Friday, February 19, 2010

Carriage Wit Classics: Paris, Its Not Just For Lovers Anymore (Day 1)

In today's Carriage Wit Classics, I'm revisiting my first trip to Paris, two and a half years ago.

Paris: Its not just for lovers anymore (Day 1)
This weekend I checked off another of my life 'to-do' list and visited Paris. I had spent several weeks already looking at the photos posted by friends of mine who are studying in Paris, so I had a hunger to experience the famous French capitol for myself. Though I wasn't able to meet with said friends, I was able to go with some friends from the program here in Brussels.

The following is a bit of a travelogue, mostly for the benefit of my mother and anyone else curious to hear of my impressions of the City of Lights. Pictures may be added later, as I scan my archaic disposable images into digital format or figure out how to transfer photos from my phone.

I decided I would be 'roughing it' this trip, foregoing a shower and change of clothes in favor of traveling light. I had my wallet, cellphone (unusable except as a watch and camera), train ticket, and my visa on my person. Before you turn up your collective noses in disgust at my hygienic sacrifice of a shower, let me remind you of the saying that begins "When in Rome..."

We left Brussels around 8 in the AM, catching a high speed train and arriving in Paris around 10:30. From there our first stop was the Eiffel Tower, iconic symbol of Paris. From the top, I was able to see the vast city in all its splendor, as well as plan out the rest of the day with my party of five: Jeff, a reserved, but friendly fellow on his second trip to Paris, Kamil, another Paris veteran from Poland who helped serve as guide on the trip, Odina, a girl from Izbekistan who was quite possibly even more excited to be in Paris than I was, and Dave, a Minnesota native with a penchant for tennis. We decided our next stop would be l'Arc de Triomphe.

After a brief visit to the arc we headed down the famed Champs Elysee and made our way eventually to our hotel room, just down the street from the infamous Moulin Rouge. The Moulin Rouge happened to be located on what Obi Wan would call "a wretched hive of scum and villainy." Sex stores, porno shoppes, and everything else you could possibly associate with everyone's favorite deadly sin filled both sides of the street.

We climbed quaint side streets, making our way to la Basilique Sacre-Coeur, a chapel on the hill on the edge of Paris that was not far from our humble abode. The cathedral was as massive as it was impressive, and the view of the city from the hill was panoramic and stunning. The true thrill of this area was a young European musician who had gathered a crowd of more than a hundred tourists around him. He sang covers of famous American rock songs as he played his amped guitar, accompanied by a random, very strange looking girl who convulsed comically in what we took to be dance. From the 'trying not to laugh' expression of our young artist's face, she was a stranger to him as well. The ambiance of a setting sun over Paris, sitting on the steps of a large cathedral while music is played behind you made us all want to stop and simply enjoy the moment. There is something about Paris that makes one feel more...artistic? Tranquil? The whole experience was soothing, almost spiritual, and certainly a welcome reprieve of the rush of touring the city.

As we were leaving, I had the pleasure of dealing with Senegalese con men. They stopped us and began to create for us "authentic African bracelets" while repeating "hakuna matata". He asked me to make a wish, which I did (and kept secret, of course). When the entire bracelet was finished, I was wearing a pretty cool looking string bracelet of interposing green, yellow and red (Senegal's colors, I was informed). He then demanded 10 euros for the service (nearly 14 US dollars). Meeting a con with a lie, I told him that all I had on my was three Euro, and escaped without paying the demanded price. Little did I know that the bracelet truly was lucky, and worth every centime.

That night, after a quick meal of (relatively) cheap Turkish food, we made our way back to the Eiffel Tower to see it light up at night. It was a sight to be remembered, and even the manliest of males in our group had to admit to ourselves in secret that it was a romantic one. I sat in the yard behind the tower and just watched it, content in the cool evening air. Around me, hundreds of other travelers did the same, some sipping wine pensively, others chatting animatedly with their friends.

"My boy-friend" a girl's emphatic voice broke my musings causing me to turn around. Three girls, American tourists from the looks of them, were being hit on by three somewhat sleazy looking local guys. "I do too have a boyfriend." The cutest of the three insisted. "And I love him very much. He should be right back. " From her awkward polite smile and her constant referencing to a boyfriend that even the boys, in their broken English, knew to be fictitious, I realized that they were not enjoying the attention. Flashing back to my hero training, I realized that these were damsels in distress, the genuine article.

After another moment's hesitation, I decided to try something I'd only ever seen work in the movies. I stepped up, walked away, circled around, and sat down next to the cute girl getting the most attention and wrapped my arm around her back. "Hey hon," I said, taking a seat. "Sorry that took so long...who are these guys?" I locked eyes with the girl, hoping that she'd realize the ruse and play along. After a flicker of a questioning glance, dawning realization filled her pretty blue eyes and she smiled warmly. "No problem...I don't know, they just got here."

The guys were a bit suspicious at first, and for a moment, I was afraid my bluff had failed. The girl must've sensed that as well, and became a bit more affectionate to add credibility to our tale. Slipping into French, I told them that we were indeed dating and that hitting on my girlfriend is not cool. They apologized and asked me to translate a message to her friends. I told them that they were not interesting in learning how to 'french kiss' and that they are blocking our view of the Tower. I was polite, but stern, and I think I got the message across because they apologized and left, moving to stand behind us about 25 yards.

"Thank you so much!" All three gushed when they were out of earshot.

"How did you know we were in trouble?" My 'girlfriend' asked gratefully.

"I overheard you mentioning a boyfriend three times in one breath," I grinned. "It wasn't hard to figure out he wasn't real. How long have you been in Paris?"

"Just an hour," She admitted.

"Wow!" I gasped, glancing surreptitiously over my shoulder to their fleeing admirers. "Already three of them? Well done!"

We commenced covert introductions (keeping the shaking of hands down so as not to arouse suspicions that we were indeed strangers). They were very pleased to learn I was a fellow American and I found out they were college students who had taken the summer off to nanny in Italy. They had just finished and were backpacking Europe before the next semester started. They wanted to know how I knew French, to which I responded that I used to live in France, and still knew enough of the language to save damsels in distress when the occasion demanded it. I filled them in on my story and we enjoyed the ambiance of the Eiffel Tower, chatting quietly for an hour or two. From their laughter and interest I realized that Paris grants extra wit and charm to any swashbuckler daring enough to call upon such virtues. Eventually, my group had to leave so I said my farewells, telling them to be careful and wishing them a pleasant Paris experience.

I walked back to the metro with a bemused glance at my lucky Senegalese bracelet.

Unfortunately, it was so late by the time I left the girls that the metros were closed. I managed to hail a cab, and most of our intrepid band boarded. I opted to stay behind with Odina and Kamil, in case my French abilities would be needed. We walked quite awhile, finding another cab nearly an hour later. This cab driver was from Algeria, and extremely happy to have such an international group in his cab. I impressed him with my French, before Kamil revealed he knew a few conversational Arabic phrases, much to our driver's delight. The final surprise came when Odina revealed to him that she too was Muslim. Praising Allah for his fortune at meeting us, our driver promptly deposited us at the hotel for the night, after a pleasant drive through the city.

Day one was over and I collapsed into the tiny room I shared with Jeff and Dave. The room was hot, but sleep and dreams came quickly and carried me away. The hour was late and morning would come all too soon...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

France ruins Star Wars forever...

It started innocently enough. I had heard a girl tell me that Darth Vader was the sexiest man in Star Wars. Not Han Solo...not even Chewie, but Darth "Mouth Breather" Vader! This got me thinking... what's the appeal? He's definitely a tall guy, and he's got that power thing going for him. Plus there's the whole "I am you father" bit for girls with daddy issues. Maybe it was his silken, Barry White voice, intimidating for Rebel Scum but just smooth enough to be seductive when played with some cool jazz..

A google search of "Darth Vader is a sexy man" brought up many links I was too afraid to click on, and then a clip of a youtube video about Star Wars and France. I myself enjoy Star Wars and I just got done defending France, so I thought I'd take a look.

Warning: This video will give you nightmares. The images you are about to see will never leave your mind. They will haunt your subconscious. It is the equivalent of taking a beloved childhood memory and violating it in horrible ways behind an old toolshed. France, I don't know what George Lucas ever did to you to make you want to create a Star ballet... Were you trying to make something worse than the Star Wars Holiday Special? Because if so...I think you succeeded.

This is what Palpatine meant when he said the Dark Side is a path to abilities many consider to be unnatural. You have been warned.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Might as well face it, you're addicted to love!

Happy Valentine's Day, one and all. Christian martyrdom really gets people in the mood for romance, apparently. Also..chocolate. Many of you are probably enjoying a big red, heart-shaped box of Russian Roulette style chocolates right now. You know what I'm talking might be delicious or you might grab one that's filled with toothpaste, but you're willing to take the chance.

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Chocolate is a very apt symbol for romance, and not just because of its purported aphrodisiac properties.

It's a food that we enjoy..its a comfort food, it's easy, it makes us feel safe, and its pleasant. It's also mildly addictive. We know we should snack on something healthier, but how often do we reach for an apple when there's chocolate in the room? We love the way chocolate makes us feel, even though its ultimately bad for us.
People often treat relationships the same way. They get addicted to them, especially the ones that are bad for us. How many girls do you know who still pine for the cute guy who treated her like garbage? How many guys do you see who keep going back to the ex who broke his heart? They're familiar. They're attractive. We like the way we feel about ourselves when we're with them. Lust comes into play...but like an addiction to chocolate, these relationships are ultimately unhealthy and could even be dangerous.

This Valentine's Day, eat an apple.

Girls: There's someone special in your life who lacks the dangerous bad-boy glitz of the cute a-hole, but makes up for it by being a guy who would never hurt you, who's sensitive, funny, honest, or possesses any of those other qualities you wrote on your 'my future husband' list as a sunday schoolgirl. Chances are he's been there for you the whole time and you never gave him a second glance with all the chocolate temptations in cupboard.

Guys: Same story. Leave the psychotic yet dangerously sexy ex in your past where she belongs. Maybe there's a girl-next-door in your life that could potentially be something more?

And everyone, there's nothing wrong with being single for a little while. We all have that friend who is so addicted to having a 'special someone' in his or her life that they can't bear to be alone. They're prone to awkward rebound relationships or crawling back to ex's just to avoid that feeling of not having someone to play the 'No, you hang up first' game with on the phone. Don't be that person. Developing yourself as an individual, being able to define yourself as a person instead of as part of a couple, is not only a healthy trait but also an attractive one. You may start to attract a higher class of ladies (or gents) when you've become a person instead of someone's 'better half'.

When you are ready to enter the exciting and sometimes awkward world of dating again, don't forget what Montaigne said: "If there is such a thing as a good marriage, it is because it resembles friendship rather than love." Marrying your best friend is a cliche for a reason. It's pretty much the best way to start a life together. Think for a moment about who you go to when you're scared, who cheers you up when you're sad, who makes you laugh, and who you feel safest with. That's your apple. Go ahead and have a bite. You might find you don't need junk food anymore.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Carriage Wit Classics: In Defense of a Nation

So I've committed to actually updating this blog faithfully. Think of it as a New Year's Resolution that avoids lofty levels of self-improvement. However, sometimes there's just not a lot to report or I'm busy. So I'm starting a series called "Carriage Wit Classics" which will be reposting of older things I've written on other blogs in days gone by. It should be new to most of you, however. Think of it as a 'best of' CD.

Okay, so my friend JT has committed some pretty serious blasphemies in the past. I guess that's an understatement. Blasphemy is kind of the theme of his web page. For the most part, I let it go. He's harmless. However, this time, he went too far. He's calling for a boycott of France. That's right, nation of swashbuckling adventure, style, wit, and fashion, simply because he couldn't wrap his barbaric lips around its melodic language.

So, naturally, its time to remind him and every other band wagon jumping Ricky Bobby American that its not cool to hate the French. They can eat their freedom fries somewhere else, because without France, we wouldn't have had:

1. Democracy
The writings of philosophes Rousseau, Montesquieu, and others were heavily influential on the British colonists, and is reflected in Thomas Jefferson's writings.

2. Independence
France bankrupted itself sending troops, supplies, and more importantly, a freaking navy (turns out you need one of those to win a war against an island empire, America), to save our trash during our little revolution. Without France, the British blockade would've starved us out faster than you can say 'we ran out of hard tack'.

3. The Statue of Liberty
"Hey guys, we're already really poor and our government is falling apart because we spent so much money on your revolutionary war, but we thought we'd all chip in and buy you this enormous freaking statue to put in your harbor, so you can, you know, be taken seriously as a promised land for the downtrodden" (this was before the infamous 'build a fence across the border to Mexico' plans were being discussed)

Think of him as a younger, less wooden-teethed, sexier swashbuckling version of George Washington. With a rapier. And he probably swung around on ropes and stuff.

5. French Kissing
And several other erotic techniques we won't go into here, in the interest of keeping this place PG-13.

6. Removing Theocracy from the political sphere
That crap started with Rousseau before Kant (a disciple of Rousseau) ran with it. So basically everything JT believes in has its roots in 18th century French philosophy.

Ironically, one of the most atheistic countries in the world also gives us proof that God exists:

If you've ever enjoyed the female night elf's dance social, you have France's Alizee to thank for that.

8. Kyo
Another French band that's not as easy on the eyes but excellent listening.

9. GĂ©rard Depardieu
Great French actor who also portrayed the middle-aged Porthos in the Man in the Iron Mask.

10: Swashbuckling!
Speaking of Porthos, France is the country where authors like Dumas produced the Three Musketeers, the Man in the Iron Mask, and a whole genre of cloak and dagger swashbuckling adventure that's only been rarely duplicated in other countries. Props to Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel for following in France's high booted, swaggering footsteps.

11: French bread!
Or what passes for it in America.

12: Loreal, cosmetics and perfume in general
You know that hot girl you saw in campus the other day? The one that didn't stink and her face was smooth and perfect. Say thank you the next time you see a Frenchman walking along the street. Before France we had to deal with the odors and sights nature intended us to deal with. Let's just say most people were conceived looong after dark. With noseplugs.

12: Debussy
As in Claude. As in Clair de Lune. As in that song from Ocean's 11. Yeah, that Debussy.

13: The Nationstate
As in..strong centralized government while Germany, Spain, and Italy were still a loose conglomerate of sometimes warring/sometimes trading city-states? As in the cradle of modern civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire?

14: The French Language
Despite JT's inability to grasp its grammar, (it WAS rated a 3 out of 5 difficulty on ...right between Spanish and Russian), my completely scientific survey of whatever random girls were passing by at the moment ranks French as the sexiest language in existence, followed by Italian in close second, and Spanish and German coming in somewhere near the bottom, over Hmong and Pig Latin.

15: Analytic Geometry, and by extension, Calculus
I'm no math fan, but I understand its pretty important for or something. Or making cash registers work. I'm not really sure. But apparently Descartes not only was a founding father of modern philosophy, he also bridged the gap between algebra and geometry with his crazy magic spell formula like theorems, and was in turn crucial to the development of Calculus. So the next time your cash register operator gives you back correct change or you cross a bridge without it exploding or folding into a pretzel, you can thank France for that.

16: Mother Goose
And you KNOW your mom would have run out of things to tell you at night if it weren't for Mother Goose's tales being public domain.

17. Victor Freaking Hugo
Did you ever enjoy the musical Les Miserables? Turns out those are French words, written by a French person, about a historical event from France. For that matter, the Phantom of the Opera also takes place in France. The Scarlet Pimpernel? Largely takes place in France. Without France, Broadway musicals would take place largely in homosexual student apartments and outside with dancing anthropomorphic cats (which I understand is becoming a very common fetish)

18: High Art
I'm talking Monet, Renoir, Picasso, and half a dozen other painters who were either French or did most of their work in France (looking at you, DaVinci). There's a reason the Louvre is in Paris and not...Berlin.

19: Braille
If you're reading this, you probably haven't had to use Braille, but I understand its incredibly awesome for blind people who want to read.

20: Milk that doesn't make you sick when you drink it
Louis Pasteur...Pasteurization... I won't spell this one out for you.

21: Marie Curie
French citizen, pretty much discovered radiation and harnessed its awesome powers. Without radiation, we wouldn't have: Ninja Turtles, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, and a host of other super-heroes. So basically, we'd be living slaves for the Legion of Doom or whatever other supervillain team-up got its act together and took over our superhero-less world.

22: The Louisiana Purchase
Say what you will about Napoleon, his drive to conquer the world needed funding and we needed an awesomely cheap deal on about a quarter of present day America.

That part in dark green? Including Arkansas? Yeah we got that for about 23 million dollars. Works out to like..I don't know..3 cents an acre. Merci, la France.

23: Opposing the Iraq War (before it was cool)

Remember when the whole "Freedom Fries" thing started? 2003-2004?
Remember why the whole thing started? They thought going to war in
Iraq was unjustified, ill conceived, and over-all, probably a bad idea. Good
thing we didn't listen to them, and instead made fun of how cowardly
the French are. We sure proved them wrong. That's right, back when
all your favorite democrats (looking at you, Madame Clinton) were
voting for war, the French were like 'hey guys....probably not a good
idea to just run in there guns ablaze.."

24. The Air Car
Hey remember how the oil industry is dominating Congress and rising gas prices and global warming are all cause for concern in America? Don't worry, guys, France has got us covered. Presenting the Air Car...a car that runs completely on compressed air for 100 miles, or on 8 gallons of gas and compressed air for a 1000. All for the price of a mid-end car...around 16000 dollars. Coming to your garage in 2010. For more information on how you won't have to get eviscerated at the gas pump, check out the article in Popular Mechanics.

So yeah, just some information. The list could go on indefinitely, but 24 is my favorite number so we'll stop there. If you want to boycott France, be prepared to give up all its sweet contributions to your life. Anyway, the French workweek is 35 hours so I gotta clock out to take a nap, sip some wine, and enjoy some fine cuisine.

Au revoir, suckahs.

Monday, February 8, 2010

One of the Greatest Tragedies of the Modern Era

First off, a random bit of trivia. French high school students love Taylor Swift. Or maybe just the ones living in the rural areas of southern France. I suppose it makes sense, you can generally tell how popular country music is going to be by the number of farm animals in the region.

Anyway, I was teaching my students here about the differences in the American high school system and that of the French. One of the major differences is the whole 'clique' system we have in the U.S. You know, the whole 'nerd' 'jock' 'preppy' 'emo' division of students into like-minded groups, as seen in the hard hitting documentary from the early 90's, "Saved by the Bell".
Dustin Diamond portraying the gritty realism of the 'nerd'.

A "Jock" displaying his plumage
A "Preppy". Not pictured: Ginormous Cellphone

They simply don't do that here, and the whole concept was hard for them to wrap their minds around. You'd think after a history of being divided into nobility, clergy, and peasants, they would not have forgotten the idea of social hierarchy so quickly, but I guess that just goes to show the Revolution was pretty thorough at stamping out obvious caste systems (though they still exist, look at the ENA).

To illustrate this almost cliche idea of 'cliques' I showed them a music video, "You Belong With Me" by Taylor Swift. Its the all-too-familiar story of the impossible love between a nerd and a jock. As an aside, I love these movies/stories where the 'nerdy' girl is in reality incredibly beautiful, but no one can see it because she has glasses and frumpy clothes. (They satire this in "Not Another Teen Movie"). Not recognizing that a girl like Taylor Swift is beautiful until she gets dolled up for the Homecoming Dance is like not recognizing Clark Kent is Superman because he's wearing glasses. It's just really funny and it shows up in pretty much every teen movie ever made.

Returning to our sheep, as they say in French, after the lesson some of the students were asking about other Taylor Swift songs. That having been the only one I'd ever seen, I did some youtubing and discovered "Love Story".

Just to reaffirm my manhood, (which is already in jeapordy because I'm blogging about Taylor Swift today), this was strictly work-related research and I did not enjoy the song overly much.

That having been said...I'm going to go out on a limb and ask :"Why in the world don't we dress like that anymore??"

There's no denying that the girls look beautiful in old style dresses like that. I mean, that's half the fun of prom for them is getting to feel like a princess and dress up in something elegant. And hey, I can understand that it's probably not incredibly comfortable. Maybe they prefer function over fashion now. That's fine.

But men, why on earth did we abandon the cravat and wescoat? Is it that much less comfortable than the business suits, ties and white button up shirts we wear now? Are we just too scared to wear a bit of lace around the sleeves or collar? Because that style is undeniably chic.

How cool would it be to walk around and all the men are dressed like they walked out of a Dumas novel, or even Jane Austen? Maybe we'd all even get to wear rapiers on our sides and duel each other for perceived slights on our honor! Okay, maybe that'd be a little much...but a guy can dream, can't he?

Instead somehow we've gone from this:

to this:
And that, dear friends, is one of the greatest tragedies of the modern era.

Come on, men. Let's bring it back! Let's man up and put a little lace on the cuff. Remember Sir Percy Blackeney's immortal words "La! But someone has to strike a pose and bear the weight of well tailored clothes, and that is why the Lord created Man!"

PS: Finding images of the guy's wardrobe from that video online is fairly impossible. Turns out Taylor Swift is the star of that show. So to get a better idea of what I'm talking about, check out the video. After rewatching it I'm wondering why we don't dance like that anymore either? Sure beats 'bumpin' and grindin' at the club as the girls have a good time shaking their hips while various guys compete to rub their crotches on them in a dark, overly crowded room.

P.P.S: I just realized another of the great tragedies of the modern era. Saved by the Bell is no longer on the air five times a day.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sometimes it hits you: You're an old man

As most of you know, I am working as a teacher at a middle school and high school in France. Not to say I'm a straight up official teacher with tests and homework. I'm more like that American they bring in 12 hours a week to speak English with the kids.

Well, on occasion I do cover for the other teachers. One teacher recently asked me to watch her class of...I guess the equivalent would be 5th graders, so she could go see her mother in the hospital. She gave me the movie the "Lion King" and told me to show it to them. Easy enough, right? Its like babysitting...if you were babysitting twenty something kids at once, and one of them threw up halfway through the film. But that's a story for another time...

Anyway as we're watching the film, the kids are constantly asking me to switch it to French or to at least turn on subtitles so they can understand it. No can do, I explain to the rugrats. It doesn't have French dubbing or subtitles. Its a VHS, a cassette tape...looks like it came out about the same time as the movie itself.

Still they persisted. "Turn on the subtitles please! Can you put it in French?" Again I explained that it was impossible because it was not a DVD. "Sure its possible, just go to the 'menu'. It should be under options"

That's when I realized something....

Holy crap, these kids have never had to deal with VHS before. They just assume if I hit 'menu' on the remote control, it will bring up a list of special features and chapter selection. I tried to explain that DVDs can do that but VHS doesn't have that feature...that this was not a DVD at all but a tape...but they just couldn't wrap their heads around it.

I'm teaching an entire generation who has never had to deal with VHS! They've never had to rewind the movies they rented before they returned them to the store! They've never had to blow on the cartridges of their video games to get them to work...They've never made a mix tape for a girl they liked or had to handroll the film on a cassette tape because it got tangled up in the player. They've never seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off. There's never been in a time for them when Saved by the Bell was on five times a day.

They've never had to use an Encyclopedia to write a paper for school. They have no idea what the Dewey Decimal System is. They've never played Oregon Trail or tracked down Carmen Sandiego based on what currency she changed her money into. They don't even HAVE different currencies for half the countries Carmen hangs out in anymore, they're all on the Euro. They've never known a world without email, without cell phones, without instant messaging...

It was a rude awakening...its only a matter of time before I'm yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Strange Presentiment

Today I was struck by a vague sense of loss; an inescapable longing for something that I never knew but may have unwittingly stumbled past. The full impact of its nature is lost on me, my ignorance now acting as a merciful shield against some truth too painful to truly absorb.

Instead there is only a dull sense of remorse, that bitter cocktail of nostalgia and regret. The feeling came about unexpectedly, and will shortly be drowned out in the white noise of living. I do not even have a name for what I am mourning. Or perhaps who?

John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote: For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, "It might have been". Despite what Clarence and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future would have you believe, the cruelest fate is to know what might have been when it can no longer be.