Thursday, January 29, 2009

Breaking news!

So, there is an enormous General Strike here in France. There are, according to the radio broadcast to which I occasionally listen, protesting the increasing cost of living, layoffs, the economic crisis, to protect the 35-hour work week , stop university and education reforms, for public service integrity, against capitalism, for fuzzy kittens and against bad weather.

There are supposedly 65,000 people on the streets of Paris, (if you’re reading this now-ish, check out the webcam on Place Bastille here.

The brewers are on strike! This is more serious than I had thought.

In Strasbourg, there are apparently 10,000 people on the streets. I ventured out, just as if I were a real reporter, on the assumption that they’d be congregating on either Place Kleber or Place de Republique. I tried to get to the head of the line, causing at least one union goon to follow me, presumably thinking I was a narc or something. The fact that I'm wearing a second-hand Canadian prison guard's jacket probably did not help.

The theatre people are on strike? But what will we do without... hey, did you guys see that funny youtube video that's been going around?

In any case, they appeared to be marching in circles, and when I gave up tracking them, the lead marchers were just about to catch up to those at the end of the line, thus completing a striker’s doughnut, that would presumably march around the downtown until their megaphone batteries ran out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Premature nostalgia

Thick, chunky ice

This should be our last year in Strasbourg, if all works according to plan. As such, Amynah and I have found ourselves saying "We're really going to miss such-and-such a Euro-thing" with greater frequency. I've been going out of my way to take photos of images from our daily life, as insurance against future senility.

In any case, one of the things we're going to miss terribly from Strasbourg is the bike paths. There are hundreds of kilometers of dedicated bike lanes in this city, and drivers actually respect cyclists rights to be on the road. One case in point is the Rhine-Rhone canal, a short, tree-lined portion of which serves as Amynah's bike route to her work in the suburb of Illkirch.

Most mornings, we both hop on our bikes and pedal the seven and a half kilometers to her lab (I go along for the exercise). The nature of the paths mean that we need only share the road with cars for one kilometer of virtually traffic-free road between our apartment and the lab.

Yesterday, on my way to French class, I paused and snapped a few shots of the waterway, which has been more-or-less frozen over for the last few weeks.

Thin, smooth ice

The town is small enough that you start to recognize the other cyclists on their way to work, especially now the weather has eliminated all but us and the hard-core bikers. My favourite is an older lady, who manages to be out on the path with her two dogs both in the morning and in the evening when we return. The long haired, high-strung poodle-like creature she keeps on a leash, but her bulldog needs no restraint: every time he sees a cyclist coming, he freezes, terrified, as if any movement would invite an attack from this strangely speedy, legless species of humanoid.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tongue tied twisted

I’ve been doing a lot of language exchanges of late, as well as taking a regular French class. In addition, at my former French teacher’s urging, I’m making some moves towards teaching English on a semi-professional basis here. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about language.

The cliché in Canada is that the French and English are “Two Solitudes,” a phrase popularized by the novel of that title by Hugh MacLennan, that has come to signify the divisions between the two cultures. I prefer to remember that the phrase originated with Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote that: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”

While the whole is certainly a lot more positive than the bit MacLennan excised for his title, I can’t help but notice that while Rilke’s love requires protection, touching and greeting of his solitudes, it does not demand that they speak to one another. This was wise.

In a country where it is somehow perfectly acceptable to say "Je cherche le parking pour le weekend," and the foreign content of last year's Eurovision song contest entry was decried in Parliament, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would invent the English Doormat Prize, which names and shames those who pollute the purity of the tongue with English. So far, I am happy to report that they haven't discovered this blog.

As my far-more linguistically gifted friend David has already noted, communication is difficult when some of the concepts don’t exist in the other language. This strike-ridden, revolution-prone country apparently lacks a word for “cranky,” while the Anglo-Saxon peoples – a culture that created the laugh track and the music of John Tesh – have no easy way to express ennui.

However, it isn’t the foreign concepts that cause the real problems, it’s the faux amis - those words that should mean the same, but don’t. At a dinner this weekend, my friend Sebastien told us how, in his previous life as a video-game tester, he noted that the French version of sports game told players, once their team had been eliminated, that they were “Over seasoned” (while this might have been referring to the fact their goose was cooked, Sebastien advised his employers to modify it to better reflect the English “season over.”)*

Of course, Amynah still possesses the best language mix-up story of our time in France. It was her first week in her lab. She didn’t really know where things were, and so asked Audrey the technician where she could find some chemicals with which she could fix her cell samples. Audrey’s eyes widened, “Err… umm… at a pharmacy,” she replied in French. “At a pharmacy? These are pretty common things to have in a lab. Why don’t you have some here?” asked Amynah.

It was only after some confusion that Audrey conveyed to Amynah she had called the chemicals she needed “preservatifs” – and had thus asked Audrey for access to the lab’s supply of condoms.

* Similar confusion probably earned me quite a reputation in Toronto, where I was at a student journalism conference many, many years ago. A Filipino cleaning lady entered my room in the morning, where I was lying in bed, recovering from the party the night before. A quick glance told her all she needed to know: “So, you are over hung?” "Yep! Be sure to tell everyone you know!"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A sacred trust, broken

To be fair, there's never anyone on this street even in the busy season

For most of the year, it is easy to forget that Strasbourg is not a very large city. The streets are always packed with musicians entertaining the hordes of tourists. There are farmers’ markets on one public square or another almost every day. In our part of town at least, the streets are almost always lively.

All of this builds to the climax of the year, the Christmas markets, which in terms of tourism, is the car-chase-helicopter-explosion-guitar-solo-in Stairway-to-Heaven-soprano-sings-aria-and-stabs-lover-grande-finale of the year.

Then, in January, the city dies.

It’s shocking – you get so used to elbowing your way through stunned, camera wielding herds of Germans, Italians, Americans and Japanese that the ability to walk unimpeded on the sidewalks is disorienting. The only life on the streets near where we are – a neighbourhood whose only businesses are souvenir shops and tourist-restaurants – is provided by bored waiters smoking in their doorways. The occasional solitary traveler, desolately wandering the cobbles like a duckling separated from its mother, elicits pity rather than my usual annoyance.

It’s quiet. Too quiet.

A couple of weeks ago, I won a commission to write a brief city guide for a small airline that will be starting service to Strasbourg. I was expected to include recommendations for what cultural events were going in town.

I checked the local museums website – all of the special exhibitions finish before the article would be published. I checked the city’s website – nothing. The local convention centre? Nada. Finally, I called the city’s tourism office: nothing was happening for the foreseeable future, they told me, adding that the only event that I knew should be happening in the relevant time period hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Writing about Strasbourg professionally was a little strange in other ways as well. I earned the commission on the basis of being a knowledgeable local writer. However, I quickly learned the limits of my local knowledge, which leans heavily to history, rather than anything a visiting businessman would need to know. The article format demanded that I describe three local hotels. As I live here, I’ve never had cause to use any of the local hotels – though I was able to get recommendations from friends who have. Our local friends also directed me to the best local bars and restaurants, making me less “the guy with the local knowledge” so much as “the guy who knows people with local knowledge.”

Worst, for my conscience, was that I wrote about “The Super Secret Location,” which is a betrayal to you, my loyal readers.

The “Super Secret Location” (SSL) is a place in town to which I take all of my visitors, after I make them swear an oath to never reveal its nature to others who may visit me later. The SSL is almost never visited by other tourists, and in fact is not even terribly well-known to natives.

I have never blogged about the SSL, because I know I have readers who may still visit me, and I do not want to ruin the surprise for them. I had planned to do so once I could be fairly sure no more readers were en route. And yet, when faced with a pressing deadline and the lure of filthy British money, I crumbled like... a crumbly thing.

Can you ever forgive me?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

C'est ironique, n'est pas?

EU Parliament in Strasbourg

Strasbourg is the crucible of post-state internationalism – chosen to host many of the institutions of the European Union, it is a symbol of the ideal that universal values of tolerance, cooperation and the primacy of law can transcend the nation state. But while people may agree on the little things here – shared currencies, open borders, common immigration and defense – I recently learned that no mercy is shown to those that broach the big taboos.

The scene was a dinner at the home of Brigitte, Amynah’s boss. We had enjoyed a wonderful meal, and had just retired to the living room for dessert and coffee. Some mellow acoustic music was playing in the background.

For some reason, perhaps rendered heedless to social mores by the relaxed atmosphere, I made the observation that many of France’s popular musicians – male artists in particular – do not feel obligated to include anything resembling “melody” in their songs, preferring to recite their lyrics as if reading a monologue in a high school drama class while striving mightily to ignore the guitars strumming behind them (though I didn’t put it quite like that at the time).

Now here’s a group that can write a tune

My hosts reacted as if I had used the tricolour to wrap a Big Mac. Qeulle horreur! Brigitte’s husband Alain immediately rushed to their music collection to dig up examples of French music that would prove me wrong: it didn’t go well.

Ageless superstar Johnny Holliday?* “Isn’t he actually Belgian?”

(several English-language pop songs play, while Alain rummages through their collection_

Charles Aznavour? ? “I think he’s Armenian.”

(a few Rolling Stones songs play)

Finally, Alain did manage to dig up a few singers who had hits in the eighties: “See! this guy is singing. He died just after this album was released. Or this one! Of course, he’s dead now too.”

Finally, Brigitte satisfied national honour by stating, “Well, in English songs, the lyrics don’t mean anything anyway. It’s nonsense! In French music, the lyrics tell stories!” (And what stories they tell! )**

A very good book I read on France before moving here pointed out that the French are always the first to point out the flaws of their country: the social tensions, the strikes, the snobbiness. Of course, the author pointed out, they don’t mean a word of it, and won’t stand for outsiders to make the same observations themselves.

This is not a strictly French trait. I laughed when I learned that my friend Félicie thought Canadians look like Maple Joe, the face of of Canadian syrup here in France. Then Amynah silenced me when she pointed out that a surprisingly large percentage of Canadians, including a fair number of my best friends, are hairy, flannel-shirt wearing weekend woodsmen.

And we do get defensive, about the silliest things. Amynah had another encounter with someone from her institute along the same lines: “You Canadians, you don’t have a sense of irony.”

For some reason, this upset Amynah and I all out of proportion to the offense. No sense of irony? Us? The country that produced John Candy, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Jim Carrey and, more recently, Michael Cera? Let alone Celine Dion, whose fans I firmly believe must be irony connaisseurs ? Heck, one of us wrote the Anthem of Irony . We can do irony. We just don’t know what it means .

* Note on the linked video: The past is a different country; they do things cheesier there).

** For those who don't want to read the whole thing: Escaped gorilla rapes a judge.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The razor's edge

All right, no one has specifically asked about the State of the Beard, but I have received one or two recent comments on it, so I feel I should bring you all up to speed.

Here’s the summary of opinion so far:

“I like your "beard". I'm thinking Russian mobster or Belgian butcher” (from my friend Tim, who’s proficiency with facial hair entitles him to use the sarcasm quotes).

“It's masculine and sexy” from Headbang8, proprietor of the awesomely titled Deutschland über Elvis .

Agreeing with my own assessment that I looked like Evil Spock, my friend and occasional editor Daniel observed “You even have the facial expression of coldly rational Vulcan disdain down pat.” Technically, that wasn’t an opinion on the beard, but I’ll throw it onto the “positive” pile.

My mild-mannered friend Travis, who rarely ventures an opinion on anything, was so awed by my facial ornament that he resorted to prayer: “Holy sweet suffering jesus ...okay, I kinda like the 'stache.” That’s a “pro,” right?

Noted fashion plate Victor felt that “The new facial hair arrangement is just screaming for a beret,” which I will choose to interpret as positive. He was seconded by Julie who also took the time to make a veiled crack at my scrawniness.

My friend Nat picked up the national stereotype theme: “Very French. Where's your musket?” Presumably, this was also referencing Amynah’s opinion that I looked like D’Artagnan, a nickname enthusiastically embraced by the technician in her lab.

On the negative side, my friend Zack, while agreeing that I looked like I should be out buckling some swash, also diplomatically pointed out a certain incoherent quality to the project: “A splendid lack of connectivity.”

My Dad, a man who has been sporting a full beard since before I hit puberty, and a moustache since at least the advent of photography, advise me that with my new look to “keep away from guys named Bush when you’re tying your shoes.”

Battling back through the tide of negativity, my older sister Andrea mentioned I looked like one of my childhood heroes:

My sister-in-law Zahra was the most succinct of all: ”You look mean.”

But what finally made up my mind for me was this: I realized that I looked like Tom Cruise’s character from the movie Tropic Thunder (albeit thinner, and with more shag on top).

This, combined with Amynah’s daily, semi-subtle demands to know how much longer I planned to keep the experiment going, was enough to make up my mind. The beard is gone. Long live the beard!

Now I’m thinking of growing a mullet.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Apparently, I'm the camel, Heaven's the needle

French labour law being what it is, the owners of the apartment in which Amynah and I are currently living thought it would be more cost –efficient to continue to pay for their cleaning lady to come in once a week than it would be to break their contract and re-hire her on their return. We'll say her name is Margaret - she hails from Poland. She spent many years working in Milan and so her French is heavily spiced with Italian.

Having a cleaning lady is not something natural to me. Given that my Mom’s nickname is “Red” for her political leanings, I feel like I’m betraying fundamental principles allowing someone else to clean up my mess while I futz around on my computer.

For her part, Margaret seems to like us fine: I’m apparently one of the few clients that makes a point of talking to her, and given that it’s just Amynah and I here, the apartment doesn’t get too messy.

One thing I am often bothered by with Margaret is her tendency to speak to me as if I am a moron. I get that a lot here in France – I speak like a 4-year old on a sugar rush in French, without the coherence, so I understand why people tend to not take me very seriously. However her French isn’t so much better than mine, so there was likely some other cause. I discovered why yesterday, when I asked her how her Christmas had been.

Margaret's buddy, hanging out in the Cathedral

Terrible, it turns out. She didn’t get to return home to Poland this year, and thus spent Noël in Strasbourg. Margaret is deeply Catholic, and started off on an impassioned, very long, and increasingly loud rant about the spiritual emptiness of the French, how everyone has forgotten about the Nativity and is focused entirely on presents and champagne.

As she went on, her ire illuminated the failing of “The French,” gradually focusing in on “The People in Her Neighbourhood” shining briefly on “Some of Her Clients” before inevitably focusing a white-hot spotlight on “Me.”

“Here you have this big apartment, a fancy car, spending time on your computer, but in the end, what will it all mean? When you die – and you will die – and they put you in the ground, what then? God gives you everything, and all he asks is that you believe! When you go up to Heaven, they will ask you – do you remember that cleaning lady in Strasbourg, so many years ago? Do you remember what she told you? What will you say?” (“That I don’t own a car, and the apartment’s not mine,” I thought).

I am, as a rule, fascinated in religions in general and how their adherents negotiate the modern world while staying true to their faith, though I usually don’t making dinner conversation out of it. That said, I fully understand Margaret's impulse: she likes me, she believes in the redemptive power of Christ, and believing I'd not already made his acquaintance, felt it her Christian duty to introduce me to the Lord.

To say my soul is in peril is one thing. But to imply that I’m some sort of patrician, idling away my days on the back of Amynah’s labour, my lily-white hands too delicate to scrub my own floors? That upset me: Red Sharon’s son is no bourgeois parasite!

Maybe I should give her next Wednesday off and clean the place up myself. That’ll show her.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Snow. Fall.

It has finally snowed in Strasbourg – only a few centimeters, but it has actually stayed on the ground, and looks to remain there, in snow form, for at least a few days to come. It’s only a few centimeters, nothing like the drifts that have accumulated in my parent’s backyards that are allowing chickadees to march up to a birdfeeder normally suspended four feet off the ground.

While I have been regaling wide-eyed Europeans with tales of –40 temperatures, and blizzards that force Canadians to use second floor windows to enter their homes, I must admit that winter here poses its own challenges.

The trick to surviving winter is to be prepared for it – I am not. Cocky about Euro-temperatures, when I moved here I failed to bring a winter coat, and even now own only two decent sweaters, both of which have been in heavy rotation for the past month.

My forecasting failings are nothing compared to Strasbourg’s. Despite being located at a latitude nearly as far north as Edmonton’s, the city appears to own but one salting truck, at which children stop and stare when it passes, startled that such a thing exists. Sidewalks are not salted, and are rarely sanded. If there is a snowplow operating anywhere in the vicinity, I have seen no evidence of it. Needless to say, no one owns snow shovels: I saw one poor soul trying to clear a driveway with a leafblower.

The “storm” started yesterday – I biked Amynah into her work, seven kilometers along a bike path that follows the Rhone-Rhine Canal. It was cold, but there were only a few isolated, innocent-looking flakes. Over the course of the day, these ominously increased in number and before long it was clear that they were here to stay.

I had a French class at Amynah’s institute that afternoon – since I knew she’d have to get her bike back, I decided to ignore my (largely hypothetical) better judgment and pedal in, so that we could bike back together. For the most part, it wasn’t a problem: I was well covered, I had headphones keeping me distracted from the cold and I had the whole path to myself.

However, because nothing is salted, sanded, or plowed, parts of the route had been compacted by car tires into pure ice. Unheeding, the Beastie Boys “Sabotage”on the iPod inspiring me to foolish feats of velocity, I attempted to make a left turn.

What happened was the bike rotated ninety degrees, but did not change course at all, its momentum carrying it – and me – forward over the ice. The wheels went out from under me; I hit the road and proceeded to slide about three meters on my side in a dramatic powdery-white explosion. Had I been in a race I’m sure I’d have made “Wipeouts of the Week” on some sports channel. However spectacular my fall, there was little damage done – I’ve wrenched my left shoulder, but it doesn’t seem serious (of course, I thought that the last time I fell off my bike here, only to discover I’d broken my arm).

Worse than any physical damage is the loss of any authority I might have had for making fun of how the French drive in the snow.