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 them...my 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!