Monday, April 1, 2013

Poisson d'avril

In France, the first of April (April Fool's Day) is called the "April Fish." Bakeries sell fish-shaped brioche and chocolate shops sell fish-shaped chocolate. People play tricks on each other, just like in the United States. The tradition in France comes from the Middle Ages, when Europe was switching over from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Before, the first of the year began in April (or the beginning of spring at least); but with the Gregorian calendar, the year started on January 1; those who were left out of the loop were called "poissons," the fish being considered the stupidest animal conceivable by medieval peasants.

I thought the perfect Poission d'avril joke would be to stay home from school, since none of the students would show up anyway, so no one would miss me. Unfortunately, since it's Easter, everyone's on vacation anyway, so it's a moot point. I have no one to play my trick on!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Salon Nautique

Because La Ciotat is right on the Mediterranean, and since there is normally not much to do here, their annual boat show, or salon nautique was a big draw this weekend. I went with the other assistants, and although I am not much of a boat/ship/sea person, mostly because my life has never occasioned long ocean voyages, I found it interesting. I would have found it more interesting if, for example, I were purchasing a boat, scuba gear or other sea paraphernalia.

There was also an educational pavilion, which had facts on the Mediterranean: historical accounts of sailors, merchants and pirates; animal and plant species particular to the marine ecosystem (you could pet a sting ray!) as well as an environmentally-conscious poster stating how long it takes certain pieces of trash to disintegrate in the ocean. How long? Too damn, long people: stop throwing your trash in the ocean!!!!
A Coke can takes between 300 and 500 years, for example.

There was also a lighthearted presentation/remix of the medieval fair from the fall (because Marseilles is the European Capital of Culture this year, they're doing it again in the summer). The band circled around the pavilion and played us a few songs. It was raining, so the place was pretty packed. Then, there was a sword fight between two rival pirates. I was "kidnapped" by one of them--wrong place, wrong time--but he let me go pretty quickly. I didn't have enough for a decent ransom price. ;)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Brief Moment of Heimweh

I just got home from my little kids class I teach at an association in La Ciotat, and I have a new perspective on life than I did just an hour ago.

I'd like to say it's the little kids that jump-started my brain, but it was actually a couple of winos outside the Lidl in the center of town. It started when I was talking to Christine, my "boss" at the association. We were talking in English about my mom coming to visit (she'll be here April 18) and this bum overheard us. I feel bad even calling him a bum, since I talked to him for over an hour...but was he a...gentleman? A homeless dude? A shelter-disabled individual? Linguistic nuance and political correctness is probably not particularly important to anyone but me.

Anyway, the reason we started talking is because he was German. He asked us, in German, if we were holidaymakers and I responded, "No, we aren't. We live here." He was drunk, I think, or in some sort of stupor that alcoholics get into when they're constantly drinking. His name was Stefan. He was difficult to understand because of that. He thought I was Swiss. I explained I wasn't, but he forgot halfway through our conversation. He had a rolling monologue of mantra, philosophy, confusion. He quoted the Bible. He sang Alpine folk songs. He asked me about myself.

I told him I had lived in Vienna...his friend was from Vienna! His friend--Fritz--came over and quizzed me on Vienna. (I think I passed.) He told me about his life. He was a legionnaire. He was honorably discharged, has a son and did have a girlfriend, but she kicked him out, and now he's homeless. Same with Stefan. They've been living on the streets for 17  and 19 years, respectively.

The rain came down in faint sprinkles and the longer we talked, the worse I felt for them. Other Lidl customers came to give them money or talk to them. Stefan's French is not so good, but Fritz has a good command of the language, albeit in a thick Viennese accent. Fritz told me about how the doctors want to operate on his leg, but he doesn't want any of it. He said it wouldn't do any good. Today, tomorrow, ten years from now, he was going to die anyway. He asked Stefan to pass the wine.

What amazed me most--and why I think I talked to them for so long--was that my German came back to me really fast. The words just rolled off my tongue. If they had been completely sober, I think my non-native German-ness would have been quite obvious. However, it didn't seem like they noticed at all.  It was a profound and bizarre feeling; and, even after living in France for six months, speaking French still feels sometimes like setting my mouth up in a wrestling match against marbles.

Stefan told me I have eyes like Cleopatra. He made a dirty joke. I figured that was my cue to leave, but then he said something profound. "Always think positively," he started. "God is in everything, after all." My horoscope said something today about meeting new people who would greatly impact the way I think. Chalk one up to astrology? Or coincidence.

Then Fritz said living in France, it wasn't like Vienna. The people were stranger, antiquated, bureaucratic and unfriendly. They didn't see the humanity in others--what was all this about the French being so Cartesian, so adept at philosophy and deciphering human nature? Perhaps all that logic made them unfeeling. The mayor of La Ciotat would rather get them off the street to bring in more tourism than to see Fritz and Stefan working, in a home, in rehab. There's no humanity, just dollar signs down here. "And it's useless," he continued, "because La Ciotat is never going to be able to compete with Saint Tropez. He's defeated before he's started, and we're the ones who suffer."

Fritz continued, "Ich habe Heimweh. Du auch?" (I'm homesick, aren't you?) I nodded. It's strange to think, in my own foreign-ness, last year in Austria, I would have described Vienna the same way Fritz described La Ciotat. It's amazing what a change of perspective can do.

Suddenly, there was a row on the street, because someone was double parked, and seeing as this is France, the owner of the double-parked car threw a hissy fit along with his wife, who threw a bigger hissy fit, since being double parked was his fault. Obviously.

I said my goodbyes to Stefan and Fritz, who both replied: "Man trifft sich immer zweimal im Leben."

You always meet twice in life. There's always an opportunity for a second chance.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Computer Problems, or, La télé française computer stopped working. It was bound to happen sooner or later, since the poor thing is nearing five year old--gotta love planned obsolescence, right? *sarcasm*

 Without my little old HP Pavilion, I lost all motivation. Sad but true. And since it was during the winter holidays (February 21), I had ABSOLUTELY NO WAY of getting internet. Thus, poor little bloggy-blog suffered. At least I have my writing saved on a USB. Thank goodness for that!

To fill the void, I stared watching a lot of French TV. I have since discovered that the French have shamelessly imported all of the trashy and disgusting American reality TV programs I would never deign to watch at home. Plus, they've created their own: notably, Les Ch'tis à Las Vegas, which is basically the French Jersey Shore. A group of young people go on (often drunken) adventures in Las Vegas and experience various forms of culture shock--mostly not being able to understand English while being in the United States. I had a hard time watching a full episode, since the "stars" remind me a little too much of my students (especially the poor English skills).

"Ch'ti," for those unfamiliar, is the term for the inhabitants of the region Nord-Pas-de-Calais, near the Franco-Belgian border. The Ch'ti accent is very thick, as many Ch'ti traditionally spoke Picard, a romance language closely related to French, also spoken by the Belgian Walloon population.

Mostly I just watched the news and movies on TV, but I happened upon a show I really liked one night on France 2: Nicolas Le Floch, which is a period police drama based on novels by Jean-François Parot. The story revolves around the marquis and police commissioner Nicolas Le Floch, who works for Louis XV during the Ancien Regime (roughly 1761-1789) and swashbuckles his way into the hearts and minds of the people of Paris, including several lovely ladies. It's so fabulous--an excellent stand-in for Downton Abbey.

Nicolas Le Floch, as portrayed by Jérôme Robart

On the computer front: obviously, it is working again. I had to order a new battery and a new power adapter, which is all I can afford right now--no new computer (I wish!)--and were sent from Hong Kong in a relatively timely manner. Gotta love!

*Crossing fingers my computer problems are resolved*

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Anna Karenina

I started Tolstoy's masterpiece about three months ago, and just finished with it yesterday. I loved it, but it is a bit overwhelming. All of the characters get confusing, until you're about one hundred pages in. I do enjoy a good Russian family drama, though!

My one point of concern is the ending. Neither the "original" ending of Anna's train "misadventure" (don't want to ruin it for those who have not read the book) nor the musings of Levin really did it for me. I would say the ending is Anna Karenina's weakness. It actually makes me feel better about my writing that even a master like Tolstoy had trouble with his endings! And, actually that might be the greatest critique of all, and why his tomes are dangerously large.

Anna is so wonderfully characterized that I can see her, touch her, even smell her perfume as she wafts from room to room. The same with Vronsky, Oblonsky, Levin, Kitty, Dolly and the rest. I felt like I was a part of the family by the time I put the book down, satisfied but still in doubt. I wanted more.

Needless to say, the new film with Keira Knightly was not my cup of tea. I found it horrible and pretentious and should have left the theater when Tom Stoppard's name appeared as the screen writer. It was so self-conscious, and so British that I just couldn't stomach it. I don't even feel the movie deserves its own review, to be honest. Keira is too much of an acting lightweight to do justice to the role of ANNA but at least he costumes were fabulous!

If you really want to see a good screen version of Anna Karenina, I suggest the 1935 one with Greta Garbo. Now there is a femme fatale! Otherwise the 1948 Vivien Leigh version is also good, but a little melodramatic, as is par for the course with Leigh.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Les Femmes du Bus 678

I went to see this film on International Women's Day with my fellow teaching assistants. The film is Egyptian and quite a good one. Maria suggested it, and seeing as she is such a film buff (and our tastes are so similar) I have a hard time ignoring her suggestions!

The film revolves around three women, one who keeps getting harassed on the bus on her way to work, another who was assaulted just outside her home by a man in a car, and a third who was gang raped during protests in Cairo. They all meet randomly and decide to take revenge on the male population of Cairo who has made them feel bad--dirty--worthless--second-class citizens. 

It may or may not matter that the director is a man. It matters somewhat that the film is fictional, not a documentary. It matters a great deal that the story is fresh, that it tackles an insidious problem that  plagues Egypt today. Sexual harassment in Cairo is not only accepted, it is encouraged by the state, by a "boys will be boys" cultural mentality, and most importantly by women who say nothing about it.

The film was laugh out loud funny at some points, melancholy at others and even painful to watch during certain scenes, but I recommend everyone go see it: it will change the way you see Egypt, public transport, and even what looks back at you in the mirror.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

To Catch a Thief

I'm in an Alfred Hitchcock mood. That is, somewhat catty and melodramatic, but also well-composed and ironic.

Someone stole my picnic table two nights ago and played kick ball with a potted plant. I cleaned up the plant and talked to my landlords about the table. Their little son said, with a worried look on his face,"Mais comme il y a des gens méchants!" ("Some people are just not very nice!")

They--possibly the thieves, or some other wise guy in the neighborhood-- also defaced my window shutters with a bad word. I found the permanent marker "F---" so ghastly I took to it last night with nail polish remover. It mostly came off, but there is some residual marker, and I didn't want to scrub too hard and ruin the green paint.

I don't know how things are done in France: if my landlords will chalk it up to a loss and forget it, or if they will press charges. There were a bunch of rowdy young men (that I heard--there could have been women too) outside my flat that night. I was in bed already and assumed they would just go away on their own. Well, they did and took the table with them! They must have been strong, or had a car, or disassembled it, because that was a big-ass wooden table. 

I feel terrible about it, though I know it's not my fault. The gate to my garden is not very secure--about four and a half feet tall with just a bitty lock anyone can reach over and unlock:

The sad thing is, petty crime seems to run rampant around here, in and around Marseilles. I've heard horror stories about three guys in Marseilles (also teaching assistants--from last year) who were in their kitchen on the third floor of an apartment building, when some thugs came in through the front door (with guns) and robbed them; I believe it was mostly computers and electronic equipment they stole. The guys moved out the next week.

But still! If someone stole my computer, I know at the moment I don't have the means to replace it! Then again, who would steal this computer? They'd have to be desperate: it's five years old and needs a new battery.

Then, there was a girl who's another teaching assistant this year who had large amounts of money stolen from her twice. I can't remember the first amount, but it was one of her first days in Marseilles, the money stolen by a pickpocket.. She came with her parents and they thought Marseilles (by reputation) was far too dangerous, so they asked the Academie  to give her a new placement outside the city. She still comes in to Marseilles on the weekends (don't we all, who live in neighboring small towns?) and had 300 Euros in cash on her, which was stolen from her purse at a club.

Needless to say, things could have been much worse, and I am unsettled, but hopefully things will be set straight. At least the thieves did not steal my canvas chairs, which went with the table--they didn't think enough of making a matching set!