Saturday, July 31, 2004

Two for the price of none

We are just coming out from the movie, "The Bourne Supremacy", a fast paced movie perfect for the end of a busy afternoon. We are in one of these megaplex where many other movies are shown and it seems an innocent game to try to sneak in another theater. Our first attempt is unsuccessful. "Can I see your tickets?" I pretend to be looking for the bathrooms, lame excuse if there was ever one. We walk back out but A. has not given up. He wants to try the other entrance. I want out. We make a deal. I will wait outside. If he can get in, all the power to him and I'll get back home by myself. I'm watching him walk up to the woman in the entrance and coming back. No surprise here, I think. But to my utter amazement he tells me that all is arranged. We can just walk in. I am stunned "How did you do that?". He smiles mischievously. "I just told her: 'I just want to sneak in with my friend. Would that be OK?' and she said yes." For her, the pleasure to grant him his wish was more important than the respect of the theater rules. A. derives a real joy from knowing that she was a real human being with him, not lost in her role of cashier. I am so surprised that I tell him no. He can go in by himself, but I won't go in. He can't understand why. We are both getting in for free. What could possibly be better? I'm not sure but although I had no qualm about trying to sneak in, I can't get myself to walk in with the benediction of the cashier. It seems like cheating on cheating.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Garbage man

The garbage truck is stopped about 10 meters away. A young guy, wearing a dark blue uniform and heavy gloves is walking in front of the truck. I am watching him when I see him coming up to me and I hear what sounds like "Do you want my glove?"
Puzzled I ask him to repeat his question. "Do you want my glove?" I still don't get it and came closer to him. This is when he asks me if I am single and I realize that he has been asking me "Do you want to make love?" I decide to answer the question I thought he was asking. "Why on Earth would I want your glove?" I look at him smirking. He leaves, making his way to a large garbage can from the nearby apartment building.
I marvel at what he thought was a perfectly reasonable question to ask someone waiting for the bus at 7:00 AM.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Lance! Lance! (Paris V)

I went to see Lance's victory on the Champs Elysées. I was supposed to meet friends but the crowd made it impossible. There are people everywhere, fighting for a spot that they have reserved, some since early in the morning. An Australian woman is ready to gouge my eyes out
I just wanted to lean on the stone marking the entrance of an underground parking lot on which she was standing. After I told her that I just wanted to lean she just said "Wait until my husband comes back. We'll see what he says".
My hair is covered with an American flag bandanna and I have two small American flags that I wave with the enthusiasm of the newly converted. The race is still far away from Paris but already the crowd is cheering the sight of the famed "Caravan" -- a long litany of advertisements on wheels -- I shout with everyone around. "Are you French?" asks someone next to me. "Oui, " I answer, "je suis French". He clearly does not understand the flags and my head cover. "It's simple", I explain, "it's not everyday that one gets to fly the American flag on the Champs Elysées and live to tell. I wanted to experience the feeling." He laughs. A new American in Paris.

When the race arrives, the spot becomes impossible to keep. I get tired to be pushed and crushed by three or four rows of people behind me so I leave to walk around, still waving my flags. I'm surprised by the numbers of thumb up I get from people around. Not one nasty comment. I see Lance on a giant screen. Everyone is cheering. The national anthem is played. "Over the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Shopping (Paris IV)

I am at one of my favorite supermarkets near Paris, an immense temple to food and consumption. The lines are long and progressing slowly. The line I'm in is advertised as the "special pregnant women" line but there is a guy behind me so I figure that the rule is not enforced too strictly. How would they know anyway?
After almost 10 minutes waiting, I am finally unloading my shopping basket while the woman at the cashier is ringing the purchase of the customer in front of me. She is picking the groceries one by one, put them in front of the codebar reader and I hear her commenting on the purchases. Two bags of processed cheese don't pass her test. She calls her friend at the nearby cash register and shows her the bags with a large smile "Did you see this? It's processed cheese in plastic bags!" I look up to see the reaction of the customer being scrutinized this way. She is silent. I don't recall ever witnessing this before but I doubt that this is a new French custom.
The cashier keeps going on with her comments. She seems to approve of the crème fraiche, of the pizza crust and the shampoo that come after the processed cheese. She is done, gets the money from the customer who had stayed completely silent during the whole episode. It's my turn. I realize with some surprise that I am now apprehensive in anticipation of her comments.
Will she approve of all the chocolate, the cookies, the crèmes desserts, and all the food I try when I get back home?
She focuses immediately on the chocolate, takes one bar and acts as if she is going to open it and eat it. I smile but say nothing: After all I passed the test of her approval.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Enfoiré! (Paris III)

Two women and three children board the bus I am riding. One of the little girl is crying and her mother (?) rapidly lost patience. She is shouting to the girl and all the passengers are looking at her. The other woman steps in and asks " You want to come with me, don't you?" She takes the little girl to the back of the bus and proceeds to tell her stories about driving, punctuated by the sentence " You are the only one driving the bus. Where do you want to go?"
The little girl calms down and the woman looks around, to the other woman. She is clearly enjoying her success and has an infinitely contented air.
As I am wondering about the reaction of the mother, the bus driver honks to a parked car. The car's door is opened and the bus driver wants to squeeze by. Nothing really except that the car driver does not like to be honked at like this and proceeds to insult the bus driver. I note with pleasure that I know most of the popular insults; not completely an American yet.
The bus driver stops suddenly. He opens the front door and gets out of his seat. He is hanging out from the bus and shouting back to the man. "Do you have a problem? Why are you insulting me like this?" The man is speaking French with a strong foreign accent and insults are clearly the only French he knows quite well. He can't complete a sentence and keeps piling up insults to make up for the lack of conversation skills.
After a while the bus driver has had enough. He shouts " Wait for me, asshole. I'll drive the bus to the station and I come back to beat you up". ("Attends moi connard. Je pose le bus et je viens te casser la gueule"). I think it is an idle treat until I realize that the last station is just around the corner. We arrive there and he hurries out the two women with their kids, closes the bus' doors and starts walking toward the place of the altercation.
I won't be too surprised if the next bus is a bit late....

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Self Help (Paris II)

Paris without its cafés would not be Paris. So here we were, sitting and talking at the terrace of a café, as close as Parisians we will ever be, considering that we're speaking English.
E. speaks a little of French but not fast enough to make a conversation possible. We are catching up with gossips from our respective workplaces, acting with this strange familiarity that comes to colleagues meeting in exotic places.
A woman is sitting at the table next to us. She is reading a book and paying no attention to us. As usual for a French café, the tables are tightly packed together, so much so that I cannot not put my bag down between the two tables. She is facing E., her head down in her book, from time to time raising her cup to sip from the tea she ordered. She is done after a while, pays and leaves. As soon as she is gone, E. looked at me and asks "Did you see the book she was reading?" "No." I lie. I want to know if E. has gotten the correct title. He had. "Le pouvoir de penser positivement" which can be translated by " The power of thinking positively"'.
I'm surprised that he noticed the title of the book. I am even more surprised that he realizes how unusual that is in France: A mere ten yeas ago, no-one would have been caught dead reading a self-help book, let alone at the terrace of a café.
The fact that even E., who has never lived here (but visited quite often) notices the change in France's society, makes it all the more striking.
We talk as we walk back to the conference center. Paris is beautiful. It must be all that power of thinking positively.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Back home (Paris I)

I am in Paris so blogging will be as erratic as the internet connections in the city of light.

Yesterday in line to see a movie. The man exiting the previous screening makes his way toward a bike attached to a lamp post right in front of the theater. He is wearing a suit and a yellow bike helmet. While unlocking his bike, another bike locked to the post collapses on the ground. He does not seem to notice and jumps on his bike, ready to cycle away when another man called after him. He has a large beard and a dyed T-shirt. "Aren't you going to pick the bike up?", he shouts. The guy on his bike answers with a smirk, "No, I don't give a damn about that bike!" ("Non, j'en ai rien à foutre de ce vélo!") and he disappears in two pedal strokes. The T-shirt guy is speechless and pikes up the bike himself.
It's good to be back home.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Getting it back ten thousand times

In the bus from mid-town in the afternoon. The two men are speaking to each other in Spanish. The young one is carrying a large basket and he taking instructions from the old man he is clearly helping. Listening to them, I realize that they don't know each other, that the young man has just offered his help. He goes to sit a couple of rows further in the bus. The old man continues his conversation with him all the same, just increasing his voice.

As I am watching them, another man walks into the bus. Stumble is more like it. Despite the early hour, he seems drunk or high. He is shouting to no one in particular. The woman nearby is simply terrified and she slides slowly to the empty seat further away from him.
His English is not that of a native speaker and I identify his accent as coming from a francophone African country. He is now speaking about the good manners that his mother taught him. There is a bus schedule on the floor and he keeps saying that this is awful, that we should all keep the bus clean and not litter its floor with bus schedules. Then he says "ten thousand times, ten thousand times. Whatever you do, you'll get it back ten thousand times." He announces this with a normal voice, very different from his previous outbursts. I wonder what is his story. How did he end up here, in America, obviously struggling with the country and the system.
I see him exiting the bus holding the bus schedule he must have picked up from the floor.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

I love America

The TV is blasting in a language I don't recognize. The man is ringing up my purchase. Three bottles of pomegranate extract. Direct from Lebanon. I ask what is the language or the TV channel. "Sudan" is the answer I get. His English is broken but I understand he wants to know where I'm from. "France" I answer. "Paris".
Ah! I get an immediate reaction. He frowns and says "Paris. Good. America. Bad". I am not sure I understand him correctly so I make him repeat his sentence. Maybe he thinks this will please me. He is deeply mistaken. I shake my head and tell him. "No, no. America good. America very good".
He is surprised by my reaction and says "America. Money, money." I tell him that in Paris too, it is money, money. Done differently but done nevertheless. I am done with my purchase. I leave him with a heartfelt "I love America" goodbye. He is totally puzzled.

One my way back from a good political discussion with R. The bus stop is empty except for a young man with headphones on. A young woman approaches and asks me for directions. When she leaves, the young fellow turns to me and asks. "Where are you from?" The country of my birth is following me everywhere... "France". "Whoa! That's cool!" he says. I smile. "Why is it cool. It's not anymore cool than being born here or anywhere. I mean. Where are you from?". "San Salvador" he says and now I can hear the light Spanish accent in his voice. "See?" I tell him, "for me San Salvador is cool. I've never been there.."
We start to talk and I learn that he has been here for 4 years. He is a high-school student. He is 19 and graduating soon.
Another woman joins our conversation. "Which high-school are you going to?" "Wilson". She laughs and starts singing a song from there. She is also a Wilson graduate. So she wants to know: Does he like it here in America? "I'm used to it now" he answers with a shy smile. I imagine a tremendous culture gap, a struggle to adjust. He seems to be doing just fine. What about you? he asks me now, do you like it here? Again the same answer, delivered with a smile. "Yes I do. I love this country". He nods in agreement. "It is nice here, isn't it?"
The young kid gets a phone call, starts chatting in Spanish and then gets up, tells us "I don't have to take the bus anymore. Good luck!" and leaves.

The American woman from Wilson high-school is taken aback by our common declaration of love for our country of adoption. I guess it has to be that way. People born here don't always understand what makes this country so different and so attractive. But we know.


At a concert with A. This is an outdoor show and there is a lawn where people have gathered hours before show-time with full picnic sets. Some have plastic containers open on a table sheet, some have all the amenities of an outdoor restaurant: chairs with cup holders, wine cooler, real cutlery.
A. is a friend of some of the people performing tonight, so we came to see the concert and maybe hang out with them after the show. He has taken seats inside the concert hall which looks, as he observes, like an oversized mountain chalet.

We are seating in the boxes above the orchestra. Surrounded by empty seats, we decide, after the intermission, to go down a couple of seats to get a better view of the next act, the one A. really wanted to see: An adaptation of "Swan's lake" created by one of his friends. At the end of the piece we are confronted by angry people. One usher and the people whose seats we took. The people are just asking us to leave so that they can sit down. One of the woman explained that they came late only to see that someone had taken their seats and had to stay two rows behind. We are still clapping and our motion to exit is slower than they expected. The usher is beyond herself. She has her arms crossed in front of her and is ordering me "Show me your tickets! Show me your tickets!". I smile. We surely have done something wrong but nothing that would call for such an extreme reaction. I slowly raise from my seat, smiling and trying to calm her down. "Relax" I tell her "It's not such a big deal". That is a mistake. The woman is ready to explode. We go back two rows to our official seats. The last piece starts. It's a short, flashy piece, the epitome of "pop classical". Not my taste.

After the show, we discuss the reaction of the usher. How she was upset that such thing would (could?) have happened under her watch, in her section of the concert hall. In her view, ours was a crime that should have been punished more extensively. 20 years in the gallows. At a minimum. Our society is getting too soft.

Saturday, July 10, 2004


On my way to get the papers, I see a woman walking toward me. She asks me if this is the way to Columbia road. "No" I tell her, in fact you're going away from it. She turns around and starts walking with me. She is already late. "So much for the shortcut!" she sights. She is in her 20's, wearing flip-flops and a small T-shirt. I tell her not to worry, that her friends will wait for her. She nods and says that she hates being late, it's just inconsiderate. I'm surprised by her frankness. I show her the road to her and gives her directions to her meeting place.
As I am doing that I see a bus, the one that goes directly to where she is going. I point to the bus and says "In fact, this bus goes exactly where you're going". Her answer is quick: she takes off running, astonishingly fast despite the flip-flops impending her moves.
I see her chasing the bus on a long stretch of road. The bus stopped at a red light and there is a stop right after that light. She is still running but with all the cars in the way, I can't see if she makes the stop on time.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

True believer

On Tuesday morning the bus which carries us directly from the subway to work didn't show up. We waited 10 minutes past the normal 9:00 AM departure and then boarded another bus, local which takes more than 45 minutes to cover the 10 minute drive to the center.

Yesterday, the same thing happened but this time I decided to take a chance and wait. I was the only one to do that. Everyone else, all the regular of the morning commute, boarded the local bus and left.
After less than 5 minutes wait, my gamble pays off when the express bus shows up. I am the only one left at the station and the driver looks at me puzzled. "Where is everyone?". "They left", I say, " they thought that you will not show up." The driver says nothing at first, shakes his head and drives away. We are soon in front of my stop. He opens the doors wishing me a good day and then adds almost as an afterthought. "Thank you for believing in me." There is no irony in his voice. I am already out and by the time I turn around to answer, he has already closed the doors.

He was on time today and as everybody climbed on board, he greeted me with a conspiratorial smile. I will never take the local again. It's a question of faith.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Another bus

The little girl cannot be more than four years old. She is chatting with a young woman that I suppose is the mother until I hear her say "what are you going to tell your mom?"
The two are getting along fine and the little girl is impatient to get on the bus. It's hot and humid and she is obviously tired. She is clutching a large rectangular backpack decorated with a cartoon character that I do not recognize. She is on the look out for the bus and I see her standing up and looking toward the beginning of the street. Nothing out of the ordinary really for someone waiting for the bus, until I realize that she is less than a meter tall and that everything blocks her view: the garbage can, the newspaper vending machines, even the cars coming toward us. Everything is too tall for her. She cannot see anything but she seems unfazed and turns to her nanny saying "No bus yet".

When the bus finally comes, it is so crowded that her nanny decides not to board it. She says to the child "we'll get another bus" and I see them leaving and walking toward another bus stop. I can see the child carrying the huge backpack. It is wider than her. They soon disappear in the rush hour crowd.
I wonder where they are going. The bus I board does not go anywhere near any of the other buses nearby...

Monday, July 05, 2004

Small dead things

On my way to get the paper. It is late in the afternoon. The heat and humidity have not disappeared despite the violent storm of yesterday's night.

I first see the long stream of ants swarming the body and I step aside to let them enjoy the pleasure of the enormous meal of the dead insect. It does not have its wings anymore. I keep walking and almost stumble upon another body, a bigger one buzzing with flies. A dead rat lying on the sidewalk. My stomach turns and I look elsewhere concentrating on the thought of the paper.

On my way back with the paper in hands, I try to anticipate the spot where it lies swarming. I look at the large dark shape coming closer and closer and suddenly realize that I am looking at a dark plastic bag while the rat is right here a meter away now, still swarming with flies.
I keep looking at the bag and see a woman and her dog coming toward me. They will pass the rat soon, the dog will want to eat or touch it. I stopped and turned to watch in a sickening anticipation.
Nothing happens and the two keep on walking.

Friday, July 02, 2004

F 9/11

The guy with a Pink Floyd T-Shirt was handing out CDs "free music from Michael Moore" so we got our copy of some "anti-Bush" music. There was a woman trying to register people to vote (as a foreigner, I got off the hook). She is wearing a large badge with DNC written on it.
A. has already talked to her before the movie and we resume the conversation. Politics, endless discussions about politics. We are arguing about strategies, tactics and efficiency when a young guy standing next to me interrupt the discussion and tells me that he agrees with what I said. That it is counterproductive to make fun all the time of the speech patterns of the president if we want the debate to progress. It does not work politically. Has not worked for 4 years. Move on and concentrate on the issues. Then there can be a political discussion...

His girl friend is standing next to him, silent, nodding her head in approval. A. joins in the discussion. The woman from the Democratic party leaves and here we are a small group of strangers, discussing in the streets. The woman says something about it, how good it feels to be talking like this, to connect to people. The remark reminds me about a book I read a long time ago: "Mass and Power" by Elias Canetti. A thick book on crowds and the way they modify people's reactions and behavior. Canetti wrote it in response to Nazism that he witnessed in Europe, but his observations are valid anywhere. This woman craves this sense of belonging, of connecting. Brothers in arms. The call is indeed hard to resist. I say nothing past the first words on the movie and why it is not as efficient as it could have been. I don't want to shatter this fragile community of four. The illusion to have found fast friends in front of a theater just because we went to see the same controversial documentary.

We soon are talking about other subjects. The guy is a waiter at HardRock café, his girlfriend is an accountant there. He dropped out of law school and he is thinking of going back. Enjoying life and trying to figure it out. We speak about movies and documentaries. Subcultures in America and their struggle to belong. We speak for at least an hour and we part.
I am happy not to have spoiled the illusion of community. It was good while it lasted.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Star-Spangled Banner

I was reading the paper but the conversation between the two guys behind kept me from concentrating on anything but their words.
One is a journalist, the other guy's occupation is not clear. The journalist (I will later learn that his name is James) is explaining that he finished an interview of the widow (sister?) of one of the pilots of the planes hijacked on 9/11. She recently published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and in her interview with him, she apparently said things that she somehow regretted later. People do that in interviews. They relax and forget that an interview is not a discussion but an interrogation. She was more careful in writing but speaking can be deceptively free-flowing.
James is describing precisely the choice he made to air (publish?) the result. He repeats twice that she knew what she was doing by talking to him, that this was an interview, that he is doing his job. In the grand scheme of things, whatever she told him and she now regrets will be forgotten by everybody and all what will stay will be the bitterness in her attitude toward the press and a vague feeling of having failed to be compassionate (if even that) from the journalist. I've always wondered why some people think this is worth it.

The conversation is getting really interesting with discussion of the prisoners in Guantanamo but right then, my friend M. shows up and I can't listen to the conversation anymore: I have to be part of one. We talk about the play we are about to see in this small experimental theater, an adaptation of "Amerika" by Franz Kafka, another of my favorite authors.

The play was a bit incoherent. It is a hard book to adapt for the theater and the story does not come together in a cohesive way. Sometimes,the two actors on stage simply lose the public's attention. It does not help that this is held in a small space, which holds a maximum of 30 people and that it is incredibly hot.

In the middle of the first part, as one of the characters is singing the American national anthem, one person, a young blond woman wearing a short skirt and a lycra top, stands up. She is the only one standing in the crowd and all the eyes are on her. I hear someone snickering behind me. The actor finishes singing and she sits down. Although I would not stand for the French national anthem, I admire the strength of her convictions.
Then the anthem is sung again and this time she does not stand up. Not this time, and not toward the end of the play, when it is sung yet again, this time in a distorted way.
I'm not sure if this is because she feels that she has done her duty the first time or if it is because she could not confront people stares. Even in the dark.