Archive for the ‘United States of America’ Category

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.

The “Feet Ball” festival

June 12, 2010

These are the days when South Africa becomes center stage for one full month.  The FIFA soccer world cup offers 64 games.  For those who don’t care for soccer I offer facts and opinions.  Soccer made simple.

There is one white ball, tattoed if you will, so that it does not always look like the same white or black and white boring ball.  That ball is kicked around for ninety minutes by twenty two players.  Only two can use their hands, one in each camp, to stop the ball from entering a very open rectangular “veranda” with a net in the back.  Two goal keepers and two teams.  There are times when after a full ninety minutes no team scores.  Nil nil is the result, which means nothing.  Everyone goes home frustrated.

Any recent convert to the game can’t figure out why there is so much excitement in the playing field.   He will be astounded to see grown ups jumping up and down and do very strange gestures to show their joy when a ball goes pas the goal keeper.  Even coaches and technical staff, with coats and ties will show no restraint in their emotions.

The world cup as exciting as it is, is an anomaly.  Once every four years nations bring back famous and rich players from foreign lands to play under their respective flag for a month or so.   During the four years players are married to clubs but for a month they show national loyalties and create temporary bonds with unfamiliar players.

Nations and their flags vs. the realities of a new world.  Go figure.

Friday night auctions in Pocatello

June 2, 2010

Vague Memories of living in America (VMLA) (I)

The distance between San Francisco and Pocatello, Idaho, is roughly the same as the distance between the Gem State and Africa.  I vaguely remember that when I told friends in the Bay Area we were moving to Idaho, they looked in disbelief and said: “Idaho?”.  And a year later when we were getting ready for another eastward move, our new friends in Pocatello said in similar disbelief: “Africa?”.  There is a perceived center of gravity in today’s world, and it shifts.

With my highest degree in my pocket there were only three job possibilities in the United States open for someone with my qualifications.  A university position in the department of languages in Birmingham, Alabama; in Austin, or was it Sherman, in Texas; and finally in Pocatello, Idaho.  The state university of Idaho was looking for the ideal candidate, a professor of French, Spanish and Russian.  They settled for my French and my Spanish.  It was a very good year.  Vague memories thirty years later revolve around the university’s credit union, our department chairwoman, the kind evaluations of my students, the one or two short films I managed to shoot, and the feeling of isolation.

Pocatello was a slight problem at the beginning.  We were extremely used to fancy shopping centers in the Bay Area back in the early eighty’s, sophisticated coffee house establishments, great boutiques and frequent festivals.  In the early months of my very short tenure in Pocatello, as I set about looking for Bay Area excitement in Idaho, I decided that the grisly bear and the Friday night auctions would become temporary replacements of old attachments.

We came regularly to those auctions for the togetherness and the bidding.   And we needed some of the purchases to fill an empty house.   That particular Friday night we picked up for $8 a great looking brand new slide projector.  Those were my pre-Africa photography days, when I thought my slides were beyond beautiful.  The love of one’s work is a terrible thing!  The downside of the projector was that it did not have a power cord.  So that was the end of our belief in the potential of Pocatello as our very own future home.

After the auction session we went backstage looking around and I found somewhere on the floor the “misplaced” power cord.  That was not the highlight of my week in Pocatello, but it felt heavenly.  We knew then that Pocatello was to be our future. You don’t find power cords just like that.  I knew then that I was meant to become a new Ansel Adams or more appropriately a new Henri Cartier-Bresson.

But by then we knew that we were “destined” to leave for Africa.  The last quiet weeks in middle America, far from the Baltimore, Los Angeles and  San Francisco days, were times of inner celebration of the bounties mid-western towns bestow on strangers.   I felt the spirit of the founders of a nation before things got big and bigger and a bit out of hand. 

A letter from a former university student of mine a few days ago, out of the blue, brought me back in time three long, full and vague decades to the cordless slide projector days in the Pocatello we thought we knew of the good Gem State.

The blue transformer thief

May 23, 2010

Vague Memories of Small Wars (part II)

This story has the feel of a mild nightmare of the pre-golden age. The thief was a civilian gangster under the guise of a militiaman, dressed cowboy style with sunglasses and an AK-47. Those things are noisy, they work and they hurt, and most of the time they actually kill. But the tough guys were not evil, they were just signs of unjust times and world upheaval.

The aging white four-wheel drive, like an agile old man ready to impress any youngster anytime, received an order for flight. The pilot and co-pilots knew their end was near. The only escape route was somewhere out of the city through crowded neighborhoods of frightened families looking at each other for clues. Small change was needed to pay for “coffee” at villages dotting greenish and reddish landscapes on the way to bluish ones.

The jeep was loaded with goods, scared dogs and scared humans. As the jeep continued on the long dirt road, the sudden sound of machine guns broke the silence as a nervous jeep with four militiamen came up on the left and forced an immediate stop.

The militiamen ordered an inspection. They grabbed a radio cassette, and a black poodle. They did not see the larger scared dogs hiding under boxes, suitcases and rugs. After senseless philosophical discussions they threatened to shoot the tires. When peace was finally brokered the leader insisted on taking the heavy blue transformer.

Two hours later the four-wheel vehicle ran into the same tough guys, as they were busy pumping gas out of an innocent truck to fill up their busy vehicle. With great respect the pilot of dogs and humans, begged to retrieve the dark blue transformer in exchange for a bill or two. The man obliged.

A blue transformer may be a material object, worthless to some. But in these days of 110 volts versus 220 volts, owning it and being allowed to put one’s right foot on top of it in days of peace, reminds one that fighters fighting small wars are oftentimes looting time, while survivors perceive blue transformers in times of small wars as great trophies.


May 22, 2010

A traveler’s art of travel (TAT)

The art part of the traveler’s art of travel is a reactive suggestion to the excesses of tour packaging and the careless and fake custom-made welcomes catering to humanity’s search for thrills.  This has to do with the exploitative nature of an escapist system.  With the added aggravation of insecurity along any route, the frequent crashes of airborne transport, and the expense of it all, the idea of leafing through color pages and printed words becomes an attractive escape.

However since the ties and commitments of interdependent peoples, industries and nations is so fragile, any hiccup in the system has repercussions in the safest of sectors.  Think of the economic consequences if people stopped smoking, eating meat, boycotting alcohol.  Or if we all turned to sea travel.  Or if we stayed home for 3 months.  Anything humanity does could and will send to the grave chunks of itself.  Are we then to keep doing and consuming everything and anything to maintain the economy that keeps us alive? Are we to finance nonsense if nonsense it is?

Be that as it may, I truly wish (not a chance I am afraid, so why say all this) I could just travel untrammeled by the pressing need to establish roots.  Unlike famous lifelong hitchhikers I long for moderate physical moves with an underlying spiritual impulse and impact. To move from here to there to discover, to learn, to bond, and in the end to remain free.

To travel at the speed of the turtle, to avoid the air above, to walk when walking is the healthy way.  And when crossing is to be, then short of walking on the water, and next to swimming, will settle for the slowest pirogue.  If not the above, then I’ll settle for the travel of the spirit, awake or asleep, with the mind’s input, right in my own easy chair in the middle of everywhere.

A hell of a ride

May 18, 2010

It was a hell of a ride, windows rolled down, speeding through the desert with eyes riveted on an oasis to the right with camels by the coffeehouse, in a car running on super clean atomic energy with no human on the driver’s seat…

It was a hell of a ride headed for a place called hell, no hotter than the African desert of our youth and anxious to discover at long last the promises and the threats written in verses we used to read in comparative religion classes during weekend seminars when we were young…

We used to make fun of prophets of doom giving us guidelines of good to go and evil to avoid like the plague in order to inherit lands of beauty in wherever space we were expected to be taken for a ride, along dunes and roadblocks in deserts of emptiness……

It was a hell of a ride, long and exhausting, with no one around as we sped through back roads across dunes with no names and turns with no signs expecting at one point to see the place of torture, a prison for eternity, reserved for marked masses…

What a hell of a ride it was when at last we entered through a gate reminiscent of other gates of famous towns, but nothing like these gates of hell with no guards an no protocol, with free seating for as long as it all lasted, with no options to return from whence we came.

The hell of a ride left us begging to return to remember what it was we opted for the hell of a hell of a summer that we were shown in a crystal ball in the company of comrades of courage who never knew any better but ended up where friends insistently predicted and kept telling them before the ride to “go to hell” as a joke with some hatred.

It will be a hell of a ride to remember, and before all hell breaks loose, better to enquire about the detailed architectural designs of the gates that look a little smaller on the other side of the cliff.