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

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Classic from Petros

This piece by Peter Dunn (Petros) of the Isaac Brock Society is destined to become a Christmas classic among us "U.S. Persons" abroad.

It certainly enjoyed a wide audience last year (it was reprinted in Dan Mitchell's blog among other places) and it is worth reading because, while it is certainly great satire, it is also factually correct.  The U.S. government does require that all its citizens and Green Card holders living abroad file foreign bank account reports and tax returns. Failure to do so may indeed "result in civil and criminal penalties including imprisonment."

Ho ho ho....

If this information comes as a surprise to all you otherwise good and law-abiding ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I strongly urge you to head directly over to the Isaac Brock Society to get informed about the Diaspora Tax War of 2012/13.

Santa Claus Arrested Following Joint Investigation by IRS, INS, and FWS
by Peter Dunn

U.S. Federal agents arrested Santa Claus earlier today at the North Pole.

Claus has been charged with multiple counts of money laundering, illegal exportation of currency, illegally importing into the United States toys made of contraband–rare woods, ivory and other banned substances. He has also been charged with violations of slave labor and child labor laws, hundreds of patent and trademark violations, and illegally entering and exiting the United States.

The United States Department of Fish and Wildlife has arrested Santa Claus, an elusive figure with many aliases (e.g., St. Nicholas). 
On the morning of 24 December, 150 heavily armed Fish and Wildlife special agents raided Claus’ North Pole compound, seized several tons of exotic woods forbidden by the Lacey Act, arrested Santa Claus and a female accomplice identified only as Mrs. Claus, and liberated thousands of diminutive slave labourers known only as “Elves”.

Indeed, Fish and Wildlife agents also seized an unidentified aircraft called a “sleigh” which had numerous secret compartments holding the contraband. Fish and Wildlife agents charged Mr. Claus with animal cruelty with regard to the caribou that he used to launch this “sleigh”.

Special Agent Hugo Smith said, “We arrived just in the nick of time. A moment later, and the caribou would have launched the sleigh and Claus would have escaped with the illegal materials. By now, he would be in the United States, breaking into people’s houses and selling this stuff.”

The United States Department of Immigration and the Internal Revenue Service have also had their eyes on Mr. Claus. An immigration official who also attended the raid said that they were able to obtain several dozen passports. He said, “It seems that this Santa Claus character has a different name in every country–his EU passport says, ‘Father Christmas’ and his Canadian passport says, ‘Père Noël’. We have, however, determined with certainty that Santa Claus is a United States citizen.”

Apparently Claus worked in Hollywood during the 1940s and 50s making autobiographical films, such as Miracle on 34th Street. During that time he applied for and received U.S. citizenship.

Douglas Shulman, Commissioner of the IRS, has released the following statement:
"At long last, the notorious tax cheat, Santa Claus, has been apprehended. He has been living in a foreign country for the last 50 years and during that time he has not filed his US taxes even once. It has become clear, however, that he has run a lucrative business at the North Pole and has never reported any of the income. In addition to criminal tax evasion, we intend to charge Santa Claus with 190 counts of criminal failure to file Foreign Bank Account Reports (FBAR), as we found evidence in his papers that he is operating or has signing authority on bank accounts in 190 different countries. It is our contention that the fines alone could help us bring billions in revenue into the United States government."
According to United States law, all United States Citizens are required to pay taxes to the IRS and to report any foreign bank accounts. Failure to obey these filing requirements may result in civil and criminal penalties including imprisonment.

The Obama administration declared that they were very pleased with the news.. ”It is about time,” Obama said from his Hawaiian retreat, “that the United States returned those who have fled the country just because they don’t feel like paying their fair share anymore.”

The Republican candidate for president, Ron Paul criticized the raid, “The United States has neither the authority nor the right to go into another country and enforce its laws. Santa Claus is a citizen of the North Pole and it is overreach for us to go there and arrest him.”

Also running for president, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich responded to Paul, “The United States must reserve the right to arrest terrorists and to violate the rule of law in order to provide safety for the People of the United States.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada said that his government did everything that they could to help the United States, even to the point of allowing the use of Canadian air space. ”We are cooperating with the good faith efforts of the United States to eliminate terrorists in order to maintain the safety and security of all Canadians.”

Monday, December 24, 2012

Joyeux Noël!

To the Flophouse friends and family scattered all over the planet and to all the folks out there whom it has not yet been our pleasure to know,  we wish you all peace and joy this holiday season.

Merry Christmas!  Joyeux Noël!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Conundrums of the Exile

We are just a few short days away from Christmas.  Since we are moving on the 28th of December we are living in disorder - in an apartment surrounded by empty shelves and cardboard boxes.

We are leaving just enough stuff out to be able to do a minimal Christmas. The
Réveillon (Christmas Eve dinner) will be foie gras, smoked salmon and oysters because these thing are really really good and require almost no preparation or cooking.  Christmas day dinner will most likely be a capon (castrated rooster).

Still up in the air is where and when we will attend Mass.  The past couple of years I've celebrated Christmas Mass at St. Joseph's in Paris.  This is the Roman Catholic "mission Anglophone" which serves the English-speaking Catholic community (Irish, Canadian, American, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Indian and others).  This is a church I really love for its diversity, exceptional music and because Father Aidan (Irish) and Father Melvin (American) preach amazing sermons and make the Mass come alive.  The Christmas Mass at St. Joseph's is special to me because I get to hear and sing in English the Christmas carols of my childhood - something that has the power to make me feel both terribly sad and to soothe my spirit all at the same time.   The Frenchlings are interested because they have never been to a Mass in English (only in French) and they think it would be a nice change.

However over the past few months I've become more and more involved in my parish church here in Versailles where the Mass in in French or Portuguese (not English).  I've made connections with people in this parish.  When I go to church on Sunday I know people by name.  So celebrating Christmas here in Versailles means doing so as part of a community of believers in the community where I reside. And I find that matters very much to me these days.

The last option is to go to Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral here in Versailles which will undoubtedly be a wonderful glittering beautiful impressive Mass in one of the city's most extraordinary churches.

If you've been following me so far here you may be asking yourself why all this matters.  Enough already, Madame, going to services on Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ.  Does it matter so much if it's in English or French?   And so on.  Point taken.

And yet, when one is thousands of miles away from one's country of origin, this sort of thing does matter.  There is a reason my parish church offers Mass in Portuguese and it's surely not because this community does not speak French.

My choice here would say something important about where I am in relationship to my home and host countries.   Letting the English- speaking Mass at St. Joseph's go in favor of Mass in French in my local parish is a huge step.  And I find that I am unsure about it.  Am I really ready to let one more thing (among the hundreds of other habits and customs and the like I have dropped over the years) go?  I'm not so sure I'm ready for yet another loss.

These are the conundrums of the exile.

"It was when I realised I had a new nationality: I was in exile. I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other. I am an exile; citizen of the country of longing.”
Suketu Mehta

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Rorate Mass

Roráte, cæli, désuper, et nubes pluant iustum....
Cieux, répandez votre rosée ; que des nuées descende le salut....
Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness...

A stunning slideshow was passed along to me by my family in California.  It was created by their parish church, St. Stephen the First Martyr, in Sacramento and is up on their website.  St. Stephen's is a Roman Catholic church that uses the "la liturgie romaine de 1962"  also known as the traditional Latin Mass.

Some background.  Since the 1960's in all countries the Mass is usually celebrated in the local language.  When I was growing up in a small town near Seattle my parish church, St. Michael's, had mass exclusively in English though, as I recall, our priest was Irish.  At my Catholic high school, Latin was a required subject for all the students (all girls by the way) but never used during Wednesday services in the priory's chapel.

These days I get the impression (not based on any empirical evidence) that Latin is coming back.  In my parish church, Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie here in Versailles the Mass is in French (and in Portuguese)  but some of the prayers and songs are in Latin.  There is one church here in Versailles called La Chapelle de Notre Dame des Armées which like St. Stephen's exclusively uses the Latin rite and has 3 masses a day during the week and 5 on Sunday.

So Latin is far from being a dead language as far as the Church is concerned and its use is not confined to the Church hierarchy but is the liturgical language of choice of Catholic communities all over the world.  And it must be said that the Latin Mass is something to see at least once in one's lifetime.  It is simply beautiful - a feast for the senses and a way to worship that takes one out of the ordinary into the world of the extraordinary.

This slideshow from Saint Stephen's captures that mysterious beauty.  Here they are celebrating what is is called the Rorate Mass.  This mass is traditionally celebrated during Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) by candlelight.  Why?   Well, these days because it is hauntingly beautiful but in a previous era:
The celebration by candle light had originally a more practical reason. According to the Missal of 1570 no Mass could be said after 12.00 Noon. On the other hand, people had to go to work in the morning. Also the Rorate Masses were celebrated in a more solemn form and therefore would last longer. For these reasons the Masses had to begin relatively early in the morning when it was still dark due to winter-time.
The accompanying music is the St. Stephen's choir singing Gabriel's Message.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hitchcock's "Bon Voyage"

I found this short film by Alfred Hitchcock yesterday as I was exploring the links to free films on-line at Open Culture.

"Bon Voyage" was filmed in London, directed by Hitchcock, released in 1944 and was a World War II propaganda film.  It was fun to watch - the accents are delightful and, yes, I agree, "English cigarettes are dangerous."

Enjoy.


Bon Voyage de Alfred Hitchcock par hamletprimero

Friday, December 14, 2012

GRI - Les stéréotypes culturels

A truly brilliant post up on one of my favorite sites,  Gestion des Risques Interculturels, about cultural stereotypes.  

While most of us know more or less that such stereotypes are very dangerous (if not complete rubbish) we still haul them out and use them and we all need to relax and realize that this is not a mortal sin. Let's lighten up and stop being so hard on ourselves or each other.  If I held a grudge for every stereotype used against (or for) me I'd spend my life in a state of permanent resentment.  

It often starts out quite innocently as we search for some way to make a connection with someone who is "Other" and so we grasp for something witty and interesting to say.  This does not always work out so well.  Sometimes before we know it we are saying something we really really regret.  

If I may give an example:  I was presented to a Frenchman one day and as he was shaking my hand he pulled out one of those stereotypes in a very misguided attempt at Gallic gallantry.  "Madame," he said, "It is not possible that you are an American. You are not fat."

Bernard Pelletier says that our thinking and use of stereotypes is natural and universal.   "Face à l’inconnu, le premier mouvement de chacun est d’en penser quelque chose plutôt que rien." (Face to face with the unknown, the first instinct of all of us is to think something rather than nothing.)

Stereotypes are also something that we can all play with.  Using clips from three films, Pelletier  illustrates three possible attitudes we could take toward cultural stereotypes if we are feeling a bit mischievous: la moquerie (humor), le faux-semblant (play along - the clip about the Swiss by the Swiss is excellent) and l'inversion (turning it around).  

Of the three I prefer using humor and playing along because if they are done right, the point is made gently without hurting anyone.  As for the last, inversion, it is, I admit, very powerful and yet it feels mildly aggressive - like a counter strike.  I'll let you decide for yourself.  Here is the video called Africa for Norway that Pelletier uses to demonstrate how it works.  I must say that it did make me laugh and they do get their point across quite effectively.  



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Trustful Surrender

Almost there.  The last two weeks have been very difficult.  As I wrote in a previous post I am undergoing radiotherapy right now.  For those who may be wondering why, the short answer is that this petite Madame has a long-term subscription to the delights at the Rene Hugenin Cancer Center (Institut Curie) in Saint Cloud, France.  Over the past few months I've pretty much had every service they offer:  surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.  Am I a satisfied customer so far?  Well, yes, because  I'm still here.  Can't argue with that result, right?


So how has it been going?  As I suspected that radiotherapy isn't really better or worse than the chemotherapy - it's just different.  The chemo was every three weeks and had some pretty severe side effect.  The radiotherapy has fewer side effects but still makes me very tired not to mention the skin around the affected area being rather red and sore.  And unlike the chemo for the radiotherapy I have to go in every day.  For the first week or so it was pretty fast since I was only scheduled to be zapped under one machine, the Clinac 600.  But that didn't last.  My oncologist decided to add a second machine with a different dose and that has added hours to my time at the hospital.  So these days I am spending roughly 3-5 hours a day in Saint Cloud and in the clinic.  Happily it's not for much longer - the radiotherapy ends for me on December 20th.  I could not ask for a nicer Christmas present.

Nevertheless there have some unexpected benefits to spending more time over there.  For one thing I've had more time to visit the city of Saint Cloud which has the most amazing church, Saint Clodoald.

Three things about this church that I absolutely love:  the Chapel to Mary which has a really beautiful mosaic of angels playing various musical instruments which appeals to the violinist in me;  the request you see as you enter the church which asks that you pray for the various benefactors who over the years have contributed to the support of this particular parish - the first name on the list is Sa Majesté Marie Antoinette, a woman who may have been a bit clueless but surely did not lack for piety;  and the last a mosaic hidden on the wall of one of the chapels that pays tribute to the visit of an American bishop from St. Louis.  

All this and the nave which is quite stunning.


Another benefit has been a gradual getting to know the other patients and the technicians that manage the accelerators for our daily doses.  Again teamwork is required here.  The techs have a hell of a job keeping the machines up and running and the flow of patients moving.  Over the past few weeks there have been technical problems which have meant delays of up to 2 hours.    I was under one the other day and it was taking longer than normal and so I looked up at the screen only to see something that looked suspiciously like a Windows error message.  First and I hope the only time in my life I will ever pray, "Please God, be cool and do not let this machine be managed with Microsoft software..."

As patients our job most of the time is to be patient.  Sometimes we do complain (the French are very creative "râleurs") but mostly everyone is calm and, to my surprise, quite friendly and more than happy to strike up conversations. It even gets a bit giddy from time to time.  Earlier this week we spontaneously held a "concours" in the waiting room - we whipped off our various scarves to see who had the most hair.  I didn't win but I wasn't dead last either.

And finally the last big benefit is that I get to take the train a lot from Versailles Chantiers to Saint Cloud.  I'm a huge fan of trains and I like nothing better than to hop onto a warm train, settle into a seat and watch the world go by as we clickety-clack down the tracks.  I get a lot of reading done as well some of which is pure brain candy (my beloved paranormal romances) but not all.  You might find this odd but in the face of one's possible demise the question, "How shall I live?" becomes oddly pressing and of enormous interest.

Right now I'm working my way through two books, the first of which was sent to me by family in California called Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence by the 17th century religious writer, Father Jean-Baptiste Saint-Jure, and a few words from Saint Claude de la Colombière (both French and of the Society of Jesus aka the Jesuits) all translated from the original French.  A pretty extraordinary little book.

The second is also pretty amazing, and though it comes from a different starting point from the above book, it ends up more or less in the same place with similar counsel.  It's called Stoic Serenity by Keith Seddon and it's both a self-paced course on that philosophy which has you reading excerpts from Seneca's Letters from a Stoic and the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and a very good read all by itself since Dr. Seddon is quite a good writer.  I'll end this post with one of the quotations I've been contemplating over the past few days:
Can what has happened to you prevent you in any way from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, prudent, deliberate in your judgement, empty of deceit, self-respecting, free, or prevent you from possessing any of the qualities that, by their presence, make it possible for man's nature to come into its own. 
So henceforth, in the face of every difficulty that leads you to feel distress, remember to apply this principle:  this is no misfortune, but to bear it with a noble spirit is good fortune. 
Marcus Aurelius
Meditations
Book 4.49

Monday, December 3, 2012

EWSI Report on Access to Citizenship in Europe

An very interesting report dropped into my mailbox this morning via the Migration Policy Group newsletter.

This special feature was prepared by MPG for the European Website on Integration (EWSI) and it concerns Access to Nationality for Third-country Nationals in European countries.

Nationality/citizenship law is never static.  This past year there have been changes to the rules for acquiring citizenship in certain European countries.  For example a few months ago Poland revised her residency requirements (lowered them from 5 to 3 years) for certain categories of foreigners.  Belgium on the other hand is tightening her requirements and is making it harder for foreigners to naturalize.

What is fascinating about this is that on some level all this different country-specific naturalization requirements and procedures are useless.  Remember that once an immigrant becomes a citizen in one member state, he or she is an EU citizen and so has the right to move to any other EU state.  So Belgium can certainly tighten her requirements for citizenship if that makes Belgians feel better but it's not going to do much good if other countries are doing the exact opposite and relaxing their requirements for obtaining citizenship.  It also has the rather nasty result of pitting different EU countries against each other in the chase for desirable migrants and future productive tax-paying citizens.  Some sort of harmonization of these requirements across the EU just seems logical.  I think they will get there eventually - it just doesn't make any sense to do otherwise - but for the moment I imagine the political climate is not right.

Some other interesting tidbits from this report:

Citizenship ceremonies:  some European countries have decided to start holding ceremonies to swear in new citizens (Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK) and in some cases new citizens are being required to take a loyalty oath.

Citizenship via jus soli:  There is a definite trend where countries that used to allow transmission of citizenship primarily via blood (jus sanguinis) are moving toward granting it via birth on that country's soil (jus soli).  However it is usually not an unqualified jus soli like one sees in the United States - there are conditions that must be met before citizenship is automatically granted on this basis.  The EUDO  citizenship policy brief reports:
Ius soli has, for example, been introduced or strengthened in Germany (2000), Portugal (2006), Luxembourg (2009) and Greece (2010), while ius soli was removed in Malta (1989) and qualified in Ireland (2004). Ireland was the last pure ius soli regime in Europe, and here it has been made subject to additional conditions.
The trend is thus towards the wider availability of ius soli citizenship, but in more conditional forms, dependent on limited forms of prior parental residence and other conditions identified with integration.
Naturalization Procedure Reforms:  Some countries were looking into making the process easier and simpler.  Portugal, Germany and Romania had initiatives to encourage foreigners to apply for citizenship and will help them through the process.  All of them cited in the MPG report are rather old (the latest one is the Romanian 2009 project).  It would be interesting to know if that trend continued or if the Great Recession killed it.

And finally (and I thought this was a lovely idea) MPG linked to an article about one region in Italy which held honorary citizenship ceremonies for children of foreigners born in that Italian region.  It's not legal and these kids don't really get Italian citizenship as a result (they have to apply at age 18) but it's a powerful symbolic act and a very nice way of saying, "we consider you to be one of us." 

According to the article, during the ceremony, "The children will be presented with a certificate attesting to their new nationality, a copy of the constitution, the tricolour flag and the sweater worn by the Italian football team."

Except for the soccer jersey, it sounds lovely.  Sorry, I am not at all a fan of "le foot." :-)  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ted Talk: Ernesto Sirolli

Another very powerful Ted talk. Here is Ernesto Sirolli, an evangelist in the area of sustainable development, giving his unvarnished opinion about aid in developing countries.  From the title of his talk you will quickly grasp his first and most fundamental requirement for making any aid project successful, "Shut up and listen."

Amen to that.  But there was another message in there about something I've been mulling over for a few months that I call the Tyranny of Expectations.  This is not just the paternalistic, patronizing, "let's remake them in our image" attitude of the developed world toward what we used to call the Third World, it is also something that we all do to the people around us on a regular basis:  our friends and our families, our neighbors and colleagues.  It all starts with the belief that there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed.  From there it quickly moves to our explaining to them how they need to change according to our quasi-divinely inspired plans for them.  Stop drinking.  Lose weight.  Go back to school.  Eat your carrots.  Quit your job.  Be polite.  Stand up for yourself.  Lose the accent.  Do this.  Don't do that.  Care about this.  Don't care about that.  Here's the plan and you're a chump or a fool if you don't follow our advice and do what we think is best for you.

This, in my view, is just another way we do violence to each other.  Having expectations for other people is another way of degrading them.  People are not "fix-it" projects.  Same is true of cultures or countries.  In the guise of being "helpful" we try to make them less by making ourselves more.  If this were a play we would cast ourselves in the role of the wise, the prudent, the perfect.  They, on the other hand, are the lacking, the screwed up, the flawed, the perfectible.

At the country level it isn't just the developed world doing it to the developing world, it's also citizens of developing countries doing it to each other.  Just ask a European about gun control in the U.S. or an American about "Socialism" in Europe and then watch the "donneurs de leçon" have at it.

As Sirolli points out so eloquently, isn't it interesting how this doesn't seem to work out too well?  For a very recent example of an aid program run amok read this very funny take on the U.S. development projects in Iraq, We Meant Well by Peter van Buren.

Frankly just as I've never known anyone to lose weight or quit smoking because they were nagged into it, I think it is also pretty damn unlikely that Americans will change their laws to conform to European standards or that Europeans will suddenly change their minds about social security just because both sides are wrinkling their noses and wagging their fingers at each other from across the ocean.

Put that way it sounds pretty stupid and childish, doesn't it?  And it is but look one level deeper and recognize that there is real violence underneath the criticism, the nagging and the finger-wagging whether it is happening at a personal level or between citizens of nation-states or between some development workers and the people in the countries in which they operate.

Here are two very modest suggestions for getting out from under the Tyranny of Expectations.  The first is to accept that people are just fine the way they are.  Just start with the assumption that there is nothing that needs to be fixed in that person, that culture or that country.  There are no "should's" - there are only "could's."

And then approach the situation with an attitude of service.  Listen to what the other person has to say, think it over and then propose things they could do if they were so inclined.   Make it very clear that your skills, talents and time are at their service should they choose to accept.

And if they don't accept?  Then you shut up and leave them alone.

Enjoy the talk and your weekend.