Monday, October 11, 2010

2010 Musings on the City of Lights and Ozzie Osborne

Leslie and I saved up our allowance and went on a nice trip to Paris this year. Leslie had never been. I had spent time in France as an exchange student in high school, studying abroad in college and on vacation from the Peace Corps after college. Here are some of my thoughts from this most recent visit to France.

Me, Now and Then

Paris is just a beautiful city. I thought it was paradise the last time I visited. Of course, the last time I visited I was on vacation from my village in Mali. And so going from a mud hut with no plumbing or toilet paper to one of the most sophisticated and spectacular cities anywhere (and one where I could get Pizza Hut and drink the water), well, it’s not really a fair comparison. It’s like an old riff Eddie Murphy used to do about how, if you’re starving, and someone throws you a cracker (I think he was talking about getting laid, but the point is the same), you’re gonna think it was the best cracker ever invented in the world – “oh damn, that shit is good. What is that, a Saltine? No, no wait, a Ritz?” I was so impressed by Paris last time I was there that I want back to Africa, quit the Peace Corps and came home.

The Dan visiting Paris had also changed in some ways. In addition to being 21 years older than on my first visit, I had saved up a few more sheckles and so was able to experience some different slices of what Paris had to offer. Like eating at restaurants and staying in hotel rooms that didn’t have other beds in them where strangers were sleeping. Not to knock the entertainment culture of studying abroad – sitting on the Seine with four friends, a loaf of bread, some cheese, three bottles of red wine and a harmonica (total cost - $15, including the harmonica) is good fun. But eating hot food at a restaurant with cloth napkins is nice too.

Le Foot Locker

The most noticeable change in the Paris landscape since I had last been there is the number of American chain stores. There are Gaps and Foot Lockers and Abercrombies all over. And, of course, Starbucks and Starbucks and Starbucks. It’s not a new trend, or a surprising one. The capitalist tradition of hawking junk to anyone with a few disposable Euros marches inevitably forward. But it really is a little sad to see just how widespread it’s all become. Granted, the Champs Elysees has always pretty much been a big outdoor shopping mall (albeit one that’s sandwiched in-between the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre). But it used to at least have some element of flagship store glamour and excitement. You could see the yet-to be released new Bentley models or check out some $100,000 Montblanc watches. But a flagship Niketown store just doesn’t have the same allure.

Ozzy Osbourne’s Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

A wonderful new development throughout France is the sound glyph that gets played at the airport and train stations before every announcement. It’s an eerie, futuristic synthesized human sound that makes you feel like you’re about to be transported into the future, and like there may be something lurking in the future that you’ll be terrified to see. You can hear the sound glyph in the first few photos of the montage above. The best thing about the glyph is that it’s a shameless rip-off of an Ozzy Osborne lick from Crazy Train. Whether by design or by some hilarious consequence of cosmic randomness, I am positive that at any given time, a quarter million people are now wandering around France trying to figure out why they can’t get Ozzy Osbourne out of their heads.

Running in Paris – Dog Shit and Cobblestones

I wasn’t much of a runner the last time I was in Paris. This time, I gave it a shot. Paris is not known as much of a running city. And for good reason. The streets are crowded, the sidewalks are cobblestone, Parisians have no idea what to make of runners, and there is dog shit everywhere. If you’re aware of all this, you can make necessary accommodations and have a good time; if you’re paying attention, the dog shit piles can make a challenging obstacle course, building agility and foot-eye coordination. But if you’re not aware or paying attention, there’s a very good chance you’ll end you end up stepping in dog shit, spraining an ankle and getting run over by a car. It’s apparently even worse for women. Here’s how Betsy Mikel of BootsnAll travel guide described the female running experience:

“Female runners might be a little startled when running in Paris. This is why. Most Parisian women don’t run. Female runners on the streets of Paris don’t make sense. So they get stared at. They get laughed at. They get spoken at. Just put on your mean face and ignore any commentary. If you get the heebie jeebies from some weird French dude giving you the wrong kind of compliment, here are some ways to avoid them:

* Feign deafness if you run into unwanted comments or stares.

* Keep running. You might be challenged to strop and give someone a piece of your mind if you hear something inappropriate. But it’s really not worth it. Finish your workout and channel your anger towards devouring a delicious French pastry afterwards.”

Essential Conversational French

Before we left for our trip, I taught Leslie these essential French phrases:

“Bouff”: Loosely translated as “what you’re saying is so obvious, stupid or ignorant, I’m not going to even dignify it with an actual word.” A sound that’s meant to come across more as a physical reaction to what someone has said – like a choke or a cough – than a response articulated through language.

“Mais bien sur que si”: “Of course it is.” French is the only language I’m aware of that has a special word for “yes” used only when contradicting something. “Oui” means “yes” in most cases. “Si” means, “yes, contrary to what you have just said.”

“Oui, mais”: “Yes, but…” This acknowledges that some tiny portion of something a person has just said could potentially be accurate or valid, but only when qualified with much more information. It’s a recognition that the person you are talking to is not a total idiot, but just mostly an idiot whose statement could potentially be salvaged by some additional input from you.

Teaching someone these three noises / phrases may seem mean spirited and cynical, but not really. It’s not to say that you never have any non-confrontational conversations in French. It’s just that if you don’t speak French, but can respond to people with these nuggets, you’ll have a better chance of them leaving you alone, or at least understanding that you’re wise and sophisticated enough so as not want to bother responding to them.

The English to French translation that had me totally stumped was trying to explain to my French family outside of Paris what our cat’s name – Cletus – meant. “Uh, well, do you know The Dukes of Hazzard? No? Well, um, redneck? Trailer park? Forget it.”

Paris has changed some over the decades. I probably have too. But it’s still one of the most wonderful places in the world. A few new different nuances around the edges, but the essence of the French (not literally, although that’s changed some too) will always be what it is. If you’re afraid of a little poo, the occasional condescension from a waiter or falling asleep with Ozzie in your head, stay away from Paris. But if you can get past those minor impositions, don’t let yourself die before getting there.

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