Monday, January 31, 2005


I was in Kramerbooks with my friend B. visiting from Louisville (KY). Kramerbooks is a cool bookstore with an attitude. Cashiers are rude, unapologetically liberals and insulting toward anyone looking for a right-leaning book (I know because I tried). I obviously make a point to buy all my "conservative" and "neo-con" political analysis books here. I buy Chomsky at Borders, and Perle at Kramerbooks.
Music here is usually cool jazz or unusual sounds, always in line with their hip reputation.
Except today. As I am browsing through the new arrivals, I recognize an old song from the "worst of the 80's" CD.
"Wake me up before you go-go,
Don't leave me hanging on like a yo-yo

Wake me up before you go-go
I don't want to miss it when you hit that high"

I find myself tapping the rhythm with my foot, following the words. When I get to the cash registers, I hear one of the guy working there pleading with the woman who is ringing my purchase. "Please could we turn that music off?? I'm going to puke!" She is laughing and arguing that this is a great song. It is so uncool that it is cool. My friend B. is laughing too. He'll tell me later that he was wondering about the music when we got in. When we leave soon after that, the music is still going and the guy is still pleading.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Table for two

I'm on my way to a hip coffee shop with my friend B. visiting for the weekend. The place is packed when we arrive but I see two people raising from a sofa in the corner. I rushed toward it and I am ready to claim it as ours when a woman seating by herself at the table for two nearby says "Do you mind taking the table instead? I need the outlet." We don't mind. In fact, the table is easier for us. We wait as she is carrying her computer and all her stuff on the sofa. She has a new shiny Mac powerbook 15 inch. I've been thinking of buying the 12 inch for about a year now. Waiting for the newest version to come out.
We talk computers a bit. She is giving me her opinion on the machine, its casing, the ease with which it get scratched, its speed. She gets back to work soon afterward and B. and I start to talk.
After about 10 mn a guy carrying the Sunday Washington Post asks the woman on the sofa if she is waiting for someone. This is really a sofa for two and he wants to sit there as well. She is clearly unhappy but has to oblige and gets her stuff out of the sofa. She looks at us with regrets: no one would have bothered her had she been at the table. B. feels guilty. I don't.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I was ready to go home, ready to exit in the cold and I was putting on scarf and mittens. He caught me right before the door. A short man, about 45, 50 years old. Balding a bit. A large smile: "Do you want to play dodgeball?"
I looked at him puzzled. "Dodgeball? Like the movie??" That's my only reference to this game known in France as a variation of "La balle au prisonnier" which translates loosely to "Ball to the prisoner".
Another smile. "Yes. Like the movie. Come on, I show you."
I turn around, unsure of what he is asking me to do. "You want me to play now?"
He is holding a blue T-shirt in his hand. "Sure. Come. You'll see."
I follow him more with curiosity than with the real desire to play. I am wearing a jean, about 5 layers of sweaters, I have heavy boots and blisters from a day cross-country skiing last weekend when the snow was still so beautiful.
The building houses a gym and we arrive next to a large window that allows people to watch the game below. Two teams (blue and yellow T-shirts) are playing dodgeball. It looks like fun. The man has introduced me like his trophy. "I found the missing player. We're all set for tonight". I feel the look of everybody on me. They're gauging me. I try to explain that I know nothing about the game, that it was not played in France but nothing helps. The man has disappeared again, apparently in a mission to find me some shoes. I cannot play with snow boots on. I am looking at the game below, thinking about how bizarre that I may be playing dodgeball in less than 20 minutes with people I don't know when I hear a voice saying. " I found another one." It's the same man, coming back with someone else. A young woman coming out of the exercise room housed on the 4th floor. She has the shoes, the T-shirt and an energetic air that says "let's just do it guys!". My new teammates are looking at her with relief. I start "Well, it seems that you won't need me tonight. I guess I can go." No one is saying a word. I insist: "This seems like a fun game, though, maybe you can give me the phone number of the team and I'll contact you for a future game". The coach looks at me and smiles "I don't have a pen, I'm sorry". He lowers his eyes and that's it. I'm not part of the team anymore. Touched by an invisible ball. I'm out.
I put my gloves and scarf back on and hurry to catch the bus home.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Oh, what a beautiful morning!

It is snowing hard and the streets are covered already. I see people hurrying to the grocery shop as I enter the liquor store.
A guy in front of me is buying lottery tickets by the dozen. I hear the machine "shomp-chomp", one ticket, "shomp-chomp" two tickets. The noise goes on for about 5 minutes. I can't see how much cash he is handling to the cashier, but it could not be less than $100.
I turn around to look at the man singing behind me. He is about 60, tall and has not one tooth left on his upper jaw. I recognize the verse:
" Oh, what a beautiful mornin',
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin'
Ev'rything's goin' my way."

from the musical Oklahoma.
He is singing and laughing and stops only when the cashier is ready to take his order.
Liquor stores are the last refuge of optimists.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Celebration balls and the Western civilization

When I decided to cut through the convention center area, I didn't remember the celebrations of the day. I'm on my way to pick up my friend S., before heading out to a movie. I'm not late so the inching traffic does not bother me. I just watch as tens of men and women in tuxedos and gowns are walking pass my car.
I see the door of the car next to me opening. A woman wearing a very thin, silky, burgundy dress exits and hurries toward a large gathering in the middle of the plaza.
It's below freezing and I marvel at her ability to impose her will onto the local weather, as if it just didn't apply to her, as if to say: "cold are for the other people. The ones that don't get invited to fancy balls. I just declare this to be a heat wave and it will be".
A bystander, bundled up with only his eyes somewhat visible, is also looking at the woman, his head shaking in total disbelief. A small sign next to him shows an arrow pointing left with the words "Committee on Western civilization".

Monday, January 17, 2005

Bad education

The woman from Virginia who could not get a ticket for "Bad Education" playing in Dupont. We saw her in front of the theater. The movie was sold out. I called after her to explain the schedule posted on the entrance door. We left but bumped into her again in the bookstore. She recognizes us and starts telling us about her driving all the way from Vienna to see the movie. "Are you going to hang around for the late show?", I enquire.
"No!", she answers, "I can't stay until 9:30 PM. I'll just see the movie when it comes out in video".

Sunday, January 16, 2005


I went to say hi to my friend A. and we decided to walk to Dupont for a quick errand I need to do for my mother. We're in a bead shop. It's a shop mixing the "I'd like to make a cheap but nice necklace" teenager fantasy and the "I can put you in touch with your inner child" new age racket for rich middle aged women. A. and I both feel out of place very quickly but it is cold outside so we wander around the store. We end up in front of the cash register. The woman in charge is tall and slim. She has grey hair and is wearing a belt made of coins. One of these traditional belly dancing belt. She is speaking on the phone, ignoring us. I hear her explaining to her correspondent the non-cancellation policy that the store or her has on a class offered in a couple of weeks. The policy is simple enough: there are no cancellation accepted. Once registered, the class has to be paid. Taken or not. I'm still listening when I hear the woman saying: "Well of course, but it's better be a good excuse, like your mother died or something". This may be part of the cultural differences that I will never bridge but speaking casually about the death of a dear one alive is inconceivable to me. Giving it as an example of a "good excuse" seems so crass, so disrespectful, so useless even. What is in her mind, I wonder, that her concept of a "good excuse" not to go to her class, is that her mother died? I turned around with my stuff. I won't buy anything today.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Back to DC

Thank to all the people who kept checking my blog during the last month even when the posting was less than regular: I was traveling and then sick. I've posted some new stories from my trip. I'll try to date them back to the day they happened. It will take me a few days to write all the missing stories from the trip and regular blogging will resume.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Arsonist or Fireman?

On my way back home from work today, the van with tainted glasses and a license plate that read "100Fires".
My sudden fear that this was the vehicle of the guy who has spread destructions and desolation around DC by setting houses on fire. 45 fires so far. We'll see if he stops at 100...

Monday, January 10, 2005

Blue Van blues

I caught a SuperShuttle from the airport. I'm tired and anxious to get back home soon. As usual I pay attention to the route the driver takes. A classic case of the "traveling salesman" problem, he (I never met a woman driver on this company) has to minimize the time spent driving and maximize the efficiency of his drop-off route. I like to see what solution they come up with, most of the time finding myself disagreeing with the choices, thinking "I would have dropped this one and then that one. This makes no sense." It also reveals new routes, short cuts and small tricks that make one feel more at home in any town.

This time, the driver is silent as one of the passenger, a woman in her sixties seating in front next to him, is telling him the best route to go to her place. He made the rookie mistake to tell her that she was the first to be dropped off and she feels entitled to give him complete directions. He nods, shakes his head and otherwise answers in monosyllabic words. "Yes, yup, no, yeah, right". She keeps talking. I'm watching as we go from Georgetown to Q Street to Dupont Circle to New Hampshire Ave to 21st street. I'm the only one left and the driver turns to me to get my exact address (all he knew until then was that I lived in Mt Pleasant). We're soon on our way and I compliment him on his choice of route. "Even if you dropped me last", I say, "this route was the most efficient route there was. I don't usually agree with the drivers but here, it was perfect". His answers surprises me. He is predictably very happy, but it is also quickly clear that he has put a lot of thoughts in the problem. He tells me that he studied the city until he got it memorized. When he gets the addresses of people, he can see them on his mental map and it becomes obvious which is the shortest way. Then he adds, half laughing "I'm also driving faster than most".
I tell him the story of a driver I once saw with a GPS and went from the airport to the closest point as calculated by the GPS, then the closest point from there, ... and so on. The problem was that, the closest point in distance may not be the shortest drive and we ended up crossing bridges here and there, and driving around for a while. The whole trip took more than an hour.
He laughs at my story. Yes, he knows about drivers with GPS. Useless when one doest not think as well, he says.
In a way he has solved the problem that still bugs mathematicians . He does not use complicated algorithms. He just knows the answer. Plain and simple.

We're in front of my place in no time. He helps me with my bags up to the front door. I ask him where he is from. "Lebanon", he says with a wide smile. "Where in Lebanon?" I ask, "I have friends from Lebanon". "Beirut" he answers the way I answer I come from Paris as if there was no other city in France. "Well, this is why you drive so fast and so well" I venture, "it's a survival skill". He laughs as he enters his van, now on his way to pick up people and drop them at the airport. A slightly modified version of the same problem.

Welcome home!

This is my favorite moment when I travel back here: the time when the border or the custom officer looks at my French passport with my US address, my resident card and after the usual questions on the purpose of my trip abroad, tells me with a broad smile "Welcome Home!"
I look forward to this every time.
No one ever told me this in France the many, many times I came back home from trips in Europe at a time when they were still controlling borders. No one told me this at the airport when I was coming back from the US with my French address still in my passport. They'd look up, with a bored air on their face, barely looking at me while sliding the passport back through the small slit at the bottom of the glass window in front of them. Not a smile, not a nod. I was the reason they had to work that day and they resented me for that.

Tonight though, I'm not there yet, still in the small bus that takes passengers to the main airport terminal. The bus is packed. An old man next to me is speaking to a guy seating at his right. "Yes, now we'll go through security. This could be very long. Ah! Don't say anything bad. They can do whatever they want to you. This country has become very bad for that". In a really military country, no one laughs about it in public. I'm always amazed by the puerile attitude of people who think that this counts for public courage. They're like spoiled rich kids pretending to be poor while carrying their parents' credit card in their pocket: a little thrill with no danger. The man goes on, his voice being heard clearly in the otherwise silent bus: "Now, if you are ever in Tel-Aviv. Please don't joke about bombs. They'll really make you miss your flight." I hear a woman voice behind me "Are you coming from Tel-Aviv?". Our plane was a direct flight from London. We could all be coming from anywhere in the world. The man shakes his head. "No I'm not. I've been there though". The woman keeps talking "I'm coming from Tel-Aviv and I showed up 6 hours before my flight and was interviewed by 17 different members of the security!". The man grasps "How many?" "Seventeen", the woman says proudly as if there was an official "airport-hassle" competition and she has just been declared its world champion. People are looking at each others with the air that says: "Well, well, didn't we know that already?"
This time, I react. "I am too coming from Tel-Aviv (which is true even if my flight out of Tel-Aviv was 4 days earlier), and I arrived 2 hours before my flight, was in line like in any other airport, got interviewed by 2 persons and finished with time to spare for a last coffee." My voice is raising a bit. "So maybe you saw 17 people before boarding, but it is not the norm, neither there, nor here". She is silent, looking at me with surprise and contempt. I'm saved of her certain angry answer by the bus' arrival to the terminal. I speed out to the "US citizens and residents" line. I'm done quickly and I turn around to see her in the "Foreign nationals" line.
Welcome Home!

Friday, January 07, 2005

Paris (I)

I'm in the metro thinking about my long trip that finishes soon and looking around for directions.
I feel out of place in my home town. An outsider in a familiar place. I need to change trains from the RER C back to the subway system and I can't find the connecting corridor. I find myself at the top of the escalator, with doors to the outside in front of me. No indication for a subway connection. I'm not the only one in this case: a blond woman is looking at me as she too is coming from the escalator. She asks "Are you looking for the subway line?" She speaks French with a strong but unfamiliar accent. I nod and we're soon heading back downstairs, speaking while looking for the invisible metro line.
She is Polish, in France for more years than I would have guessed listening to her speaking. She agrees with my remark and blames her slow and hesitant speech on the number of Polish people she hangs out with. "I thought I would be by myself, here, alone in a foreign city and all I hear all day long is Polish!" We laughed. I tell her about my experience of living in the US. A friend of hers is also there, near San Francisco. Sending her news and descriptions of an El-Dorado, a promised land. She sounds almost envious of her friend. "I've tried to get there", she says, "but the border is closed, really. It's almost impossible to get a working visa and I didn't really want to go there to work illegally." What a choice indeed. In France, as a EU resident, she has the right to work and study as she pleases. She has access to the national health care system. She can get in a train or a car for a couple of hours and be home. But she still cannot shake the feeling that she is missing out on America. That the real opportunities are passing by her. Nothing that I can say will change her mind. There is only one America.