Archive for the ‘France’ Category


September 5, 2010

It is an impossible task to compare French cathedrals.  It is even harder to describe a cathedral.   These days it is a rather simple click that will bring Chartres alive on any screen. Since all I have are words I’ll speak my peace so that my readers/commentators can drop their keyboards and run to spend a couple of nights in the town of Chartres.

These are not religious times, so upon entering this gigantic House of Worship, one is struck by the great number of visitors/tourists with cameras trying to capture every square inch of God’s House.  Difficult to comprehend the beauty of the structure and the colorful compositions of the hundred or so stained glass windows.

On that day, after the six o’clock mass, the public was invited to stay for a musical program presented by a visiting German church choir. The voices were not Chartres caliber and it was a surprise to me that two choir members rushed to the entrance hoping to receive donations.  We gave indeed, but that very second I had to deal with the sad contradictions and juxtapositions of faith and unbelief, the past and the present, Chartres of centuries ago, and Chartres as it is perceived and visited today.  The money thing.

The beauty of that Cathedral!  If you go take the cute and tiny tourist train that takes visitors for half an hour around the lower part of the town by the river, you will want to move and live there.  This summer most monuments were bathed in “son et lumière”  (sound and light) shows to bring back history.  All over this gorgeously clean and holy city (I felt I was in a different country) at every street corner, a light show on gigantic monuments acting as screens for the evening.

The majestic cathedral sits there and everything, river, streets, shops and houses seem to be protected by its sheltering beauty. I shouldn’t say this, but it is more impressive than Notre Dame de Paris, which is of course a beauty of a similar nature.


“Je vous en prie”

July 21, 2010

Fear not, this is not the beginning of a French 101 dialog.  This morning on our hotel’s sidewalk, to the right, we went for coffee and a croissant.  I skipped the croissant and the coffee and chose tea and a tartine.  The tartine is of course bread and butter, and since I try to avoid sugar like the plague, I told that to the waitress (no jam svp), the only employee working in that not so French-looking café.

The late breakfast started on the wrong foot.  The waitress/server was all alone, preparing the food, serving and selling the pastries and breads to visiting customers.  And we are speaking of a chic neighborhood!  My wife received her coffee, but it was so little in a large cup, we asked for some hot water.  The croissant didn’t show for a long while.  My sliced baguette came with butter and jam.  Sorry I said, I don’t need the jam, as I had mentioned when ordering.  The butter was melted in the golden wrapping.  “Miss” I said in French, the butter is melted, may I have cold and firm butter.  She said in French: “If it is melted it is easier to spread!”.

Finally the tea arrived! Barely enough water for a cup of tea.  I said nothing, as the server managed to find firm butter from the kitchen underground.  All of a sudden the server comes with hot water and says something to the effect that she remembered giving me insufficient hot water, so she was making up for that inadvertence.   I had asked for nothing and was surprised that she thought of me.

As I was processing this last move from the server I hear a loud “Je vous en prie!” addressed to me (she was looking at me, as she was leaving the table and going for some reason towards the front door).  The “Je vous en prie!” would have made sense if I had thanked her for the water with a “merci”.  But I was chewing and processing the event so I had not said the expected “merci”.  So I took her “Je vous en prie” as a sarcastic way of telling me, “guy, you could have thanked me for thinking of the extra water!”. 

I was surprised and felt insulted to be “corrected”, for not having said “merci” in the first place.  On her way back I mentioned that I was offended by the way she spoke to me.  I could barely speak.  She was surprised and asked for an explanation.  “Expliquez-vous” she said (she added “what did I say that was desobligeant?”, desobligeant meaning impolite if you will, ungracious or cutting), and I figured if she doesn’t remember what went on, I am not about to describe the incident from scratch.

And I left it at that.

Paris and Rennes revisited

July 21, 2010

It has been so long I am at a loss for words as I face a white screen.  What may I add to what I have said and the world has said about Paris and Rennes? Almost nothing.

Into that nothing one may dig and discover a touch of disappointment.  This blogger is beginning to see in what he sees the ugly side of things, to the point of saying things like “To enjoy being in Paris, stay indoors and read a book, and remember Paris”, or “Buy a bagette and a piece of cheese and eat in your hotel room”, or “Shut your window to avoid hearing the nasty honks of chic cars”, or “You should write down the words and describe the attitudes of some of the sales people, and run indoors to avoid being totally depressed”.

In Paris, in July, it is fun to walk here and there: all you hear are  languages other than French.  So Paris and Rennes revisited is about nostalgic moments.  It is getting tiring to revisit and yet there is something ethereal and enjoyable about climbing into a taxi, buying metro tickets, avoiding some cafés, and choosing to stay indoors and let the masses of humanity walk all over those blessed sidewalks in search of the stone beauty that is certainly here.

Soccer emotions and gestures

July 4, 2010

As we near the end of the month-long world soccer cup held in 2010 in South Africa, here are one man’s observations on soccer emotions, gestures and lessons learned.

1/ National teams are very artificial constructions linked to flags, politics and national pride.

2/ FIFA the ruling  body is tough in its dictates, not flexible in the least, wrong on Ghana’s goal, and financially powerful.

3/  Officials, fans and spectators behave funny and look childish when happy, jumping up and down when a score is announced, and doing dances and rolls and every gymnastic trick in the book to express the joy felt.

4/ Tens of millions of us are glued to TV screens, large and small, in individual homes or in public spaces to follow 22 players running after a ball for ninety minutes, even when nothing much happens, except a lot of running and a great deal of kicking.

5/ Victories are meaningless because to judge a victory by a ball entering into a goal is not very convincing, and does not reflect the strength of a team, even those artificially constructed with “star” players.

6/ The only satisfying proof of a team’s superiority is a clear and present score, such as 4-0 or 7-0 or such impressive numbers.  Anything like 2-1, 1-0 means so little that one wonders about wasted time looking at adults running after a soccer ball.

3 pneus

June 21, 2010

Three gigantic tires (“pneus”) were seen a week ago by the narrator, stacked like 3 fat bagels in the middle of a road intersection in Paka 120, a large popular and sandy neighborhood of Pointe-Noire.   Those three stacked truck tires have been in the same spot for the past fifteen years, as a marker or a monument that didn’t cost a dime to taxpayers.  It is a convenient reminder to cars and pedestrians that around here you can create symbols with next to nothing.

Last week friends were meeting in that part of town, and to describe the house, we were told to find it at the “rond-point 3 pneus” (round about or traffic circle).  And during the dry season (our winter) since no rain wets the sandy roads, driving in that area is a bit rough and slow.

The perception of those tires, a black monument in the middle of the road, depends on the identity of the beholder.  To the neighbors they are just there, untouched over the years.  For tourists, visitors or those of us who live here and tend to travel from time to time to Europe, we look at the stack with a smile.  Those “bagels” bring to mind other well-known monuments sitting in famous traffic circles in other corners of the earth, imposing structures with a similar function, but not as down to earth.

Urban landscaping, which is in full sing in the capital, will one day surely find an appropriate replacement for those tired tires.

They shall be missed.

Big Upsets

June 20, 2010

For soccer aficionados and for the the not so aficionados the big news is that the World Cup in South Africa is not just a noisy affair with the much celebrated plastic vuvuzelas but an exciting series of games between nations in which some of the major countries have lost in a surprising way.  Lost games not the real thing.

Spain lost to Switzerland, and France to Mexico.  Just two examples.  The Serbia-Germany confrontation being played as these words are written shows Germany loosing to Serbia.  The outcome of this match will be noted in the last paragraph.  I write as they play.

Last night I started writing into the France Mexico game at the 74 minutes 13 seconds mark.  At that point Mexico was leading one to nil.  I was following this game trying to cheer for France, but France looked doomed.  Mexico’s team looked full of motivation. The English-speaking commentator reminded his audience that France qualified for this World Cup ingloriously because a French player scored with his hand!

There must be some sort of justice through chastisement.  Something to do with the arrogance of some, or their lack of humility.  There is always something psychological that pops up when dealing with sports.  The commentator added that whereas Mexico played like a team, France was just a bunch of very talented individuals playing.

The French coach looked impassive and a bit lost in one corner,  analyzing the action with the eye of an eagle.  He sent Valbuena to replace Govu.  Nothing changed. The Mexican fans looked happy and excited by the minute, understandably.

Frustration mounted.  At 77 minutes a penalty was given to Mexico, because a defender tripped an attacker!  A 37-year Mexican attacker, the second highest scorer of all time in Mexico who had just come in to inject experience and strength, kicked the penalty and the score became to 2 nil.

And everyone was waiting for a miracle to save France.  Last night no miracles were forthcoming. The Mexicans were opening champagne bottles before the end of the game.

And back to the German Serbia game: the Germans received a red card, so they had to play with only 10 players.  That also happened to Nigeria and caused their downfall.  As we move from game to game, nationalisms are confronting each other, as if the soccer field mirrored the political and economic arena, and the Big Upsets in green fields stood as a symbol of what could occur in the real world…

Germany did loose! And now…as I write these notes while watching the Slovenia USA game at the 42 min 12 sec Slovenia leads against the USA 2 to nil!!  That was not supposed to happen.  Within the hour we will know if another Big Upset was in the making!

Well, the news is that the game is over and the USA came from nil to 2 and there was no Big Upset this time.  The two million inhabitants of Slovenia settled for a 2-2 score.

Shall we listen to the vuvuzelas?

June 17, 2010

The contrast is striking.  Yellow balls have flown for two weeks in Roland Garros in a semi hush and will fly for another two weeks in Wimbledon in a respectable silence, but in between these tournaments and during four long weeks in South Africa thousands of spectators have the absolute right to sound the plastic vuvuzela horns made in somewhere to stir feelings and create a noisy ambiance in stadiums across the land.

There are complaints; players have a tough time hearing each other and their technical staff, hearing the referee’s whistle, and spectators fear for their eardrums, and those at home prefer to lower the volume on their screens and wait for a goal to up the volume.

It is indeed an annoying non-stop noise nuisance emanating from a mass of fans cheering for the two teams for over 90 minutes.  Those noise producers must be having the time of their lives, and the only redeeming value of those unpleasant decibels coming from all those improvised musicians is that they are not getting into trouble or causing havoc so long as they are playing those plastic horns.

The omnipresent insistent celebratory insane vuvuzela sound reminds me of the annoying buzzing singing sound of ten billion mad mosquitoes that won’t quit even when you are safely hiding under a brand new mosquito net.  So for the duration of sixty four international soccer games everyone has to put up with thousands of colorful vuvuzelas that are likely to turn off millions from the artistic feats of a few soccer players.

“Are you in the real estate business?”

June 14, 2010

Driving on French toll freeways is not as pleasant as driving in toll-free national and regional highways or even village roads.  When you have the added pressure of seeing radars ready to photograph your license plate when you go beyond the speed limit you long for the days when you could enjoy the scenery by hitchhiking or by train.

On one of our return trips from Bretagne, as we were headed for the Auvergne region in the heart of France, we suddenly left the A28 toll freeway to have some lunch.  The inspiration to leave the freeway came from a sign indicating some sort of château worth seeing.  It is always a mistake to stop for lunch past 2 pm because with the exception of imported fast food restaurants of renown, almost no one serves lunch past the sacred and official lunchtime.

It took us more than twenty minutes to reach the château town, but the château was being cleaned or renovated and there was nothing to see and do at that time.  And no one was open for lunch.  But as we were going back to the freeway I remembered seeing, on the way in, a corner café snack bar at the intersection of two roads.   I had seen it coming because when I saw it I could have taken the road to its right or the one to its left, and that snack bar stood in that angle, a very appealing white structure.  It was time to stop and ask for lunch and by the same token, I told myself, a snapshot was calling to be taken.

Once inside the dark café I asked the owner/bartender if he was serving lunch, and he looked at me, then at the lonely man by the counter across him, and at the wall clock, before saying something in French which would be the equivalent of « Can’t you see that it is almost three and by that time you can go anywhere in this country you won’t find a soul willing to fry you an egg, so thank you for coming and good bye monsieur and I don’t really care if I ever see you again.»

On the way out I chose a spot from which I could snap the historic shot, to keep it in my memory bank.  The name of the snack bar had changed from « Au bon coin » to « Le bon coin », roughly meaning the « right corner » or the « good corner ».  Indeed it was a fitting name, the good angle and the right angle in that imaginary triangle, in an isolated corner of the county.

I went back to the rented car and as I was about to start the French engine, a police car with two very tall and serious « gendarmes » parked to my immediate left, almost blocking the car.   They basically came from nowhere.  I was so puzzled that I stepped outside to see what I had done in a car that had not moved an inch for over ten fifteen minutes.  It is at that moment that one of the « gendarmes », came around his unmarked car and asked me with a straight face: « Etes-vous dans l’immobilier ? » (« Are you in real estate? »).  Frankly I had no idea what he meant, and within seconds he mentioned the fact that I had just taken a picture of the snack bar.  Oh my God! I thought.  Did they see me take a picture, or did the snack bar owner phoned to complain about my asking for lunch at a suspicious time and THEN take a picture once outside.

I said that I was American and that I was fascinated by French towns, buildings, streets, trees, and I may have mentioned that my wife was French, and that I had spent my life reading French literature till my head went dizzy,  and that I was not in the real estate business.  That was all they needed to hear before they left as fast as I they had arrived.

So much for lunch at 3 pm in quaint French towns.

Le Bac technique

June 13, 2010

In France and French-speaking Africa you can’t get a high-school diploma, nor can you be admitted to a university, without passing the Baccalauréat Examination.  Our high schools offer a general curriculum with either a math, science or literature emphasis on the one hand, or a technical baccalauréat which means a business examination with an emphasis on economics, accounting or marketing, called here “techniques commerciales”.  These technical fields are referred to as G2, G3 or BG.

Our school was requisitioned by the Ministry of Education to be used as one of the official sites for the technical examination in our city.  Five hundred pupils from all over were given seats in one of seventeen classrooms.  A whole week of examinations, Monday through Saturday with Thursday off, being a holiday.

Imagine five hundred students, mostly young girls coming every day around seven or earlier ready for a series of examinations that allow you to enroll in a university, and above all to leave for Europe, or other African countries. 

One of the candidates was pregnant and could barely walk.  But she did come intent on not missing this once in a year examination.   She managed the first day, the following day I am told she was hospitalized, gave birth and within 24 hours walked to school to continue taking her exams!  The jury was surprised and amazed by her courage and decided to have her take the remaining exams at the hospital.  The results will be posted in July.

Don’t say “Habeebee”

June 13, 2010

I am not sure I look at things the way most fellow humans look at things.  For instance, although I think I am prejudice-free, with multiple roots and multiples dwellings over the years, born there, lived over there and  moved to somewhere in-between, before going way over there and returning time and again to the middle of over here, and before settling in the middle of  another here, I still put tags on people.  It may be just pure curiosity.  The fellow may be French, but by speech patterns at least, I’ll say he is from the north of this place, or from the southern part of that place.  Can we speak of prejudice when the human tendency is to ask, “Where are you from?”

That evening, in front of our favorite French hotel, the sidewalk was blocked by a tall and muscular young man identified by the author as coming from the northern part of another continent I knew well.  For reasons to be determined I said to myself this young man knows one form or another of the Arabic tongue I used to speak with my father as I was growing up.

So when the young man, helmet and all, occupying a good chunk of the sidewalk would not move, thus blocking passage (I understood that the conversation he was carrying made it impossible to hear our repeated requests to move out of our way), I decided then more or less gently to tap on his motorcycle to get his attention.  He turned around and was so furious that he managed to get off his bike and became violent and almost hit me. “Why did you touch my bike?” and other similar comments ensued.

I thought it would be smart to calm him down with the word “habeebee”, meaning in Arabic “my dear”, as a way to show him I was not trying to attack him but simply that I was seeking passage.  “Habeebee” compounded the problem and I had to go inside the hotel to seek advice and decide whether the police should be called  to calm the intruding motorcycle from a pedestrian sidewalk. 

By the time I returned to the outdoor scene where I had left my wife and my daughter with a couple of workers trying to resolve the incident, the young man had decided to leave.  Three times his age it dawned on me that any youngster if insulted by my having “touched” his bike could easily have beaten me, “habeebee” or not “habeebee”.  The Arabic term of endearment did not go well either because he was insulted by my touching or tapping on his bike frame, or because I took the liberty to speak a language he may have forgotten or he may have not understood, or that he may have not accepted to use with someone unknown to him.

If there is another lesson here is that it is probably wise not to seek exchanges or involvements in public spaces at any time, anywhere, any place to avoid unexpected reactions from unknown and unpredictable fellow human beings who could care less about intentions and language use.