vendredi 27 février 2009

Walking Around

Just a few photos from this afternoon's stroll around town.

The Cathedral.

An angry-looking fountain in front of the old Archbishop's palace. Does he just have moss in his eyes?  Or is he really mechant?

Can you see in this guy's window?  It looks like he got the interior decorator who did Versailles.  That moulding is probably from the same era, give or take a hundred years.  I like to study the moulding around ceiling edges here and try to figure out where rooms were truncated to make smaller apartments, or where chandeliers would have been hanging.  More about that later. . . 

jeudi 26 février 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Nope, it’s not another post about Marilyn—it’s about my President’s Day lesson at the École Primaire where I teach English to kids in levels CP-CM2 (1st-5th grade). Every week I have to come up with a lesson on “Anglophone Culture.” The catch is that I can only introduce a handful of new words or phrases each week, so I mostly need to use what the kids already know.

So how do you celebrate President’s Day with only a beginner’s knowledge of the English language? By serenading Abraham Lincoln and George Washington with Happy Birthday, of course. And what do you do when they’re not there in person? This:

Two kids in each class volunteered to portray our great Presidents so we could sing to them.  Seeing a seven year old's body with George Washington's head was even funnier than this picture of me as Abraham Lincoln (and not creepy, which I can't really say about myself here).   The kids also got to practice saying "Thank you" as we showed our appreciation to Abe and George for being honest and doing good things for our country.  Maybe it's just homesickness, but I actually got a little teary shaking Abraham Lincoln's hand and telling him "Thank you, Mr. President," even if it was just a mask worn by an eight year old girl.  

The Oriental Express

Once upon a time, about a hundred yards down the street from our apartment, sandwiched between tourist shops and expensive salons, there was a store which sold oriental rugs. The store was fronted by large glass windows on which half a dozen cheap paper signs were taped advertising sale prices, each outbidding the other in obnoxiously colorful, bubble-shaped numerals. Inside, one perceived the majestic carpets draped lazily over humps of unidentifiable furniture, one on top of the other, seemingly in conversation. The showroom extended all the way to the back of the store where, behind the lone supporting column, slightly to the left, a small but tidy desk supported a single flat screen computer monitor and a small lamp.

These elements were worth noting since they were often the store’s only occupants. In five months of passing the rug shop, which bore no name, posted no business hours, and had no phone number, I saw one customer. One customer, one time, who seemed determined not to lean too closely toward any of the wares lest he look interested in an actual purchase. There was, of course, the owner, whose face was most often turned intently downward as he concentrated on some invisible puzzle between the lamp and the computer screen. Occasionally he would be on the phone, but most of the time he simply sat motionless at his desk, a quiet sentry over the sleeping rugs. I don’t know why, but I imagined that he was Turkish, as I imagined the rugs were, and that one might even be expected to speak Turkish upon entering the store. Most of all though, I sensed through the glass that these rugs missed their mother country, and were spoiling in a foreign land where no one knew their worth, where their only spokesperson was a pack of sale signs from the two-Euro store.

The store was a sorry spectacle, one was forced to conclude. But after a few months of sharing Aix-en-Provence with Oriental Rugs Anonymous, I was anything but sympathetic.

It all started with a sign. TAPIS ORIENTALES: GRANDE VENTE AUJOURD’HUI ET DIMANCHE– PLUS DE 60 a 70 % DE REDUCTION. (Oriental rugs: Grand Sale Today and Sunday...) Three feet by four, perhaps, with a blue background and loud white lettering—taped somewhat audaciously to the pole of a “One Way” sign near the Hotel de Ville. Continuing up the street toward our apartment, I soon glanced another identical sign,just outside the rug shop. Normal, it was their sale, after all. One hundred yards later, a third sign appeared, this one at eye-level, frantically tied to the old lamppost in our square. Bright orange. The kind of orange one needs to avoid a hunting accident. This was becoming somewhat insistent, I thought, but figured that the weekend must have been an important turning point for the store to move stock.

That Monday the sign in our square still hung securely to the lamppost, its tidings of the weekend’s bargains defiant in the face of the new week. I soon learned that the rug shop only considered time an ally, and never an adversary. By Wednesday afternoon I was passing dozens of cars whose windshield wipers were dutifully holding onto flyers for the previous weekend’s sale. These flyers would disappear and reappear over the next few months, and nary a street in Aix-en-Provence was spared as far as I could tell. The orange placards took up more and more offensive positions in town, as well. The road leading from the bus terminals to centreville had been completely overrun; one could not help being reminded of the rug shop’s outrageous sales no matter if one was trying to enter the city or to flee.

Soon, the store had revamped for another major push, and so at least half of the posters and flyers were advertising deals yet to come at the same time as their predecessors continued their campaigns for the glorious prices that had been. My customer count still stood at one person despite multiple daily observations, however, and I was growing more and more impatient with each daring attempt the rug shop made at increased visibility. I had started to see signs 30 kilometers away in Marseille.

For the second sale, flyer production seemed to hit a peak. Aix’s municipal parking officers could have easily lost their jobs if their superiors had seen the efficiency that was actually possible by a determined force of windshield apostles. At one point I spotted a min-van on the highway with a TAPIS ORIENTALES flyer clinging furiously to its rear-wiper blade like a hyena that had locked onto a frantic wildebeest. That that particular bite was not the fatal one did not so much matter: there would be others that would pick up the trail. They came at night, anyway.

One of the most maddening aspects of this experience was the utter openness with which the rug shop had perpetrated its campaign. A simple calculation would have quickly led one to the conclusion that if every store in Aix employed a similar poster-flyer campaign, we would quickly have become the most ridiculous looking city in the world. France even spends money to maintain public bulletin boards for just these types of reasons. Furthermore, sales are strictly regulated in France. A store cannot simply slash its prices, claim to sell, or actually sell at a loss whenever it wants to. There are rules and seasons for sales, imposed by the government... Hadn’t the police seen these posters? Or the mayor? Or the trash men!?

This past Sunday new posters went up around the Hotel de Ville once more. DESTOCKAGE TOTAL...AUJOURD’HUI SEULEMENT (Today only!)...and more mind-blowing numbers and percentages-off their already mystical prices. At one point the rug shop had actually just gone ahead and put one their carpets outside the store with a sign on it showing the calculation of what 70% off actually came to. I think the rug, about the size of an average bath towel, still cost two hundred forty Euros—which, after it had been outside decorating the sidewalk for weeks, seemed a little steep to me. In any event, I had a minor flip-out when I saw the new signs going up this past weekend. I am not proud, but I actually did kick the first sign I saw. I should say, and Julia can attest to this, that it was a light kick—my equivalent of throwing a shoe at someone instead of, say, shooting them—but it was not altogether without disgust.

And then it happened.

I was walking home from class on Monday and I reached the place where I normally made my “observation” of the rug shop’s business. With each passing view of the store’s empty showroom over the past few months, I had at least experienced a modest shot of schadenfreude—which just goes to show how deep and mature this whole experience had been making me—but Monday, oh Monday was very different.

I was actually ready to walk right by the rug shop without glancing inside when somehow my peripheral vision picked up some subtle incongruity in the fuzzy background off to my left side. My eyes were riveted to the street, as usual, which is, by the way, why I have gone five months and three weeks without stepping in a single piece of dog poop. However, at that moment my subconscious needed only a split second to assemble some very alarming data into a full-fledged reflex that wrenched my head to the left:

Empty. The store was empty. Not the usual empty, either. There were no carpets. There were no signs. There was no desk, no computer, no lamp, no Turk. The space looked as if construction had just finished that morning and it would be ready to accommodate its first lessee in the coming week. I managed a small and ungraceful hop of delight. I took my bearings, and tried to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The chic visagiste to the right, the postcards stands to the left—yes—this was it—the rug shop—no—the not-rug shop—the rug shop was no more!

I will not assume full credit for the store’s demise, of course. I did kick the sign, I know, but certainly other forces—market ones, for example—probably played some role. The important thing is that the rugs have left the city, and left it for good from what I can tell. They have perhaps migrated again, quietly alighting on some unsuspecting showroom floor behind an normal looking storefront in some far away city. They will try, for a while maybe, to find homes willing to pay retail. But it won’t be long. I tell you, it won’t be long before the signs. It won’t be long before the flyers.

lundi 23 février 2009

Berry Crumble

Today's exciting food purchase: frozen raspberries.  Berries were a freezer staple for us in the States, but I pretty much had to quit smoothies cold turkey when we moved here. It's hard to keep smoothie ingredients on hand when your freezer looks like this:

But after a few weeks of battling a craving for frozen raspberries, I broke down and paid 5 euro 5 centimes for a 600 gram bag. Most of them are going into crumble for dessert tonight when our upstairs neighbor comes over for dinner. "Crumble" is really big here. Hoping it will help us substitute some fruit into our dessert rotation, we bought a box of instant crumble topping. It actually says on the side: "CRUMBLE. Son nom vient de l'anglais, 'crumble', qui signifie 'émietter'." It's name comes from the English word "crumble," which means "crumble." My evidence of the fact that the French have a crumble obsession is that there are two crumble dishes on the menu here at McDonalds, which is my food trend barometer. You can get an apple chocolate crumble, or, instead of your chocolate sundae with nuts, a sundae with carmely chestnut goop and crumble topping. Hang on, let me go take a sip of my "red fruit crumble" flavored tea, a product from Twinings especially for the French market, and pull my raspberry crumble out of the oven.

The instant crumble mix was a bit of a flop and this all looks like a dish of baked raspberries covered with cereal dust. Hopefully it will be as good as it smells instead of as bad as it looks.

As for the rest of the raspberries . . . maybe I'll just eat them frozen.

samedi 21 février 2009

Going Swimming

We had another experience with the French concept of hygiene on Wednesday when we decided to go swim laps at the public indoor pool. Josh called ahead of time to see what the “requirements” were. Normally in France, you can’t wear board shorts or swim trunks in a public pool because it’s “unhygienic.” You may have been wearing them all day, on the bus, around town, etc. We also had to stop at Decathlon, a great sporting goods store (where I bought my amazing yoga pants), to grab goggles and obligatory swim caps.

It was sunny and warm as we walked to the pool, about 20 minutes away from our apartment. We paid our entry fee and left the lobby by the “men’s” and “women’s” doors to go through the system of changing and showering rooms.

The French are very serious about the cleanliness of their public pools. After changing into my swimsuit, signs instructed me to take a shower before entering the pool area. Other signs reminded me that it was my responsibility to keep the water clean for everyone. I half expected a visit from Smokey the Bear’s cousin. . . Splashy the Bear? Bubbles the Fish? Anyway, after exiting the shower room, the smell of chlorine made it very clear I was about to enter the pool area—but to my surprise, there was another hallway to go down. The last ten feet of the hallway was a sunken area filled with two or three inches of circulating water, I guess to get rid of any lingering traces of footborne dirt. Just as I cleared the pond, the motion-activated showers came on. They missed me and my bag of dry towels by inches.

I waited for Josh for what seemed like ten minutes, watching the hallway beyond the foot pond for his signature tropical patterned swim trunks. The automatic showers were no respecter of persons, and several fully-dressed moms bringing their kids to swimming lessons got a drenching. I was a little relieved that other people were bewildered by the system, too.

I watched each pair of calves coming down the steps to the foot pond, but they usually turned into complete legs topped by black speedos—not Josh. But then one pair of black speedos was on a body with Josh’s recognizable gait, topped by his familiar bearded face. It took me a while to stop laughing at him. It turned out that a “boxer,” which the woman on the phone told him he could wear, is only a speedo with slightly fuller coverage, like a boxer brief. Josh’s swim trunks were right out. So, to preserve the hygiene of the pool, the people at the coat check loaned him an extra swimsuit.

The pool was beautiful. The afternoon light slid in through giant windows all around, and the huge lofted roof opens for summer. The day was nice enough that it there was a giant slit running down the center of the ceiling and we could see the blue, blue sky. Once we got in the water, I was having so much fun that I forgot to make fun of Josh in his speedo (never mind that everyone else had one on). He got his come-uppance, though, when we got out of the pool and I took off my goggles. They’d suctioned so tightly to my eye sockets that they’d given me two giant hickeys. Then, on the way out, we noticed the swim cap/goggle/swimsuit vending machine in the lobby. If Josh had known about it, he would have been spared from wearing the Aix-en-Provence community speedo. We laughed at each other the whole way home.

Staple Foods

Last night we had some people over from the “Fac” (Faculte de Theologie, where Josh studies). We made our staple “big crowd” dish, the Kraut Family Cous Cous. It’s really easy: chop up a few onions and drop them into a few tablespoons of hot olive oil in the bottom of a large pot over high heat. As they start to get fragrant, add a few chopped carrots. When something starts to burn, add a few cups of chicken broth, stir it all around, and throw in a few handfuls of pitted prunes. Flavor with couscous spice mix (paprika, ginger, cumin, garlic, coriander, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom), and when it all looks reasonably cooked, add a chopped and de-boned rotisserie chicken. Mix it around so the chicken is covered with the juice from the veggies. Serve over instant couscous. Easier than a Rachael Ray recipe.

I’m starting to get embarrassed by serving “company” such a simple dish, but we had an easy crowd last night. One of our French guests told me at the end of the meal, “You know, everyone says that Americans don’t know how to cook, but I’ll have to tell my wife it isn’t true.” If this is all it takes for a French person to have a raised opinion of American cuisine, what was he imagining that our food tasted like?!? Although, we may have hurt our cause by offering our French guests Hershey’s “The-Great-American-Chocolate-Bar” kisses to sample. One guest looked at us sympathetically and said, “You know, we have bad food in France some times, too.”

dimanche 15 février 2009

Stocking our fridge

The stink of the stench!
The stench of the stink!
The things in your fridge
Smell worse than you think!

Emptying out the two little forgotten tupperware containers in the back of the fridge moved Josh to poetry. We think their former contents were mozzarella cheese and condensed milk.

Yesterday we did a “major shop” at Carrefour, our local super grocery store. It’s big even by American standards and is basically the equivalent of a really large American grocery store plus a Walmart. We had planned to borrow a friend’s car but she ended up using it. No matter, it’s an easy bus ride. The only problem was, we ended up with two backpacks, five giant re-usable shopping bags, and a new trash can full of things like orange juice, milk, and canned stuff. We kindof forgot we were going to have to carry it. . . but we managed, and our new shopping motto is, “Carrefour? What do you need a car for?!?!” Here’s a picture of Josh with the cart, but the photo is flattering to the extremely overweight contents of our grocery bags and they don’t look as big and heavy as they were in real life. By the way, notice the French shopping cart. Slightly larger than an American cart (if I remember right) and eight times more difficult to steer. Apparently there’s some kind of rule in France that says shopping carts have to veer to the right at all times.

jeudi 12 février 2009

Jacob's: our daily baguette

It’s time to talk about the bakery across the street. NOT the place that sells tonipan; Jacob’s. Jacobs is a bakery/sandwich shop chain all over the city. Their food is moderately (maybe even fairly) priced, despite the super-chic, black white and chandelier-ed decor. Jacob’s baguettes would make you “smack yo momma.” Usually a french baguette is a “crustation” (haha, crustacean, get it?) with a hard crust shell and a soft, cottony interior. I’m actually not a huge fan. Jacob’s baguettes, on the other hand, are wider, softer on the outside, and doughy on the inside. And we often have to wait for them to come out of the oven.

But the most notable thing about baguettes is not what they say about French cuisine; it’s what they say about French hygiene. Here we are in the country where pasteurization was invented, where milk is so carefully pasteurized that it doesn’t need to be refrigerated before opening. We’re also in a place where people famously take full advantage of a good health care system and get treated as much as possible. For more information on the French health mentality, check out this funny article by a BBC correspondent:

So what role do baguettes play in the national quest for bonne santé? None, unless it is only to expose people to germs that will help them later (see this article for more info on helper-germs: Do French people bring home their bread in hermetically sealed bags the way Americans do? No. When you buy a baguette, its midsection is wrapped in a piece of paper the size of a napkin, and that’s where you hang on to it as you walk home through streets filled with smokers, dogs, cars, and other pollutants that are probably tainting your bread as you pass.

My guess is that bread, being a wholesome, traditional food, one of rustic peasants and simple farmers, is somehow immune to the dangers of modern life. Like germs, for instance. I remind myself of this when I go into Jacob’s for my daily baguette and count the health code violations I witness. Okay, I have no idea what French health codes are, and, despite having worked in a restaurant, I’m not sure I even know much about American health codes. But I did work in a lab, so I know about sterile procedure (plus I was raised by a germ-a-phobe. . . and just may be one myself). So let me tell you what I regularly see in Jacob’s:

1. The girls working there take your money and pick up your bread with the same hands.
2. Today the girl re-adjusted her pants (who knows where those pants have been!?!?) before picking up my bread.
3. The girl with the ponytail licks her fingers to better grab a bread-wrapping-paper before then using the same fingers to pick up my baguette. This was clearly the worst and I even mentioned it to her. Which did not make her want to be my friend and now I’m embarrased when I go in and she’s working there.

So why do we keep going back? Let me refer you to my first paragraph. And even though I hem and haw over their lack of asepsis, I secretly just enjoy complaining about it. And anyway, I’ve got an immune system.

(P.S. I got the picture from a restaurant guide website for Aix.)

mercredi 11 février 2009

Josh is Stricken

Not long ago I arrived at the Lycée Saint Charles slightly after 8:30, late for my first class, drenched from an untimely rainstorm, and wondering how to relate yet another traffic jam to my ever-patient, but increasingly exasperated colleagues. The first signs of trouble were walking the opposite way down the sidewalk as I approached the last turn.

Students. Smug students. And a few yards later, glistening under delicate Marseille raindrops, dumpsters were strewn against the high stone wall of the school like toy trucks abandoned for a more interesting game. The police car I saw across the street as I looked up—a clear strike three—drew a hoarse, "Oh no" out of me as I rounded the turn. And there they were. The mob of students, milling about with complete nonchalance in front of the school's gate, which could barely be made out under the welter of twisted fencing, municipal trash cans, and broken mirrors. I can get you the ringleader's info if you need to know how to build a barricade for your particular place of work or study.

Luckily that day the police had managed to forge a path through the barricade so that those students willing to endure the ridicule of their peers could squeeze in and get to class. Most, though, were "at the bottoms of their beds", as one teacher put it. My bed, 30 kilometers away and now stone cold, was no longer an option, of course. Which was just as well, since I ended up with several classes of two or three students, and we had a fine time together.

The strikes have continued, with limited effect, since then. The most recent was this week's when something altogether innovative was tried: after the police foiled their plans to block people out of the high school, some students regrouped around 10 a.m. on Monday and barricaded everyone inside. The vice-principal seemed, rightfully, fit to be tied by all of this, and asked me if such a thing ever happened in the U.S. "No", I said, "We'd never even think to strike...we wouldn't know what to ask for."

I am reminded of the closest I ever came to striking in high school. It was during a mandatory assembly for National Honors Society senior year, when we were all told that we'd be held through the first period, and therefore miss the campaign speeches for class president being televised throughout the school. About twenty of us decided to just stand up and leave on the count of three. After three seconds, twenty of us were up, and, after about four seconds, half of us were back down—myself included—melted by the steely voice of Mrs. McNicolas, threatening all kinds of torment. In retrospect, I should have seen that she was full of hot air, and that I was a woos—and that it's probably best that I wasn't elected, too. Most of all, I can see that I had nothing on the kids at St. Charles. They don't even sit down for the police.

The protest, I suppose I should say, is against a series of new measures being handed down from Paris that will drastically change the face of French secondary education—eliminating certain degrees (for which some students are now on track, and could potentially be forced to abandon), cutting back hours of class time, adding new responsibilities for teachers, etc. The strikes have succeeded in getting the bill pushed back a year, but given how much school has been missed, I wouldn't be surprised if many students will just plain fail this year, anyway, and be forced to repeat it. Things are looking no prettier at the university here in Aix—now the administration has decided to withhold students' grades!

Comment dit-on...oy?

Intrigue in the Impasse.

While Josh and I are grateful to the previous tenant of our apartment for relieving the wall of the giant portrait of Marylin Monroe, apparently someone else isn’t so thrilled with him. Last night the French police stopped by to see if he still resided on the premises.

You would think that language-learning in a foreign country is full of opportunities to talk to “native speakers,” but it can be unusual to have conversations about things outside the daily routine: asking for a baguette, buying a bus ticket, yelling at noisy neighbors (who have now moved out, only to be replaced by a renovation crew, who, I swear, is trying to drill through our wall).

So, I was excited to talk to the police, and even more so because I had information to share. The Marilyn thief had been back! (Maybe.) Back in December I was on the phone with my mom when he buzzed our apartment. I ignored the buzz because I was busy talking. He heard me through the open window (yes, in December) and shouted until I stuck my head out. He looked a bit like a young movie villain, tall, with a sneery face, a chic leather jacket, and, if I remember correctly, a cigarette in each hand. (How can that possibly have been true? But that’s my mental picture of him.) He wanted to know if Raymond Gallou had lived here. Oui, I replied. We transferred the electric bill out of his name. “Well, I’m him and I’m here for my mail.” Okay, I buzzed him in to check the community mailbox in the hall downstairs. A minute later he was knocking at my door, but, being alone, suspicious, and on the phone, I ignored him again.

Was it the Marilyn thief? If so, why did he ask if this was his own old apartment? Wouldn’t he know? I related this to the police, finally getting to use vocabulary from the “describing people” unit we’d had in French class. “Il avait l’aire mechant,” I told them, “He looked shady.” Their response: if he comes back, don’t open the door. Not even to thank him for taking the Marilyn painting.