Sunday, February 27, 2005

Pro gears.

There are four cheetahs cubs in display at the Zoo. Their enclosure is not big and they already are feeling a bit cramped. Running around like 4 kittens. They are adorable. The mother looking from afar. I am there watching in the cold with a dozen or so people.
The two women next to me are taking notes on the cubs behavior. "Front-back", "climbing", "left-right". "What would you say that was?" asks one woman, "Fighting or playing?" Talking loudly so make sure no one misses the fact that they are working for the Zoo. I look at all the people who came with their camera. Incredible lenses. Some as long as 30 to 40 centimeters, huge black cylinders that make the camera tips toward the front. Large tripod or single pole. All are guys in their 40s and 50s except a woman holding one of these monster. She is hugging it like a baby and asking an older woman to help her with the film rolls that she has just taken out of her pockets. Something about her demeanor though, makes me think that this is not her camera. Nothing precise, just the way she looks intimidated and awed by the image she knows she is projecting. I don't have to wait long to get a final word on my suspicion. A fellow photographer comes up to her to talk about her gear. He has not said 5 words about her camera when she interrupts with a sorry air "Oh! This is not mine. It's my husband's. He is getting something out of the car".
Surrounded by all the pros, I cannot muster the courage to take my camera off my pocket. It's
a small 27 exposures disposable.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Paris (III) -- Adolf.

I don't know how I forgot that scene. It came back to me this morning as I was waking up.
If one scene could foretell the future of France, it would be this one.

On my way to the hospital. I am waiting for the subway on a crowded platform. It's rush hour, about 6:30 PM. I see a family walking toward me. The parents in their 50's. Both tanned, dressed in an expensive-casual way, their teenage son walking just behind them while talking. "Why didn't you call me Adolf?" he is asking. "Adolf is such a sweet name." His parents look mildly amused by the question, pretending to be chocked. He laughs at his own naughtiness.
Adolf is such a sweet name.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Phone card

I am at the airport and talking from one of the public phones instead of using my American cell. I notice a woman behind me, waiting for the phone. Indeed as soon as I am done, she comes forward but she does not want the phone, she wants to talk to me. She is asking for my phone card. "I'll pay" she says, "I just need to give a phone call". I shrug her off rather rudely. "I need that phone card too, you know, why don't you buy one for yourself?"
She looks at me and stutters the words "no money". I don't even think about how she was offering to pay for the phone call a second earlier but smile a nasty smile that says "find another sucker!" and turn around to sit down as I have to give another phone call in 10 minutes.
As I am turning to sit, I catch a glimpse of the woman and something in her eyes catches me off-guard. Maybe she really needs help. I feel overwhelmed by guilt and turn around with my open wallet. "Here is 5 Euros," I tell her, "you can go to the closest post-office to buy yourself a card." There is a post office in the airport and the sign for it is right above us. She takes the money and disappears in a minute. My guilt is gone. I think I've just been scammed of 5 euros.

Then she is back, with a card that she flashes in front of me. I have to give a phone call so I end up dialing as she is standing. I asked her "What is happening to you?" and she starts crying, saying that no one came to pick her up. I take my most gentle tone to tell her, as if to a child. "But they'll come, don't worry. You are not going to stay here for the rest of the day."
Her sister has apparently mixed up the dates. She is traveling with no money, no credit cards and her cell phone is not working. I try to reason her. "Don't worry. You'll eventually talk to your sister!" I remember it happened to me once. I waited for more than an hour at the airport as it was closing down finally deciding to take a cab to my friend's house. He thought I was arriving the next day. I was lucky he was even home. I remember the wave of relief that overcame me when he opened the door, all the tension disappearing at once.

She is calmer now, waiting to use the phone.
I go back to my seat watching her talking on the phone from a distance. Then she is in front of me, handing me back the card. "Thank you so much! I didn't use it all." I want to say it was no problem, but my body language is dismissive again and I make a gesture that could be interpreted as "whatever, I don't care". In a minute she is gone, leaving me with the card in my hand.

I hesitated about checking that card at the nearby phone.
When I do check it and find that the card is indeed almost full, I feel guilty again.
Doing good has never felt so wrong.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Paris (II)

A sad news for today. I went to see an old teacher of mine in the hospital. She was hit by a car on Wednesday night and has been in the coma ever since. She is one of these free spirits that change the life of kids. One of these rare teachers that open horizons and make learning fun. She was my French teacher in 7th and 8th grade.
The hospital is an old castle or military base, at the outskirts of Paris. It's already dark when I show up for the visit and the place is deserted. There is a red light flashing "Urgences" ("Emergencies") but no other signs. I walk into a courtyard still following the blinking red light as if drawn by its hypnotic power (I know my teacher is not in an emergency room but in a intensive care unit).
I come across a large sign that says "Cour de Siberie". Everything is so cold, the sign does not surprise me.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Paris (I)

I am waiting for the tramway home. It's Saturday night, about 10 PM. I see someone jumping down on the tracks, looking down. He bent to pick up something and gets back on the platform. After two or three steps, he jumps back down again, and I understand what he does: he is retrieving cigarettes butts that people have thrown away when the train showed up (smoking is forbidden in trains, metro and buses). He seems to find too few good ones because he walks on the platform for a couple of steps asking people who have witnessed his desperate search, for cigarettes. He is young, about 25 or 30 years old, obviously either drunk or high. He wobbles from person to person and then jump back down again on the tracks as if to shame the people who are watching him risking his life for a cigarette they didn't want to give him.
I see him getting back on the platform as the light from the approaching train are getting closer.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Guiltless pleasure

I've always been able to sleep on a plane. I just close my eyes and will myself to sleep. Except this time because of the smell that was coming from the woman seating next to me. Not her body odor. The smell of food.
She was really big and at first I thought she was just obese. "Just my luck" I thought easing myself in the seat next to her. Then I smelled food.
The plane was still taxiing and she was eating rolls of sushi soaked with wasabi and soya sauce. The odor was overwhelming and kept me awake. I noticed the bag in front of her: she had gone grocery shopping before the flight at the upscale Whole Food market. I forced myself to close my eyes again.
Dinner was served soon after take off and she ate it all, adding some desert that she pulled out of her bag. It went on with some drinks also pulled from her brown bag. Then noisy snacks.
This is when I realized that something was different. There was something joyful in the way she ate, some "joie de vivre" unknown to most fat and obese people. She was no obese. She was pregnant.
No one else eats with such guiltless pleasure anymore.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Airport aristocracy

I'm at the airport on my way to Paris. A short trip planned rather hastily.
The lines at the United counters are unbelievable, even the line for first class passengers a bit further from where I am waiting.
I see a man, beard trimmed and very well dressed, walking right past the line directly to the counters. Everybody in line react and one guy yells at him "There is a line!". The man turns around and with a superb air of disdain answers "I am flying first class". This, presumably is enough to justify in his eyes that he does not wait in lines.
"We're ALL flying first class" is the answer he gets. Suddenly he is brought back to Earth. He looks around, his bravado gone and with the air of someone waking up. His eyes are saying "All these people??"
I can see that he can't quite understand what is happening to him. That he has, for the first time no doubt, to do what other people do all the time "waiting his turn in a line".

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Homelessness and the Universe

I went to visit a school today.
6 hours of talking to 5 classes, 5th and 6th graders, about the big bang, black holes and all the wonders of the universe. They have prepared questions given to me in advance so I could sort them by topics. I read the name on the card, read the question and answer it with props (M&M chocolate candies are a big help to explain the different "colors/energies" of photons...).
In one class I notice a girl who sits by herself in a corner of the table. She asks a lot of questions and seems to speak with difficulty. She stutters at time, does not finish her sentences. She goes from one question to the next in a endless string of words, as if she could not get enough said in the small amount of time that I gave her.
I try to slow her down, pacing her questions to no avail. I answer to the best of my knowledge and skip some of the many, many questions she asked, in order to answer questions from the other kids.
At the end of the 50 minutes allocated by class, as one kid had come up to me to give me a hug, she stands there, with an accusatory tone in her voice "Why haven't you answered my questions?" I try to explain that I did partially, that there were too many questions from other kids to answer them all. She looks at me with a defiant air, not convinced by my answer, turns around and leaves the classroom.
The teacher later on will tell me that she is homeless, living in a shelter nearby where the school bus picks her up every day. Because of this, she says, the kid requires more attention, she needs to feel that she matters to someone.
I'm not sure why but what stuck with me for the rest of the day was the vision of a yellow bus waiting for a little kid in front of a homeless shelter.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Tirer la langue

A small image today: the kid in a yellow jacket grimacing to a girl in front of him. A girl older and taller than he was (his sister?).
He was putting his tongue out, with obvious delight and she was answering in the same way. Two kids, arguing like kids.

Monday, February 14, 2005

New York (IV) -- The Gates

The Gates. The publicity machine says they're "Saffron". The reality is that they are "Orange". A common fruit instead of a rare and expensive spice.
I like the "Gates". Underwhelming at first (what is the point of just one gate?) but one by one, slowly, the effect gets to you. A bit like a "Mille-feuilles", this French pastry that is made of many alternated layers of dough and cream. Or like a book by Proust. The sentences adding seemingly innocuous and long descriptions of the people and the places. Details about the napkins, the menu, the light, the food. Irrelevant until they get you there and you suddenly feel at home, warm under these layers of details as it they were that many blankets.
Christo and Jeanne, though, are no Proust and the effect of their work is not as strong. It is still there though and no one complains.

The day is magnificent and Central Park is gorgeous, crowded and noisy. I am all ear.

The woman who told me (when I asked her what she thought about the art): "It's alright. I saw all the money it cost. I sure could use some of that money but it's alright!"
Her voice has a strong southern accent that makes me want to ask her to say it again.
She is right about the art though. It's alright.

The large telescope pointed toward a building on the East side of the park. They're no paparazzi, they're bird watchers, longing to see the hawks that have nested under the roof of one of the most expensive building in Manhattan.

The man wearing Christmas lights that made him look like a decorated tree.

The woman on her cell phone talking about being single and her latest blind dates. She seemed oblivious to the fact that everybody around her was listening.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

New York (III)

It's about 1 AM on Sunday morning and I am on the train back to my friend's house. I almost missed that train, arriving in Grand Central Station with only a few minutes to spare. There were young kids dancing hip-hop for the benefits of late commuters but I was to anxious to get back home to watch for long.
I find a seat quickly in front of a woman watching a DVD on a tiny screen. A man with broad shoulders and a clean shaved face comes by. He is wearing a two-ways radio that sizzles from time to time. He obviously knows her and it becomes clear very quickly that they both work for the train company. She asks about the conductor on duty, laughs at the answer and talks to the man in a coded language where train are named by letter and numbers. It sounds something like "I worked the C-28 during the week, I'm just doing the D-212 for the weekend."
The conductor shows up and joins the conversation. They're all having a good time and I wonder when the train will leave when a brief look at a watch brings everybody in position. The conductor leaves saying "I have a job to do". The broad-shoulder man jumps out of the train. He is staying at the station. The train leaves soon after.
When we reach the "Botanical Garden" stop, the woman exits the train and I hear conductor announcing over the sound system "Bye Jo-Ann. Everybody says bye to Jo-Ann". Some people behind me are laughing.

New York (II) -- MOMA

The couple who walked in front of me. They're holding hands and they're both wearing the same scarf. A plaid beige scarf with the famous Burberrys pattern. As I walk past the displays of the BIC pen and the Ipod, it occurs to me that they too could be in the museum.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

New York (I) -- MOMA

New York, New York. The city where "Liberty" is a statue. I'm at the MOMA looking at some great art and some not so great art. It is Saturday afternoon and the place is mobbed despite the stiff $20 entrance fee.
My friends have disappeared in the big galleries and I am enjoying the place at my own pace. I notice the guide and the group around him. He is about 40, with thinning hair and a pointed face. He is speaking to a group all looking at him with wide opened eyes, and I suddenly want to hear what he has to say about the piece right behind him (a painting by Malevich).
I get closer and hear "That's when I knew I would not go to art school, and I still think that I could have become an artist." He is not talking about the painting. He is telling his life story to a group of 20 bored youngsters.
I stay and learn that he didn't want to pay $20 K to go to Columbia University, ended up at City University, has done odd jobs and works part time here and there. One life.
I step away from the group fascinated but wanted to see if any one has had enough. I see a young guy coming and joining the group in a casual way. I suspect that he is doing what I did earlier and wants to listen to the guide so I lean over and quietly tells him "He is telling his life story, run while you can!" The young guy turns around. He is about 20, blond hair, blue eyes and a big smile. His first question is not what I expected. "You're French, aren't you?" Yes, I admit, I am French. So he switches to a rusty, somewhat hesitant, but correct French. He lived in Rennes for a year during his Junior year in college, and is now studying business in Michigan. We talked for a while about France, French people, French women and French food. Then the conversation gets to the MOMA, the museum, the art.
I'm poking fun of the guide and his life story talk when the group starts moving, following him to another painting. The conversation stops instantaneously as he tells me in English "I have to leave, I'm with them." He turns around and disappears quickly in the crowd.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Black milk

At the theater tonight. The play, from a young Russian author, is called "Black milk", a title that obviously brings to mind the poem from Celan. No connection that I could find. The pain here is self-inflicted.
In the second act, the lead actor is having an argument with his girlfriend/wife. She just gave birth to their first child, a girl, and she has had enough of the life of drifters and con-artists that they have been leading. She wants out. He will not let her.
Their relation is no relationship. It is sheer power struggle, insults, shouts and hits. He beats her up and in an access of rage, steps onto the bottle of milk a peasant has given them for the newborn.
On stage, the prop is a plastic bag filled with a white liquid. When the actor steps on it, the bag explodes and the liquid is projected forward. The first row is drenched.
Most people don't say anything, but one woman does not take it well. She gathers her stuff and leaves.
The play finishes soon afterward and I am describing the scene to my friend who was too immersed in the play to have noticed. I joke that the theater will have a lawsuit on their door steps before the weekend (this is DC after all..).
As we exit, I see the woman outside with her friends. I can see the stops left on her sweater. She is talking loudly. I hear her say "If they wanted me to be part of the play, they should have asked first".
Before the weekend.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


One my way from Baltimore tonight.
The car that passed me with sparks coming out from its exhaust pipe. I could see it down the road much longer after the car itself was already invisible, like a fast trail of firecrackers.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Orange jaws

Tonight around 7 PM.
I am stopped at the light on Massachusetts Ave, right before Union Station. There is a dark MiniCooper parked on the opposite side of the road. With a orange boot around the front left tire. I see a couple walking toward the car. The woman bends to grab a large piece of paper that was put under the windshield wipers and then she sees the boot and gasps. I can't hear anything but I see her mouth open and all her face lengthen. She is dressed in black, her friend is wearing a knitted grey hat. At the way he stands there, I can tell that this is not his car, nor his girlfriend. He does not seem concerned at all. He just looks at the woman whose facial expression is still reflecting the shock she's trying to absorb.
She looks up and sees me watching. I turn my head as the light turns green.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

One street to please them all

I was in Shirlington Village for a children play. I am the only one in the audience without a kid in tow and regret not to have borrowed one for the occasion. The young kid seating on my right is a blond 2 or 3 years old. When I talk to her, the mother translates in a language that I do not recognize. "What language are you speaking?" I ask "Lithuanian" is the answer. I wonder how much of the play the kid will understand. It does not take long to find out. She is the only one to interact with the actors. She shouts and talks, question marks and orders in her voice. Her mom tries to calm her down to no avail. Even if her comments are uttered in a language I don't understand, I know that she is enjoying the play, that she is taken by it. Her mom is not so happy because her shouts are creating quite a reaction from the other kids. She explains in a low voice that one should not shout at the theater. The kid is silent after 10 minutes. I regret that people don't enjoy theaters this way anymore. Like jazz in a smoky pub, where one could clap and shout in a middle of a set to acknowledge a good solo. Even children plays are as stuffy as a classical concert. Restricted by dusty rules on how and when to express one's pleasure.

After the play, I go to get a coffee in one of the posh restaurants lining the only street alive in this neighborhood. Two blond women are speaking loudly right in front of me. One is describing a man as a "youngish guy". Her tone has a hint of disdain when the other woman interrupts and I hear only the reaction "Oh my god! You're dating him!!"
The tone changes immediately. She wants details and the other woman is reluctant to oblige. I hear "a couple of weeks" before they are asked by the waitress about their orders. They both get small lattes.

Tyranny at the zoo

The day was too splendid to ignore so I went for a walk through the zoo. The place is obviously mobbed and I understand as I enter that the weather is not the only reason: today is the first day the cheetah cubs are on display. People in front of their enclosure are taking pictures. The only ones who really can are those with large lenses: the cubs are back in their cage, with their mother. I leave quickly to go to see the tigers. The path is clearly marked and I'm walking up the slope when I hear someone shouting "Anne! Give me the map!" A guy with white hair is right behind me, calling to a woman about 20 feet in front. She is almost entering the circular path around the tiger and lion's enclosures. She stops to shout back. "I don't have it. Maybe one of the boys."
I hear the shout again "I need the map!" A kid, about 10 years old, just right by the woman turns around, waving it. He starts walking back, away from the tigers, toward his father who is screaming "Run! I'm getting tired!" There is no love, no discussion. This is an order given by a drill sergeant. I am not the only one to notice. A middle-aged guy with a dyed T-shirt turns around to look at the man.
The kid is running down the slope. His brothers are right in front of me, already looking at the tiger.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Qui aime bien, chatie bien

Life in DC implies a fair amount of exposure to politics. It must be in the water. It could be also that this is the only town where an evening with the French ambassador is likely to sell out.
The talk itself is nice, polite, measured. Everybody is nodding their approval. The floor opens up to questions and I have many. It's easy for me. I am French and do not share in the least the "Disneyland" vision of France described by the ambassador. I say it so, forcefully, explaining and exposing the lies, the hypocrisy, and the ignorance of most francophile Americans who love the Hollywood image of France (the food, the cafés, ...) and know nothing about the real France.
The ambassador is taken a bit aback. His answer is long but unsurprising. Mostly a rehash of what I've heard so many times, the party line about Rousseau and Voltaire. The glory of Napoleon and the importance of the French revolution.
A lot more questions are asked, sugar coated and pandering for the most part. The discussion is cordial and fruitful. He stops after two hours and as we are exiting I am met by about 5 or 6 people who come to thank me to have stood up and said what they didn't dare to or could not. I am surprised and happy to have channeled so many questions. The ambassador is near the door, still speaking with a small group of admirers. I hear him say in French to a woman that not all is rosy but that he is an optimist about the evolution of his country. "Your country" , he adds pointing to me. I smile and answer him with an old French saying "Qui aime bien, chatie bien" (Punishing/criticizing are a proof of love)

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Icy in DC

Snow is beautiful at first. With snow in the city comes this illusion of quietness and peace. Serenity. But after one cold night of serenity I had enough. The ice covering the back alley prevented me to access my own parking spot and I was suddenly forced to fend for myself and find a spot on the street. I called the city to ask them to clean the alley. Salt it. Sand it. Something. Anything. The first day the dialogue went something like a monologue. I didn't have the time to explain my problem that the woman on the phone was already saying"Sure Ma'am. What's your address? We'll take care of it right away. Your reference number is 349942". I am stunned. Could it be that DC is getting a bad rap? That public services are working after all?
That night I came back home late to an icy slope and yet another parking spot on the street. As I am exiting my car in the bitter cold, I see a police car coming by. I flag it down to complain. It turns out that there is nothing they can do. They can't request a truck to come by, they can't go themselves. They commiserate with me a bit to help me vent my frustration. The next day, my phone call is a bit less polite than the first one. Another woman assures me that they will eventually "get to my back alley". Eventually sounds suspiciously like "in the spring". I am trying to explain that this is extremely dangerous, that the police agrees with that assessment, that the neighborhood is not safe to park at night (I don't mention the fact that I don't have a resident sticker which means that I can't even legally park in the street). As I am explaining all this to her, my temper is slowly rising. I am slowly convinced that I am the victim of this outrageous injustice: My back alley is not being cleaned by the city. I am almost shouting now and I hear myself saying "What I'd like you to understand is that I am requesting the back alley to be cleaned up as soon as possible, because it's dangerous. Not because I'm a selfish pig". I'm not quite sure where the last sentence came from. I shouted it.
There is a silence at the other end and then a voice. Calm. "I think you better talk to my supervisor".
The back alley was still icy tonight.