Monday, December 19, 2005

5, rue Sésame

The French are getting their own crop of home-grown Muppets. Sesame Workshop has announced plans to create locally-minded versions of Sesame Street that better reflect the culture of its international audiences. The French version is titled 5, rue Sésame.

The only American character that made the French cut is Elmo. The new cast includes Nac, a Big Bird-type; Griotte, a handicapped version of Prarie Dawn; and Yoyo, a Tellyesque fellow. Maria and Gordon have been replaced by Titouan, a retired grandfatherly type, and Juliette, a young student. Mr. Hooper and his store have been replaced by Baya, a character of Arab descent, and her bakery.

According to the New York Times, these changes were necessary to more accurately impart Sesame Street's message to French youngsters. I have to say that I agree with the changes--if I were a little French girl, I would hate having to watch American shows dubbed into French. Maybe that's why I watched virtually no French television while I was there. (It could also be because I didn't have a TV for most of my stay, but I digress.)

What initially sparked the changes was Elmo's demeanor--His 3-year-old persona lacked "sufficient Gallic irony". And it's true--French shows for kids can't be all sugar and spice. They need to have a grounding element that reflects the culture, good or bad. My suggestion would be to put Elmo on two packs a day and see how it goes.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Make New Friends...

Bus drivers have a special place in my heart.

No, I'm not talking about the average bus driver with a superiority complex, barking out "Pay on exit!" to public transportation newbies boarding his precious conveyance. I'm talking about Isabelle--my bus driver in France.

Actually, she wasn't a bus driver--she was a conductrice du car, which in French means "motorcoach driver". I was told that there is a distinct difference between the words bus and car: One is able to both stand and sit in a bus, but in a car, one may only sit. Since my bus went back and forth between Tours and a small group of villages about 30 minutes away, it was a car, used for longer distances (with comfier seats).

Isabelle is special to me because she was my first "friend" in France. Yes, I lived with a family, but they never used the familiar form of 'you', tu, with me. They always called me vous, which is more formal and made me feel as if I was not really welcomed as part of the family. Isabelle was the first person to ever call me tu, and I remember that day as one of the happiest I spent in France. It was the same feeling I had the first time I realized that I could understand every single thing a French person was saying without having to translate it into English first; it's this incredible feeling of acceptance and belonging, which is important when one is alone abroad.

Isabelle came to call me tu because I called her that first, by accident. I thought she would be offended by my mistake, but instead she just laughed and insisted that we call each other tu all the time. Befriending a stranger in France is definitely not an easy feat (which I will explain in further detail in a future post), and so her reaction was somewhat shocking to me. She really was so sweet to me; she would pick me up early so I could ride with her to the beginning of the route and we could chat before she picked up other passengers. She'd listen to the problems I was having with the family, answer questions I had about the city, and introduce me to people. She is the one who introduced me to my best friend in France, Caroline. In addition to all this, she'd tell me about her own plans for the future.

She always talked about how much she loved Brittany and wanted to live there. When I left Touraine, the local suburban bus line was having some troubles and the future of Isabelle's job was in question. I'm happy to say that she and her husband recently moved to Normandy to open up a tabac (newsstand).

I'm so grateful that Isabelle came into my life; she really made all the difference. She isn't driving buses anymore, but I'm sure her new life in Normandy is much more fulfilling than she had in Tours. She certainly deserves that.

Photo: Isabelle (left) and Caroline standing in front of our bus at the Fil Vert station in Tours.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Joyeux Anniversaire à Moi

Yesterday was my birthday. It really was an enjoyable one: the weather was beautiful, and Marc gave up watching the first quarter of the Steelers-Ravens game to take me all the way out to Beaver to see the Granati Brothers' scrapbook on display. Then we headed to a bar to finish watching the game before coming home to a huge pan of homemade lasagna, courtesy of the "other" birthday girl, my momma.

That's right, folks: I'm the gift that keeps on giving--I was my mother's birthday present 23 years ago yesterday. The Beatles' song "Birthday" was written for us! I always make a point of playing it as soon as we both wake up.

I got some very nice gifts. I got some Lancôme makeup from my parents, a Hallmark gift card from my little sister (I keep that place in business!), and The Golden Girls Season 2 DVD from Marc. He also gave me the most adorable card:

Pepe!!! He sure knows how to make me happy. The front of the card shows Pepe sitting at a sidewalk cafe with a delivery truck in the background and says, "I have a birthday kiss for you..." and on the inside, "...where would you like me to deliver it?" Personally, I think it should have said, "I 'ave a birzday kees for you...where would you lak me to dileever eet?"

My aunt also got me a gag gift of sorts--it's a "kinetic frog" thing for my desk at work. It's got two metal frogs that revolve inside a metal ring. Both the ring and the frogs have opposing magnets inside, so they go in opposite directions. Round and round and round they's the perfect thing to keep me mesmerized for hours when I should be doing actual "work". Get it? Frogs. Ha ha.

Thanks to all who made my birthday a happy one :-)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What Are Big Sisters For?

I did end up at the Pens vs. Canadiens game on November 10. A friend of mine happens to be the team's head of season ticketing and graciously allowed me to use her seats for the night. I took along my 15-year-old sister, who is totally obsessed with Sidney Crosby, our new rookie.

We walked in just as they were getting ready to sing the anthems, and as the soloist sang the opening bars of O, Canada, some idiot sitting across the aisle from me starts booing. What was he booing, exactly? The song lyrics? Maybe he's just not a fan of Molson Light. Whatever his motivation, he should keep in mind that the time to display poor sportsmanship is during the actual sport.

I managed to promptly embarrass my sister by screaming loudly, "Allez, Thibault!" when our goalie took the ice. She told me to quit cheering in French, and I told her that I was just trying to say his name the right way. I was secretly proud of being dubbed the "embarrassing older sister" when, two nights later, I caught her cheering in French at the TV screen.

Later in the game, the camera operators thought it would be funny to show a Canadiens fan on the jumbotron next to a picture of Pepe Le Pew. It was amusing, especially when people started booing and the idiot from across the aisle yelled loudly, "Goddamn French!" It was just too funny for me to get upset. The guy had had at least 6 beers by that point and was regaling us with his oh-so-tastefully chosen soundbytes every few seconds.

It was a great game...I actually had fun. I'm contemplating attending another one in the near future. I guess you could say I've been bitten by the bug...

Photo: Jocelyn Thibault, goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, salutes the fans after successfully fending off the Canadiens during a dramatic shoot-out on November 10. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and taken by Peter Diana.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Les Violences, Partie III

I called my best friend in France a few days ago to have a chat. I didn't mention the riots to her at all, but she said she had watched several foreign newscasts and said the Americans were saying that "France is on fire". That, of course, is an exaggeration; it's true that the most severe rioting took place outside Paris where literally hundreds of cars were set aflame, but my friend's region of France was relatively unscathed.

My friend lives just outside of Tours in the Loire Valley. When I first found out that I would be studying there, everyone I talked to said that the language was "pure" in that region. Upon arrival in Tours, I understood their meaning: the language is pure because there are no immigrants there to mess it up.

Tours is not diverse in the least. I think I saw all of two black people and maybe 5 Arabs the entire six months I was there. That considered, it didn't surprise me to find out that most of the copycat violence that has been perpetrated in the area since the rioting first broke out involved young teenagers of indeterminate race who were "just doing it because it's funny" (translated from La Nouvelle République). In other words, the "race rioting" in Tours cannot really be labeled as such due to its lack of races to begin with. Teenagers around there are just joining in out of boredom, not outrage.

Maybe it has been a blessing in disguise that Tours is not more diverse. I, for one, would personally prefer the city to be more well-rounded demographically...but who am I?

("I'm Jean Valjean!" - Ok, I couldn't resist that one.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Les Violences, Partie II

This is interesting:

Both of the following articles originated with the Associated Press. Somehow, *magically*, one of them got slanted in curious direction. And by 'curious', I mean 'fair and balanced'. (I've taken the liberty of italicizing the offending passages in the second article.)

ABC News:

AUBERVILLIERS, France Nov 5, 2005 — Marauding youths set fire to cars, warehouses and a nursery school and pelted rescuers with rocks early Saturday, as the worst rioting in a decade spread from Paris to other French cities. The U.S. warned Americans against taking trains to the airport via strife-torn areas.

A savage assault on a bus passenger highlighted the dangers of travel in Paris' impoverished outlying neighborhoods, where the violence has entered its second week.

Attackers doused the woman, in her 50s and on crutches, with an inflammable liquid and set her afire as she tried to get off a bus in the suburb of Sevran Wednesday, judicial officials said. The bus had been forced to stop because of burning objects in its path. She was rescued by the driver and hospitalized with severe burns.
[see above link for full text.]

Fox News:

AUBERVILLIERS, France — Marauding bands of Muslim youth set fire to cars and warehouses and pelted rescuers with rocks early Saturday, as the worst rioting in a decade spread from Paris to other French cities. The United States warned Americans against taking trains to the airport via strife-torn areas.

A savage assault on a bus passenger highlighted the dangers of travel in Paris' Muslim-filled and impoverished outlying neighborhoods, where the violence has entered its second week.

The African immigrant attackers doused the woman, in her 50s and on crutches, with an inflammable liquid and set her afire as she tried to get off a bus in the suburb of Sevran Wednesday, judicial officials said. The bus had been forced to stop because of burning objects in its path. She was rescued by the driver and hospitalized with severe burns.
[see above link for full text.]


Yellow journalism at its finest, folks.

Les Violences, Partie I

A colleague of mine at work announced a week and a half ago that he was jetting off to Paris and wouldn't be back for two weeks. I hadn't really met him yet, so I walked down to his office to wish him well and chat a bit about France. His going to France made me somewhat nervous, because he happens to be blind. France is not the most handicapped-friendly place; here, we are lucky to have the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides people with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy life as much as the rest of us. This hasn't exactly caught on over there. Sure, France is home to Louis Braille, who is responsibile for perhaps the greatest stride in communication for blind people, but that doesn't come in too handy when you're trying to cross the street and six thousand mopeds are barreling down the road toward you.

So, I was nervous for my co-worker.

Then, the riots broke out.

I am terrified for him now, especially because I know he was planning to venture immediately outside the city and explore a bit. I don't think he was planning to explore the HLMs, but still...he doesn't speak any French. He can't see anything, and when I heard about a disabled woman being burned to death while on public transportation, I was horrified. I hope he comes home safely.

It is hard for me to put into words how I feel about this. I can understand it from both angles, though it is hardly justifiable from either. You would think that the French state would have taken a lesson from the US, in what we as a nation experienced in the 60s with the Civil Rights Movement. It is true that there is a great deal of prejudice amongst Frenchmen of European descent against Frenchmen of African or Arab descent. These people are just as "French" and should have equal rights. It is such an ordeal for them to get their identification papers, that is no wonder that people have the time to go marauding through the streets and inciting violence.

Jacques Chirac should have recognized that the Paris banlieues were a powderkeg--anyone who has studied French postcolonial culture could have pointed that out. The discontent and hopelessness of life in the slummy suburbs has been dramatized in countless novels, films and plays. The plight of the post-colonial citizen is one of emptiness and despir, of rejection and life as a second-class citizen.

Give these people a chance at a real life, and the violence will stop.

I have more thoughts on this topic, but I will post them a bit later.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

What's Wrong With This Picture?

A few days ago, my mother sent me a forward.

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't have warranted my attention, as she sends along the usual innocuous prayers to St. Theresa, "You go, girl!"-type lists, and myriad jokes. But THIS forward-this was different.

What initially caught my attention was the fact that my mom hadn't forwarded the message correctly and the image that was the subject of the email was conspiculously absent. This led me to read on out of sheer curiosity (I have included the missing photo for your viewing satisfaction):

What's wrong with this picture?

If you look closely at the picture above, you will note that all theMarines pictured are bowing their heads. That's because they're praying.

This incident took place at a recent ceremony honoring the birthday of the corps, and it has the ACLU up in arms. "These are federal employees," says Lucius Traveler, a spokesman for the ACLU, "on federal property and on federal time. For them to pray is clearly an establishment of religion, and we must nip this in the bud immediately."

When asked about the ACLU's charges, Colonel Jack Fessender, speaking for the Commandant of the Corps said (cleaned up a bit), "Screw the ACLU." GOD Bless Our Warriors, Send the ACLU to France!

Please send this to people you know so everyone will know how stupid the ACLU is Getting in trying to remove GOD from everything and every place inAmerica. May God Bless America, One Nation Under GOD!

What's wrong with the picture? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING

"Send the ACLU to France!"

Is this a totally ridiculous statement, or what???

I'll gladly join the ACLU if the bozo who penned this email is footing the bill to send us all to France. Think about it--is France really so bad that it would be a punishment to send someone there? If France is Jack Fessender's idea of hell, I'd gladly perish. I could definitely see myself spending the rest of eternity munching on chèvre, rillette, and escargots and gulping down plenty of Vouvray. I'd never have to work on a Sunday, I'd get a nice, leisurely lunch every day, and I'd start every job out with six weeks of vacation time. There would never be a shortage of fresh bread chez moi, and every May 1st I would walk the streets breathing in the sweet smell of lily of the valley. Ça, c'est le paradis!

I don't really care about prayer in the military. I can't comment one way or the other on what the freakin' ACLU has to say about it, either--all I know is, once you bring France into the mix, THEN I have something to say.

After this episode, I doubt that my mother will be sending me any more forwards anytime soon.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

L'Amour dans tous ses états

Last night, I had the great privilege of seeing Manon Landowski and André Nerman in concert. The show, entitled L'Amour dans tous ses états (Love In All Its Forms), was an enthralling series of theater vignettes interspersed with classic chansons. I especially liked Manon's rendition of Mon amant de Saint-Jean; she gave it just the right amount of sweetness and sadness.

The show itself was wonderful--the songs and scenes chosen were perfect for showing the different ways that love plays out, from the couple who just needs a good argument to make them realize how in love they are, to the golddigging woman who has convinced herself she is in love with a rich man until she finds he's really penniless.

The issue I had--and, as I think we've all learned by now, I wouldn't have a blog if there weren't an issue--was with the show's title. L'Amour dans tous ses états was the most fitting title I could think of, after having seen the show. For advertising purposes, however, the Alliance Française decided to change the title to Bons baisers de Paris, translating it as From Paris, With Love.

This upsets me on multiple levels: First, the original title (and its direct translation) was absolutely perfect for conveying the content of the show. Why mess with that? Second, the translation between Bons basiers de Paris and From Paris, With Love is loose at best--and doesn't really convey what the show is about. Lastly, those two titles tend to reinforce something I find undesirable about Americans: namely that they think that everything that is French must come from Paris by default.

Of course, this is not so, but when you say you've lived in France, Americans automatically ask if you were living in Paris. Last I checked, France had many more major cities that could be asked about. I can't tell you how many of my friends and acquaintances still refer to my time abroad as "When you were living in Paris." This bothers me, as France has many more cities to offer with tourist destinations more exciting and awe-inspiring than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

So, I was disappointed in the title-swapping that went on...the show was geared toward francophiles to begin with, so why even try to market it to a wider audience? We had the theater pretty much packed as it was--I don't think changing the title had anything to do with ticket sales. There was a table of two elderly couples immediately in front of me that evening, and they were very vocal about the fact that they couldn't understand a thing. I don't know where they got the idea that the show would be in English...oh, wait--MAYBE it was because the TITLE was in English! I think they were expecting Maurice Chevalier-style "French" songs, which consist entirely of heavily-accented English.

Needless to say, they had four very unsatisfied customers at the theater last night.

photo: Manon Landowski, from

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


A while back, I posted about the Pittsburgh Penguins having earned the right to first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, and in so doing, were bequeathed the right to teenage phenom Sidney Crosby's rookie season.

I was excited that we'd have yet another bilingual player on our team. My 15-year-old sister, however, was excited that we'd have a teenage player on our team. She begged me to watch the game with her on TV last week. I agreed, figuring that I could just fall asleep if it got too unbearable (I'm chronically allergic to sports).

It turns out that the Pens were playing the New Jersey Devils. This would seem like an ordinary match-up to any average hockey fan tuning in, but for me, it brought back a flood of nostalgic memories.

My first boyfriend was a hockey nut (His younger brother was actually drafted by the Pens about a year after we had broken up). He was also a francophile (but has since kicked the habit, so I hear). He loved the New Jersey Devils, and, in true 14-year-old fashion, I set out to memorize every player stat and jersey number I could in hopes of impressing "Paul". Paul was one of my best memories of high school--I still can't believe that my parents let me date him. He was 19 and a freshman in college; I was naïve jailbait. Paul took me to my first (and so far only) professional hockey game, and I was trying my darndest to pay attention so that I could actually talk with him about it later. I figured that out of all the sports, hockey was most worth my attention, since at least I could work in the French angle.

After all these years, the only name I remembered was Martin Brodeur, the team's goalie. Brodeur, miraculously, is still playing for the Devils 8 years later. 8 years! I've gotta hand it to the guy--hockey players age like dogs. I suppose it's one of the more rough-and-tumble sports that's not too friendly to a guy after hitting 30.

The reason good ol' Marty remains the last one standing of the 1997-1998 New Jersey Devils in my memory is because I always got a kick out of hearing the sportscasters say his name:


At least they put the accent on the right syllables!

I told my sister that I'd take her to a game the next time the Montréal Canadiens "Mon-TREE-All Can-ADE-y-ENNS" come to town (November 10). I won't really be interested in the game much--I'll be too busy trying to get on Canadian TV with my cleverly-worded French signs, bien sûr!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Cherchez le cheval

Due to "popular demand" from my last post, I did a little research into the French habit of horsemeat consumption, and here are a few interesting tidbits for you:

The official term for the phenomenon is hippophagy. From Wikipedia (which, as we all know, is not the definitive authority on anything, but informative nonetheless):

According to legend, the French taste for horse meat dates from the Battle of Eylau in 1807, when the surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon's Grand Army, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, advised the starving troops to eat the flesh of dead battlefield horses. The cavalry used breastplates as cooking pans and gunpowder as seasoning, and thus founded a tradition.

Today many European countries including France, Italy, Romania, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Belgium consume horse meat in notable volumes. In France, specialized butcher shops (boucheries chevalines) sell horsemeat, as ordinary butcher shops do not have the right to deal in it.

I don't know about the claims made in that article, but I know that the last part about special butcher shops is wrong. Those shops do exist, but other places do have the right to sell horsemeat--it was for sale at my local Atac supermarket in Tours. You can't miss that huge mass of bright (and I do mean BRIGHT) red meat lying there.

Another interesting discovery was a film on this subject (from the NY Times):

Result of Eating Horse Meat--1908

PLOT DESCRIPTION: The plot and comedy content of this Pathé film are both summed up by its title. The incredibly stupid hero buys horse meat at the local butcher then takes it home and wolfs it down. As expected, the dimwitted diner begins behaving like a horse himself. He gallops around the city, knocking over people and props with furious abandon. Arrested by the gendarmes and thrown in jail, the hero finally overcomes his delusions. Too bad: With a little luck, he could have become another Nijinsky, or might even have won the Kentucky Derby.

From what I read, there is no breed that is off-limits to this sort of thing. Presumably, you would not want to butcher an animal that had some sort of value, such as a race or work horse. There are farmers who breed horses specifically for butchering, but I couldn't find a listing of specific breeds.

So there you go--maybe I answered your questions, maybe I didn't--but it was interesting to try to find out more about the subject.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Tastes Like, Not Quite

Sharing the photo in my previous post with you all, along with reading about Spam in Neo's blog, put me in mind of the only unpleasant culinary memory I have of my time spent in France:

I ate horse.

Before anyone goes all PETA on me, let me explain:

My first night in Tours, I was invited to dine at the home of my host family's friends. I had come in on the train from Paris that morning and hadn't taken a nap (trying to get acclimated to the time difference, like a good little international traveler). I didn't realize that this family followed the "tradition" of late-night eating on weekends. Now, dinner time in Europe is generally two hours later than dinner time in North America, but I was already used to that, since my family normally doesn't sit down together until nearly 8pm on a regular basis. We arrived at the house around 8 and I was delighted to see that dinner was sitting on the kitchen table, already prepared.

But we didn't eat at 8...

...we didn't eat at 9...

...we didn't eat at 9:30...

...we finally sat down at the table at 10pm, having sat around shooting the breeze for two hours straight. I was STARVING! I had been trying not to overdo it on the munchies (which were SO good, I was really having a hard time) in anticipation of that delicious-smelling dinner I knew was awaiting us on the kitchen table. I was famished by the time we all sat down.

Needless to say, having not slept all day after a long international flight and a train ride, I was exhausted. Combine that with the fact that among the 10 dinner guests were two 11-year-old boys and a 9-year-old girl, and you can imagine that things were a bit chaotic.

The hostess put the meat course down in front of me, mumbling something as she did. As a rule, I shy away from eating too much meat in Europe--I like my steaks pretty rare, but definitely not "rare" by French standards. I can't eat meat that has a warm outside and a totally raw, cold center...but, I digress. I took a small piece of the meat and heaped up on the mushrooms and other yummy offerings on the table.

End of story? Not quite. Several weeks later, my host father and I got into a discussion about what foods we liked and disliked. I said I wasn't a fan of blood sausage, (except boudin, that's so good, but you have to eat it blindfolded, otherwise you'd throw up right there on your plate) and said I wouldn't eat brains, liver or horse. He looked at me in surprise and said, "But, we ate horse at Michelle's house--don't you remember?"

I was absolutely horrified. I couldn't get the image of Philippe, the horse in Beauty and the Beast, out of my head. Looking back on that meal, I did notice that that "beef" didn't have quite the texture I was used to. I had chocked it up to the preparation being different or something to that effect. I sat there, racking my brain, trying to figure out when exactly Michelle had announced that we were eating horse for dinner, but I had been so exhausted and my brain had been so overstimulated from hearing wall-to-wall French for the first time in my life, that it just got by me.

I suppose eating horse isn't so much different from eating beef; when you think about it, they're both beasts of burden...but for some reason, horses have more of a "personality" in American culture. There aren't any movies (that I know of, at least) about children befriending cattle. Have you ever seen a movie about a cow who overcame the odds in a national race? How about a cow saving someone's life? What about a magical cow who could fly? I've never heard of a half-man, half-cow. We have a separate name for cow when we're eating it--calling it "beef" removes it just enough from the living, breathing animal to make it palatable. We don't have such a moniker for horsemeat.

So, I ate horse. I'm not proud of that fact...although it is a conversation piece when people bring up how other peoples of the world eat dogs or termites.

Merci Mille Fois!

I would just like to take a moment to thank Johnny Retail for designing a new title graphic for me.

He used a photo I took while visiting Chinon. It is a statue (by Roulleau) of Jeanne d'Arc totally trampling a bunch of Brits on a charging horse. It's by far the best statue of her I've seen--a great "action shot". Here's the full version:

Somehow, I thought it would be an appropriate header for this blog. Just pretend those Brits are Americans and we're all set.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Stuff This!

I have a cold.

It's not a bad cold, but just enough to give me a stuffy nose.

Do you know the first thing most people say to me when they find out I've got a stuffy nose? They say, "Your nose is stuffed? That must make it a lot easier to speak French!"

Do you remember how Peter, the disgruntled main character in Office Space felt when someone said, "Sounds like someone's got a case of the Mondays!"? That's how it makes me feel to hear people ask about how my stuffy nose improves my speaking abilities. It actually makes it much, much harder, seeing as four vowels and two rather important consonants in French are made using the nose as the sole point of egress for the air. I understand that most people who say this to me are trying to be funny or trying to incite me into a rant. They think it's funny to imply that French people are stuffy snobs, so that if a Frenchman has a stuffy nose, he can actually speak better than normal.

I blow my nose in your general direction.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Have you ever noticed that the French are the only ethnic group that Americans can pick on and get away with it? Canadians might come in as a close second, but the French get the brunt of all the bashing. For instance, several years ago, some idiot at my college wrote an article titled American Misinformation: What the French Knew that was basically a laundry list of stereotypes with a byline at the top.

I hesitate to call the aforementioned article an "opinion column", since I've always been under the impression that to write such a column, one had to actually have an opinion. When your "opinion" consists of nothing but stereotypes thought up and perpetuated by other people, it is time to seriously re-evaluate your effectiveness as a writer.

The United States has more than its fair share of home-grown conspiracy theorists--what's so wrong with a foreigner weighing in with his opinion? Let's face it: if L'Effroyable imposture, the book that triggered the article, had been written by anyone other than a Frenchman, this column would not exist. Would the columnist have been able to write such things about an African-American, a Mexican, or a Jew? Of course not! That would risk arising the wrath of a veritable swarm of activist organizations. The letters and phone calls would be pouring in. What happens when the target is a Frenchman? Absolutely nothing.

There's no support network for the French. When they get bashed, there is no massive boycott; there is no Franco-American community support. Maybe that's because there really isn't a Franco-American community, period. There was no French diaspora, which I guess is good for them, since they didn't have to leave their country en masse to avoid poverty and disease...but this has created a real problem for them in the present day. Of course, the French in France are very big on activism. Strikes and demonstrations (manifestations or, simply manifs to keep things short and sweet) are the norm--one would be hard-pressed to go an entire month in France without encoutering a national strike or half a dozen smaller ones protesting various human rights issues. So I know the problem isn't general apathy...I think the French can be picked on simply because they don't have the numbers it would take to effect real change in the American attitude.

During the ludicrous "freedom fries" fiasco, I carried out my own boycott. I refused to patronize any business that took part in the free publicity stunt, which is what the whole thing ended up being. Maybe I was the only one doing it, but with Jeanne d'Arc as my alter-ego, I guess have a lot to live up to.

Needless to say, I wrote The Pitt News a letter about the column. I understood that the columnist was attempting to be humorous, (and to prove that I am able to have a sense of humor about these things, I closed the letter by saying "I fart in your general direction!") but it turned into pure stupidity from about the second paragraph. The only real way to get away with writing this kind of stuff is if you happen to belong to the group you're bashing. If you're going to insult the French, at least stick to insulting things that are actually of French origin! Hockey is Canadian. French fries are Belgian. Do a little research next time you want to write an anti-French column!

That, my friends, is more effroyable than a controversial book.

Ben Rubin, if you're reading this, I've said it before and I'll say it again: You're so Jewriffic, you make me want to convert right here and now!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

...and, I quote:

The following, which I find hilarious, is taken from Oh Noes!:

"It's fucking La Grange. Not LaGRANGE. What the fuck kind of spelling is that? In what language/regional vernacular/country do you combine what is clearly two french words into one, with the second transformed into all caps? What does that signify? Is the Grange really angry, hence BEING USED IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS AS IF IT IS YELLING IN AN ONLINE CONVERSATION? Why stop there? Why not name it XxLaXGrAnG3xX or La_Gran928374 or Fuckertown, because every time I see the name of my favorite County Seat butchered like that, a little part of me dies. Nobody in the City Government knows either. That's why you'll see "La Grange" (Correct), "LaGrange" (Incorrect), and "LaGRANGE" (Jesus how more incorrect can you be?) used interchangably throughout our buildings, maps, business name it, we've fucked it up."

See? I'm not the only one who gets annoyed by this stuff.

Technorati just amazes me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Encore Pépé!

When I posted a while back about Pepe Le Pew and how his character would fare should he lose his accent, Neil commented that Pepe was probably most Americans' first exposure to "the French"(That is, if Pepe Le Pew could be called "French"). I would tend to agree with that thought, especially since it probably applies to me--I can't recall being exposed to anything French-related by my parents...the closest I would have come would have been watching Looney Tunes with my dad on a regular basis.

I must admit that most of the jokes in those cartoons went straight over my 7-year-old head. I remember not understanding what was so funny about hearing Penelope say "Le pant! Le puff!" as she inched up a cliff in her efforts to escape her amorous polecat. I also didn't get why every human character had an enormous nose and teeny-weeny mustache, or why it was funny that a smelly skunk should happen to be cast as a Frenchman. (Tangent: Note the ill-placed accent mark in the above image--more on this in a future post.)

Of course, these jokes don't pass me by anymore. There was a time (before I lightened the hell up) when I would have been offended by things like that, but after having been through 10 years of hearing every anti-French joke known to man, with a whopping five of those years being subject to the petitesse of the Republican Party, I realize that there are far worse things I could be hearing or seeing with regard to this subject.

Pepe Le Pew is actually one of my favorite pieces of Frenchie trivia. The character was based on an actual French actor, Jean Gabin, who was basically the French William Holden or Clark Gable. Gabin starred in a little movie called Pépé le Moko (1937), which, as fate would have it, I ended up watching more times than I'd ever want to count for three different college film classes.

The movie, which was later pointlessly remade by Hollywood as Algiers (1938), follows Gabin as Pépé, a debonair Frenchman hiding out from the cops in the casbah of Algiers. While dodging the heat, he makes perfectly clear the fact that he has wooed every woman in the casbah, and then some. This smooth-talking, debonair character was the inspiration for Pepe Le Pew. If you ever have occasion to watch Pépé le Moko, you'll see the resemblance immediately. There is no lack of shots of Pépé with those heavily lidded, angelicly lashed eyes gazing down upon the dame quickly melting in his arms. I do have to admit that I can't help but swoon at least a little when he looks at the camera with his hair messed up. It just makes him look so dashing...

Shall we compare headshots and film stills?

Needless to say, I find Pepe Le Pew endearing--the same way I find it endearing to have people buy me frogs to add to my growing collection. Oddly enough, in the French version, Pépé le putois, Pepe is Italian and all the malapropisms characteristic of the cartoons are redone accordingly. This makes me wonder about the Italian version--what nationality did they find that is more amorous than the Italians?? (Maybe the Brazilians, Sangroncito?)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Laissez les bons temps rouler toujours!

I realize that I'm late in weighing in on the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina; I guess I didn't want to be a part of the glut that normally happens right after an event of this nature. I was watching The Waterboy today, and I couldn't help but think about my lack of posting on the topic. I am especially saddened by the catastrophe because New Orleans is one of the places I've been wanting to visit ever since high school, when my math teacher would tell us stories about what it was like to grow up there.

I never really had a desire to participate in the debauchery of Mardi Gras, but I would love to hear some zydeco and, most of all, try my tongue at a little Cajun French. I think Louisiana would be a goldmine for this blog--an entire state full of French names (both place names and family names), just waiting for a good old-fashioned American butchering. Just the capital city itself is a good start:

New OR-lins
(you get the idea.)

La Nouvelle République, the Loire Valley's main daily, had pictures of the destruction on its front pages for weeks. I phoned one of my friends in France and we talked at length about the horrible events. She happened to have been here in Pittsburgh a year ago when half of our town flooded due to weather caused by Hurricane Ivan, and I remember her saying that she'd never experienced such destructive weather before.

The Loire Valley itself floods every year as part of the vagaries of the river's flow; in December and January the engorged river takes over groves of trees, childrens' play areas, and castle grounds. But this temporary, annual inondation is nothing compared to the destructive nature of hurricane weather. I suppose that's one advantage to being bordered by a sheltered body of water such as the Mediterranean Sea.

I hope that the nation is able to help New Orleans rebuild; it is such a rich part of our country's heritage and a reminder of our historical connection with France. I hope that strains of music and laughter are heard again soon in the streets of the French Quarter.

Laissez les bons temps rouler toujours!

Photos: Preservation Hall, French Quarter, New Orleans (post-flooding).
Flooded grounds of Azay-le-Rideau, a château which sits on an island in the Indre River (a tributary of the Loire).

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Clé to My Heart

It's difficult when your significant other does not share the same passions in life as you do. Not only does my fiancé not speak French, but he used to be one of those kids in high school who were the bane of my existence: he was a high-school French class cut-up.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd end up with someone like him. People like him annoyed and teased the hell out of me back when I was 15. I guess the fact that I met him out of this context (in the college dorm rather than the high school hallway) explains how I was able to stand him long enough to find myself ready to meet him at the end of the aisle several years later.

The fact that my fiancé does not share my francophilic enthusiasm does not dampen my spirits that much; French has always been a solo passion for me. My entire family speaks either Italian or Spanish as a second language and my decision to study French was done partially because of some innate interest in the culture and partially because it seemed rebellious and forbidden. After all, my Italian grandmother did tell me it was "a sin not to study Italian!". So, sin I did. And I liked it; I loved it. I still do. It just meant a lot more solo outings to movies, operas, gallery openings and even solo travel. I have to say that solo travel is sometimes more interesting than travel in pairs or in groups. (I will save some of my anecdotes on this subject for future posts.)

Every now and then, my fiancé will ask me who I love more, him or the French. He asks it playfully, knowing he won't get a straight answer out of me. I can't choose between the two--the pros and cons even each other out. I guess I could say I love him more, safe in the knowledge that nothing, except maybe mental disease, can take my French away from me. It's sort of like family in that sense-it'll always be there at the end of everything. Let's face it: if I were in the classic "lifeboat" situation, I wouldn't have to make a choice between my fiancé or my French. I could save them both!

Friday, September 09, 2005

5-and-10 Linguistics

A bit of wit and wisdom from that maverick of useless information, Cecil Adams:

Dear Cecil:
Don't know whether Baltimore ever had a Bijou movie theater. Don't know if there are too many around the country now. But at one time wasn't Bijou a very popular name for a movie house? Where did the name come from? And how is it pronounced? --F.M., Baltimore

Dear F.:
You say it BEE-zhoo, although depending on the neighborhood you can also get away with everything from BUY-joo to BEE-joe--when you start trying to dress up your establishment with a little dimestore French, you take your chances on pronunciation. "Bijou," originally a French word meaning "jewel" or "trinket," was probably one of the five or six most common theater names in the country at one time (the others that occur to me offhand are Rialto, Tivoli, Adelphi, and Odeon). (full article)

"...when you start trying to dress up your establishment with a little dimestore French, you take your chances on pronunciation."

I just wanted to reiterate that quote because I find it hilarious. I was busy cleaning out my desk today (I'm not finished until next week, but I'm not exactly the neatest person in the world and I have to break up the job into installments) and I found the above quote written on a scrap of paper that had migrated underneath a massive pile of what I can only describe as "stuff". I had written it down long before I started writing this blog, and finding it made me so happy to have something to write about for you all (I mean, "for yinz guys n'at"). I do this frequently, writing down juicy quotes, thoughts or bits of info to remind myself to do something with them later, only to have them get lost in the shuffle.

...but I digress. Poor Cecil Adams (and his trusty staff). As much as I admire the man, he's wrong! It's not BEE-zhoo, it's be-ZHOO! BUY-joo and BEE-joe just turn my stomach. This isn't the first time ol' Cecil's been wrong; I beg to differ with his theory on who invented French fries. Every good francophile knows that it was the Belgians. It's the one country in Europe where you can get free refills--granted, on fries and not on Coke--but I like the sentiment.

"Dimestore French" is all around us. I'll bet that just walking through your local Wal-mart you'd find at least a dozen examples (And I mention Wal-mart specifically because it seems like the sort of place that would try to spiff up its humdrum products with flashy names). One of my favorites is Chantilly. It sounds so elegant in French, but when it hops the pond, it turns into shan-TILLY and sounds like pure crap. I do like hearing the Big Bopper sing Chantilly Lace, though; that's just a great song. But using a word like "Chantilly" on an American product is like putting the word "fancy" on a can of green beans. It doesn't really belong there and tends to promise a sophistication the product fails to deliver. For those of you who are unaware, Chantilly is a town in France that is famous for being the birthplace of whipped cream (among other things).

I'm sure you've probably seen some examples of this phenomenon with your own eyes--I'd love to hear about them!

Misspelled sign of the day: "Cappaccinio with icecream, $1.88" (at a McDonald's)

photo: crème Chantilly

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


By now, most people who are the least bit internet-saavy have some idea of email etiquette. There are articles seemingly every other day in my local paper or workplace newsletter giving advice on how not to offend people through email. The hint that is always mentioned is this: "Don't write using all captial letters. It's the email equivalent of shouting." I hope I am correct in assuming that the vast majority of people are annoyed when they come upon someone who cannot seem to turn off caps lock. It's the equivalent of wearing one's high school class ring in college: it screams freshman; novice; greenhorn. Only people who are not "with it" type in all caps.

Not in France, however.

In France, typing in all caps is a convenient shortcut. Somewhere down the line, the nice folks down at the Sorbonne decided that when using a capital letter, it is not necessary to include the accent mark on said letter. So many people in France type in all caps just to avoid those bothersome accent marks.

During the planning stage of my study abroad in France, I had to correspond frequently with my future host father and his secretary. I would spend at least fifteen minutes per email, meticulously checking my grammar and copy-and-pasting accent marks onto my words and phrases. The responses I would get back would horrify me; first, because I THOUGHT THEY WERE YELLING AT ME and second, because there wasn't one freakin' accent mark in the whole email!

Now, I don't know about other languages, but in French, accent marks serve to distinguish one word from another in some cases. The word mais means "but" and the word maïs means "corn". Ou means "or"; means "where". Somtimes these accent marks signal a change in pronunciation; sometimes they do not--so, aside from context, the accent mark is the only indication of what is truly meant. It might not be a big issue when one is reading the user's manual for a new tire, but it may make a difference when reading some types of poetry or literature.

When I'm in a hurry, I tend to just leave out the accent marks. My friends still know what things mean, and I do, too--I just wish I wouldn't get responses back that read something like this:




[It should read:

Salut ma poule
Bien reçu ton email et j'éspère que tu vas bien.
Je t'embrasse très fort.]

I wouldn't mind the lack of accents so much if my friends would just type in all lower-case letters. At least then I wouldn't feel like they were screaming back at me.

I have another French friend who is a good deal younger than me--my experiences with email correspondance with her have taught me that the blight of "AIM-speak" that seems to afflict teenagers has crossed the pond. It's even more annoying, though, since it has absorbed quite a few English words (especially in cases where the English word is shorter than the French word or phrase) and so it can't even be called "French AIM-speak".

I feel like a stodgy schoolmarm sometimes. Maybe that's why half of Pitt's French department dresses like them! I guess it rubs off after a while.

photo: A correctly-accented sign (in all caps) carved on a building in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, Paris.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Shouldn't They Be the "Fightin' French"?

Last night, Pitt played Noter Dayme.

No, that's not a typo; I'm simply accurately transcribing the way the South Bend, IN school chooses to represent itself to the rest of the nation. It's not my fault that it chooses to condone a completely idiotic pronunciation.

I don't understand how any self-respecting francophile could study in that school's French department. Aren't they ashamed of themselves? Noter Dayme has been bragging for years that its football players are not only jocks, but smart-alecks as well. It's too bad that they can't even bother to learn how to pronounce the name of their school. That might be a good start.

And here's another question--why, if the school is so gosh-darned "Irish", did those responsible for the horrible moniker not choose to name it in Gaelic? It just doesn't add up. I also don't understand the bagpipe players dressed in Scottish garb that march with the band. It just seems like the Noter Dayme contingent is horribly, horribly confused on a number of rather important points.

They really give French churches a bad name. Hearing people say they visited "Noter Dayme" on their trip to France is one of my major pet peeves. Notre Dame is in Paris (and just about every other city and town in France). Noter Dayme is in the boonies of Indiana. I think they would be wise to stick with "ND" and leave it at that.

photo: Parisian gargoyles, 2004.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Random Musings

There have been some things I've been thinking about lately that don't really fit into my blog, but I feel the need to express them anyway.

1. I feel old--my little sister, who is 14, has been giving me lessons in "today's music". She keeps me on the up-and-up with what's going on for the MTV crowd these days. As we all know, it has gotten younger and younger, to the point where kids are barely out of diapers before they're watching the Spring Break debauchery every March. We watched the VMAs together the other night, and every story I told her began with "When I was your age..." and ended with, "...Gwen Stefani looked just the way she did in the 'Cool' video", "...Billy Joe Armstrong was 20 pounds heavier", and "...'classic rock' did not mean 'Nirvana'".

2. Why do I always get all the pain-in-the-butt phone customers? I seem to be a magnet for every hard-of-hearing man over 70, every woman holding a screaming child, and every compulsive ticket exchanger in the tri-state area. I don't understand it--somewhere, somehow, I did something bad, and now karma is back to bite me in the ass.

Today we had a woman who spent 30 minutes on the phone with one of our reps going over dates for a show which shall remain nameless. Actually, let's call it "The Really Big Christmas Show featuring the Glorified Strippers from NYC". She made my poor rep go over at least a dozen dates looking for that holy grail, "good seats". It wasn't until she had bought tickets and hung up that she decided to look at her date calendar, and--wonder of wonders--she had a conflict! That conflict landed smack in the middle of my desk and contributed to a very bad case of stress-induced acid reflux I was unfortunate enough to endure today. Thanks a lot, lady!

3. Why is it that I have been receiving enough Victoria's Secret catalogs to be able to wallpaper my entire house lately? I got two in one day last week--these catalogs have all the same stuff in them, and I know I'm not on the mailing list twice. Something's gotta give--my dear old dad, who is retired, gets the mail every day, and it's just plain embarassing for him.

The bigger problem is that I'd like to order some new things for Fall, but I know that as soon as I do, a big fat sale catalog will come in the mail and I'll be kicking myself for not waiting three more hours. I think I'll start a magazine drive and donate all these superfluous catalogs to needy engineering majors at the nearby universities. It's not the best substitute, but hey-- Playboy doesn't mail me free publications.

4. Speaking of Playboy, I'm totally obsessed with The Girls Next Door. Is this show a train wreck, or what?? I just can't stop watching. I'm mesmerized by Holly Madison--how can anyone look that perfect??? Of course, I know the answer: she's 90% plastic, but still. She makes it seem so glamorous to be dating an old fogey.

That episode with Barbi Benton was the best yet--talk about a cat fight! What I don't understand is how Hef could have gone from naturally good-looking, intelligent brunettes to I Can't Believe She's Not [really] Blonde. I have so many unanswered questions about this show: Does Hef pay for their boob jobs? Why did he downsize from 7 ladies to only 3? He sure didn't seem to have any trouble keeping up before. (pun not intentional) Is this Hef's real hair, or is it just a really bad rug? Is it just me, or does Kendra's generally annoying manner outweigh her sexiness?

I'll save the rest of my random musings for another time. That's all for now.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Tacky? That's Ta-KAY, To You!

In the course of searching for a photo for my last post, I came across one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. This unity candle, seen above, needs to go in my "tacky wedding hall-of-fame", a running list I've kept for myself since I started wedding planning last year. Let's get a closer look at it, shall we?

Yes, that's Pepe Le Pew with Penelope trying to pry herself off of him. It doesn't seem very fitting for a "unity" candle, now, does it?

This isn't the only tacky thing I've found for a French-themed wedding. Since I'm having one myself, I've been paying attention to lots of examples of how not to do it. For instance, take the cake. I will be having a croquembouche, the traditional French wedding pastry. It isn't a cake, but rather an enormous tower of creampuffs. My family doesn't really know what to make of this, and so we are having a traditional wedding cake in addition to my croquembouche. But the traditional cake will not have a tacky cake topper on it:

But wait, that's not all--it even lights up!

Some people are convinced that the French actually do a "wedding cake" and are determined to duplicate that in their own way. Here is one extremely misguided attempt:

Is it just me, or does the groom look like he's about to jump?

Here are some more ugly/scary Paris cakes:

Looks like Fragonard and Monet simultaneously threw up on what would otherwise be a perfectly delicious cake.

Very elegant from the middle-down, but that Eiffel Tower looks pretty unstable to me. Sort of like a 4th-grader was experimenting with some of those waffle sandwich cookies.

Pretty cool-looking, but that monstrously oversized Chanel bottle just scares me.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Keep Your Accents, Pépés of the World!

"How would Pepe LePew be situated if he went to a speech therapist and ended up sounding like a regular skunk? Why, his dating opportunities would stink." --Reg Henry

I admit that I've tried my darndest to lose my foreign accent. I don't find Anglophone accents at all charming outside of our (now vast) English-speaking world. I can't stand Patricia, the character played by Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle, precisely because she has such an annoyingly stereotypical American accent. I remember sitting in the darkened classroom of my French Film class, cringing every time I heard a line in that hideously ugly accent.

Many of my fellow college classmates speak French the same way they speak English: they just substitute French words, but make no effort to use the correct stress patterns or idiomatic expressions. These people have a French degree on paper, but leave them alone for a week in Nice and they'd get laughed all the way home.

Of course, I'm biased, and will readily admit that I harbor a double standard. I don't think I'd ever argue that a Frenchman should try to lose his accent when speaking English. It's just too adorable. Don't get me wrong--I love British accents and love imitating parents are ready to disown both me and my aunt because we talk to each other in a cockney accent--I just hate it when no attempt is made at linguistic assimilation.

French people realize that I'm foreign; that is something that I'll never be able to change until they find a way to alter the fabric of the human brain and vocal cords. But most of them can't figure out where I'm from, which allows me to play a fun guessing game. Most Frenchmen guess that I'm from Italy, not a far stretch. But as soon as my best friend came to visit me, with her blonde hair and enormous, dazzingly-white smile, people started immediately and automatically switching to English when they saw us coming. I took it as an insult (of course), but it's just the other end of the stereotypical spectrum, I suppose.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Travels With Mother

I found this article from the New York Times to be quite touching. From a customer service standpoint, there's no doubt that the woman's mother was a total bitch, but her daughter is able to turn the tone of the piece around at the very end.

TRAVELS WITH MOTHER; When Luxury Is de Rigueur, Only Real Castles Will Do
Published: August 7, 2005

ON my childhood trips, there was First Class, Deluxe Class and Mother's Class. My mother didn't just arrange a meal in Rome; she reserved fettuccine at Alfredo's. She collected hotels the way other women collect jewelry, racking up holidays at the George V, Carlton, Claridge's, Hassler, Cipriani, Costa Smeralda, Voile d'Or, La Reserve. In her view, travel was a privilege not to be squandered by booking stingily or mechanically. And to my lasting gratitude, she believed firmly in taking along the children.

Parents may think children won't remember much of anything after being taken on holiday, but I recall every detail. Mother made our trips unforgettable -- even if that required, as it frequently did -- torturing the concierge.

My sister and I learned about foie gras and Champagne aboard the France. Mother arranged a private trek for us to the oracle at Delphi. We played vicious croquet on the green lawns of Barbados and sipped Swiss hot cocoa on a balcony with a 180-degree view of the Alps. In Spain, Mother induced the hotel chef to show us how to make a small-batch version of his tasty gazpacho Andaluz, a dish I still make today.

When we came home from school, our mother, surrounded by travel brochures, would be talking too loudly on the phone to Paris, Rome, the Algarve or the Galápagos, and in a foreign language comprehensible only to her, a cockeyed combination of French and Italian and smatterings of other languages in which she also had no fluency. Our father often went abroad on business, and she saw her job as making sure each trip was as luxurious and expensive as humanly possible -- and also included her and, when possible, my sister and me.

Mother gleaned the most from every moment, as she showed most graphically the day in Paris when she lost track of time and we arrived at the Louvre less than an hour before closing. Instead of turning away, she took my sister and me by the hand and literally ran with us through the rooms and hallways. ''Don't look! Don't look!'' she ordered breathlessly. ''These paintings are not important.''

An artist herself, she knew the Louvre layout, and she put on the brakes only for Tintoretto or the ''Venus de Milo'' or the ''Mona Lisa.'' From then on, ''Don't look!'' became something of a catchphrase in my family. But to this day I never suffer museum fatigue. I don't even try to see every treasure; in advance, I track down the most important works and map the quickest route to them.

When I begged to be taken to Disneyland to see Cinderella's castle, my mother responded, ''Why do you want to see fake castles when you've seen the real ones?'' She reminded me of the palaces we had visited or stayed in: Hampton Court, Chambord Chateau, Montreux Palais in Switzerland. She wanted the genuine. And after spending fantastic sums, she also wanted her money's worth.

''Don't touch the luggage!'' she would bark to the porter who dared put a hand on the family's set of Louis Vuitton as we entered a hotel. While the rest of us encamped in the lobby, she would ask the bewildered desk staff for five different room keys on a variety of floors and inspect the rooms. Under her intense scrutiny, this room smelled of mildew, that room had a stained rug, those bathrooms didn't have enough marble. Success was achieved if she came back down and pleasantly told the bellman that now it was time to take up the luggage. Failure was when she asked in an icy voice for another five room keys.

When my sister and I were teenagers, we skipped a lobby encampment in the Bahamas, stripped down to our bikinis and went to the beach. Several hours later, when we returned to the hotel and asked for our room key, the clerk informed us, ''I'm sorry, but your family has checked out.'' This was a first: Mother had not only left us stranded in our bathing suits with no clothes or money, but had not even thought to leave a forwarding address. When we finally found her at the hotel next door, she was gleefully unpacking and chatting about how much ''nicer'' this hotel was.

But nothing compared with our trip to Majorca, where Mother took one look around the suite she had reserved and swore she saw bugs. She scampered into a taxi, with us teenagers in tow, and said in her best Spanglish, ''Por favor, take us to a new luxury hotel. Nuevo, NUEVO!'' After some aimless driving around the island, then still mostly undeveloped, Mother spied a sign at the entrance to a modest promontory. ''There!'' she told the driver. ''Go there. Hotel. HOTEL!''
''No, no, no!'' the taxi man replied.

Needless to say, Mother got her way. But when we entered the hotel, we found it absolutely empty -- no doormen, bellmen or clerks; no guests. After 15 minutes of wandering, we found the skeleton staff dining at a faraway table in the cavernous dining room. Catching the manager in midbite, my mother politely but firmly demanded to check in. He said he would be delighted -- but only in two weeks, when the hotel officially opened.

Not for a minute did my sister and I doubt our mother's ability to get us into the hotel. And she did. We were not just the first guests, but also the only guests for those two weeks. It was weird and wacky and wonderful. Every day, something new would arrive to complete the rooms, like soap and shower curtains, and my mother happily spent her time instructing the staff on how to run a luxury hotel. We had a glorious summer in Majorca.

It was only after I had started supporting myself that I arrived at a very rude awakening about travel. My paltry beginner's salary made Motel 6 barely affordable, so when my parents invited me to accompany them to the Hôtel du Cap, I soaked up the fabulousness, from the splayed homard at Eden Roc to the sparkling pool perched cliffside. My parents headed off to another paradise, and after a few days solo, I went to check out. Of course, my room had been paid in advance. But the clerk, knowing nothing about this arrangement, presented me with a bill that gave new meaning to the term astronomical.

I panicked. Regulars know the Hôtel du Cap takes only cash, not credit cards, and I had $100 in my wallet. Finally, the hotel manager recognized my name and whisked the bill out of my hands, saying in halting Franglais, ''Please don't tell your mère about this.'' How nice to know the effect my mother had on people when she traveled hadn't changed in my absence.

Now, as I spend a portion of every day on the Internet planning my next imaginary vacation, I think of my mother, who requires round-the-clock care and rarely leaves her room. It's a far cry from the dotage she had predicted for herself: driving a white convertible Rolls-Royce Corniche through the winding roads of the French Riviera with a small dog on her lap. Which is why I'm so determined to go where she no longer can, and so glad she took all those trips when she was well. It comforts me to imagine that, during those many hours she spends neither alert nor awake, she returns in her mind to those marvelous hotels and gives orders to the staff.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Joys of Bi-lingual Children's Television

I have a young student who is turning two in a few months. You may be thinking, "A two-year-old student??" But basically, I've been hired to maintain the language recognition skills she has developed from having lived with a French au pair for approximately six months. It's as if I babysit her, just in French.

We watch some French-language DVDs together, which has been an interesting experience. I had never even watched Dora the Explorer in English, let alone in French--and I was surprised to find out that Dora teaches English as the foreign language in the French DVD, not Spanish. Kinda negates the whole purpose of having Dora the Hispanic Explorer in the first place: one episode features the fifteenth birthday party of Dora's cousin. This poses a huge cultural gap for the French DVD, as there is no such thing as quinceañera in Francophone culture. Losing the Spanish language connection left me and my student high and dry as viewers. It made me ponder the reasoning behind changing the second language in the program to English instead of keeping it at Spanish. Perhaps the show's producers thought that there were no little Canadian kids who'd want to bypass English language learning and go straight to Spanish. Who knows?

We fared much better with some Caillou DVDs. This being a show produced by a Francophone company, there was no cultural gap to overcome. I got a very real sense of satisfaction in noting that the voices matched up perfectly with the French language, meaning that the show was always meant to be seen in French before being dubbed into English. (I will save my rantings on the issue of film dubbing in France for another post.)

On the DVDs, there is a portion between each episode that features Caillou's teddy bear (Nounours), his cat, Gilbert, and his stuffed turtle as live-action puppets. I have found that my little student HATES puppets (hates puppets, loves Muppets--she's quite a discriminating consumer) and has taken to pointing at the screen and saying "No!....No!....No!" whenever they come onto the screen. She isn't happy again until she is safe in the knowledge that I am fast-forwarding through that portion as fast as I can.

Puppet phobias aside, I enjoy watching Caillou. For those of you not in the know, Caillou means "pebble" or "small stone," fitting, considering that the character has no hair; his sister's name is Mousseline, mousse, of course, meaning "moss". I'm impressed at this play on words, as I assumed the saying "A rolling stone gathers no moss" was an Anglophone one. Ironically, this clever play on words is lost in English, with the little sister's name having been changed to Rosie. I don't understand that--why would you keep "Caillou" but change "Mousseline"? I think Caillou is much harder for Anglophones to pronounce than Mousseline is. Go figure.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Vive les 35 heures!

(photo courtesy Despair, Inc.)

I find this poster hilarious, and fully intend to invest in one for my lovely micro-cubicle. It will go nicely with the Dilbert cartoons and other publications that are supposed to increase morale at work by making fun of it. Sadly, none of them really work, but at least they're good for a few laughs.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Lunch Hour Stress Relief

Two days ago I had to call France on my lunch hour to talk to a good friend of mine who is contemplating applying for a job at Disney World. I had to call on my lunch break because, as you may already know, France is six hours ahead of us, and if I had waited until I got home from work to do it, it would have been almost midnight there.

...but I digress. I made the call at 12 on the nose and I must admit that it was a welcome respite from listening to little old ladies ask questions about the Rockettes. [I must insert here that I officially HATE Al Roker. He announced on the Today Show a few days ago that tickets for the Rockettes were going on sale that day in 9 cities. He didn't bother to name the cities, so every little old lady and bored housewife in the tri-state area started calling us, even though our tickets don't go on sale until next month. Stick with Food Network, Al. You seem to fit in better over there.]

I must have been on the phone for a good hour, and when I hung up, my boss made some comment to me along the lines of "And you say WE talk loud!". I just find it easier to pronounce French properly when I am speaking at a normal to loud level. It just sounds better! Have you ever tried to pronounce words properly while whispering? There's a reason why it doesn't work!

Really, what was bothering him was not the fact that I was speaking loudly, but rather the fact that he could not understand a word I was saying. He's just as much a gossip as the rest of the biddies in the department and I know he wanted to know what I was rattling on for an hour about. I could tell it was eating him alive. His suspicions are here confirmed: of course, I was talking about the office and my coworkers!

Now I know what my mother felt like all those years ago when she'd speak Italian to my grandmother at the kitchen table so my sister and I couldn't understand. They can't get away with that anymore, though, since we all have enough romance language background to blow the lid off their family gossip. But I can totally relate to the sense of release one gets from speaking a foreign language in public.

So there I was, bad-mouthing my boss and expressing my annoyances with my co-workers right in front of them. I think I will make this a regular part of my stress-management self-medication. It's quite satisfying.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Voix Box

I am in love with the recorded voice of France Télécom.

That sounds odd, even to me, and I know exactly what it was supposed to mean. Allow me to clarify:

I love the way the automated female voice of France Télécom pronounces certain words. During my initial days in France, I made many bad phone calls before finally mastering the art of the cabine téléphonique and the mobicarte, so I had many one-sided conversations with said voice. Mme. Télécom is unusually expressive and cheerful when compared to the average Frenchwoman. A normal Frenchwoman would never be that gregarious with someone she had never met, let alone never seen. I guess I found the voice comforting when faced with the jarring experience of French public behavior. (That will be a topic for a future post.)

By far, my favorite word is "cinq". There's such a satisfying, deep resonance to it; I catch myself trying to replicate its delicious, full-bodied tone when I'm alone in the bathroom or in my office at work. Even better than cinq is cinquante-cinq, for obvious reasons.

I also love the voice of the little French boy who dubs Roo's voice (in French, he's Petit Gourou) in the Winnie the Pooh (Winnie l'Ourson) series. I was watching an episode on DVD several months ago with one of my little students, and I became very attached to the way Petit Gourou said "quatre". What made it even better was that it happened to be an episode about counting, so I got to hear it over and over again. And, just as before with Mme. Télécom, there was a quality to the pronunciation that I just found irresistible. I tried to imitate it to no avail.

The way these actors pronounce their numbers fascinates me; they just have such a satisfying pronunciation that it makes me feel as if I've personally been pronouncing everything totally wrong for the last 10 years. Does that make me a masochist for listening to these voices over and over, knowing full well that I will only torture myself trying to imitate them later?

Well, there you have it: the guilty pleasures of a disgruntled francophile. I can only dream of someday becoming as great at counting in French as Mme. Télécom and Petit Gourou. Yes, I realize I'm pathetic; no need to remind me.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Fumeur ou non-fumeur?

I am just shaking my head. Literally. Someone in the French government decided it might be nice to imitate Ireland and Italy by proposing a smoking ban in all public places. At least that's what La Nouvelle République, the Loire Valley's main daily, is reporting.

Talk about your useless laws! There is already a law, la loi Evin, prohibiting smoking except in designated areas of all sorts of buildings from schools to restaurants. Does anyone pay attention to it? Hell no! Getting the French to stop smoking would be like getting George Bush to learn English: We all know it's never going to happen.

David Sedaris wrote lovingly of France's favorable smoking practices extensively in his hilarious book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. He recounts tales of smoking, not just in hospital waiting rooms, but in the actual patient care rooms themselves. The best example of the French relationship with smoking I've ever seen was in Jean-Pierre Melville's film Le Cercle rouge (1970). In one memorable scene, the main character is trying to escape the police by hiding out in the trunk of a car, driven by his partner in crime. They reach a clearing where both exit the car, exchange money with some other criminals, and the trunk-dweller lights a cigarette. Two seconds later, the cops are detected and both men have to get back into the vehicle. The guy gets back into the trunk with his lit cigarette, not wanting to waste it. The moment is so French, it's classic. I mean, if you're going to asphyxiate yourself, why not do it twice as efficiently?

When I lived in France, Nina, the grandmother of Guillaume, mon petit charge, told me that her husband had been a prominent pulmonologist in Tours and had owned several sanatoriums for tubucular women. She then informed me that he had been a heavy smoker all his life and eventually died of lung cancer. A pulmonologist. That just blew my mind. We've all heard the saying about the shoemaker's children running barefoot, but I think this was taking it a bit too far. This same woman also informed me that, for many years, her husband used the front rooms of their house as his office. His office--where he treated tubercular patients. This sort of flippant attitude is perhaps what interests me most about the French as a people. Sometimes I wish I could harvest it and bask in the feeling of not caring about work or sanitation--life's just one big vacation in l'Hexagone.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Bilingual Proofreader Needed

The following is from an article titled "In legendary birthplace of coffee, an un-Starbucks" that appeared in the International Herald-Tribune on July 22. The article discusses Starbucks knock-offs in Ethiopia that have unapologetically muscled in on the evil coffee chain's turf:

"At a Kaldi's rival called Le Parisienne there was far more car service than actual café service on a recent afternoon. " (full article)

Le Parisienne?? Pardon me while I cough up my baguette. I expect better from Africa, that vast continent of many French speakers. Le ParisIEN, LA Parisienne!!! This sort of thing reminds me of a local cafe that has been very unfortunately named "El Dolce". At least these "Le Parisienne" people stuck with the same language! "El Dolce" is just wrong on so many levels, least of which being that it is located in a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood.

I also expect better from IHT; it may quickly lose its status as my favorite newspaper if the staff keeps using orthographically challenged places of business as feature article fodder!

Friday, July 29, 2005

Chiens de Cheverny

Photos taken last year at the Château de Cheverny:


As you can see, these are some highly excitable dogs.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Les crusades de Jeanne d'Arc

I have decided that it would be interesting to expand this blog to encompass all of my Frenchie pet peeves, not just the pronunciation-related ones. This opens a whole new can of worms, since, for the past 10 years, I have been fielding just about every jackass (or, as we say in Pittsburgh, 'jagoff') comment about the French imaginable. Aside from being totally ridiculous, such comments are really a waste of my time. I used to feel like a real perroquet at times, repeating the same tired responses to the comments and questions of small-minded folks, including my dear-old-dad, a former Marine ("The French started Vietnam! We saved their ass in World War II!"). Total strangers, when pursuing the usual course of mindless small-talk, would ask what my major was. I would reply, which would then be met with a snide laugh and "French?! What are you going to do with THAT??".

As I entered college, my mother informed me that I would be ruining my life if I continued to study French. She was basing this comment on her own sad experience, having studied standard Italian in college to supplement her native Abbruzzese dialect. While I am very Italian and see some minor advantages to knowing the language (mostly to decipher family gossip at my grandmother's dinner table), I could never justify that sort of language choice. Check the list of countries that use Italian as an official language. Then compare it to French. Yeah, I'm "ruining my life", alright. I feel sorry for my mom sometimes; I know she had different ambitions in life. She wanted to travel and visit her homeland more often than just once every 25 years; things just didn't work out the way she'd planned. I can't say her comment to me didn't hurt, but I can understand why she made it; she didn't want me to fall into the trap that she did, of pursuing her language enthusiasm to a certifiable level and then watching it do her absolutely no good in the workplace. She was just trying to look out for me, but I know she underestimated my francophilia and never thought she'd end up with such an eccentric, obsessive francophile of a daughter.

My dad eventually backed off with the anti-French comments, only to be replaced by my future father-in-law. A stauch Republican (will somebody please remind me exactly why I'm marrying into this family, again?), he had a field day along with the Fox News pundits, bleating comments at me about freedom fries and surrender monkeys. I didn't take it well, eventually bringing my future mother-in-law to call a truce between us after I forced him to watch a Michael Moore documentary one politically-charged night.

In spite of all my goading family members, I persevered. A former high school teacher once dubbed me "Jeanne d'Arc" since I was constantly defending the French in any debate, regardless of topic. (Of course, in the true spirit of high school, my classmates transformed this into "Jeanne d'Ork", not entirely undeserved on my part.) I embraced the title and the defiance it implied.

So, here I am, for your reading enjoyment, the product of years of anti-French abuse and torment.

Photo: Me in Orléans, standing in a street where Jeanne d'Arc once rode, en route to train her troops. Photo taken by Marie-Helinette Lansade.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Je vous présente Monsieur Crosby!

This young man, Sidney Crosby, has been able to do the unthinkable: make me care about sports. This post has nothing to do with French pronunciation, but it is relevant in that I have read that he is fully bilingual and can "move effortlessly between French and English". He's not difficult to look at, either.

Everyone here in Pittsburgh is in a frenzy of excitement over this fellow--he is touted as the next Mario Lemieux, only with better language skills. (the Penguins have lucked out and will get the first pick in this year's draft, meaning we get Mr. Crosby.) As you may well know, Mario was our version of Céline Dion--loads of talent, but couldn't speak English well enough to find a bathroom. It is so refreshing to find a hockey player--let alone a 17-year-old boy--with an engaging personality who is BILINGUAL. I asked a co-worker of mine who also works for the Penguins if they are looking for any "language consultants". Nice try, Mel, but no cigar! So now I will be obsessively watching the news to try and catch a few seconds of his French.

I have also been thinking up signs to bring to the game in hopes of getting onto the Jumbotron with my fellow francophiles...this is highly unusual for me, as I have been allergic to sports for my entire life. Now I'm having fantasies of becoming the proverbial (at least, in Pittsburgh it's proverbial) 'Hockey Ho' and holding up signs that say "Sidney, Mario et Marc-André, je vous aime!"