Friday, February 29, 2008

Culture Shock

I'm spending the weekend in Paris with my good friend Emily Rems and it's been a complete sensory overload. We hung out with model Velvet d'Amour, I visited Agnès Varda, and got to look at an immense amount of art and fashion just walking the sidewalks from one end of the city to the other. It was fashion week at the Louvre, which I didn't actually realize until Emily told me, and it was a relief to find out that it's not just that everyone in Paris looks and dresses like a model.

Hamilton has culture- I like Teenage Head and Sky Gilbert. But it comes in small dribbles there. Paris is like a sugar rush of culture- you go into a bit of a diabetic coma. The flood of images is like the subconscious externalized. I was overcome in the Jardin Luxembourg and even wept a bit. Henry Miller quit his job, moved to Paris and became a writer. I don't think I have the savvy for that.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Europe: Still not Dead

In other news, the euro is now worth 1.50, a new record. It's not good news for me, but does anyone remember a few years ago when they were telling us not to buy any euros because they'd soon be worthless?


To whom it may concern...

I should also note to the "regulars" here that I do still read your blogs, although I have too little time to respond these days.


Ingrid Betancourt

Not to be a bummer, but we recently passed the sixth year in captivity for Ingrid Betancourt, which was also big news here. She's been held by the wacko guerrillas FARC in Colombia, along with dozens of other hostages. I'd be interested in hearing how it was reported elsewhere. Here it was a big deal.


Henri Salvador

Today I bought a CD of Henri Salvador's greatest hits. Salvador's voice was incredible, dulcet tones like velvet. Sadly, his voice recently left the earth and so the French are in mourning. He was an incredible singer and a very likeable man with an easy laugh. He might also have been the last of the great French singers, at least for a while. Today's French singers can't hold a candle to Piaf, Chevalier, or Aznavour.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Movie Notes: Enfin Veuve

I still don't know who won all the Oscars last night. The big news here is that Marion Cotillard won for best actress. She won the best actress César last week. The Césars are basically the French Academy Awards. The show is the same, but the statue itself is unbelievably ugly: like a gold-plated turd. The best film here was Le Graine et le Mulet, which I think is about an Arab family, although it could be about a seed and a mule.

About 50% of all French movies are about droll, rich French people who are having affairs. I just saw Enfin Veuve, or "Finally a widow", a comedy about a droll, rich French woman aho is having an affair with a sailor when her husband dies in a freak accident. The family shows up and she has to pretend to grieve while she just wants to be with the sailor. Anyway, hopefully it will come out on DVD elsewhere because it's a very funny film. I laughed several times and my French comprehension isn't that great. It probably won't win any Oscars or Césars, but it's still worth watching.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Another World is Inevitable

I forgot to wish everyone a happy year of the rat! (probably because I am terrified of rats)

According to the signs posted around Gardanne, "un autre monde est possible". Judging from my experience though, I'd say another world is inevitable. Recently, I read a little book entitled the Manifeste Altermondaliste, figuring that aany idea worth thinking is worth thinking about. The book was published by ATTAC, a French group opposed to the economic programs that are collectively called "neoliberalism" or "globalization".

Their complaints about neoliberalism are that it: puts employment and public services in peril, degrades the environment, disempowers workers, is undemocratic, keeps developing nations in a state of dependence, and is hostile towards cultural differences.

The last point hints at a real problem with globalization- it runs the risk of making the world very boring. I'm not particularly worried about a future of war, famine, pollution, or random violence as much as I fear a world of endless shopping districts filled with Romero zombies holding paper clothing bags and sleepwalking from one window display to another. That's scary to me.

As for the altermondalistes, their other world sounds like neoliberalism lite- all the malls but more "democracy" to protect us from the ill effects of economic liberalism. It's a bit underwhelming. They need to dream bigger. France already has an alternative economic model in its outdoor markets, and an alternative model of democracy in the salon. Another world with sprout up eventually, but it will first need to crawl out from under the spreading shadow of this one.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Les Snobs Françaises

I realize that I tend to romanticize the French a bit. I do think they get a bad rap at home, but that's not to say that the snob française is a complete myth. They do exist- in fact, there are a few of them at the archives. One is an older fellow named François, appropriately enough, but I call him "easy rider" because he's in his 50s and wears a leather jacket and ponytail, and he's a dick. He refused to help me, saying my project is impossible, and actually won't help about half of the researchers who come in, and none of the anglo-saxon researchers. The other archive snob is a young woman who gives me these withering stares everyday and never responds when I say "Bonjour". She oozes very high self regard and I only wish I knew how to say "Please! I wouldn't fuck you with someone else's dick!" in French.

The thing is that there are also four people in the back of the archives and three receptionists there who are extremely nice to me. They bend over backwards to help me. Oh, the French are definitely more reserved than Americans. One of the things I love about Americans is that you go to some small town and everyone there acts like they're your best friend. But the French are very nice when you get to know them.

The other thing is that there are snobs everywhere. I've gone to nowhere towns in the Midwest and had the kids working at McDonald's act snooty towards me. Our video store clerk in small town Hamilton is a snob. It matters not at all. If anything, snobs are an annoyance. Nobody can be a snob alone: they have to involve others in their psychodrama. But it wastes precious time having some snob trying to convey the fact that they are way out of your league when you're not involved in the game in the first place. I get it- you think you're hot. Now, please give me my Big Mac.

So, I think it's best to ignore snobs. They've got their own drama going on and it's not worth worrying about. The French snobs are harmless, just like most American snobs. If you let people like that ruin your fun, you'll never wind up going anywhere.


Monday, February 18, 2008


The other day I got lousy service in a bakery and it sort of amused me because it's not like I couldn't find a better one! There seems to be a Boulanger on every street in France, or at least every other street. I think this is how you can tell if you're in a bad neighborhood: there are no bakeries. Or, perhaps there are punk kids hanging around on the street corners wearing last year's fashions- always a bad sign.

The boulangerie is where you get the weekly baguette, the daily pain au chocolat, or the occasional larger pastry. I'm pretty much hooked on the morning croissant and have taken to bringing home a baguette each week as well. I suppose it's not as fattening as the morning six donuts that seems to be the norm in Hamilton.



“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

... and that's when she decided to write her latest book.

So recounts Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, which explores the phenomenon of embracing ignorance, as an issue separate from the standard hostility toward fancy pants intellectuals. Vector: NYT Books, via Greg.


Personal Landmark

Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
We all have personal landmarks, the things we use when we're navigating. I believe you can tell a lot about someone by their personal landmarks. If you get directions from someone like, "Go straight at the Wendy's, turn left after Burger King, if you pass Sonic you've gone too far..." then you know they eat fast food a lot. (Or wish they did.)

People who get around on foot a lot tend to have landmarks that are a little more subtle. I know many of my landmarks are graffiti, some of them quite small. In fact, if I tried to give directions based on the things I notice, probably no one would ever get where they wanted to go, even if they did notice a lot of neato stuff on the way.

This picture shows one of my personal landmarks. It's a vacant lot, which obviously used to be filled up with building. All three non-street-front sides of the lot show where a large structure formerly was attached to the remaining structures. It's been gone long enough that there is a 40' tree growing there. Or, that was the hinterhof (backyard) and the tree somehow survived the removal of the building. I'd guess it was a fire, but I don't really have any proof.

Anyway, almost every time I go out, I pass this, and every time I Notice it. It just captures my interest for some reason. Even other pedestrians probably don't take much notice of it.

The two roundy things in the top of the tree are not nests, but growths of the parasitic plant mistletoe, which has remained lush all winter. It'd probably be the perfect topiary accent plant, because the growth habit is a really nice sphere, that is apparently evergreen.

But, I digress. The important thing to remember: If You Pass Sonic, You Have Gone Too Far. Words to live by.


Friday, February 15, 2008

A Street In Our Neighborhood

Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
I guess I kind of miss Rufus's random picture of spots in and around Hamilton.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

there are...


sorry i took so long.



Sarko la Pute

Sarko la Pute

The graffiti outside mon chambre reads “Sarko la pute”, a reference to Nicolas Sarkozy and whoredom respectively. Ever since Sarkozy left his wife for a nymphet model, the French have been outraged, like children whose father has abandoned their mother for a slut. Newspapers here portray the ex-wife Camille as a martyr, the cartoons dressing her as the Virgin mother, while the model is shown in dominatrix garb leading Sarko around on a leash. Older men and women stand around on street corners tut-tutting the man’s behavior. Gossip magazines publish salacious pictures of the model lounging topless on the beach. It is curious how politics in republics so often comes to resemble a family drama.

In Canada, elections are often like abstracted bartering tables, in which voters try to figure out which party will give which concessions to which social group and vote accordingly. In our blue-collar town, the NDP, who are basically the socialists, usually win because they give the most benefits to working people. Out west, in Alberta, the Conservatives usually win because they give the most concessions to religious groups. The focus tends to be on the parties, and not on whichever poor sap will end up as Prime Minister when his party gets enough seats.

In republics, the focus of elections is on the candidates, and it becomes something like children selecting a new parent. Sarkozy’s bristling arrogance tends to rub the French the wrong way and his philandering has been the last straw. It’s often the same in the United States- remember that we impeached a President for cheating on his wife. Now that very wife is running for President herself and as with all of the candidates, the focus is on personality and identity- the nation tries to understand who these people are as people, as if they were naming a saint instead of a President.

It’s strange to watch. A while back, Claire and I were eating at a restaurant in upstate New York and I was listening to the middle aged Hillary Clinton supporters at the table next to me talking about how horrible the candidate Barack Obama was to that poor woman. “And you can really tell what sort of character he has by the fact that he is still trying to quit smoking cigarettes,” one of them tut-tutted. Clearly, this is not the man to replace daddy in these people’s eyes. God only knows what platforms, if any, they support or even care about.

As for who is going to give which concessions to which groups, or who stands for what positions, or other such trifling matters, you hardly ever hear about them on the American news until after the suckers get elected. The idea seems to be that we select the surrogate parent whose personality we like the most and then let them make the decisions for us. One of the most fascinating complaints you hear about Obama is that “he doesn’t really have any specific plans if he gets elected President.” Meanwhile, the man has detailed at great length his specific plans in his book, in lengthy documents on his website and in journals, in even lengthier speeches; but none of this is on CNN, so who could be expected to know? Clearly what’s important is that he seems like the sort of person who has no specific plans, and he smokes. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton seems kind of bitchy, and Bill Clinton once cheated on his wife, and Sarko married a slut.

And I have to wonder if we really need leaders anyway. Don’t Presidents really just give pep talks to several “task forces” that do the real work for them? Couldn’t we just get rid of the Presidents altogether and keep the groups that do the work? Or do we need to have these personalities around to obsess over like our lost parents?



Like every other European city, Marseille has a bandstand in the middle of it. These things are made of wrought iron and have been around for decades. Historically, this is where Europeans have gone to listen to traditional music and found fascist organizations. I wonder if anyone’s ever studied the connection between fascism and oompah music. At the very least, they both seem to appeal to a certain drunken mentality. For much of Europe, the late 40s was like waking up with a very bad hangover.



My first impressions of Marseille suggest that it is a bit like our home in Hamilton. There are teenagers milling about on street corners here like lost and lazy herds of cattle, just as we see at home. They’ll be out there until late in the night when they get tired and go inside. There never seem to be any parents around and the kids wander around like confused nursing home residents lost on the grounds. Claire remembers being shocked at the sight of a preadolescent playing hockey alone in the street one Tuesday around midnight. As if to add to the pathos of the scene, he was practicing in front of the local “massage parlor” while the prostitutes mingled inside.

In Marseille and Gardanne you see the same groups of teens, all wearing the same track suits like they do in Toronto, and listening to exactly the same pop music, all with exactly the same beat. You could add that beat to the Horst Wessel song and they would play it on the radio. Interestingly enough, people here know very little English, but they all listen to American pop music and hip-hop. I hadn’t heard Ice Cube for ten years until I came here. Fergie is popular, along with 50 Cent, and several artists in the same genre. Sitting on the bus yesterday, I only heard one French song on the driver’s radio; the rest were American.

I suppose that the American government could make good use of the universality of hip-hop, if they had the sense to. All over the world, you hear this music, even in places that hate Americans. This could be good PR for the war on terror. At the very least, George Bush should cut a single. “You’re either with us or against us” already sounds like the title of an album by a multi-member hip-hop crew. And Vice President Cheney has already demonstrated a certain ease with profanity.


Isabella Rossolini, Green Porno

I can't say anything here that will make made-for-cell-phones short films from a major Italian star seem more interesting than this:

In each episode, Rossellini assumes the role of the male insect. "Seeing Isabella Rossellini mount a housefly from behind while smiling at the camera," Shapiro remarked, "I can't imagine many people would have ever thought they’d see that."
.... so I'll just post that and run away.

(There is an official site for this project, still under construction.)


Monday, February 11, 2008

The Sun and 3 Streetlamps

(the sun loses)


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Graz-Related Ramblings

Our apartment got some kind of benediction applied by carolers some time in January, apparently. We had to ask Greg's officemate what it meant, that someone had taken a crayon and written 20 - C + M + B - 08 on our lintel. C, M, and B stand for the 3 wise men, and 20 08 is the year... We thought our door was going to be painted or something, but apparently that means that carolers came by to sing at us and see about getting a little donation for the church, and then in exchange we get a little benediction for our household. Except they came when we weren't here, and so they didn't get any money and we got blessed anyway. It's good that we found out what that was all about before we inadvertently wiped the markings off. It seems like if we wiped off our benediction, our neighbors are very likely to worry about what kind of people we are...

We're in an awkward in-between phase with our visas, which will most likely be extended, but the university feels no sense of urgency about getting the paperwork done for Greg's new contract, so it's not official yet. Our German class still has a few more weeks to go, right now we're wallowing about in the passive constructions. For example: The language will eventually have been learned by us. (We hope.) The cat was sick last week, but we decided you probably don't want any pictures of that.

We finally got a TV license, and have been watching some films to help us with our language skills. (And, you know, because we like films!) The weekends have a continuous stream of decent films. We can't watch all of them, of course, but we did get to see The Return of the King, Fargo, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Italian Job, The Hunt for the Red October, and a surprisingly dull Patrick Swayze film about an ex-CIA guy in Russia and some bio weapons and uh.. OK. we actually lost the plot on that one. Don't even know what it was called.

There is also a lot of news coverage, and a kind of variety show that involves singing, and bad jokes, and seems to be very, very popular. They have one-liners, like "Between liver and kidneys, there's room for a few beers" ... this rhymes in German, and is therefore--apparently--quite funny. If the audience reaction is to be trusted. The audience was probably already drunk.)

Since watching originally English-language films dubbed into German is kind of exasperating, we have also been watching some random episodes of local TV series. In general, they're deadly dull and revolve around family drama. To be fair, we wouldn't have willingly watched that kind of thing in the US. It's probably fine, if that's what you like to watch...? Some other popular shows are: Farmer Seeks Wife (a dating/reality show) and Men Alone At Home (a homemaking/reality show, where the wife goes to the spa for a week while the husband has to tend to the household, including kids, cooking, and so on. Hilarity ensues.) The five most popular TV series in Austria right now are all American syndications with voice-over: Scrubs, The Simpsons, Friends, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives....

It probably gives a sense of the social values that the main presenter on a show called "Hi Society" (actually, not in translation, it's just called that) has just won the national "Journalist of the Year" award. Not that there aren't LOTS of great news shows. The news here is overall pretty in-depth and not terribly sensationalist. But Hi Society, which mostly has important coverage of where prominent people get their dogs washed and so on... *that* won the top prize for journalism this year. We are ... a little baffled. Maybe they don't take those awards very seriously here?

We did learn how the TV license works here. Every region/state in Austria has a fixed set of channels which can be received in-home without special equipment. It's all digital signal now, which is nice, that means we're not paying for any blue-snow channels. Here in Steiermark, we get 7 channels, but two of them are the same. (No, we can't explain that. They might only be the same some of the time.) Anyway, the various channels around the country charge a per-household fee, so in our area, we're paying the fees for the 7 different channels we get. The neighboring state will have some channels in common with us, and some different, so they'll pay a slightly different rate. The total cost of our monthly TV license is currently about €24, and it's going up to €28 in June, because one of those channels has just authorized a 10% (!!!) rate increase. Apparently Steiermark (where we live) has the highest TV license fees in all of Austria. Not all channels have advertisements, or at least not at intervals we can predict. Not all films have commercial breaks, some are run straight through. It probably depends on how much it's costing the network to put it on?

The rule is, anyone with a television shall pay the licensing fee, whether they watch or not. Same goes for radios. If you have a device capable of radio, like a clock radio, even if you never use it for that, you are legally obliged for this fee. In practice, it seems like a lot of people don't pay, which is probably why the fee is so high. When a person moves and registers their new address with the local bureaucracy (required by law), a letter will show up asking how one wishes to pay the TV fee. If you tell them you don't have any devices that do that, the TV fee authority will call and ask, "What? Really?" As far as we know, they don't actually come to your house and demand to see your lack of TV and radio devices. However, they threaten steep fees for not paying. It's not clear to us how they would ever enforce that, since they don't check.

In other, less bureaucratic news.... food pictures! This week: Cheese!

This is a mild, pleasant sheep cheese that comes from the Turkish market in Lendplatz. There are probably 100 Turkish markets in this town, so it's important to know which one has the good cheese. We actually haven't found anyone else selling sheep cheese this tasty. Their olives are substantially better than most, as well. As a bonus, that particular market is open on Sundays and is only a 20 minute walk from the house, which means that people who planned poorly and get to Sunday without any food can run down there and get some cheese and olives and spinach and make a fantastic salad.

Another special food this week is a slice of chestnut torte. (In German: Kastaniantorte) This was Holly's birthday slice. It was *hard* to make a decision, at the pastry shop. On the bright side, that means it's also virtually impossible to make a poor decision...

This is the torte, wrapped up in some kind of pastry origami. Not only did it look tidy, it also allowed this slice of torte to travel home in a shoulder bag without sustaining any damage at all. We have *no idea* how the counter guy wrapped it like that, it only took him about 15 seconds.

And, this is the torte in its full glory. Those roundy things--two in the layers, and one on top covered in chocolate--are spheres of chestnut paste, just like marzipan, but with chestnuts instead of almonds. The layers are chocolate mousse (dark) and chestnut mousse (light), with a slim margin of sponge cake, covered in ganache. Accompanied by a cappuchino, of course. There wasn't room for the appropriate number of candles, so we just dispensed with that tradition entirely. (Besides, the cake wouldn't look half so appealing completely covered in melted wax and on fire.)

We were discussing how fortunate it is that people can just go and get a single slice of whatever kind of confection they want, without the burden of keeping an entire torte at home. Probably one could get diabetes just carrying an entire torte of this kind from the bakery to home.

And, finally, the traditional picture of the cat:

She's got us trained now, she can stand by the couch and look crabby until we make her a little pillow fort to crawl into. It's a tough life, to be a house cat...

Every day it looks more like spring outside. It smells like wet dirt, tulips are coming up, and some trees are budding. Also, all the birds are making a TREMENDOUS racket in the trees by the river, which means little birds will be along soon. All of these signs of the end of winter make it easier to pretend there weren't ice chips floating down the river yesterday, or that the temperatures hasn't been above 8°C (46°F) for weeks now. Some day it'll be nice out again, and then our exploratory adventures will resume.

Oh, and, for the curious: Ground Hog Day isn't a thing here, but they did mention the American observation of it in the news. However, ground hogs (Murmeltier) are generally very popular here, so any excuse to put a picture of one in the news is readily accepted.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lacking in Curiosity

But it's a major recurring experience to find American young people, in particular, very uncurious even about their own surroundings, let alone about anything more formidable.

(John Cleese in an interview, on the topic of how creativity happens, or does not. The full article can be read here. I'm posting this here because it seems to point at the root of something that comes up here a lot: What is wrong with the young people? I'm not sure Cleese gives any answers, but it is validating to see that we're not the only ones perceiving this to be the case.)


Saturday, February 02, 2008

On Strike!

A sticker I've seen in Marseille says "France- the world champion of the strike!" It's probably true. Since I've been here, the streets have been shut down twice for a demonstration of taxi drivers who are upset about calls to deregulate their industry, and there was a strike of cashiers calling for higher wages. The French seem to take it in stride and most of them seem to side with the strikers. One thing you can say about them- the French suffer nothing quietly.