these folks are the salt of the earth:  hard-working, hospitable and generous.  My first day in Morocco has certainly confirmed that.



Tomorrow:  Why the Flophouse pulled up stakes and headed south for the week.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Du bas ou du boa

Another offering from our guest poet, Corinne Texier. 


Du bas ou du boa …

Il est étrange de pouvoir comprendre,
Comment une chose aussi transparente,
Dieux, mais que la nature est brillante.
D’un fil, un bas, je vais vous apprendre,
Le secret du boa de soie dévorant sa proie,
Mais quoi ? Oui une jambe, il va de soi.

Pour vous, je vais tenter de révéler,
Je sens déjà les regards sur moi portés,
Enfin façon de parler, juste sur la proie,
Longue, fine et musclée, pour le boa de soie.

Ce voile va sur elle doucement la protéger,
De vos doigts maintenant pressés de toucher.

Débutons notre étude par la mise en présence,
D’un bas et d’une jambe, admirer l’aisance.
Pour apprivoiser ce gant de soie si fin,
La main doit glisser délicatement afin,
Que le bras puisse venir le réveiller,
Et l’air lui aussi, en lui, s’engouffrer.

La position du corps doit être approprié,
Sinon gagez que la chute est aussitôt assurée.
Donc en appuis sur une fesse, jambes croisées,
Le corps en avant, afin que le pied soit touché,
Entre pouces et index, le boa tout recroquevillé.
Ecartons délicatement la bouche géante,
Sur ce délicat petit pied bientôt mangé.

Les pouces sur la peau posée, pour le guider,
Car la cheville maintenant doit être avalée ….

Faisons une pose, il ne faut pas le brusquer.
Comment non ! Dois je vraiment continuer ?
Mais vous êtes peut être fatigué de regarder.
Je ne sais, s’il me faut ainsi tout vous dévoiler.

C’est peut être un divertissement sans intérêt,
Mais sans vous, je ne peux que m’arrêter .....

Voilà qu’un matou, du boa vint s’approcher
Pattes de velours, il tenta par le cou de l’attraper.
Il semblait par la proie totalement hypnotisé.
Mais du repas, il ne devait que regarder.

Sur sa patte, une tape venait d’être donnée.
Le pied doucement sur sa poitrine pausé,
Dans un sursaut, la proie venant le repousser.
Le matou sur le cul venait alors de tomber.

Le boa ne pouvant de son repas laisser,
A ce félin effronté la possibilité de toucher.
Un index, sous son nez venait maintenant frétiller,
De gauche à droite rapidement pour le stopper.

La proie lentement se détendait pour le dîner,
Du festin le boa de soie de nouveau motivé.
De la cheville lentement il pouvait disposer.
Et hop la voilà goulûment dans sa gueule avalée.

Remontant sur la peau, le collier venant se déplier.
Une astuce doit être maintenant vous être mentionnée.
La jambe doit être légèrement relevée et déplier,
Ceci, afin de la cuisse et du genoux soulager.

Dos droit, jambes décroisées pour non courbaturer,
Et surtout du boa ainsi son avancer faciliter.
Cette position permet au poumon de respirer,
De laisser entrevoir leur rondeurs émoustillées.

Concentrons nous de nouveau sur son avancé !
De part et d’autre du mollet, sensuellement remonté,
L’aisance du boa et des doigts est à souligner.
L’intrépide lentement glisse sur la peau satinée.

Mais de la démonstration il faut d’autres invités,
Le matou est déjà par la souris subjuguée.
Le repas pour lui n’a pas encore sonné,
Et une pause de nouveau doit s’imposer.

La rondeur du genou ce voit annoncée …

Allez, osez ! Venez prés du matou, vous installer …

Mais qui voyons nous venir s’installer !
La conteuse rend hommage aux invités.
D’un petit cercle, la proie vient le saluer,
Comme un oiseau sous son nez voleter.

Nous allons donc pouvoir continuer.

Réveillons ce boa car de son dîné,
Il est loin d’avoir encore terminé.
Le genou est pour lui une difficulté,
Car sa bouche s’en voit fragilisée.

En effet, de la colline il doit passer,
De la rondeur, il faut de la dextérité.
La jambe maintenant de soie drapée,
Devant s’étendre et légèrement ce relever.

Vos yeux sur le genou doivent rester,
De la cuisse et l’intimité ne pas regarder.
Ne rester pas comme ceci, bouche bée !
Il vous faut rester absolument concentré.

Donc, de gauche à droite, avec agilité,
Lentement la soie se laisse appliquer.
Mais je vous entends déjà respirer,
Votre souffle par instant vous retenez.

N’ayez crainte, le boa est fort bien dressé,
La proie sait comment la soie charmer.
Goulûment, le serpent en fait qu’une bouchée,
Du genou maintenant il est enfin rassasié.

Les doigts sur la soie de la colline s’élancer,
Sur la pente de la cuisse fine et fuselée.
Attention, il ne faut surtout pas précipité,
Car sur une ronce de vos doigts peu l’accrocher.

La jambe doit absolument le boa retarder,
Et doucement le genou se replier,
Afin que sur le sol, le pied vienne se poser,
Les doigts devant la bouche de soie relâcher.

Car il faut le boa impérativement aider,
De ces mains la conteuse doit vérifier,
Que le boa de soie, sur la proie, soit bien posé.
La conteuse se délecte de pouvoir ainsi abuser.

De part et d’autre, les mains, du bout du pied,
Lentement vont maintenant remonter,
Enfin descendre, le terme sera plus approprié.
La jambe, pour votre plaisir s'est de nouveau levée.

Ecouté le chant du boa sous la peau satiné,
Imaginé comment les doigts sont électrisés,
La cheville, le tibia, et le genou rondelet …

Voilà, le collier de soie est presque appliqué,
Il ne lui reste que la dernière chevauchée...

Souhaitez-vous que je vous narre sa destinée ?

A ce que je vois, nous n’avons plus d’invité !
Mais de votre faim, je ne veux point vous laisser,
De votre attente sans fin je ne peux encore abuser
Bien que vos regards soient de moi très appréciés.

Donc le voici qui de nouveau semble affamé,
Mais de la cuisse, il ne peut d’un coup avaler,
La proie semble si longue et si musclée,
Que doucement, sur elle il lui faut glisser.

La cambrure du dos doit se prononcer,
La tête doucement venir se renverser,
Pour laisser la chevelure dans le dos couler,
Et ainsi la fesse opposée se contracter.

Avec cet appuis maintenant trouvé,
La jambe et le genou dessous se replier,
Afin que la taille fine puisse pivoter,
Et la poitrine à vos yeux montrer.

Maintenant que la proie est installée,
Le boa de soie du trésor va s’approcher.
Lentement le voilà entrain de remonter,
A mis cuisse, il vient de s’arrêter …

Car de part sa nature, il faut le soigner,
Et du temps il va lui falloir à digérer.
C’est pour cela qu’il faut penser à le fixer,
Et de dentelle il mérite d’être couronné.

Il nous faut pour un temps le laisser,
Je dois avant tout vous présenter,
A quoi le boa de soi vient de s’exposer,
Car la proie n’est celle que vous pensez.

Une fine dentelle de la taille va l’attacher,
Et les doigts dans le dos viennent l’accrocher,
De fine lanière le long de la cuisse sont révélées,
Il nous reste plus que du boa, sa bouche attrapée.

Prés du trésor le voici maintenant installé,
Tout lui semble à son goût et de vous apprécier,
Toujours cambrée …

Messieurs ! Veuillez un peu vous concentrer !

De la poitrine et du trésor, vos yeux abandonner,
Car uniquement du boa vous devez vous soucier,
D’une pince sur le haut de la cuisse facilement fixée,
Mais de votre aide en dessous, il me faut appeler.

Le quel d’entre vous aura autant de dextérité,
Et à la conteuse la suite maintenant narrer …


Mais que voici une Ombre bien téméraire,
Tel le boa sa main vient effleurer sa chair,
La conteuse frémie sous cette caresse légère,
Et du boa sa jambe la voilà enfin prisonnière.

La voici maintenant vers son pied se pencher,
Sa main légèrement venant aussitôt s’y poser,
Sa poitrine ronde et ferme de la cuisse effleurer,
Remontant lentement afin du boa bien ajuster.

Sa main remonte, lissant les courbes gracieuses,
Inlassablement, elle se fait douce et capricieuse,
Mais pour vous sa main est une torture odieuse,
Remontant … Et du trésor, effleurant la fleur radieuse.

La voici qui sur le bas de son ventre, la charmeuse,
Ce jouant du boa, elle se veut pour vous capiteuse,
Trouvez vous que sa main est des plus chanceuse,
Mais elle est pour l’instant de votre désir la voleuse.

Un frisson vient faire virevolter sa poitrine.
Est-ce le résultat de cette caresse coquine ?
Ou sur sa hanche cette brûlure divine ?
Mais il nous faut penser aussi à sa voisine.

Et d’un autre boa nous saisir pour bien faire,
Car la nature pour vous les a fait naître par pair,
Et l’autre proie en appel à son jumeau de frère,
Pour que d’harmonie ces boas puissent satisfaire.

Mais le voici qui se voit un peu rebelle,
Qui de sa bouche se refuse à la belle,
Et sur le sol, le voici rampant loin d’elle,
Mais viendrez vous aider la Damoiselle ?

Car il me semble que celui là est assez rétif,
Et de la conteuse, il est peut être craintif ?
Dans ces yeux ne voyez vous pas l’objectif,
Qui de vous sera ... Du boa le plus inventif ?

Corinne Texier



Friday, January 21, 2011

National Caricatures

The French are...
The Brits are...
The Americans are...

We've all done it.  A moment of frustration in a strange land or a chat between friends that starts harmlessly enough but takes a nasty twist.

Those darn cultural stereotypes.  Those comments about national characters.  Intellectually, we know this is a crass and demeaning sport better suited to our ignorant and misguided ancestors.  Much as we all would like to think that we have progressed, we still do it at one time or another.  The only difference I see is that now it appears that we've acquired some shame to go along with the activity which only serves to make it all the spicier.

It's also a sport with a long history.  In former days there was a Polish proverb that said:

'What an ITALIAN invents,
A FRENCHMAN makes,
The GERMAN sells,
The POLE buys, and
the RUSSIAN takes from him."

If you would like to read more, look no further than the pages of the New York Times here and amuse yourself with a grand collection of caricatures from the 18th and 19th century.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The French/American Divide - a Few Good Books

In a previous post, I expressed my overall disappointment with the books I’ve read about moving to and living in France. (To name names, I loathe both Mayle and Gopnik)

In compensation for that sweeping generalization, here are a few books that I think are well worth reading if you have a genuine interest in bridging the cultural chasm.

Warning! These are books that may make you uncomfortable. You could be offended by the authors’ conclusions about French or American culture. They will, however, get the grey matter stirring and make you question what you think you already know about Them.

Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall
Very good book that proposes a model for how to approach and interpret another culture. For example, Hall talks about high-context (French) and low-context (English) culture. No value judgements on his part – both are fine – but you navigate differently depending on which one find yourself dealing with. He makes a good case for his belief that French and Japanese cultures have a lot in common and are very much alike.

Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience/Evidences invisibles: Américains et Français au quotidien by Raymonde Carroll
The author tackles some of the most sensitive topics that cause real tension between French and Americans. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Americans’ attitude toward money and her suggestion that the French have very similar feelings about sex.

Français et Américains: l’autre rive/French and Americans: the Other Shore by Pascal Baudry
I gave this book to the elder Frenchling to read when she started asking tough questions about why Americans think one way and the French another. M. Baudry has a doctorate in psychology and the book explores what he thinks are the foundations of our cultural programming. His description of what happens between a mother and child in a typical American playground versus what happens in the French equivalent is, from my experience 100% dead on. Both the French and English versions of his book are available on-line for free here

Sacrés Français : un Américain Nous Regarde by Ted Stanger
This is the book I loan to my French friends and colleagues when I am being bombarded with questions about why Americans think this or that. It has very astute observations about French versus U.S. culture. His style is conversational (how he manages to sound like a Good Old Boy in French is beyond me) and he has a very gentle and funny way of introducing sensitive topics. The last person I gave this book to (a colleague at work) reported back that he enjoyed it very much but some of the chapters had him swallowing hard and fighting to move on to the next page. However, his overall judgement was that it was a fair book and well worth reading.

Bonne lecture!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Flophouse Favorite #4 - Cordes et Ame

Not too far from the St. Lazare train station on the rue de Rome is “Luthier Row”, a collection of shops selling all manner of stringed instruments: cellos, violins, violas...  
In 2002 I decided to start playing again and went looking for a violin.  I wanted something suitable for an amateur (not too dear) but with a good sound. A friend suggested that I try one of the shops there.  After wandering around a bit I found exactly what I wanted at a place called Cordes et Ame - a beautiful 100 year old French violin.

My French violin from the workshop of Jean-Baptiste Colin dated 1901.  
I won’t say that the service was impeccable because that is too poor a description of the experience.  The owner was more of a guide, a trusted counsellor, in my quest to find the right instrument for me. 

I even kept the receipt as a souvenir of that day - the handwriting was so lovely.

Cordes et Ame
46, rue de Rome
75008 Paris
Tel:  01 42 93 42 91



Thursday, January 13, 2011

Immigrant Rage

There is one thing that consistently irritates me in almost every book I’ve ever read by an Anglo-Saxon who took up residence in France;  they write adventure tales about how they discovered the quaint and exotic natives and their strange customs.  
These books bother me for two reasons:
  • They reinforce positive but limiting stereotypes about the French.  
  • They never talk about the dark side - the long struggle toward some level of assimilation - that has you crying in your kitchen and swearing that you will be on the next plane out in the morning.
France is a country with nuclear technology (this includes nuclear submarines) and a highly developed, high-speed transportation system and is home to multi-national corporations in the areas of environmental services and software development.  If I were asked (and I am asked often) to characterize the French I would say:  quick, smart, and creative with a streak of perverse cruelty toward each other and strangers (it’s called ‘bizutage’) 
The culture is implicit which means you have a lot to learn before you can function.  The bizarre twist is that no one will explain the rules to you - figuring it out on your own is a test of your intelligence. It is a negative feedback system;  you don’t know that you’ve done something wrong until someone angrily points out your error.  
All this can lead to a state that Eva Hoffman called “immigrant rage” against the culture you find yourself swimming in. This is the dark side of assimilation.  It’s a state of high sensitivity where any innocuous statement can set you off.  You feel fragmented and lost  when all you really want is to feel “normal”.  From Lost in Translation:
“I don’t want to be told that ‘exotic is erotic’ or that I have Eastern European intensity or brooding Galician eyes.  I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper’s ambition.  I no longer want to have the prickly, unrelenting consciousness that I am living in a specific culture.  It’s time to roll down the scrim and see the world directly, as the world.  I want to reenter, through whatever Looking Glass will take me there, a state of ordinary reality.”
For me I passed through the Looking Glass one day after I had dropped the girls off at nursery school and I was riding the bus to work in Nanterre.  I looked around me and saw the ados in black going to school, the old ladies in their fur coats and funny hats, and the North Africans chatting in a mix of Arabic and French and realized that I wasn’t afraid or anxious or angry.  They weren’t foreign to my anymore and I wasn’t out of place.  This world had become my new normal, my state of ordinary reality.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Guest Room

The Franco-American Flophouse in Versailles is quite charming: lovely garden, nice terrace, fireplace, hardwood floors and a respectable kitchen.   But, it has limited space and, if you visit, you'll have to share a bathroom with two teenagers.

For those of you who find that this does not meet your expectations for luxury and French Old Regime decadence,  you will have another option sometime in late 2011.

A mansion on the castle grounds (which has served as a Finance Ministry and a mess hall for the Army) is being transformed into a luxury hotel.  Photo and article here.

Please be aware that if you choose this option, but still wish for a Franco-American breakfast on a Sunday morning or an afternoon beer on the terrace in MY garden, it is a 20 minute walk along the Avenue de Paris from castle to flophouse.

From the 17th century to the 20th.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Flophouse Favorite #3 - Good Day Books

Mentally stretch and imagine for a moment Tokyo as a suburb of Paris (a little like Belgium or Luxembourg). 

Then take any Parisian metro line and extend it across the Eurasian continent, under the Sea of Japan, to the Ebisu Station on the JR Yamanote line.

Exit the station, stroll a bit and you will find Good Day Books.


This little gem of a bookstore in Tokyo was a frequent hangout of mine when I lived in Japan. I was a proud member of the Bookclub, a discussion group for political junkies animated by the owner, Steve.

Good Day Books is the “largest English bookshop in Tokyo” and it is a marvel. Only bookstore I’ve ever been in that made me feel really REALLY guilty for ordering books through Amazon.com.

Even if you are only in Tokyo for a few days, stop by and chat up Steve.  Remarkable guy, amazing selection of new and used books, a “home” for those of us who like to spend our Sunday afternoons debating the fate of the world.

Good Day Books

3F Asahi Building
1-11-2 Ebisu
Shibuya-ku
Tokyo 150-0013
Tel: 03-5421-0957
goodday@gol.com

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hacking French

Allow me to direct you to someone who I think has found two of the essential ingredients for learning a second language:  a positive attitude and empathy.  Benny the Irish Polygot is a Global Nomad who believes that he has found the secret to quick and easy second-language acquisition.  His site is called Fluent in 3 Months and, while I cannot vouch for his method, I believe that his enthusiasm and open-mindedness are key to his success.  
I firmly believe that there is an important link between opening your mind to a culture and a people and successfully learning another language.  If you don’t like the people that you ostensibly wish to communicate with, your motivation and, ultimately, your goal is compromised from the start.  

For example, if you don’t like English-speakers (be they Brits, Americans, or Australians) -  in fact, if you have a bad attitude toward the Anglo-Saxon world in general - you have created an enormous wall between you and them that will spill over into your efforts to learn English.  
Benny has an excellent post here about his experiences studying French in Paris.  He arrived overflowing with goodwill and a desire to learn which disappeared in a few short months.  Instead of blaming the Parisians, Benny took a good hard look at himself and decided to change his approach (among other things he discovered the System D.)  He called it “starting with a clean slate and opening your mind.”
If you are just starting to learn another language or, if you have struggled for years to master one, a good place to start is by taking inventory of your attitudes and prejudices toward the people who speak your target language.  
Then sweep the halls of your mind clean and begin again.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Etrangeté

I have always been intrigued and impressed by my French friends’ deep appreciation for poetry.
They start young. When the Frenchlings were in elementary school I remember them sitting at the dining room table memorizing poems for French class. They must have learned hundreds of poems, some of which they can recite even today. Over the years and with a lot of guidance from friends, I’ve come to love it too.

So I was delighted when my friend and colleague, Corinne Texier, gave me permission to post some of her work here.

In English the title of the poem is “Strangeness”.   Not wishing to be a “translator, traitor,” I have not translated it into English since I know I couldn’t capture her meaning in a way that would do it justice. May you enjoy it as much as I did.

Etrangeté

Le vent doucement vient de s’apaiser,


Les oiseaux n’osent plus à cet instant chanter,
Le silence comme une feuille sur le sol posé,
Les rides du lac lentement viennent à s’effacer.

Sur ces berges un fantôme semble se dessiner,
Au témoin le voile garde ces traits dissimulés,
Mais ressent le silence que le spectre a imposé,
Il s’approche de l’onde et vient si agenouiller.

On distingue alors ces mains toutes décharnées
Que le vent d’un souffle pourrait briser,
Le témoin à cet instant s’arrête de respirer,
Vers lui le visage lentement vient de se tourner.

La main gracieuse, le voile semble attraper,
Révélant ce visage que le temps à ravagé,
Sur vous son regard, elle vient de poser,
Elle ne semble pas des berges vouloir bouger.

Vers elle maintenant vous vous avancez,
Vous discernez nettement son visage atrophié,
Prés d’elle sur le sol à ses coté, vous venez,
Dans ses yeux noirs vous y retrouvez le passé.

Elle se penche alors vers le miroir de pureté,
Son visage comme par magie vient se refléter,
Il n’est pas celui que vous semblez regarder,
Mais seulement ce que la vie semble lui laisser.

Dans quel miroir le soir voulez vous regarder ?
Celui de ce lac qui seul restitue la beauté ?
Ou celui de mon cœur sous les brumes cachées ?
Une larme des yeux noirs dans le lac est tombée.

Une si petite chose pouvait donc tout effacer,
Comme une flèche le cœur venant transpercer,
Le visage dans l’eau, c’est par magie volatilisée,
Ce spectre a-t-il pour vous réellement existé ?

Moi je l’ai sur cette berge rencontrée,
Un rêve qui me montrait une réalité,
Et les larmes sur mes joues ont coulé,
Dans ce miroir je voulais tant y regarder.

Corinne Texier

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flophouse Favorite #2 - Les Diablotins (formerly Les Galopins)

Restaurant Les Diablotins, 27 rue des Meuniers, Suresnes

When I was working in Suresnes this place was very popular. For those of us who ate there often, it was practically the company cafeteria. There was even a story (probably apocryphal) about one executive who knew the wine list so well that he would bypass the waiter, go straight to the cellar and select his very own bottle of wine from their fine selection.

Really, really good food. The menu is here.

Get a reservation and go for lunch. There is a very nice park across the street so you can walk off your crème brulée. They are closed in August (yes, the entire month) so plan accordingly.

The most memorable meal I had here was right after my boss (two companies ago), the much-loved and greatly respected CIO, announced that she was leaving the company.

My Operations Director and I left the meeting room, walked out onto the streets of Suresnes and headed straight for the restaurant where we ordered:

An aperitif (kir)
The Côte de boeuf for two (a huge slab of perfectly cooked, melt in your mouth, bloody rare, beef )
A nice bottle of Bordeaux (also for two)
Dessert (it was either the Fondant au chocolat or the Crumble)

The meal was superb and, after the third glass of wine or so, we cheered up and started plotting our next career move.

Restaurant Les Diablotins
Tel : 01 45 06 54 54
They also take email reservations

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What is a "Flophouse"?

When I was a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I lived in a house in Seattle that everyone called “The Thackeray Street Hotel”. This house (also called “The Blue House” by the Frenchlings) was located on Thackeray Street in the Wallingford District of Seattle, not far from the University of Washington.

I’m not sure who first came up with the idea of calling it a “hotel” but I surely know why; it was an open house in the best sense of that term. Almost every day there were people popping in and out; some stayed for dinner, some for a night and some practically moved in for months at a time. It wasn’t a large house by any means but there was always room for a friend or a friend of a friend to sleep and there was always space at the dinner table for “just one more if we squeeze the chairs together a bit tighter.” At one time there were so many keys to this house floating around that my parents were no longer sure who had one and who might unexpectedly appear in the evening hours. Interesting people: lawyers, artists, scientists, engineers, anthropologists, jazz and folk musicians, public radio aficionados, a retired Federal Appeals Court judge and at least one hobo.

So when the time came to found my own household I looked for name of my very own. One that captured the bi-cultural nature of the family, the transient nature of our living situation and the hope that we would have our own collection of interesting people to visit us wherever we decided to live.

“Franco-American” was obvious. As a synonym for “hotel”, the archaic American “flophouse” seemed appropriate. When I put the two together I thought that “Franco-American Flophouse” tripped nicely off the tongue.

For those who wish for a formal definition, the Urban Dictionary says: “A run-down boarding house for bums, hobos, and other transients.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=flophouse.
Wikipedia has a bit more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flophouse

Unlike the Thackeray Street Hotel, the Franco-American Flophouse is not a physical place. On the contrary, it will never have a fixed location. But it travels well and has found homes in Seattle, Tokyo, Courbevoie, Suresnes, Paris, and now Versailles.

Think of it as a state of mind; a place where the door is always open, you have your own key and there is always a place at the table for someone with an open mind and a gracious heart.

If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.
Francis Bacon

Saturday, January 1, 2011

French: a Passport or a Citadel?

“For any speaker of it, a given language is at once either more or less his own  or more or less someone  else’s, and either more or less cosmopolitan or more or less parochial - a borrowing or a heritage;  a passport or a citadel.  The question of whether, when, and for what purposes to use it is thus also a question of how far a people should form itself by the bent of its genius and how far by the demand of its times.”
Clifford Geertz
The Interpretation of Cultures
My Frenchlings are bi-lingual by birth;  I am bi-lingual by choice.
When I arrived in France in 1989 I was a mono-lingual American who had taken French classes in high school and university but who was incapable upon arriving in Paris of ordering a baguette in a bakery.  Surviving a job interview was out of the question.  Writing the thank you notes after my wedding was pure torture.  My first job was with an NGO in Paris where the working language was English.
At the time I perceived French as this enormous hurdle I would have to overcome to be able to function normally in this country.  Today I see French as the vehicle, my passport, through which I can move freely though worlds I never knew existed.   This poem by Robert Desnos, for example, which has the power to move me to tears every time I read it: 
Or the excellent novel, Les Bienveillantes by Jonathon Littell which had such terrible reviews in the Anglo-Saxon press that I questioned  the competence of the English translator.
Beyond the world of the arts, French has made friendships and business relationships possibIe in places far beyond the borders of the Hexagone.  Every day, I meet,  work and study with people from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.  It was in French that I discovered Quebec, Canada.  It was French that gave a new dimension to my all too brief relationship with my French-speaking great-grandmother, Celestine Amans.
And if that were not sufficient reason to make me a proud Francophone, here are three more I came up with over my morning coffee:  
Primo - it is the most beautifully precisely imprecise language I have ever encountered.  Why do you think it was the language of diplomacy for so many years?  
Secundo - its demise has been greatly exaggerated and it is more widely spoken than many people think with more than 200+ million native and bi-lingual speakers.
Tertio - since I do speak it, I feel I own a part of it even if I am not French. 
The citadel (the Academie Francaise) be damned - a language is living thing that is lovingly created and re-created every day by those of us who use it.  All of us:  African, American and European.