Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sound of silence

On my way back home today, I see two young girls rehearsing a dance choreography. I can't hear if they are listening to any music. I can only see them, moving their small bodies in synch to the sound of silence.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Golf channel

I spent the last two days inside an hotel in the suburbs of Baltimore. A work-related meeting. Spending hours discussing in a small room. Trapped. Tonight for the first time I could escape for an hour and I wanted to go for a walk. I caught the elevator to my room to change.
Two men are talking inside. One is wearing a T-shirt. He is fat and badly shaven. He is talking to the other man, a young clean shaven and neatly dressed man who nods silently with a smile to all what the other says. "So I convinced her that a trip to Australia was better than a bachelor party" Nod " A trip down under for two weeks" Another nod. " Bachelor parties are so overrated". Nod. This is his floor. The fat guy gets out. The nodding and silent guy starts to ask me questions about the reasons I am staying in this hotel. I don't say anything about my stay here, just a vague description. "I'm here for a meeting". I quickly turned the tables around. I learn that he too is here for work. He is covering a golf tournament for the golf channel. A senior golf tournament starts tomorrow. He seems to expect some kind of admiration from my part and I'm happy to indulge. I go back to my room, change and head outside. There is a university across from the hotel and I went for a stroll on campus. The university sits on a hill seemingly bordered by four highways. A mix between classic buildings and horrible tours who house student dorms. I wonder how many people watch the golf channel.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Useless lecture

I live in a dangerous town for bikers. In less than a week I witnessed two incidents that could have been tragic. Unlike last time when the biker ran a red light, today, it was the car driver's fault. A large red SUV at the center of the intersection with its blinkers on to indicate a left turn. The cyclist was coming right ahead but the driver just turned. Forcing his way (in truth, I don't know if it was indeed a "he". It could easily have been a "she") and cutting right in front of the bike.
The biker veered quickly off course and recovered nicely but he was clearly upset and turned his bike around. He went chasing after the SUV which was stopped at the traffic light at the next intersection. I saw him pulling next to the red car, knocking on the window. I could not hear anything that he said but he didn't seem too upset. Probably just lecturing the driver on the importance to check that the road is clear before turning in front of incoming traffic. I'm not sure the driver ever opened the window. The light turned green and the car sped up. The biker came back slowly. I saw him shrugging a couple of times.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Hiking alone with strangers

Today I went hiking with people I didn't know. I had read about the hike in one of the newsletters I receive. So here I was in the parking lot of this large subway station looking for the group that was supposed to carpool to the hike.
The hike itself, "Old Rag", is gorgeous. I've done it before but just didn't want to do it again by myself. The group is large (about 15 people) and it quickly becomes clear that hiking is not what brings everybody together: they want to talk. "Old Rag" is just an excuse, a pretext. The path climbing up gradually through the forest, the end of the wide trail on a boulder dominating the valley, the large imposing boulders that are tamed to allow the passage to the top, the false summit which tricks the casual hiker into thinking that only an easy path lies ahead, and the summit, large expense of polished stones allowing a rare 360 degree view. All this is for naught. We're here to talk. Soon after we start, I run to the top leaving everybody behind. There is no stopping me. I rush to the summit, savoring the pleasure of watching the birds from above. Spending a quiet time at the top. Feeling completely alive.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Twin chorus

The two girls are adorable. Dressed alike, with pink outfits and pink shoes. They have long black straight hair, in a flowing coiffure slightly out-of place for their age. They must be around 4 or 5 and they have trouble keeping up with their mother who's walking fast, holding her daughters on her side. The mother is dressed all in black with a large grey backpack over her shoulders. I am walking behind them on my way back from the subway. Even I have trouble in keeping up with the mother's pace. The girls are practically running on her side.
I hear her speaking Spanish, the girls answer in English. "I'm tired" says the one on her right. "I'm sick" says the one on her left. "I'm tired" , "I'm sick", "I'm tired", "I'm sick". Very quickly this evolves into a song. The kids are chanting it with obvious delight: "I'm sick", "I'm tired", "I'm sick","I'm tired". The mother is still running.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Red light

It happened so fast I was not aware of what I was seeing until it was over. A cyclist zoomed through a red light at the corner of a busy intersection. I was on my way home, walking back from the subway, and waiting for the "walk" sign to come up. I heard the car brakes and the shouts, and turned my head right on time to see the biker leaning to the left and then to the right as he was zigzagging his way between the cars in the middle of the intersection. He escaped unhurt and I saw him riding away quickly. He could just have died here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Free for the taking

A simple image today: a sign on the sidewalk saying "FREE". Whatever was there is gone. All is left is the sign.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

No cubs

I made my way back to the zoo today: I wanted to see the tiger again. I made it there toward the end of the afternoon, when the animals become active again. She was pacing again, restless again.
A small group was looking at her, clearly disappointed. Three kids and their father. He is on the phone and I hear "No, the cubs are on display in the morning only. I didn't know obviously so now I have three cranky kids on my hands and no cubs!" The conversation keeps going until he asks the person on the line to meet them at the zoo parking lot. He turns around to the kids and announces the plan of touring the ground. The plan is greeted by a polite silence. They clearly wanted to see the cubs. Only the cubs. He explains. They are reluctant to go anywhere else. They watch the older tiger pacing.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Hungry children

Yesterday I went to this trendy cafe to work. It all started well. I ordered fruits and tea and sat watching people while pretending to read one of the three articles I brought with me. There is a couple in front of me. The woman is cuddling with a guy working on his laptop. He has his arm around her shoulders. She is so thin my arm would not fit into her jeans. Impressive really. They ordered quickly and I see the waiter coming back with a latte and a huge glass of chocolate milk covered with whipped cream. I go back to my reading.
On my left there is another couple who has ordered a large amount of food. They have drinks, a plate covered with fresh vegetables, a salsa and chip bowl and a plate with two large sandwiches. I'm sure they didn't realize how much food that was when they ordered it. The guy has a "heroine chic" air to him. He seems sickly in a deliberate way, weak as a fashion statement. My reading is calling me back.
When I raise my head again, the waiter is cleaning both tables. None of the plates has been touched. The vegetable plate is still so full that he asks twice if they're done with it. The sandwiches have been nibbled. I can't see the salsa plate. On the other table , the glass of chocolate milk is still full with large chunk of whipped cream still visible.
Both couples leave soon after. I think of all the sermons I got at the family dinner table on how I had to clean up my plate for the sake of all the children in the world who didn't have enough to eat. I grew up in France. Maybe there was no such family lessons at dinner in America. Or maybe there was no family dinner.

Another sort of zoo

I'm in the zoo for my semi-regular visit. I try to come at least once a month. The tiger is pacing her small enclosure while children are shouting of excitement. A note on the railing is asking "Do you feel sorry for the tigers in the zoo? Tigers in the wild die of diseases or poaching. In the zoo, they are well cared for, fed and supervised by a team of veterinarians. Which one would you rather be?" There is a photo of a tiger getting some dental care (root canal for tigers?) I still feel sorry for this splendid animal trapped here. I hurry back to the exit, toward the cafe with plush sofas and loud music where I've decided to work this evening. The place is mobbed. Another sort of zoo.

Sunday, September 19, 2004


On my way to the play in a small experimental theater downtown. My friend M. is working with the company and tonight is fundraising night. There will be a party afterward. Food and drink, mingling with the actors.
I am thinking of all this as I exit the subway. In front of me a man is slowing down unexpectedly. Habit of living in a big city, I slow down too, move a bit on the side and keep a close eye on him. I see him staggering and stopping, gripping the railing on the platform. "A drunk" I think and accelerate to avoid any contact with him. I do well. As soon as I passed him, I hear the characteristic groan of someone vomiting. I don't turn my head, just pass quickly through the turnstill toward the escalator. A group of women who has just witnessed the same scene is hurrying too. I hear one saying "Let's just get as far away from him as possible".
We're all practically running now.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Bad check

I am in the drugstore picking up the pictures from New Orleans. Swamp and alligators mostly. There is only one woman in front of me but I don't notice right away that she has a caddy full of stuff: shampoo, gel for the hair, conditioner, bags, glue, soap, make-up boxes, detergent, laundry powder, bleach... A huge pile of stuff to process. I'm bracing myself for a long wait thinking I will be late for the party tonight at my friend's place.
I look as the cashier is processing each item. Suddenly when the total reaches $70, the woman says "I think this is enough. I'm on a budget". Left are a couple of bags, the bleach, at least one bottle of hair conditioner, a small box of crazy glue and some other items I can't tell what they are. The cashier does not show any surprise. It must happen to her often. She stops and announces a grand total of $71.25. The woman takes out a battered wallet and pulls out a checkbook from the back. She writes down a check, hands it with her driver license. It's her last check. While the check is being processed, the woman is asking questions about the prize of another item she left out. She is now thinking of adding the crazy glue that she really needs. It's too late for a check, so she wants to pay cash for it, or exchange it with another item that she has included in the $71.25 of stuff she is buying now. A little of back and forth between her and the cashier, some bags are put back on the caddy, some are just lifted up and set below the counter. All is done smoothly while the check is still processing. It comes back with a negative answer: the bank is not accepting it. "Try again" she suggests as she is still taking all the bags from the counter and putting them on the caddy. The cashier is nodding. Probably a bad connection with the bank. Second try. Same result. Third try. Same result. The woman is now saying that she does not understand what is happening, but that's ok, she'll come back. She has now taken everything out of the bags, all items that have been scanned. Pill them up in the caddy, put the bag over the caddy, handing back the bags to the cashier. A flurry of activity I don't immediately understand. She is talking while she is doing all of it. She finally settles on the gel for hair that she absolutely needs. She will pay cash for it. About $3 including taxes. Again she turns to the caddy and fuss around it for a minute. Then she disappears apologizing to the guy from the store who's coming to put back all the stuff she has taken off the shells. She'll be back she says. It's my turn now. I ask for my pictures as the guy is inspecting the content of the caddy. Some of the items are missing. I'm not even sure how she pulled that off.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Loneliness and pure happiness

Two images from the short bike ride to the subway station: the guy with the white pick-up who was holding a large bow and arrow. It looked like a serious weapon that he put away when I emerged from the path hidden in the woods. He is looking at me with suspicion: I've clearly interrupted one of his games. I caught myself hoping I was not a target for his practice.
The second a little up the road, as I am suffering from the heat and my poor physical shape, I see this kid in a small backyard, running after with a puppy and going in circles around a water spray. The boy is shrieking with pleasure and the puppy seems to consider him as an equal. Another dog running on two legs. I can almost feel the joy and the bond between the two. Pals for life.

Monday, September 13, 2004

New Orleans (VI)

My last post about New Orleans, posted late after I got back.
I was on my way to the airport. I had ordered a cab despite the offer from friends to share a ride because they were leaving 45 minutes before I was. 45 minutes of precious extra sleep, Saturday night being also a 3 AM evening out. Jazz is everywhere in this city and I find it very hard to resist the call of "just another set".
So it is 6:30 AM and I am in the cab en route for the airport, a short 20 minutes drive away. My plane leaves at 8. I have all the time in the world.
Except that on the way there, my taxi driver spots another cab on the side of the road. "Do you mind if I check what's the problem?" No I don't mind. I've got plenty of time. So he stops and proceeds to backing up on the highway toward the other cab. It turned out to be one of his friends, at least one driver he knows up close: the two had an accident about 6 months ago. My driver does not seem to hold a grudge against the guy. He steps out of the car, walk toward his friend and comes back a bit later. "Do you mind if we take another two passengers?". No I don't mind although at this time I am starting to get a bit worried about the time. I still have an hour to the flight. I should be ok.
The couple seems to be traveling with their entire wardrobes. About 4 large suitcases latter, we are piling up extra bags on the front seat. I am squeezed by a blond woman, tanned and rested and a thicker guy, darker hair with a crew cut. The woman is clutching an envelope marked "Honeymoon tickets". The starting point of the discussion is easily found. "Are you starting or finishing the honeymoon?". She smiles, "We're going back home to Tennessee after a cruise. It was fantastic!". "Well, at least you'll have some excitement until the end. It must have been a bit unsettling to break down on your way to the airport." She seems unconcerned. "Well, it was alright. You came right away". I wonder if she thinks that we are part of a "taxi-saving" crew assigned to cruise highways to rescue stranded passengers. By the time the cab is on his way, I have only 50 minutes left until my departure time and I am getting nervous. This is when we hit traffic. An accident a bit down the road. Three lanes blocked. I'm watching the time as if it would make it go slower. 15 minutes later and with only 35 minutes to my departure time, we are arriving to the airport. I ask politely the driver if he could drop me off first: the couple's flight is not for another hour and they have a lot of bags to unload. A quick check of the airlines and the driver says "No. I'll drop them first. I don't want to have to go around the airport again." I am annoyed now, not so much at the thought of missing my flight, but because I have been granting him his requests (stopping in the middle of the highway and picking up people) and I hoped he will grant me mine. After another 5 minutes unloading the couple's suitcases, making them pay for the cab and driving me to the United terminal, he asks me for the full fare. I balked still reeling about the drop-off issue. He seems to understand and tells me quickly "Give me what you want and we'll call it a day!"
I toss him the fare for a share-ride with 3 people and start running to catch my plane. I have a bit less than 30 minutes to check my bag and run to the gate. I do all this and get stuck at the security gates behind an ederly couple. The woman is in her late fifties, her husband looks a bit older. She is carrying 2 cups and some food in a white Styrofoam container. I know that they will take ages to get processed. I politely ask her if I can quickly pass in front of her. She shakes her head "No.. We too have a plane to catch. Why should you pass in front?" All I can tell them is that of all the people in this line, early morning in New Orleans, they are the only ones who behaved in a nasty way. Refusing to do a simple nice gesture for no other reasons than they could say no. That everyone else in the line understood my story (I told my taxi driver story quickly to people in the line) and let me cut the line. A simple courtesy. The woman is unmoved. She looks at me with disdain. She seems to be saying "Your problem is not my problem".
At that moment, I hear my flight being called and grab the airline employee at the security line to explain my predicament. She waves me pass everybody. I explain again to the people in front. One guy is saying "Who would be such an asshole to refuse you to pass if your flight is being called?" I hope the couple could hear that.
I rush to the gate, the boarding area is empty. I get onboard. Sit down with a sight of relief: I made it!
After 5 minutes waiting, the flight attendant calls in the microphone. "We're sorry for the delay, but we're still waiting for a couple of passengers making their way through security. We will depart as soon as they arrive".
Another 5 minutes and the later comers finally arrive. I am sitting on the front row and I can see them clearly: it's the nasty couple. She, carrying the drinks in two cups, he the white container with breakfast. They ignore my smirk as they walk by.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

New Orleans (V)

Saturday, I went for a tour of the bayous, the swamps. An early departure at 7:30 AM after about 4 hours of sleep. I am sleeping in the van on the way there, half asleep during the tour and only the sight of a giant alligator wakes me up entirely. The tour is good although it is difficult to imagine oneself in the wilderness considering that there are about 15 people on the boat and that at one point during the cruise, we will find ourselves about 10 meters behind and 15 meters in front of two other boats from rival tour companies. When we pass them on our way out from the bayous, I take my camera and pretend to snap pictures of the other tourists on the boat. They wave at us. "Touristus Vulgus in their natural habitat."

Friday, September 10, 2004

New Orleans (IV)

A random act of kindness from a taxi driver.
I was just walking back from a far away neighborhood where I ended up after a dinner with a friend. I walked her home and on my way back to the hotel, I stopped and ended up listening to some blues in a half deserted pub. The music is good enough to keep me there until the end of the set. When I exit the pub I decide to walk back to the hotel. The street is deserted but I feel at ease in this town which reminds me of France.
I have not walked 2 meters when I see a cab pulling next to me. I signaled to the driver that I am walking but I see the passenger window going down and I hear the driver telling me "I'll drive you for free". More intrigued than anything else, I approach the car smiling. "Really? For free? What kind of taxi driver are you?" He smiles. "The kind that gives free rides. I'll drive you anywhere you want". I open the door and jump in still laughing, and gives him the address of my hotel. It's a posh hotel in the center of the French Quarter. I insist that he could drop me anywhere, really, but he shrugs my argument off and start driving. We talk. He is a student in architecture, born in New York and raised in Pakistan. He'll be done in a couple of years. Drive a cab to pay for his studies. I laugh again. "At this rate, you'll never graduate!". We arrive at the hotel and I ask him for a card so I can give him a call for the ride back to the airport (a large fare) but realize that he wants to drive me there for free. I insist to pay the full price and some more. We're in front of the hotel arguing about it for about 5 minutes. I finally exit the car laughing and loving this town a bit more.

In the hotel, the small lizard that I disturbed on my way to the computer room. It slips under the door of room 258. I'll have to check my room carefully.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

New Orleans (III)

We are in a posh restaurant of the French quarter. A very chic restaurant boasting its history and continuous business for more than a century. It is not really my kind of restaurant, just too snob and too self contented but I didn't chose the place: it is a work dinner. We have reserved a table for ten and are assigned to the large table next to the fireplace. There is an enclosed courtyard which seems completely emptied of people. I sit facing a large window with an unobstructed view on the courtyard.

The waltz of obsequious waiters starts with questions on the wine list, on the house specialties, on a complete description of the ingredients of some of the dishes on the menu. All sounds like the promise of an infinite pleasure. A pleasure reserved to the very few able to afford a meal at this place.
The waiter disappeared soon after taking our orders. We're talking shop when my eyes are attracted toward the courtyard by the sight of a small shadow moving. I realize quickly that it is a small mouse who is going around like it owns the place. The contrast between the animal and the projected sophistication of this restaurant is irresistible. During the rest of the meal, no matter how much the waiters worked to impress us, I needed only to think of the little mouse running around to smile knowingly. I've seen you naked. You're a mouse. Only a mouse.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

New Orleans (II)

The pub is crowded and the music not even good. The signs above stage are advertising "Budweiser Jazz" and "Lite Jazz" which is pretty much what we're getting.
There is a large sign prohibiting people to smoke cigars, pipes and cloves. Another sign prohibits any video recording. Yet another one reminds people that there is a minimum of one drink per set. A tourist trap.

The smell of rotten garbage is everywhere in the city. It is there on the walk to the restaurant, there on the walk to the hotel, there when we sit down in the pub. I ask people around to see if I am not the victim of an olfactif hallucination. Do you smell that smell? Yes, they do. One Italian colleague tells me that this is the smell of American cities. That I only smell it here more because it is hotter. I refuse to believe her but she may be right. The smell of rotten garbage.

On Bourbon street, the successions of seedy places advertising hot and sexy women are everywhere, tucked between the "Jello shots" and the "T-shirt of New Orleans. Only $19.99 for 4 T-shirts. " One store shows the shadow of a woman dancing, another advertises "bottomless and topless" dancers, which makes me wonder of what's left. Nail polish and hairdo?
We are all walking back to the hotel, everybody in various stages of alcohol-induced cloudiness. We meet people in the streets and laugh with them. Everybody is supposed to be having a great time. All feels a bit staged, unreal even. A Disneyworld for frustrated adults.

Monday, September 06, 2004

New Orleans (I)

I'm in New Orleans for a conference and the blogging will be a bit disrupted (after all, I'm here to work...).
This is my first time in Louisiana, a part of the world I knew about even when I was a kid because of its links to France. As the song goes: "Ils sont americains et elles sont americaines. La faute à qui donc? La faute à Napoleon!" (The men are Americans and the women are Americans. And who's to blame? The blame belongs to Napoleon!").
The French quarter does remind me a bit of France. Its narrow streets, its cafés, restaurants, the gardens and the houses. But the resemblance stops here. New Orleans' French Quarter is hot and noisy. It is also smelly. A smell of rotten food, garbage and vomit. I am not sure this is always the case, or it is just the mark of the long weekend that just closed. I will see that tonight as I plan to go around the neighborhood again.
At the small supermarket around the corner from the hotel, the woman is clearly used to tourists. She has a broad smile and I can see only 2 teeth left on her upper jaw. They are circled with gold and sparkle in the neon light above her head. I ask her the business hours for the store. "Until 3 AM", she says. "We open back at 4:15 AM". I smile. "You guys surely don't sleep much". She looks at me incredulous. "We work in shift" she starts, unsure of what to think of my remark. I laugh. "Yeah. I figured that one out..."
The night is sticky and humid. Right outside the supermarket, an ambulance is loading an old man onto a stretcher. He has an haggard look and unruly hair. He does not seem to realize what is happening to him. Onlookers are few and far between. People mostly keep walking toward the loud music one can hear coming from a nearby street. The night is young.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

The fight

Today I saw a street fight and I didn't know what to do except shouting "someone, please call the police!".
It happened really quickly. As I was getting out of the local supermarket, I noticed a commotion on the opposite sidewalk. It took me half a second to realize that it was a mob of about 10 guys beating one guy. All of the ten guys were Hispanic. The guy being beaten relentlessly was black. I don't even know how he survived. They were running after him and cornered him in front of the "chureria". He must have put his hands to protect his head and ducked. I was seeing their hands and their feet pounding his shrinked body. Everybody was watching, in awe and in silence on the sidewalk.
I shouted but not to the mob. I was way too afraid for that. I shouted to the other spectators. Surely someone had a cell phone. There was a couple in front of me. A black guy and his girlfriend, also black. They were locking their bikes when it happened and here they were, stunned with the bike locks in their hands.
Then it was over. As quickly as it had started. I saw one of the guy who had been part of the beating party, cross the street toward us. Outside the group he looked so normal, so unremarkable. He quickly disappeared in the crowd. I would have been incapable to recognize him.
I was still shocked when I heard the biker saying to his girlfriend "I think it was a brother."
She wasn't sure. I jumped in the discussion thinking I'll help. "Yes, it was" I say. The guy turns toward me incredulous. He decides to ignore my remark.
The cops are everywhere now.

Saturday, September 04, 2004


I'm back in this favorite bookstore of mine. A nice place to hang out on a sunny Saturday while my car is being repaired in the garage next door. In this period of high political atmosphere, I'd like to find a book explaining the details of American politics. Something like the advanced version of what, I hope, children are asked to learn in school: the history, the way the government works, the congress, the house, the judiciary. You got the picture. So I ask the woman behind the desk and she seems extremely surprised by the request. I try to explain but all I can mutter is something like "well, like, an advanced book to study for American citizenship". I'm not sure why I mentioned this as I'm not taking the test for another two years. She gets me a book called "American citizenship for dummies" which is, well, what the title says it is. After a brief look, I know it won't do. I already know the big lines. I need a serious book explaining the details of the working of the government. She comes back with another "light" American politics book and a sort of illustrated history of the US. I start feeling a bit annoyed by her selection, so I tells her. "Well, let's start with the basics. Do you have the American Constitution?". She nodes, clearly happy to know that she can fulfill my demand. She walks down one aisle, looks around and comes back empty handed. I hear her question loud and clear to another staff member of the bookstore. "What happened to the American constitution?" I'm laughing. I don't think she heard her own question. She comes back with a small, tiny book. A first step.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

We're an happy family!

On my way to dinner with a friend. I'm bringing some vegetables that we will throw on the grill and a present for his kid. The plan is to chill out, just enjoying the evening. He is an old friend. I am totally relaxed while strolling toward his place when I see a family exiting a car that has just parked. All four of them are dressed identically. Dyed T-shirts for the two kids and the parents. It's weird. Like wearing "We are all unique" identical T-shirts. Something about it just bugs me.