Tuesday, January 31, 2006


At the local CVS, I'm in line to buy the papers. The man behind the cash register is making conversation with a woman. Both are laughing and smiling. She takes her time before leaving the counter. I get there almost annoyed by all this lost time waiting but it is impossible not to notice the smile on the man's face. I tell him how nice it is to see such a large smile. To my surprise, his smile widens and he tells me that the woman before me spoke to him in his native tongue. "My language" he keeps saying, "my language". I asked him where he is from. "Nigeria". The woman spoke Ibo. "She is learning it" he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "She is not from there. She is from here. American. And she is learning my language!" His voice is filled with pride. "Can you believe this?" I forgot my bad humor about the time spent waiting in line. I smile at his obvious happiness. "Yes I can believe it" I answer, "this is America".
I asks him how to say "Thank you" in Ibo and leave, thanking him in Ibo and promising to come back to learn some more words.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Microsoft word

You know you're a foreigner when you get intimidated by the green line under a sentence in Microsoft Word. That line is telling you that what you just wrote is not considered proper in English. Just not correct enough for Uncle Sam or Bill Gates.
So today as I was typing a report, the line came under a sentence that I found perfectly normal and I began wondering what was wrong with it. If this was in French, I would have imposed my will to the software, telling it to go to hell and proceed but this is English. Not mine yet.
So I sweat for about 10 minutes trying to find and fix the mistake. A verb? A noun? An invisible extra space? I finally found it. The sentence was in the passive voice. A perfectly fine form of speech in French, an unacceptable treason of the energy of the language in English.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Alice in Wonderland

I'm visiting a friend in Pennsylvania and we went to a jazz concert given in the local art museum. A perfect venue for the saxophone/accordion duo that plays tonight. The museum staff has put chairs in the room but I find it much nicer to walk around and look at the art while enjoying the music. One piece catches my attention. It shows what seems to be a complete blue canvas with sheets of paper coming out from underneath.
A closer inspection reveals that the artist has glued the entire book of "Alice in Wonderland" page by page. The pages are arranged in a 20x8 rectangle and only part of the pages on the edges is visible. The rest, the large majority of the pages, is hidden from view under a thick blue paint.
As I look at it a bit puzzled, a family comes by. The mother is talking to her kid (both have striking long, blond hair) and from time to time kisses him on the head. He must be around 10 but makes no attempt to avoid the public display of her love. The father strolls by and disappears in a closeby exhibit hall.
The kid has noticed the painting too and he too looks at it a bit puzzled. As the music surrounds us, there is very little talk but I see a docent approaches him and pointing out where to look. I follow her lead too and sure enough, can distinguish the lines of a drawing of Alice, a thin darker blue line almost invisible on this blue canvas.
I hear the kid saying "I see it!" and he turns proudly to his mother with a huge smile. She smiles back. The kid look back at the painting. Modern art is not that obscure after all.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


On my way to work this morning. I see the old man pointing the birds to the woman on the passenger's side of the car parked at the corner of W and 14th street. He is holding a bag and after making sure the woman is looking, he walks into the parking lot (the one where people gather in the early morning for work) and starts emptying the bag. Soon the pavement is covered with bread crumbs and pigeons flying in from the nearby roofs. Small birds come too but they don't have a chance in front of pigeons. The man is oblivious to the many birds that swarm around him. He is still pouring the bread and shakes the bag to make sure it is completely empty.
I see seagulls joining the party as I drive away, surrounded by the sound of the birds and the honks of the impatient drivers behind me.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Freaking NASA

The Air and Space museum on the Mall, on a tour of the Skylab module. Clearly, the greater mystery of space is "How do bathrooms work with no gravity?"
The display on our right seems to be entirely devoted to waste, waste recycling and disposal. A small piece of white fabric is marked "Towel restraining device." A couple is walking right in front of me. I hear the woman reading the sign out loud and she turns to her boyfriend with disbelief "Towel restraining device??? Freaking NASA!"
They both laught. Ah! To convey the beauty of space...


As I was walking down 16th Street, four guys came out of an apartment building about 10 meters in front of me. They are laughing around when suddenly I see one of them skipping. Skipping just like a little girl. He is skipping a few meters in front of his friends and then laughs when he turns back to face them. He is rather skinny, a young guy wearing a T-shirt in this sunny, but chilly day. His arms rotate in large circles. The whole scene is very childish until I see him jump straight up, spreading his feet in the air and reaching his shoes with his hands fully extended. It is done seemingly effortlessly and he lands on the asphalt, still laughing after this show of pure strength.
A few meters down the road I see all four of them piling up in a car with Florida's licence plates and taking off.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Circus and Caesar

Yesterday I went to see some of the Alito hearings. Democracy in action. I came away with a taste for the circus it really is.
In the Hart building, next to Union Station, we are walked under escort to the public gallery in the room where the hearings are held.
The place is at the same time intimidating and quite disappointing. It is a small hall compared to what I had envisioned but the ambience is quite formal and deferent.
The press tables are almost all empty (Alito himself has finished to testify so most of the press is gone). One journalist is clearly getting bored. He is quite young, with wavy hair and a suit in which he seems uncomfortable. A large yawn, his mouth open and no attempt to cover it. His laptop is open in front of him and after another large yawn, he starts cruising the net. I can see the "Google" screen and what seems to be a sport page right after. Another yawn. A young woman strolls by and he becomes animated. Because of the hearing, they can't talk, at least not loudly and he proceeds to tell her what seems to be a funny story because his face is laughing in anticipation of the punch line. I can see him mouthing "Oh My God!" as their discussion ends. She leaves and he gets back to yawning. Several seats away a woman is reading the "Style" section of the Washington Post. The most impressive, though, is the clear power emanating from the senators. They are seating in leather chairs, while everybody else is seating on small, simple chairs. They are looking down at the witness table and their every whim is answered by their staffers sited behind them. One senator turns his head half an inch. This is enough to get a young man lean toward him immediately. The senator first covers the microphone that is right next to him before whispering to the young man that is now kneeling right behind him. I can see he is taking orders, nodding his head slightly as the senator is speaking.
At the end of the day, I see two staffers, bent under the weight of the heavy files they are carrying, walking in the wake of the senator's stride. He is really striking. Tall with magnificent white hair, he is walking erect, his head high, scanning the room at the same time. All in him say poise and power.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Kneeling for praying

On a nice walk around town. I am on the phone with a friend while walking on 16th Street toward the White House. I am almost there when I notice the two young women kneeling on the sidewalk. They are both young, not older than 20. They are both wearing low-cut pants and light tops. Nothing to distinguish them from any teenagers, except that they are kneeling on the sidewalk. I am still on the phone so I can't ask any question or start a conversation so I look around and I realize that they are in front of the entrance of "Planned Parenthood", a pro-abortion advocacy group. I now can hear them muttering "Jesus" in a low voice prayer that sounds more like a song. This is Saturday so the building is closed and there is no one around. Praying with such fervor in front of an empty building.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Satellite year

At a party for the new year. The party is organized by the boyfriend of the roommate of a friend of a friend. I know almost nobody there. We arrive right before midnight and the place is packed. The basement is overflowing with people dancing to the rhythm of unfamiliar music. I will learn later that this is music is from Angola as most of the people in the house were either born there or have links to that country. There is serious dancing going on. It is 11:59 PM and I see everyone around me getting their cell phones out. It is a strange sight, everyone is still dancing but they're all looking at the cell phone in their hands. The moment their cell phone turns to midnight everyone shouts "Happy New Year!" Perfectly in sync, thanks to the cell phone satellite system.