Friday, June 30, 2006

Fleurs et Soleil


Notes Perdu

I hate nights like tonight. I have to sleep (NOW) and I have too many thoughts to write them all down, or even remember them all. So I have to scrawl these notes to myself.

1. The public square as a place where people go to be alone. (McLuhann) The strange way it seems impolite to make social contact in this social setting. We hardly notice how strange that is.

2. How different in Proust! The famous scene with Marcel and the girls on the beach is social in a way that seems impossible, and obsolete. Proust is the greatest novelist in the sense of being an obsessive collector of these perfectly preserved moments crystalized in amber.

3. And he is describing a society that is nearly ossified, in which time does not pass. When Marcel sees his first plane overhead and breaks down weeping, it is because he recognizes the introduction of speed, which will make his world obsolete. This is as catastrophic a flight as that which destroyed the World Trade Center. It similarly destroys a world.

4. Temp perdu, then, is not lost time only in the sense of a lost era- it mourns as well a lost way of time, a lost form of time. The way that Proust's characters experience time shapes their existence, and that way is destroyed by the 1920s, in the onslaught of relativity and existenz. The mind creates new ways to protect itself. This is why compulsive behaviors, like Proust's, are so modern.

5. Without modern speed, there would be no autistics.



Do I Contradict Myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)

-Walt Whitman "Song of Myself"

Something that has been bugging me lately is the idea of hypocrisy. I can't really understand why it is that I should care whether or not I, or anyone else for that matter, is a hypocrite. It seems to be a very common way of attacking other people's beliefs- to argue that they are not internally consistent- and it's very common in philosophy. But, I can't see any reason that we shouldn't be as skeptical of the idea of internal consistency as we are of any other metaphysical idea.

And we are, of course, very skeptical of metaphysics. At some point in the modern era, belief in God declined sharply in Western countries. Not sharply enough for some of us, but the fact is that, as opposed to the pre-modern era, arguing for moral standards by appealing to a God is no longer intellectually fool-proof. In universities, for example, most ethical questions are not solved by appeal to God.

The problem is, if we don't believe in God, and we don't believe in metaphysics, then how should we ground a universal standard of ethics? Kant believed that we could appeal to a sort of human nature- if the majority of rational humans would find a behavior to be shameful, then it is unethical, and we should therefore try to behave in a way such that our actions could constitute a universal ethical imperative. But, of course, Kant's argument isn't really much stronger than the metaphysical argument, and it was, in my opinion, soundly demolished by Schopenhauer.

The real dangers of a world without metaphysics were best explored, also in my opinion, by Max Stirner. His work is both exciting and somewhat terrifying. At least, it was for Marx and Engels who devoted more pages to attacking Stirner than Stirner ever published himself. If we accept that all forms of order and authority rest on false concepts, then at some point we have little reason not to accept thievery, for example, or even murder. Stirner seemed to realize the possibilities of a world without any firm metaphysical concepts in a way that prefigures Nietzsche (who surely read Stirner). If God is dead, then why do we still think in ways that necessitate a belief in God?

Of course, few of us would want to live in a world without ethics, because it would likely be brutal, short and ugly. So, if we have to accept ethics that rest on essentially empty concepts, we'd rather let the majority of people believe in those empty concepts, so they'll be safe, and we can keep the radical skepticism to ourselves, thank you very much. If Socrates was killed because he couldn't shut up, then perhaps it's better to shut up!

But, there are others that try to work an argument based on intellectual consistency. Peter Singer would be a good example of an ethicist whose work often relies on ideas of consistency. For instance, if we are willing to kill an animal and eat it, why are we unwilling to kill a mentally retarded child? Singer realizes that this seems horrible, but uses it as an argument against meat eating. And alas, the argument does not seem to rely on metaphysics, or the idea of God, but instead on internal consistency. If we believe X, we should also believe Y, or we are hypocrites.

But, my question is, why is "internal consistency" anything but an empty concept as well? Surely it requires a belief in a sort of metaphysics, and it orders the world based on little more than random mental constructions. In fact, I would say that it requires us to make arguments that are similar to Kant's- Why should we do X? Because we really should.

Internal consistency only appears solid. For example, people will argue:

"If you are pro-life, you should be against the death penalty?"
"If you are a vegetarian, you should never wear leather."
"If you support a war, then you should fight in that war."

Essentially, the argument is "If X, then Y."

But, there's no real reason to believe that one necessitates the other. The argument only appears solid. When we ask 'Why must you do Y?', there's nothing more solid than "In order to be consistent", which is a judgment based entirely on empty mental concepts. They seem solid, but in fact, appeal to nothing more than an empty concept of 'consistency' which doesn't genuinely exist without metaphysics, as much as it might seem to.

One way to show how invalid the argument is, is to show how random it is. Therefore:
"If your favorite color is blue, then you should not live in a white house."
"If you believe in the existence of God, then you should also believe in the existence of Santa Claus."
"If you are opposed to war, then you should be opposed to all disagreements and avoid arguing with people about wars!"
Do you see the problem here? Consistency only exists in our concepts, which we accept, if we do, for no better reason than "Well, they seem solid to me." But, because we have no better reason to accept them, they aren't solid at all. We have to believe in a metaphysical concept of consistency, and like in Kant, believe in it because we really should.

Another problem with the argument is that it seems to lead to a sort of compulsive behavior. Should vegetarians go for walks knowing that they may step on bugs? Should they breathe in microscopic organisms and kill them? Consistency eventually produces the Puritan, or worse. There is a sort of mind that orders the world in an obsessive way, that tries to make everything logical and orderly and consistent. But, this simply limits thought and behavior to the compulsive and thoughtless.

So, should we have no ethical standards? I don't see why we shouldn't. We simply need to understand how ad hoc and individual they are. In a sense, this allows us to live more honestly. Ideally, this will allow us to accept other people's ethical standards as individual and ad hoc as well, but not necessarily false. While it can lead to a sort of 'moral relativism', or simply 'nihilism', I don't see any particular reason that it wouldn't lead to a sort of Buddhist resignation and constraint. That person who seems like a hypocrite to you is no more than you yourself are, and recognizing the emptiness of the concept doesn't mean that you have to abandon all standards of behavior. But, it makes forgiveness easier, and without forgiveness, there can be no empathy.


Deutschlmand Uber Argentina

Wow! Are the Germans ever happy tonight! So, they beat Argentina, and if there are any ex-Nazis still hiding in Argentina, they're going to have to try very hard to look sad tomorrow, but everyone else can be happy. Very exciting. (And yes, now I have written something about Germany)


Walking Home

I took a bunch of pictures of my walk from the archives to the hotel yesterday. Don't worry- I won't post all of them! I tend to remember walks that I make frequently. Years later, I'll be falling asleep, and remember the walk around my grandparents' house that I made as a child. I think this is probably normal. My father often dreams about the walk around our old house.

Sometimes, I think it would be nice to make the same walk every day for twenty years or so. Imagine how much you would learn about that one stretch of the world. Eventually, you would know all of its nuances, its history and its hidden corners. Your knowledge might expand to include how that street fits into the life of the town, or how traffic moves along the road. You might gain insight into travel in general, or how we experience the world phenomenologically. Imagine the great unwritten books there are about solitary walks. Of course, there are many great written books about this- my favorite being Rousseau's. But, imagine how many walks there are that have been unrecorded and all the tiny little epiphanies that have come on long strolls. Maybe this is what scholarship is at heart- the accumulated insights made through our constant and patient solitary walks through the same books over the course of years.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006


One last picture for tonight. This is what I'm going to miss the most when I leave France. Here you have a delicious chocolate pastry, a complet saumon and a Coke to go with my journal and 19th Century voyage narrative. The books at the Coke will be available at home, but alas, the food will not. If you hear about a student being arrested for trying to smuggle food in to Canada, you'll know it was me.


And who doesn't love statuary?




Another Building?!

What can I say? I think the buildings here are gorgeous. I mean, there are new buildings too, but the older ones are so much more interesting looking.


How to be a Good Tourist


Walking around Nantes today, I saw quite a few American tourists en plein air. I guess tourist season has begun because I haven’t seen any of them for three weeks, and today they’re suddenly everywhere. They’re usually easy to identify, just like I am actually. As I’ve said, very few French people over the age of 14 wear tee-shirts, so whenever I’ve seen a group of people in their 20s walking my way in tee-shirts, I could predict with great accuracy that they would be speaking English. Also, they tended to be a bit chunkier than your average French person. I know it’s a stereotype, and they weren’t nearly as large as the stereotype suggests, but they were a bit softer than what I’ve seen around here. On the other hand, I’ve seen some French women who were downright skeletal, so I’m not convinced that a little softness is a terrible thing. Lastly, something I notice whenever I cross from Canada into the US, and it holds true here too- Americans are louder than anyone else. And again, the French are reserved and aloof, so when you hear a crowd having a loud and boisterous conversation, and they’re not in a pub, it’s generally in English.

One funny thing- almost all of the tourists that I’ve seen were college aged kids and every group of them that I passed this morning (five or six) was having exactly the same conversation: this one time they saw a guy who did something really stupid and looked like an idiot. “Dude, did you totally bust on him?” “No, but I totally should have! What a dick!” I started thinking that maybe they all know the same person!

Tourists tend to annoy locals, and to a certain extent, what they provoke are just petty resentments. It might be true that Americans are chunkier and more gregarious, or that Japanese tourists move in larger groups, or whatever, but being offended by these things seems fairly trite. It is true that groups of similar people are often dismissive, or downright hostile to outsiders, but this doesn’t mean that their gripes are especially legitimate. Just as there are ugly tourists, there can be ugly locals too. Sometimes, people really do need to lighten up.

There are, however, some fairly legitimate problems that people have with tourists. Many tourists forget that people actually live where they’re traveling, and can behave like these places are their playgrounds. Since most American tourists are college kids, a certain percentage of them are used to an educational experience that frankly amounts to a four-year chartered booze cruise, and want to continue the party wherever they go. Most tourist areas I’ve been to have had the problem of loud drunken kids, who of course, are just as often locals. But, when you live in a certain place and you see the Auslanders drunk and pissing in the alley, it tends to chafe a little.

The other problem is that different countries have very different ideas of “customer service”. French pâtisseries are staffed by some of the friendliest women in the world, but French train stations expect that their travelers can take care of themselves for the most part. And some shops are simply run by clerks who do not feel like being friendly to their customers. The older American tourists that you see tend to be much more put off by this than the college kids are. One of the more amusing scenes I’ve witnessed was a woman at the Paris train station who had missed her train and was hyperventilating at the ticket desk girl. “But I have little ones with me! Why didn’t anyone tell me that the train would leave so soon?! What kind of place is this?!” Needless to say, this sort of behavior is not particularly endearing to locals.

Lastly, fair or not, it’s usually a very good idea to know a little of the local language. Certainly, there are plenty of French people who know English, but walking up to a stranger and saying: “Excuse moi. Où est la banque?” breaks the ice much better than strolling up and saying, “Do you speak any English?” in a loud voice, which I’ve also seen a tourist do.

The most common problem that people have with tourists is one that actually goes back to the beginnings of organized tourism. Tourism really begins in the mid-1800s in Europe, and is tied to the development of the steam engine, and railroads. Before this, there had been travelers, who would make voyages of a year or more to various locations around the world, but they tended to be a bit rarer, and arguably more serious about engaging with the places they went. At least, this is how they saw themselves. Eugene Fromentin, a Romantic painter and author who spent a year in the Sahara in the late 1850s complained that there was a critical difference between voyageurs and touristes, namely that voyageurs allow themselves to be moved by the places they visit, while touristes barely see them. This is a very romantic way of phrasing it, but it gets at a perennial complaint about tourists- they’re more interested in experiencing themselves touring than they are in the places they’re visiting. Their obliviousness tends to stem from a real and surprising lack of interest. “Point me to the Hotel, and the bar, and maybe show me some funny locals, and I’ll be just fine.

But, again, I think that people should travel and experience as much as they possibly can. We’re still a lot freer than we realize, and maybe some of us will even “go local”. Therefore, I offer a few tips for the tourist:

1) Get one of those corny travel books that tell you how to ask for things in the local language. People are much happier being asked questions in a lousy version of their language then they are having a stranger approach them speaking a foreign lingo. And, there are a still a lot of people who don't speak any English.

2) Pay attention to the people around you. Don’t crowd them, or force them to step off the sidewalk to get around you. Don’t wander out into traffic, or start talking loudly in a quiet building. Try to remember that you’re a guest and act accordingly. Be polite!

3) Understand that employees of foreign businesses are not there to take care of you and make sure that you’re happy. This is a commonplace of the American service economy, and again, if the local clerk is going to glare at you coldly while ringing up your postcards, it’s really nothing personal.

4) Step outside of your comfort zone a little. You don’t need to eat every meal at McDonalds and refuse to see any movies because they’re in a foreign tongue. You don’t need to always travel in packs. Take time to wander down lonely roads that aren’t in the shopping district. Be attentive and be present in the world.

This is good advice anywhere actually.


The Dumb Joke Barrier

Well, I have crossed another linguistic barrier- I have made a joke in French.

Yesterday, while buying my morning pastry in the pâtisserie, I accidentally bonked my head on a low-hanging sign, which was sort of amusing to the woman who works there, and also sort of amusing to me, so we both laughed.

And when I went to pay for my pastry, I said: "Et un comprimé, s’il vous plait !"

(and an asprin please)

Yes, it's a dumb joke, but it made her laugh. And so, I have broken the dumb joke barrier!


The Rule of Fives

So, I’d like to comment on this article about why it is that blogs can often suck. For the record, my tongue is firmly in my cheek here. No offense to any pizza boys or anyone else.

Surfing the net is like walking with a blindfold on through a horse pasture- you know it’s usually only a few steps before you land in horseshit. I don’t know why it is, but my Internet probability seems to follow a rule of fives: I can’t click five links without reading something that’s startlingly dopey. Say, for example, that I log on and go to a site that archives generally very well-written and clever articles. Two examples would be Reason Online, or Arts and Letters Daily. There’s one click down. Usually, they will have two or three interesting articles to link to. Okay, so that’s two clicks. Maybe the article is very witty and insightful and impresses me. So, I decide to leave a comment to this effect and- shit! The first ten comments are along the lines of “You anti-American freak!!” or “You Halliburton-loving Bushitter! You go to Hell!”

Drat! Foiled again!

You can avoid the comments boxes altogether and along with them a few of those people who are convinced that the world is controlled by multinational corporations, or Jews, or liberals, or robots, or whoever it is this week, and who also think that every imaginable topic cries out for this unique insight of theirs. But, eventually, you’re going to read an article written by someone who doesn’t have the shadow of a clue what they’re talking about. And then, if you’re me, you’re going to stare at the screen for five minutes thinking: “I know that this is complete crap… Should I correct this guy? Or will I just get flamed by a bunch of angry middle-aged men again? Do I really care enough to correct him?” Lately, I’ve been deciding that I really don’t care. Of course, that could be the Prozac talking.

The thing is that I don’t know about a good number of things. For instance, have you ever noticed that I don’t write a lot about Germany? Well, I don’t know very much about Germany. Oh, my wife’s been there, and our friend David lives there and many of my colleagues are German. And, eventually, I’m going to learn German for my dissertation. But, honestly, I don’t know a lot about the land of brau and sausages. So, I keep my mouth shut. Similarly, I have very little to say about anime or cross-stitching.

I’ve studied France for four years and lived in Canada for about three years and grew up in the United States. So, I know a bit about each, and one thing I’ve learned is that Americans know jack shit about Canada and France, the French know fuck all about Canada and the United States, and Canadians know much less than they think they know about Americans, and generally know a little about the French, but have many misconceptions of their own. (Of course, my wife knows a lot about Americans and the French, but she’s brilliant.) I’ve had many Canadians ask me in all seriousness what it’s like to see people get shot in the streets in America. I’ve had American students tell me that they’ve heard that Canadians are dirt poor and their government is Communist. And yesterday, I had a French woman at the archives ask me if I would like to have a letter sent to my house. When I said, “I would like it, if it’s possible. I live in Canada”, she responded, “Oh, Canada! No problem! We can send it to England!” C’est vrai!

Another thing I know a little bit about is academia. I know its flaws, and have pointed them out here ad nauseum, but I also know its strengths. More importantly, I know that people who haven’t been to college in twenty years are full of crap when they say that academia is controlled by a consortium of anti-American radicals with ties to Hamas. But, you know what I’ve found? Even if you’re embedded in the academic world and they took three night classes twenty years ago, they still think that you haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about when you disagree with them, because they read on “Academic Hamas Watch” that academia is controlled by a consortium of anti-American radicals with ties to Hamas, and that’s that. Because the Internet puts “a world of information at your fingertips” it allows a goodly number of people who have no clue what they’re talking about to have no clue that they have no clue what they’re talking about.

The Internet was supposed to make better informed people. But, one thing I’ve realized is that there are many people on the Internet that don’t really want to be well informed, or even know what they’re talking about. They just want firm and solid positions to take, and someone who’ll tell them that they’re right even if they aren’t. And for people who aren’t really curious about anything, the Internet is great because it makes deep learning seem pointless: why learn when you can Google? The idea of sacred knowledge, or even superior knowledge, is completely passé.

Even better, if you have some ridiculous delusion- say that the local Pizza delivery boys are all homosexuals who are putting roofies in the pepperoni pizzas to have their way with the customers- you will be guaranteed to find at least a few people on the Internet who have the same delusion. Hell, there’s probably a news site- “Pizza Boy Watch” or “Beneath the Mozzarella Cheese” that you can use to narrowcast your life around your delusions. The Internet is great for the dispersal of urban legends and plain old crapola. And because the Anti-Pizza Boy people have as good a website as does the Chicago Tribune, it’s difficult to know who should be respected and who should be ignored. Moreover, those pizza boys really are pretty shady.

Maybe it was that old wishful thinking of the Enlightenment… the idea that in a democracy of knowledge the best arguments will win out. That people are generally rational, and so, all things being equal, they will be swayed by the strongest and most rational arguments. But, maybe that’s wrong too. Maybe people just want to explain the world to themselves, and find that a very convincing line of nonsense works as well as anything else does.

So, maybe when I have a minute, I’ll go online and check out “Germans are Controlling My Mind” dot com, and learn a thing or two about those wily Germans.



Well, Les Bleus did it! Surprisingly enough, they beat Spain last night in their World Cup match. I watched about half an hour of the game, and then flipped around and watched “Dr. T et les Femmes” on the other station, while periodically returning to the game. Somewhere around the point that Richard Gere delivers a baby on screen, I heard loud cheers from every other apartment and brasserie on my block. I quickly realized that they weren’t that excited about the miracle of birth and flipped back to the game. And, like everyone else, I saw France win the match with a score that even a complete non-sportif like me could tell was just freaking beautiful, man. After that, I was treated to two straight hours of car horns and cheering in the streets while I ate my spaghettis avec fruits de la mer, and watched a movie on the Arts network that included a scene with a fully nude girl smoking for about ten minutes straight. So, I guess that’s my way of celebrating.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Au revoir!

And bon nuit!



But, how can I not miss this?


les murs

Wandering along in the shade of les anciens murs, like huge grey sponges that have soaked up centuries-worth of human yearning. This, to me, is the part of France that I'll miss the most. They have gorgeous walls here. I think you're surrounded by the beauty of decay here. It makes it easier to understand Baudelaire! There's a sadness to France that amplifies its aesthetic qualities- a lower key that adds character to its melodies.



Here are some pictures of the arcades in Nantes. I don't think there are many arcades in the United States, although there is one in Cleveland. Most of them are from the 19th century in Europe. If you look, you can see what they did: they had two rows of shops and they built gates and a glass ceiling across them. This was to help patrons get shelter from the colder weather.


Liberté, Egalité, Comédie

So, as Patrick notes, I've been wondering why people find the French to be so insufferable, and why I don't. Actually, I think the last time I heard that the French are rude, it was from a border guard, and he didn't actually say that he'd had bad experiences with the French, but that he had heard that they can be quite rude, or anti-American or whatever.

I was amused to no end when the fake French Bread place at the mall, which is called Bread of France of something like that, posted a huge sign reading: "We support the war in Iraq" because it was clear that they had gotten complaints and had to put the sign up. Somehow the image of an angry patron yelling at the hispanic girls at the fake French bread place for not supporting the war in Iraq cracks me up.

It’s strange to me when people at home tell me they hate the French because I think that French people are some of the funniest people in the world. There’s something very endearing about people who spend their entire Sunday walking around, buying bread, and frowning. And honestly, nobody in the world frowns like French women do. It's like they come out of the womb aloof and frowning. There's this one serious expression that everyone has here, and it's painfully funny. It's like watching a row of old people at church after one of them farted.

Admittedly, they can be overly serious at times. Remember that many of these people were actually raised with both Catholic and Marxist values, which is enough to make anyone a little screwed up. You grow up thinking that every time you masturbate it hurts the working class! But, honestly, hangups aside, the French are just impossible to dislike. How can you hate people whose national identity is wrapped up entirely in bread and accordions?

And their real saving grace is that French people have a sense of how funny they are, but not enough to stop being funny. The French tend to see themselves as the little guy who triumphs in the end. Every other French movie has this theme. Their sense of humor is either very broad or extremely dry. Often, I will see one of them freak out about some minor thing and suddenly realize that they’re just being tongue-in-cheek. Also, they tend to disapprove of everything anyway. So, my conversation with the French scholars Thursday was like this (but, in French)…

Me: I would like to learn to speak French better.

Scholar: You have to work hard at it and you will get better.

Me: I’ve tried to learn from watching TV.

Scholar: No, you can’t watch TV. You will learn slang!

Me: Okay. Maybe I will go to a bar and listen.

Scholar: No, you can’t go to a bar! They cannot speak French there!

Me: Oh, okay.

Scholar: You can’t eat your bread without cheese! Where is your cheese?

And so on. So, I just find it impossible to be insulted by the French. They're just too much fun as people to imagine actually hating them.


Weekly picture for my wife

Here is this week's picture for Claire. Notice that I look crazy in this one. Also, it's funny because you can tell just how thick my glasses are.


A Steel Glove

Note to my wife: This is the steel glove that I told you about. Actually, the one on the left is cooler, but it is more expensive. The one on the right, however, is also an authentic steel glove. As you know, I want it. 'Why' you might ask do I want it? Because it is a steel glove.
A. Steel. Glove.
Made of fine German Steel by expert steel glove craftsmen. Guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of ne'erdowells, serfs and highwaymen alike. Recognized by experts of awesomeness the world over as truly awesome. This steel glove is comparable to steel gloves that you might see in stores for hundreds, or even thousands (but, probably hundreds) of dollars. And yet it can be yours for 137 euro. May I repeat that this is a steel glove.

Now, dear, you might ask: "Rufus, why do you need a steel glove?" To which I would respond, first, and elegantly: "Because it is a steel glove." And then you might ask for other reasons. Well, how about security? On a dark city street, late at night, who would mess with a man wearing a steel glove? Nobody- that would be suicidal!

And I would be the talk of the social set at parties. "Who is that intriguing man with the steel glove?"

"I don't know, but I have to find out!"

And you might be saying, "But, Rufus, how will we pay our bills if you go around buying steel gloves?" No matter. Nobody will try to get money from a man wearing a steel glove. That would be suicidal.

So, I know that you have your reasons for questioning my need for a steel glove, but let me tell you a story about a young boy who dreamed of one day growing up and buying himself a steel glove. Look into your heart, and ask yourself: "Could I deny that boy his dream? Could I really?"


Music Bar

I took this one this morning. It was a very random shot, but I like it. The Music Bar is a place that has karaoke. You might notice that it's overcast. It's been drizzling or raining all day. I spent a few hours in it, but now I'm relaxing in the hotel.


La musique partout et pour tous

Weird all-night dancing in the lukewarm streets of Nantes; today is a fête de la musique and every block has a different group of musicians playing on it. I wander around and listen to bagpipers, Greek singers, African drummers, French rock bands and Spanish music. The French rock band is older and constantly frowning, but they’re still swinging. At one point, the singer has one side of the street sing “Rock me” and the other sing “all night long”. However, with his thick French accent, “rock me” comes out more like “Rocky”, or perhaps “Roquey” and “all night long” is more like “au nee loh”. Soon the entire block is singing “Roquey- au nee loh!” and roquing out like crazy.

In the alley, a French woman huffs at me- this might not make any sense if you’ve never had a French person huff at you, but it’s really funny; like “Boff!” which is sort of a common French exclamation. I’m dressed very strangely this evening; Claire can attest that nobody in France has a jacket like mine, and I swear that I get the funniest looks all evening for my attire. This amuses me to no end, and I laugh at the woman, because honestly, how else can you respond to something so ridiculous? And I keep walking. And roquing.

It is strange how the musicians are split off into these little “it’s a small world” nation-states. Every nation on earth seems to claim its “own” music- and almost all of them are hybrids of other musical traditions. So, bluegrass comes from Scottish and African musical forms, the blues come from country music and African traditional music, New Orleans jazz borrowed from Carribean and Mexican styles along with gospal and field hollers, French musette is really a hybrid of polka and jazz, and on and on and on. Art has no borders, it mates with anything, and it draws from everything. The people who worry about cultural purity, who never seem to do a thing for actual culture, are worried about an oxymoron. There’s no such thing- there is no culture with purity, and vice-versa.

I keep thinking about this as I walk around the shopping areas of Nantes- is this all that culture is anymore? Endless malls? Mobs of people shopping every time they get a free moment? It's tough though because I'm not anti-consumerism. If people want to pursue pleasure, then why begrudge them this pursuit? There's no quicker way to become a Puritan than to spend your time worrying about how other people make themselves happy.

But, for some reason, it still depresses me. This is the 'clash of civilizations' we keep hearing about? Religious fanatics vs. the Mall? Two cultures- one whose heyday was in the 1400s and the other whose heyday was in the 1700s duking it out? I'm not afraid that the future will be violent at all. I'm afraid that it will be boring- just endless boredom punctuated by the occasional random act of violence. Just an endless middlebrow mall where everything flatters us and nothing is confusing, or strange, or difficult.

And yet, somewhere in this field of music and shoppers is another field. I find it standing between the musical acts, in a space that nobody else is occupying because it's confusing and loud and bizarre. Right here, where the chanting of North African drummers and singers clashes with the bagpipes of Scottland and makes a secret sound that nobody else is listening for. This chaotic cacophony of human breathing is something strange and beautiful and disorienting. And for me, it's the hidden key to the future, the only future that will move us forward- it's the secret beauty of cross-breeding, and mutation, and perversion, and the endless variations of human creation. The West keeps repeating the 19th century, and the East keeps repeating the 15th century, but outside of the geographical designations, new arts will be taking root. Oh, they'll be denied as insignificant and unimportant by most people because they won't be sold in the malls. But, they'll be there nonetheless- our alchemic arts, our hidden alchoves in these dark ages. And perhaps there will be a renaissance of humanist voyagers to explore the veiled recesses and search them out.

Note: This post cries out for a sound clip- and I do have one, but I haven't figured out how to post it yet. I will add it when I learn how to!


Meanwhile, back at the Ranch

So, what's the news back at home?

A Congressional hopeful is blaming his troubles getting elected on the Devil.

And another politician is calling for a forced labor camp for illegal aliens.

So, same old shit then?

Okay, I'm tuning back out!


The Cup

I was wrong about Les Bleus- they're advancing to the next round of the World's Cup, having beaten Togo last night. There is a great advert on TV here with a French guy who is driving to the Cup and picking up hitch-hikers from various nations who are all pretending to be French fans. The Dutch woman chanting 'Allez Les Bleus!' is very funny. They'll likely be out after that, but who cares? It looks like everyone's just having fun being in Germany.

The US is pretty much out of the World’s Cup, having lost to Ghana. Ghana is excited just to be advancing, even though they have to face Brazil next. It's nice to see countries get to go that you don't really expect. I was happy to see the Brazilians partying on TV, but it's not like going to the World's Cup is a big deal for Brazil.

For me, the real exciting news is that Australia, who hasn’t even been to the cup since 1974, is advancing to the second round. I’m glad for Australia, even though there’s something painfully silly about a team called the Socceroos. One almost wishes that Graham Chapman’s Colonel could come out on the field with his whistle: “Sorry! That name is entirely too silly! You’ll have to change that!”


Yep, another building

These Pharmacies are everywhere in Nantes. Every street seems to have a bakery and a pharmacy.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cheese and Whine

It's been drizzling all day today. It was good that I was in the reading room. It's been a tough few days because I've found a lot of junk lately. Oh, it's all interesting stuff, but not what I need for my prospectus. I would love to find a big stack of passports from about 1800- 1850. But, they're really hard to find, and for some reason, they tend to be filed in very random places.

I did get to have a conversation with some other researchers today. Admittedly, I did very little of the talking. But, they went slow because they knew that I am still learning French and I understood about 95% of what they said. That was a lot of fun. I learned a lot about the Catholics in Turkey and why I cannot eat my bread without cheese.

I eat too much bread here. They make the best bread in the world here, and the cheese is not bad either. But, I am taking too much advantage of the bread and my wife believes it is why I'm sleeping a lot here. Also, it's very hard for me to resist the pastries! They don't have the "fraisier" in Canada, and I keep thinking "Better eat it while you can!" So, it's been a lot of bread and a lot of pastry. Amazingly, I'm not 200 lbs.

Conversation and food are important parts of life. But, so is love, and I miss my wife. It's been nearly three weeks, and it's not easy. I miss walking with her in the evenings and chasing the cat around the house at night.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Au Revoir!


Plus de Marcel


I call this fellow Marcel- he is everywhere in Nantes!


Fleurs Sauvages (et non)


La Rue


Pays de Loire



I'm still not entirely used to the Sunday routine. This would be Sunday number three for those of you who are counting. I can order a loaf of bread and ask for them to put it through the slicer for me, so I don't starve. But, I have yet to find the open-air market to get real food. I think there is a super marche near me that was open last Sunday, so I'm going to try that in about half an hour. But, the market I went to for the last two weeks has moved on, and the other one has become a flea market. So, instead of food, I can get old Tin-Tin books. Superb.

French towns are closed down on Sundays. Some people go to church, and others just walk around for a while and buy a loaf of bread. The bakeries are all open- because pastries and bread are very important here! But, otherwise, everything is closed. I like lazy Sundays quite a bit actually. But, I'm not so good at planning. So, unless the Super Marche is open, I'm having bread and sardines tonight!


Poseur Alert

Which brings me to that other important question: "Are the French really pretentious?"

Well, yeah, sort of.

Now, are they really rude? No, that's just a myth. I find this to be completely untrue; like saying that Canadians are rude. The French are actually ridiculously polite. It’s impossible to walk past a French person without them saying “Bon jour!” or “Bonsoir!” depending on the time of day. I still don’t know at what point jour becomes soir, but it’s somewhere around six o’clock. Also, let us compare a visit to a convenience store in America and in France.

Customer: Hello, I’d like a coffee with cream.
Barista: (Annoyed grunt) (Reaches for coffee and glares.) Three dollars, dude.
Customer: Here you go.
Barista: (Annoyed sigh)

Barista: Bonjour!
Customer: Un Cafe, s’il vous plait.
Barista : Un cafe ! Merci ! Un euro.
Customer : Un euro. Merci.
Barista : Merci ! A bientôt !
Customer : Au revoir !
Barista : Au revoir !

Imagine having every person who passes by you in the morning saying either “Good day, Sir!” or “Good day, Madam!” It's pretty funny after a while. But, in general, the French are more reserved than Americans, and this might come off as rude.

Now, are they pretentious? Yeah, a little bit. But, so what! They fancy themselves to be sophisticates, and so they try to be sophisticated at all times. Average people dress like fashionistas, every TV show has a segment discussing the latest intellectual books, and people spend an incredible amount of time holding court in outdoor cafes. All of these things can seem utterly pretentious.

But, again, so what! Pretension is another word for striving- trying to become something that one ideals, but hasn't yet reached. In the punk rock scene, they call these people "poseurs" for not having been born with a complete collection of Cock Sparrer records. As if you're supposed to become interested in something and keep it to yourself until you know everything about it. Or just never become interested in anything too off-beat. Stay isolated.

Anti-pretention can be just as pretentious- it assumes that we're all interested in the same dumb things. "Who do you think you are watching all of those foreign movies, or reading that airy-fairy philosophy? Boy, you must have a lot of time on your hands!" I mean, what's worse- assuming that every televsion viewer would be better off if they just read more books, or constantly telling them that "guys don't read books! Dudes are into beer and tits!" Again , pretention is part of the process of becoming, and yes, it's painfully embarassing years later (which is why we should all kill off our blogs!), but at least it's better than assuming that everyone should be the same, everyone should think the same, and then cutting off everyone at the knees so they're not "putting on airs".

Have you read Garrison Keillor's hatchet piece about French writers? Everything about it screams that provincial mantra "Get over yourself! You're dumb just like the rest of us! Stop pretending not to be!" Get back in the bucket with the other crabs. As if there's nothing pretentious about a multimillionaire pretending that he's in the old country store for thirty years. Ugh!

We've lost the idea of bettering outselves. My Grandparents would read book after book trying to "better themselves". They learned languages that they would never end up using. Why? Because it was good to know them. You never know- maybe, one day, you'll need Latin, in case there's a time-machine mishap and you have to give street directions to Caligula.

But us, we just want to be happy the way we are. Actually, we just want to be flattered for being the way we are. We think it's pretentious to try to better yourself because it means that you haven't learned to love "the true you". We assume that everyone who seems to be intellectual or sophisticated is just 'putting on airs', and meanwhile every other American male that you meet tries to pretend that they're as tough as 50 Cent and every other American female tries to pretend that she's in Sex and the City. We've confused ostentatious display- which is what pretension actually is- with other people just being different than we are. We assume that everyone who is different must just be faking it. That every intellectual must be fancying up the same dumb ideas we all have, and every bohemian will wind up in a cubicle like the rest of us. That underneath it all, we're all identical. We insecurely assume that everyone who is smarter, or sexier, or more sophisticated than us must be a stuck-up creep who's probably just faking it. And I bet they never get laid! Nyah-nyah!

I'm tired of the conspiracy of the dumb. There are not more stupid people in America than anywhere else (believe me!), but fuck if they're not better organized in America! "Re-write the text books so our kids can be stupid! Pass more laws to protect us from the queers! More tits! More beer! When's lunch? Shut-up with all of your liberal science! Save Christmas!"

But, I don't buy it. I think the people who scream and yell about whatever dumb thing that comes into their head are a small, but vocal, minority in America. I think that the country is full of ecclectic, bright and funny people who keep their mouths shut because they don't want to get attacked for being too "nerdy" or "pretentious" or "pompous". Better to save our ideas for the internet. Let the morons call in to the radio shows to bitch about how blacks are lazy, and Mexicans want to steal our jobs. Try to become better, more intelligent or compassionate, but keep it to ourselves so that we don't get cut off at the knees.

So, Viva la pretension! I'm tired of the "anti-pretentious" poseurs! Let us have it all! Let us have tits and beer and smutty jokes and Bergman and Shakespeare and haute couture! Let us eat pussy and crêpe suzette! Let us drink beer and soda pop and absinthe! Let us have intoxication and seriousness! Let us have the Marx Brothers and Godard! The Ramones and Beethoven! Let us have truffles and hashish, James Joyce and the Cramps, roller-coasters and all-night poetry readings! Let us have life!


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Paris Fashions

Okay, so now for the really important question about France: "what are they wearing in Paris this summer?" Well, I've only just started my field research here, and was only in Paris for about two hours. But, I can talk about Nantes. And, if you've ever been here you know, that everyone's just as fashionable here. In fact, literally everyone I run across is fashionable, which is a bit unnerving- like they're been replaced by a race of aliens, the Fashionistas, from the Planet Queer-Eye. Don't you kind of expect 50 year old men to be dressed like they have no idea what's chic, or are getting even after years of being expected to dress up for family events. But, unfashionable old people? Quelle horreur!

The French love fasion. You have to remember that this is a country in which the fashion show season is as big a deal as sporting seasons are in the states. I'm not kidding either. Teenage kids are fashionably dressed, of course. But, so are moms and Grandpas. And, being someone whose personal style could be described as "grad student shabby", I feel a bit out of place. I mean, there's nobody else here over the age of 14 with so many tee-shirts. But, no matter- I come to praise fashion, not bury it.

For one thing, I like that there's nobody here over the age of 14 with so many tee-shirts. I like that there are age divisions. One of the most annoying things in the states, and Canada for that matter, is going to some big summer public event and every 45 year old man is dressed like they're 15 with a goofy tee-shirt and baseball cap. It's frustrating because I would like to be old and dignified one day, and it's almost impossible in a country that thinks it's paradise to be a teenager. America is a great place to be a child, and France really isn't. In fact, many adults here seem to want to have very little contact with kids, which is very funny to watch. You'll see a parent walking along at a brisk clip with their four year old child desperately running to keep up with them. I guess they figure that life is hard, and once you're 4 you're old enough to fend for yourself!

Anyway, from the look of it, silk scarves are still in style, of course. It's like 30 degrees here and you see men walking around with the scarves on. And those sort of peasant blouses that are in style everywhere are still in style here. But, Parisian women are also wearing these boots that come up to their knees on the outside of their pants. They're sort of like go-go boots, but without the heel. I've been telling Claire that they're like riding boots.

I want to take a picture of them, but how can you take a picture of a French woman on a sidewalk? It's suicidal.

Anyway, I'll have other fashion reports. And I'm sure that Claire will help when she's here.


Film Notes: Volver (2006)

First off, a few things about the French moviegoing experience:
1) Popcorn avec sucre- Or with sugar. It's not my thing, but worth trying once.
2) The trailers and commercials last for something like 20 minutes. And, weirdly enough, they stop about halfway through, the lights come on, and everyone sits there and reads their papers for a minute, and then they start again. This has happened at both movies I've seen, and I have no idea why there's an intermission in the trailers.
3) After the movie, people hang out and talk about the movie, in the theatre. Most of them do not leave until the credits are over. In this case, they were staying to watch credits in Spanish.
4) Almost nowhere else has air-conditioning, so it's good to go to the movies in the summer.

Now, for the movie. What can I say? You have to love Pedro Almodóvar; not only are his movies highly entertaining, usually alternating between the kinky and outrageous and the melodramatic, but unlike a number of other directors who focus often on women, like say Woody Allen, he actually seems to adore his female characters. And here he has almost nothing but female characters to work with. And some great actresses to play them, including returning Almodóvar vets Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura.

The story is about a group of women relying on each other to survive in la Mancha Spain. It is surprisingly heartfelt, and even a gentle movie for the director. And, sad to say, the kinky stuff is left out here. But, it's not exactly Beaches either- the story actually gets going when a teenage girl kills her father for trying to have his way with her. Or, actually not her actual father. It's complicated, like the best soap operas inevitably are. Cruz plays Raimunda, a loving mother whose daughter has killed her husband and who has to find a way to dispose of his body. Meanwhile, her beloved Aunt Paula has died and her mother, who is also dead, has returned to live with her sister Sole and resolve the unfinished business of her life. Eventually, she becomes the emotional center of the group formed by her daughters and grand-daughter and neighbor Augustina. And, before long, everyone in town knows that Sole has her mother's ghost living with her, and they're all okay with it.

Pedro Almodóvar evokes the world of his childhood, with its superstitions, in a way that is gentle and amusing. The first scene, with an army of women cleaning the graves of loved ones, reminded me of the picnicks that my grandmother used to drag my grandfather to, in the cemetery to visit loved ones. Death is a part of life in much of Europe to this day, and I liked how the director captured that. The acting is superb, and the movie is surpisingly slow and attentive. I think that Almodóvar is also drawing from Italian neorealism here, and Penelope Cruz looks just like a character in one of those classic Italian films.

Anyway, this film probably won't get a huge release when it comes to the states in October, but it's worth checking out because it's genuine and funny and fascinating. Even without the kink.


En française

"So, Rufus, why do you have so much trouble with French if you're a grad student in French history? What's your freakin' problem?!"

I'm glad you ask. The strange thing with me and French is that I've only learned to read it; I'm just now learning (slowly) to speak it. Unlike Spanish, which I actually can speak (pero no como un hablante nativo!), I learned French so that I could read and translate French. And I did so on my own in the year between university and grad school (thank you very much!) What this means is that I can speed-read French texts, and do so relatively accurately. But, I can barely speak it or understand it when I hear it spoken. So, as far as literacy goes, I'm pretty bright, but outwardly, I'm a moron.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that I'm fine with Spanish, and do okay with Latin. So, I'm used to speaking words that look like French, because they're latinate, but with entirely different pronounciations. French is very difficult to pronounce because much of it is actually silent. So, something like "très" which looks like "tress", is as we all know pronounced "tray". French text books like to say that all of the words have silent endings except for ones that end in the letters C,R,F,L "So, remember to be CaReFuL!" Not surprisingly, that doesn't help much. I have a theory that every American who says they hate the French probably took French in High School. It's a hard language, but if you do it right, it sounds beautiful. Listen to an Edith Piaf record some evening and you'll see what I mean.

I'm getting better, but only with things that I do every day. I can now fool a Pâtisserie employee into thinking I'm French, for example. But, ordering movie tickets tonight was a real chore. And unfortunately the 22 year old blonde girl working the ticket counter was... well, a 22 year old blonde girl, and therefore très impoli! It's when you deal with someone who's rude that you feel like an asshole. You start thinking to yourself: "What am I doing here? I don't belong here. Who do I think I am? I'm just insulting these people and making a fool of myself!" People, as a rule, are annoyed with tourists, and immigrants, and outsiders. And, in a way, I'm going to be all three. But, I just don't think that staying in the same place your whole life entitles you to a sense of superiority.

The thing I need to remember is that I can read French, so I know what's going on around me, and I can read the newspaper in the morning. Also, I can now understand about 70% of what I hear on the television, so I should be able to hear French before too long. Most importantly, a word like "avec" is starting to look like avec to me, instead of automatically becoming with. Again, I'm a translator, so it's hard to break the habit of translating.

Lastly, it's only been deux semaines, for crying out loud! If I'm going to spend a year here, I'm going to have to learn this stuff, but it's going to take longer than two weeks. I'm too hard on myself, I think. Part of this whole process of learning is learning to be willing to look foolish and make mistakes. And to keep doing so. There are some very brainy people who put a lot of stock in feeling and acting very brainy at all times. I think we all know a few of them. But, I just look pretty ridiculous about 95% of the time, and I've accepted this fate. There are so many things that I don't know about that it's just staggering.

So, it's off to see the movie. It's the new Almodovar, so it should be in Spanish with French subtitles- no problem. And, the hell with them- I'm ordering un mais explosé avec beurre, and I'm going to say every word really slowly. So there!


More stuff in Nantes



In most French cities it is a good idea to watch where you’re walking at all times. There are only a few places where people are required to clean up after their pets; so many sidewalks are laden with dog-shit. Thankfully, the trash men often sweep the sidewalks too (as if it wasn’t already a hard enough job!), and this helps a bit. But, many streets have the distinct aroma of dog droppings at all times. This is especially unpleasant in the summer time, when aromas are at their strongest. There is one street in particular that I walk on each evening that I like to call “La rue de merde”.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Le Monde

Well, nothing new here. Les bleus aren't doing as well as anyone would like in the Coupe du Monde, which is provoking much sadness here, believe you me. As before, the news isn't interested in anything else, aside from a molestation case that's ongoing in Normandy. I've been watching CNN a bit, but it's from London, and all they care about is the World's Cup as well.

Probably for the best. It's nice to get a break from information for a while. I don't know where we get the idea that it's irresponsible to be "uninformed" about things that have little to no bearing on our lives. I think my problem is that I'm too informed.

Like what can I possibly say about al-Zarqawi? Well, I guess that I am just glad to hear that the guy got killed. From the sound of it, he was a real psychopath for a long time before the war. It's funny how the War on Terror makes every nut in the world a major figure. It's sort of like the anti-American Idle. That show takes average schmucks and makes them into celebrities, and the War on Terror takes schmucks and makes them into super-villians. The guy would have probably been a small-time hood otherwise. But, you get the feeling that he still would have been blowing people up, and you've got to think that someone who goes around murdering everyone he can without rhyme or reason might as well be knocked off. A social worker I know tells me that there's not much you can do with a sociopath, aside from keeping a close eye on them. I did think it was funny that they found him by following his "spiritual advisor"- sort of goes without saying that that guy is probably the worst spiritual advisor ever.

Also, I don't really think that people like Zarqawi are that hard to understand. Everyone seems to be convinced that these guys kill so many people because they're fundamentalists. But, even that seems too complicated to me. Coming soon is a documentary entitled "Islam: What the West Needs to Know". Can I guess what the West needs to know? "Islam is not a religion of life; it's a religion of death!" blah, blah, blah, etc. etc. etc. This looks to be the Reefer Madness of Islam. But, here's the thing- all religions are religions of death, because they all fixate on death, and abnegate the self while here on earth. The religious follower is to be in the world, but not of the world. Not living and breathing. Certainly not fucking. They all promise life after death, but they deliver death before death- spiritual death, mental death, sexual death, and finally physical death.

They all have the other side- that ludic, life-affirming, erotic side. Call it sufiism, gnosticism, the kabbalah, or even paganism- they all have that side that wants to live. But, they all seem to have a mainstream that is designed for neurotics. This is why the healthy person leaves the church and goes back to God, to paraphrase Lenny Bruce.

But, I don't even think these mad bombers care about religion. Their beliefs don't seem to be that complicated. Zarqawi's mentality seems to have been something like "If I kill enough people, I can scare the rest of them into doing what I want." But, the interesting thing is, he just seems to have been concerned with the means, and not the end. What did he want to accomplish in Iraq? I don't even know if he cared about that point- his ideology seems to just have been in the killing of civilians. It's just the worship of power and violence.

And, when you boil out all of the cultural specificities, this is the core of fascism- whoever has the most power can strike fear into the hearts of the weak and control them. Sure, in Italy, there was a strong aspect of corporate syndicalism, and in Germany, there was a strong racial theory, and here, there is a veneer of Islam. But, fascists all believe the same thing- that our liberal enlightenment ideas: reason and the rule of law and universal humanity and protection of the weak: are all incorrect and wrong and that what really gets things done is violence- might makes right. The weak deserve to suffer. Women must obey. He who carries the biggest stick can take what he wants. All fascism appeals to angry young men for this reason- it seems to them to be how the world really operates. It is action instead of contemplation, violence instead of compassion. Its erotic fixation is on rape, usually homosexual rape. Its cultural expression is the snuff-film or the propaganda reel. Its aesthetic is homoerotic and Apollonian to the extreme. It is rigidly authoritarian, but pretends to be transgressive.
It is domination, and nothing more.

So, down the hatch with him. A dead fascist is nothing I'll ever cry over.

Besides, you know, the world keeps on turning. Today is a beautiful day and there are many things to do here in Nantes that are a lot more important than the world cup or the war on terror, which honestly, are both spectator sports for most of us. I'm going to wander and participate and eat and drink, and try to talk to people and make a fool out of myself, and live.



Tuesday, June 13, 2006

France Needs Video Stores

Okay, one thing I don't like in France- they don't have very many video stores. Instead, they have these computers that you can get DVDs from on the sidewalk. They work like ATMs! You see three French guys standing in this little corner, all ordering Jerry Lewis in 'Cinderfella'. Just kidding!
The advantage of this is that you don't have to deal with the video store employees... But, I like the video store employees! Sure, some of them are teenagers who don't want to be there. That can be annoying. But, some of them are geeky young guys who love to talk about movies. Which really isn't all that different from me. I like to talk to people. And those kids usually love me when I rent movies.

Rufus: Okay, here you go.
Video Store Dork: "Eraserhead"! Great fuckin' movie man!
Rufus: Yeah, what can I say? It's a classic.
Video Store Dork: Yes it is, my man! Yes it is.

This is an experience that is hard to have in France. Where do the video store geeks go in Paris? If we can't find them a place to hang out and discuss the relative merits of Independence Day in French, they may well riot. And a video geek riot is not something you ever want to see.


Other Passages

So, I'm not really on vacation here, although it might seem that way. I'm actually doing research on early 19th century French voyagers for my eventual dissertation (and technically, for my prospectus for the dissertation). If I can find enough interesting stuff here, I can come back for a year and study all day long, which would be great, as long as Claire could come too.

Researching in the archives can be like finding a needle in a haystack. I've decided that I'm going to only look at the archives for the Constantinople ambassador from France. But, that's about 2,000 cartons, and each carton has about 800 pages in there. So, as you can imagine, some days go well and some go sour. Yesterday, I found nothing of value. Today, I found an entertaining letter from an older voyager looking for diagrams for his published "voyages pittoresques". Sometimes, you find things that are so fascinating that you decide to come back later and research them on their own. Many historians have written a second study based on some cache of documents that they found while researching their first study.

It can be stressful though. Imagine looking for a needle in a haystack, but doing so after getting an organization to give you $4,000 based on the fact that you anticipate that there may well be a needle in a particular haystack, although you aren't sure because no one has looked there for a needle. And your time is limited.

But, I'm finding a lot of fascinating things. I haven't answered half of the questions that I came here with, but it's only been five days of research, and I have answered a lot of questions. There have been some very emotional moments too. On a few occasions, I have found great things. Today, for example, I found a consular letter about Alphonse de Lamartine. Then there were times that I found great manuscripts, only to find that they couldn't be photocopied, or visibly photographed, and I didn't have time to copy them by hand. It's a topsy-turvy life in the archives that is probably no way near as exciting for other people as it is for me. But, it's lucky for me that I'm here, and that I love these particular haystacks.



Looking at my last post, it sounds a bit overly critical of Les Essolies; I really didn't think poorly of the groups there, I just thought they were a bit bland. One group I found fairly interesting was Passages-Voyage, which sounds a bit better if you think of it as "Passages Travel". Essentially, the group promotes tourism, but without all of the tourist nonsense that I can't stand.

What tourist nonsense do you mean, Rufus? Well, you know, you decide that you want to go to the beaches at Mexico, and so you sign up with a travel agency, and you end up with this package tour where everything is planned out and boring, and you feel like you're on a field trip. I know that some people, heck most people, loved field trips when they were kids, but I want to wander. With the tour, you never get to see any of the good stuff. Today I walked for two and a half hours, lost in Nantes. But, the thing is, do you know how I got lost? I wandered off the path I've been taking every day to see what would happen if I went North instead of South and East instead of West. I like to get lost. Admittedly, after the second hour in 37.5 degree weather, it got a little old.

Anyway, this group has a tag line that translates to: "Give all of your senses to your voyage." Sounds good to me. What they do is pair you with about 5-8 people and you meet up to figure out what dates you want to travel for. There are no set dates for departure or return. Then, they take you to places like Algeria or Marrakesh and immerse you in the culture. I'm really not even sure if you have a guide. Their idea is to take you to all of the places that travel agencies "fly over".

Admittedly, it's related to the Ecossolies idea in that you visit cooperatives and small farms and so forth, and part of your fee goes to local development initiatives. But, it looks a bit more exciting than the other booths there. I like the idea that there might not be many secret places left in the world, but there are still many that are left uncovered.


La voiture


Le Chat


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Vanity Fair

So, I did the touristy thing today and went for dinner at McDonalds. In my defense, there's nothing open on a Saturday evening in France aside from McDonalds and bars and I wanted food. I actually like McDonalds food, for the most part, but usually I believe that you should eat all of the things you can't get at home when you're away from home. Anyway, I pulled off ordering pretty well. Something like "Une menu big mac, avec frites et une coca, s'il vous plait. Pour ici." So, I was proud of that. Incidentally, did you know that they don't call it a quarter pounder in France? (I know. I'm lame.)

Anyway, then I went and saw an outdoor fair set up by Les Ecosslies. You've heard of the French farmers who protested at McDonalds? These are pretty much the same people, so I ditched my McDonalds cup. Anyway, I walked around and listened to speeches by various people. I understand a lot more French now, and could follow the speeches pretty well. It doesn't hurt that people who make speeches at these things tend to get really slow for dramatic effect. Anyway, there were about forty different tents there, of all sorts of different groups. A lot of art and music stuff too. There was an outdoor music festival called "en plein arts"- I got the pun.

What I was surprised by was how dull it was. The political groups were dull- wanting nothing much more radical than "responsible shopping" really. The artists were dull- it was that sort of "political art" that consists of taking a photograph of a mother in Venezuela and selling it for 200 euros. There wasn't any anti-American or anti-Israel stuff or angry ranters. It was just a lot of bored looking people selling handmade necklaces and jelly and books on responsible shopping. I mean, Les Ecossolies are fine with me- if people want an "economie sociale et solidaire", then so be it. But, isn't that where half the planet is going anyway? Capitalism lite to go with the American turbo-capitalism? Either McDonalds or the "eco-friendly" "cooperative farmed" "all-natural" more self-righteous version of McDonalds? How about precious things that aren't for sale at all? Is that impossible?

Here's the thing- if you're proposing a whole new world, then I'm willing to listen, but offer me more freedom. Don't offer me the same old shit with more "responsible" labels. I want to hear ideas that I have to wrap my head around- argue that I should accept polyamory, or telepathy, or vision quests, or drug abuse. I might not buy it, but at least it's something different to think about. I want difference. I don't want more rules to try to live by. I want freedom.



Film notes: Marie Antoinette

Okay, it's time that we all admit something- Sophia Copploa est une femme auteur! What I mean by this is that not only is she a very good director, but she has her own style. There is a Sopia Coppola style of acting and of pacing. There are common themes to her films. Most importantly, there is a unity of vision to her films. You can say what you want about them, and people are probably going to be divided about this movie when it comes out in the states in October, but her films are geniunely her films.

So, before you watch this movie, ask yourself if you need to watch a movie about the last queen of France that evokes the aimless beauty of Lost in Translation. Because most viewers are very accustomed to historical films that are all plot- the key moments in a figure's life in a power point format. In fact, most modern viewers are unaware that plot is one of the tools of the novel, but not necessarily of film. Films are visual, and they don't necessarily unravel as a mechanical beginning-middle-end. Coppola knows this, clearly, but some viewers are going to be mad at the seeming aimlessness of this film. I was not- I give leeway to the femme auteur! We must always give room for the imagination of the artist. Also, I thought the movie was what a movie should be- a visually stunning roccoco dream- essentially true to the life in question.

In fact, most of the seeming problems with the film aren't actually problems at all given the subject. At first blush, Kirsten Dunst seems miscast as Marie- but, then you realize that the real Marie was actually miscast for the role as well! The gawky 'aw shucks' routine that Dunst does in every movie she acts in works perfectly here because the Austrian was, herself, a naif who absolutely did not fit into the court life. When she stands embarassedly trying to cover her nudity while her courtiers vie to dress her, Dunst perfectly conveys the stunning ridiculousness of court life, and how inappropriate Antoinette was for that life.

In fact, the movie so perfectly recreates court life that it actually takes on the problems of court life. There's a certain aimless ennui to the film- it starts out strong with a focus on the difficulties that Marie and Louis had concieving a child, problems that the movie never notes may have had to do with a physical defect on Louis' part. We understand the great pressure that the couple is under to concieve, and start to see them as the living museum pieces they actually were. The first reel of the film therefore works the best.

But, then the couple has their kids and the movie goes in a different direction. Marie starts to enjoy the glamour of Versailles, and we get a frothy teen fantasy, complete with New Wave songs from the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Strokes. There are even three Bow-Wow-Wow songs on the soundtrack, which is a nice touch since you never hear anything but I Want Candy from them. Admittedly, I Want Candy is in here too, and I have no idea why Coppola didn't include their song Louis Quatorze, which has the chorus "Louis, Louis, Louis do you love me?" But, it's a nice touch, since the band's teenage singer was a bit of an outsider herself.

Anyway, I'm getting distracted. But, then the movie gets distracted too! Coppola leaves the drama of French national politics largely off-camera, which again is appropriate because, for Antoinette, these things really were out-of-sight and out-of-mind. I'm not sure, however, why Coppola' didn't include the Pearl Necklace Affair, which was actually very important in Marie Antoinette's life and played a part in her eventual fate, and really should be here. Also, there could have been more about the years after the crowd removed the king and queen from Versailles. Lastly, we never really understand what Coppola thinks of Antoinette. Was she really an airhead? Or a mistreated woman in an impossible situation? I think Coppola thinks she was both, and perhaps this is correct.

Coppola's technique is understated dramatically and largely visual. Can she do real drama? I think she can, but isn't interested in that right now. Let her experiment; we need more artists.


Fleurs de Paris


Have I mentioned that this is probably the most beautiful place I've seen in my life? It's ridiculous- everywhere you look there's something like this!


In a Strange Land

My lanugage skills are improving. I had an embarassing situation today when I tried to order a sandwich sans frites, and the woman told me it was not possible, but I have no idea why she said it was not possible. I was able to get a Coke (un coca) and later I got a croissant avec buerre and une pomme at two other places. But, it's difficult, because you feel like an idiot when someone is talking to you and you don't get what they're saying.

Where it's improved is that now I usually understand what they say, but with a delay. So, a homeless woman said to me today that "c'est beaucoup de chaud!" and I sat there for about five or six seconds thinking about what she said before I could say: "Oui! Beaucoup!" This is embarassing as well, but it's better than looking at them with a blank stare.

The thing is, there's not really any other way to do this. In movies, they show newcomers watching game shows and learning the language from that. And, the television helps a lot. But, when you have to learn how to interact with people, there's no way to do it, aside from actually interacting with people. I'm probably going to be back here for a year, or more, so I have to do this. I feel bad making strangers take part in it, but alas, this is how you do it.

There are people who never want to leave home, and I've decided that there's nothing really wrong with this attitude. It takes a certain inner peace to stay put. As I get older, I see a lot of wisdom in the Wizard of Oz approach to life- that you have everything you need with family and friends at home. But, I'm one of those people that was born wanting to wander. To quote Mr. Jonathan Richman, "I love the world. So why sit still?"

So, for those of you who are grounded and belong at home, don't begrudge us wanderers. We just want to see the world and find out what's out there. Something like a white dandelion might seem unimportant to you, but I've never seen one before. We'll get the hang of it, but be patient with us. We love the world. So why sit still?


Jardin des Plantes

Here is a picture of the Jardin de Plantes in Nantes. I do a bit of gardening at home, so I loved this place. Did you know that there are trees that you see in France that you never see in North America? Weeds too. There are even white dandelions here. One thing I liked about Marie Antoinette was that Sophia Copolla caught all of these details in her film. I don't know if French audiences will notice, but she gets all of the little things that you don't see in America.


Et ici.



One thing I’ve noticed about France is that the television isn’t bad at all. I think this is how a lot of people learn the language in a new country; they just sit around watching television. It certainly hasn’t hurt for me; I can now catch at least half of the words people are saying. Also, there are some pretty good things on French TV. Of course, the typical show is still four people sitting around arguing about some current affair- the French love this format, so at any time there is at least one show on with four people arguing about something. Yesterday, I sat and watched them discussing the film Marie Antoinette, which I saw last night. The group decided that it is a worthwhile film and that it might get French youth interested in l’histoire.

I’ve watched more television here than I usually do at home. A few days ago, I watched Les Simpson, which was just as funny in French. The voice actors here imitate the American voices, and do a pretty good job. I hate it when you see things dubbed into a foreign language and all of the voices are the same! The French fellow who does the Homer Simpson voice is quite good, although the French Marge Simpson is annoying. The French Moe is ridiculously annoying, but the French Bart and Lisa are actually a bit better than the American versions. We have a German professor who apparently learned English by watching the Simpsons when he first came to the states, so I’m not alone in this idea!

Last night, I saw a great movie about a Palestinian girl in love with a young Israeli soldier. It was your typical forbidden love story, and quite good. It’s strange to think that I’ve never seen any movies about Israel on American television, considering that we have a closer relationship to them than the French do. Anyway, I never did catch the name of the film, but it was enjoyable. Also, it was all subtitled in French, so I could keep up.

After that, there was a movie about a man who kidnaps a prostitute and keeps her in his basement. About half an hour in, the audience is made aware that the prostitute is a pre-op transsexual, which adds a whole other wrinkle to things. I can’t say that I remember seeing an erect penis on public television before, and I think I would remember! Anyway, it was sort of a depressing movie, so I went to sleep.


Pour mon femme

Wish you were here.



I was making fun of European cars in one of my last posts, which is cruel really. I mean, I don't even like cars, so who am I to make fun of other people's cars? Anyway, to make amends, I took this picture of one of the new 2007 model cars here in Nantes. I'm sure you'll agree that it is quite nice.


Friday, June 09, 2006


So, I just found out that some terrorist is dead- apparently, he was a big one. This hasn't been mentioned on the local news because there are more important things going on. Namely "futbol!!!" The World Cup is all the rage here and everything for sale has pictures of Les Bleus on it. Actually, I think they call it Le Mondiale. But yes, it's a lot more important than terrorists and other such tripe.


Passing for French

I'm getting luch better at passing for French. I order my pain au chocolat in the morning and they hardly notice that I'm not a local. It's hard to stick out like a sore thumb. What's toughest is when someone comes up and asks me a question and I have to ask them to repeat it a few times. The people here are incredibly polite, but I still feel like a poisson out of water. Not that I mind.


Running with the cars

Since I've been in Nantes, I have been amused watching a local custom that I call "running with the cars". What happens is that a pedestrian simply walks out into traffic, whether or not they have the right of way, and hopes for the best! The pedestrians are on the road, the cars are on the sidewalks, and everyone mingles. It's great fun, and the best part is that it's totally safe because European cars only weigh about 50 lbs. They hit you, and they're totally demolished!


Monday, June 05, 2006

Hello again!

Nantes is gorgeous as expected. There was a bit of trouble with mon chambre- I showed up too late to get in on Saturday, and had to find another room quickly! Nothing is open on Sundays, so I just got into my reserved room this morning. It's a one-star appartment, so nothing fancy, but it beats having to scramble.

Mon français n'est pas tres bien. Oh, my reading is almost perfect now, because that's what I need to know for my job. But, it's still hard for me to hear the language correctly. I have conversations, and I get about every fifth word. I sympathise with people who move to a foreign country. It's really hard to get by. I feel like I've made great strides because I can order my food correctly now. But, I feel like a little child again. Also, I have a headache much of the time that I think has to with straining my brain to understand everyone, and I can't find a place to buy aspirin!


Sunday, June 04, 2006


I am in Nantes, sitting in an Internet Cafe. Hope everyone is well!


Friday, June 02, 2006

Douce France

And, of course, France also makes me think of Charles Trenet...


Summer Reading

Incidentally, a few of us are reading Being & Time this summer. Feel free to stop by and check out how it's going.

Being and Time Blog


A few more newspapers...

Le Figaro

Le Parisien


On the Side of Life

And this is the second thing that comes to mind when I think of Paris...

Have you read it?

Well, really you should!


Paris in Spring

And to really get in the mood for Paris... Here's a shot from one of the greatest films ever made, and the first thing I think of when I think of Paris... Breathless (A Bout de souffle)


European History

Here, in the French spirit of things, is a link to Le Monde.

You know, this is one advantage to being a European history grad student and not an American history grad student. Granted, they have to do less foreign language work, they can research much more easily, and their students are a lot more willing to study. But, I've talked to some of them, and its like this:

Me: So, it's great- this summer I'm going to the archives is Nantes and Paris. What about you?

Them: Yeah, I'm in the archives too. In Iowa... (sigh) Yep. Hanging out in Iowa...

Me: Yeah... Iowa... I'm sorry.


My Wife

The hardest part of this research trip is that I already miss my wife and I haven't even left yet. There are people who never get to make these sorts of trips, much less get funding to go. So, I feel very fortunate. But, without Claire, it's going to be really tough. And I don't mean tough to get around. But, tough to sleep at night alone.


Leaving on a Jet Plane

Well, it's pretty early here and I'm already up, which can only mean one thing. Actually, two things; the first is that Lola is annoying, but the second is that I'm off to France tonight. Hopefully, I'll have wireless Internet access. Also, hopefully my French will come back to me!


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hey now, ice-cream man on my street...

Can I just note that I don't know what the deal is with ice-cream men today? We just had the ice-cream truck pull down our street, with his music on full blast, stop for like 45 seconds, and then take off! Meanwhile, I'm upstairs getting money for him so that I can buy myself an ice-cream sandwich (and one for Lola too, because I am an incredibly indulgent cat owner!) and he just drives off! So, I follow him to the next block on foot, and he stays there for like 30 seconds! The guy totally loses me. So, apparently, if I wanted ice-cream, I should have pursued him in my car! It was nuts. Who's ever heard of an ice-cream man who is too impatient to sell ice-cream?



At least 41, and possibly as many as 100 people in the Detroit area have ODed on a bad batch of heroin that has been mixed with a powerful painkiller without addicts being aware. Can I state the obvious here? Well, since the news media hasn't, I will. If heroin was legal, it could be regulated like any other drug, and this would never have happened. So, please, tell me again how drug laws protect the public.


The Prowler in My Yard

I'm having sort of an interesting day. I've been sitting here in my kitchen reading Heidegger and drinking coffee. Anyway, I looked up and there was a man in my backyard. Well, I was a bit surprised, to say the least. My first response was to stand up and wave, which was pretty stupid. So, my instincts are apparently not good. I have cat-like reflexes, but only if we're talking about a new-born baby cat- a drunken new-born baby cat who is blind. Anyway, luckily, my second impulse was to duck back into the house and call the police.

So, the fellow walks through my yard and jumps our fence, through a neighbor's yard, and over their fence, through another yard, and stops at the house on the corner. I saw him lift himself over five fences in all. But, apparently, he covered the whole block. So, he's pretty much ready for the Olympics. The reason I know he covered the whole block is that the lady on the other end called the police too.

I'm glad that the police got here as quickly as they did. Generally, I've had good experiences with cops. There are a few times that I've been hassled, and my friends have gotten beaten up by the cops a few times. But, for the most part, I'm fine with the police force. I don't like a number of the laws at all, but that's the fault of legislators. I definitely don't like Dirty Harry cops, but I've found them to actually be the exception, and not the rule. And I do think the cops need to be more accountable to the people they serve and protect. I'm actually not opposed to the idea of neighborhoods electing their cops. But, the important thing is that I'd much rather have a police force than private citizens handling prowlers. My neighbors are great, but I don't kid myself that there are people here who would have just shot the guy. And, for all we know, he could turn out to be a mentally ill person who is off his meds.