Epilogue

I’m off for my first bout of Permanency In The Real World as I move to New York (again) for the next seven(ish) years. France, as you can see pictured above, was a multitude of experiences ranging from the unexpected to mundane to hideous to wonderful to frustrating to humorous. My students, who probably never received enough credit here, were very nice, bright, great kids, and I’ll be sitting around the third week of June, fingers crossed, as some of them take their Bac. I don’t know if I will continue writing here; there’s something about being in a faraway place that enables (or permits) the self-indulgency of a blog. But, for the brief moment before the Chicago and Turabian manuals of style come to dictate life once again, my writing energies will turn to reporting and editing for a youth sailing organization, and I hear they’re not in the market for pictures of awkward chip flavors or sassy pie charts.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Gnarrly

I went to Iceland last week but decided any account of this trip would be outshined by offering up the story of one Jón Gnarr. This will be mostly culled from Wikipedia plus the June 25, 2010 New York Times article, “Icelander’s Campaign is a Joke, Until He’s Elected.” If you do decide to read the article, I promise it’s worth one of your 20 monthly alloted NYT articles, and will make you laugh more than Osama Bin Laden’s 7-page obituary will.

Once upon a time, on the heels of a crippling economic crisis, an punk rocker and self-styled comedian named Jón Gnarr ran for mayor of Reykjavik. As a child, young Jón stopped going to grade school because it wouldn’t futher his future aspirations to be a circus clown or pirate. Somewhere along the way, he formed a punk rock band called “Nefrennsli,” which means “Runny Nose” in Icelandic.

I am not making this up.

Then the Icelandic economy began its downward spiral. Mayoral elections were held and Gnarr decided that politics were calling his name. He decided to run for mayor. As all good politicians must, Gnarr had to rack his brains for an acceptable party name. Something with cachet, something inspirational. So, naturally, he named his party “Besti flokkurinn,” or “The Best Party.”

To diffuse any confusion about whether his party was indeed The Best, Gnarr explained the name of his party in a public statement. He said, “No one has to be afraid of the Best Party, because it is the best party. If it wasn’t, it would be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party. We would never work with a party like that.”

Soon it was time to make campaign promises. Logically, the first thing to do was to promise a classroomful of kindergartners that he would build a Disneyland. At the airport. He also promised, “free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo, all kinds of things for weaklings, and a drug-free parliament by 2020.”

You can kiss babies on the campaign trail, or you can promise your people one of these puppies

I’m still not making this up. If you don’t believe me, this is his campaign video in Icelandic. You will not regret watching it. The people at Icelandair tell me Icelandic is a language with a “soft and cuddly sound.” I’ll let you decide.

As all good stories end, Jón Gnarr triumphed in the 2010 mayoral elections. He immediately formed a cabinet with several members of Runny Nose and, as for the remaining spots, well, they were up for grabs, provided that prospective members had seen every episode of The Wire. Still not making this up. I have never seen The Wire, which was probably why I got rejected from that summer 2010 internship in the Icelandic municipal government. Thank god for art history, right?

Jón Gnarr is not a real person. Iceland is not a real place. I’ve been there and I still don’t think it’s a real place. To be culturally insensitive, listening to Icelandic sounds like you are listening to aliens. Also, I was in Reykjavik on the last day of classes for their public school system, and everyone was walking around wearing Tellytubby costumes, so everyone really did look like aliens. No one was fazed. I climbed a glacier and spent a bunch of time in the grocery store. If you’re interested in visuals, there are pictures below. Click for full size.

    

    
        

An announcement

For better or for worse, I have just left a country where it is possible to order a crêpe served with four different kinds of caramel au fleur du sel de Guérande. Clockwise, from left: framboise, nature, curry (?!), chocolate. For those of you still in Angers, this puppy can be found at the crêperie/caramelerie La Table Ronde, which offers 12 different types of salted caramel. You heard me. 12. Get moving, now.

It’s not me, it’s you

A certain degree of passivity is accorded to a number of phrases in the French language. I’ve gone all up and convinced myself that this is a precipitant to the strange logic so many adhere to in these parts.

This logic manifests most frequently in two phrases:

(a) C’est pas possible
(b) C’est pas ma faute

T-Pain sings, “Anything is possible.” This is why they had to title the song “I’m on a Boat,” instead of “I’m in France.” Nothing is possible here. Want to make a wire transfer at the bank? C’est pas possible. Can I send a 1 kg flat rate box instead of paying extra for the 2 kg flat rate box? Non, c’est pas possible. Can you give me a photocopy of the washing machine user manual? Pas possible. Is there lemon juice at Monoprix? Yes, in plain view, but it’s on the top shelf and no one can reach it – c’est donc pas possible.

Hearing this is startlingly finite in its decisiveness. David Liebovitz puts it better than I ever could: “You just tend to nod in agreement and accept these odd incongruities around here. It becomes très normale.”

People are also averse to taking the blame. Early on in the school year I ended up with a classful of 38-secondes. I went to explain the situation to the proviseur, and he put his hands up in the air and said, “C’est pas ma faute.” Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but that was the end of conversation.  Lady in the grocery store runs over my foot with her cart. Way to go, lady. Now I have to sit in front of Le Grand Journal for another hour repainting my toenails turquoise. It’s not her fault for being incapable of maneuvering a shopping cart, it’s my fault for being in the way. “C’est pas ma faute” is a total get-out-of-jail free card here.

I can’t imagine what kind of logic goes down in courts, you know, with the avocados and all.

The spoken niceties of common courtesy take on the same aversion to responsibility on the speaker’s behalf. French is sometimes inherently very passive-aggressive. Here’s a potpourri of my seven-month observations.

1. Angers is building a tramway. All around town, there are signs: “Veuillez-nous excuser pour les travaux.” Please excuse us for the construction. There is no straightforward way (c’est pas possible) in the French language to just say, “Sorry for the construction.” The client (for lack of a better word) becomes linguistically implicated in what could ordinarily be a passive experience; he must do the action of excusing the tram company for their construction. The tram company puts the responsibility of coping with construction on the customer instead of just apologizing for the inconveniences. The logic here is not “Sorry, we’re making a mess,” but “We made a mess, duh, so please go out of your way to excuse it.”

2. “Please” translates into “S’il vous plait” or “S’il te plait”: if it pleases you. Again: Instead of saying, “Pass the vegetables, please,” you would say, “Pass the vegetables, if it pleases you.” The agent in the conversation again is the indirect object, whom, in English, would remain passive.

3. The French language also makes it hard to miss people. In fact, by saying “Tu me manques,” you aren’t missing them. They are missing to you (Emily has good thoughts on this topic here) Again, the speaker is not the actor in this phrase: the person in question that you miss becomes culpable. Example: I can’t miss my friend Mina. In her act of being absent from my life, she becomes missing from me. It’s her fault, not mine. Get your shit together, Mina.

4.  It’s the same thing when you don’t have something. While it is grammatically sound to say, “Je n’ai pas du sel” (I don’t have any salt), you can also say “Il me manque du sel” (literally, the salt is missing from me). This way, for example, you never have to take responsibility for running out of salt. It’s missing from you, which opens up a wide range of possible explanations for its whereabouts. Perhaps it ran off to have a shotgun wedding with the pepper, perhaps it called in sick. No one knows. But it’s missing, and c’est pas votre faute.

5. Guests are “invités.” Invited people, or inviteds, if you will. This label (derived from the verb ‘inviter,’ to invite) implicitly suggests their presence is not a singularly active one: it’s a result of someone else’s action.

6. I had to write a letter to the bank the other day. It ended in, “Je vous prie, madame/monsieur, d’agréer l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.” Let’s imagine that I concluded a cover letter by writing, in English, “I beg of you, ma’am, to accept my distinguished sentiments.” You bet your bippy that I will never work in a museum again. You can’t just offer up best wishes and be done with it. You have to beg of them to accept them. The speaker assumes the passive role and it’s up to the recipient to accept your asswipe ‘distinguished sentiments.’

Je vous prie, dear readers, d’agréer l’expression…..shit, in any case, have a good one,
Caitlin

The perils of jumping in on a conversation you weren’t listening to

I have been waiting for this conversation to happen ever since I started learning French 12 years ago, and it finally did. It is the best going-away present this country could give me.

Teacher at my school: Ils sont chers, les avocats.
Me: Ouais, je les ai vus chez Carrefour cette semaine, 2€ la pièce, c’est la folie.
Teacher at my school: Je parlais des avocats, pas le fruit.

Teacher at my school: Lawyers are expensive.
Me: Yeah, I saw them at Carrefour this week, 2€ each, crazy.
Teacher at my school: I was talking about lawyers, not the fruit.

Last hurrah

An aptly-titled recent New York Times article, “A Paris Farewell,” begins with, “I’ve always been one of those girls. A die-hard Francophile. An American helpless in the face of Parisian charms and pleasures.”

And it continues, “What was once mysterious is now intimately understood. What was once mythical is now more real (though, admittedly, still magical). To some extent, Paris will always belong to the Truffauts, Fitzgeralds and Bernhardts of the world. But now some of my own history runs through its streets too.”

The reason this lady writes for the NYT and I don’t is beacuse if I wrote an article about my own history in Paris, it would include a) sandwiches, b) dying in the Bastille during half marathons, c) whining about the Paul in Montparnasse, and d) dead animals. No one would ever go to Paris again.

But this past weekend, my last Parisian hurrah for quite some time, superseded all expectations and was the perfect farewell. The city was abloom with wisteria, awash in sunlight, and overtrodden with impeccably dressed and gorgeous people. Here’s what went down in 48 hours, featuring a colorful cast of characters that includes fellow teaching assistant Emily, the one and only Jeff Goodrich, CWI participant extraordinaire Nina, and an African dung beetle:

SANDWICHES 

After window shopping in La Grande Epicerie, Emily and I went over to grab some sandwiches from a good traiteur I know on the Rue du Vieux Colombier. The ladies at Poilane recommended it to me the last time I was in the area, and it appears exactly as a fancy little 6ème arr. traiteur should be: tiny, crowded, well-stocked with necessary luxuries like already-chilled bottles of Moët and sturdy picnic baskets, and smelling strongly of cheese. They make, sur commande, a killer jambon-chèvre-crudité sandwich for about 4€. Plus, it is strategically placed, right around the corner from Pierre Hermé. We took our sandwiches and macarons (flavors: coing/rose, huile d’olive/vanille, and caramel beurre salé) and went to enjoy them in Luxembourg Gardens, overlooking a lawn of tulips and children chasing pigeons. If this isn’t paradise, then I don’t know what is.

DEYROLLE

Earlier this year I met Taco in Paris, and we went to Le Relais de l’Entrecôte. As neverending steak-frites were the perfect activity for the guy who is known in many circles for consuming thirteen hot dogs in one sitting at a LYC barbecue, roomfuls of taxidermied animals are the perfect activity for Jeff, though I don’t have a concrete example explaining why.   Jeff, with whom I’ve shared several extra special moments at fleet race New Englands and a particularly disastrous team race, was passing through Paris during study abroad spring break. Joy ensued, he’s one of my favorite people, and taxidermied hippopotamuses are some of my favorite things.

Deyrolle is a taxidermy shop where you can buy, finances permitting, dead rhinoceroses, giraffes, polar bears, elephants, exotic birds, water buffalo, you name it. For those with more modest budgets, there is a whole room of bugs for sale. We contemplate bringing back presents for Frank and/or Coco, because nothing says “thinking of you in Paris!” as does a large dung beetle. We ultimately decide against it, but Jeff buys his parents a huge bug after the shopkeeper reassures us that its wings won’t shatter in transit.

CANAL SAINT MARTIN

34€ African beetle in tow, we set off towards the northeast for the Canal Saint Martin for an afternoon of NYT-approved wine drinking in the so-hip-it-hurts neighborhood. We split a bottle of screw-top white, Jeff and I lapsing full speed ahead into intelligible sailing talk, much to poor Emily’s chagrin. We stayed around there the entire afternoon, soaking up the sun and then ducking into a tiny bar, La Patache, described by many as “the place you go when you can’t get into Verre Volé across the street.”

MANET

The next day Emily and I head to the Musée d’Orsay for the Manet exhibition. It was a good exhibition, with some good pieces, but lacking in home run hitters Bar at the Folies Bergère and the Gare Saint Lazare painting. After Manet we speed through the rest of the museum, Pompon appears to be gone, maybe for conservation, which is disappointing. The most memorable part at this point of my trip to the d’Orsay was going through 3/4s of a box of Kleenex while standing in the ticket line and blowing my nose.

FALAFEL, BERTHILLON

In the Marais we meet Nina, who was last spotted six years ago on the battlefield at the Confederate high water mark at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. Our paths should have crossed in the New York area; every time I went to the Mamaroneck Stop and Shop last summer I hoped I would run into her, but it never happened, so it’s been awhile. We get falafels, and then join the masses of falafel-wielding tourists and Parisians alike who wander the Marais looking for a place to park their asses and savor every delcious bite of their long-awaited sandwiches. After eating falafel we wandered around a bit before parting ways at Beaubourg and resolving to see eachother sometime in the next six years. Emily and I then went over to the Ile Saint Louis for Berthillon, the ice cream that I’ve dreamed about for two years straight. In 2009 I had cassis and pamplemousse, this time I got speculoos and chocolat noir. I’m not kidding when I say it had a major influence in my return to France, and I’m already plotting out the flavors I order (caramel beurre salé/vanille) when I return sometime in the distant future.

Bilan

THINGS IN MY APARTMENT THAT HAVE BROKEN THIS YEAR

  • lock on bedroom window (prior to my arrival)
  • bedroom sink drain (October)
  • lamp in bedroom (October)
  • hallway radiator (November)
  • light over sink (November)
  • heater in bedroom (January)
  • lock on kitchen window that neighbor children (devil’s own creation in their own right) now exploit to break into the apartment and steal various sundries and tchotchkes on average once a week. I told one of their mothers that her kids were breaking into the apartment and she got all bent out of shape and said, “Well, that’s what happens when you don’t lock your window.” (March)
  • kitchen light (March)
  • living room light fixture (March)
  • light fixture in bedroom (April 19, 2011)