Monday, November 24, 2008

Why French takes a lifetime to master

One of the problems of perfecting your knowledge of a foreign language at the grad school level is that you are left with a large and quite impressive vocabulary, but with no real sense of when and how to use it. More and more often I find myself in conversations with my roommates that result in puzzled and amused expressions on their faces, and I know that I've overstepped my linguistic boundaries once again. For instance, the other night Fred was plying me with dinner suggestions. "No," I said, "I'm already envisaging something."

"What did you say?" he asked.

"Er, I already have something in mind."

"No, no, I like that. Envisaging...that's a good word," he said.

It may be a good word, but coming from someone who still sometimes has problems with her direct and indirect object pronouns, it's a bit anachronistic, to say the least. I imagine it's not unlike talking to an especially precocious four year-old, who, when asked what she likes to do, responds, "My pweferred past-time is pwaying wif bwocks." And, like four year-olds, my behavior is unpredictable, so that at any given moment one is never sure whether I am going to bust out another ten-letter grad school vocab word, or if I'll gleefully tell you, "I talked him for a long time. I talked him of many things!" Honestly, both are equally likely.

Later that day Fred and I were unpacking groceries when he mentioned the nylon bag I was using as a grocery bag. "It's nice," he said.

"Yes, it is a nice bag, isn't it?" I said. "I found it in my room when I moved in and I appropriated it."

There was that look again. "What?" he said.

"Nothing," I said. "Um, never mind."

"No," he said, "I like it. I appropriated it..." he mused.

The problem with Fred is that, in his way, he enjoys language as much as I do, and so he will often bend words, re-shape them, or make them up altogether. Which is fine, except that as someone who is still in the process of learning the finer points of the language, I will nod along solemnly until my other roommate turns an ear to the conversation and shouts, "What are you telling her? That's not a word!"

"Yes," Fred will say, "but I really think it's expresses the feeling of what I'm trying to say."

It is only recently that I have caught on to the fact that he has been feeding me incorrect French for the last couple months, but I'm on to him now. "Wait, did you just say plus mieux?" I asked. "More better? Even I know that that's not right." But don't worry, I got my revenge. If you're ever looking for a good time, ask a French person to say, "I want to heat it, then eat it." Because French people, ok, some French people (many French people) have trouble distinguishing between the sounds of the words eat, heat, hit, and it, and so this sentence will come out sounding like "Hi want to heet heet, then heet heet." In a word, hilarious. (I'm already envisaging making my students do this. For educational purposes, of course. Because to do it for my own amusement would just be wrong).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why it's good to have friends (who blog)

I am happy to report that I have converted two of my formerly non-blogging friends (to the "dark side," if you will) through the power of nagging and peer pressure alone. (Come on! Everyone else is doing it...) They finally got their acts together, and I was more than happy to expand my Google reader by two.

The first to jump on the blogging bandwagon was my friend and former guest poster, Molly. She's liberal, she's opinionated, and she doesn't post nearly enough (although I guess working on her thesis is a valid excuse), and her blog is called Reverse Culture Shock. (Ok, and now I just had a crazy laughing fit, because when you read the words "old, banal adage" fast, it looks a lot like "old, anal bandage." And, ha! Also, ew! Can you even...? eh, it's best not to think about it too much. Ha!)

Next, I am very happy to announce my friend Canaan's blogging debut. She loves cocktails, Tom Robbins, and polka dots, and she's a genius waitress (so you better tip well). Her blog is La Ricaine's Cocktail Hour, and did I mention that, like me, she is also a crazy American blogging from France? She only has two posts so far, but I look forward to lots more good stuff to come. I also look forward to some dual-blogging action when I go to visit her in Grenoble for her birthday next weekend (yay!) Check back to hear all about our adventures.

So, I encourage you to check out these smart and talented ladies, add them to your Google readers or whatever you do, and maybe say hello for me.

Cheers, everyone. And happy Friday!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why karma is a bitch

It appears that Emmanuel is not as eager to go on a second date as I had hoped, a fact I picked up on when he stopped returning my e-mails (because I'm perceptive like that), and Gabriel is canceling dates before he's even met me. And I know why. You know why? Karma.

For the last week I have been ignoring Benjamin's e-mails and Aidan's text messages, which technically makes me a terrible person, I realize, or at least I'm beginning to realize, ever since karma started kicking my ass. But how do you tell someone that although he is very nice, normal, and completely inoffensive, you don't feel the pressing need to ever see him again? And on the other hand, how do you tell someone that you think you've given it a fair shot already, and you don't need a fourth opportunity to confirm what you think you already know (aka that he's boring, a bit pretentious, and has an unnatural love for tea?) And so I've been avoiding the situation, hoping that if I ignore it it will go away. So far, it's worked. That is, until karma came in to the picture. It makes perfect sense: two boys that I'm ignoring, swiftly followed by two boys who are ignoring me. What comes around goes around right? Or is that the flu?

It's not that I'm incapable of being straightforward with men. I sent my Norwegian date, Dag, a "thanks, but no" e-mail that prompted him to respond, "Wow, that was the nicest rejection I've ever received!" I don't think there's a sarcastic bone in his body, so I'm pretty sure he meant it. Of course, this is the man who prefaced our date with an e-mail "warning" me that he had gained a bit of weight since his pictures were taken and indicating that if I wanted to be let off the hook, now was the time. I was mildly pissed. I mean, this was a trap, right? There was no way I could cancel the date now, but if he felt the need to warn me in advance, we must be talking a significant amount of weight, right? And to think that all of this could be avoided if everyone posted representative pictures of themselves in the first place. So I went on the date not knowing what I was getting into. Would he ride a scooter? Would he have to wear a muumuu? I met him for sushi, and honestly...he was fine. Like...fine. He was a big man all around, 6'2", broad-shouldered, and, ok, maybe a bit of a belly, but honestly, the only thing that said "fat man" about him was the sheen of sweat on his face when he arrived. (Which was enough of turnoff for me. Because while I can handle fat, I have a hard time dealing with sweat). It quickly became apparent that whatever his physical condition, he probably had some self-esteem issues, and that, along with our failure to "click," prompted me to e-mail my polite refusal of a second date. His response confirmed my theory: "Is it the belly? It's the belly, right? I've gotta work on getting rid of that thing! But the food is just so good here, ha ha..." I responded that he had to give me a little more credit; I'm not that shallow. His response?

"For the record, I myself *am* that shallow. And while I may feel on an intellectual level that such things shouldn't matter so much there is no denying that I have serious doubt whether I'd ever be sexually attracted to a girl as overweight as myself."

Lord help the woman who marries him and bears his child, which, as I hear, requires one to gain a signficant amount of weight for several months at a time. I don't care that you just gave birth, honey, you better get your ass on a treadmill and lose that baby weight, before your husband leaves you for a skinnier woman. I decided his e-mail wasn't worthy of a response, so I didn't tell him that I had dated and actually had sex (gasp!) with men fatter than him. (Ok, so by men I mean man, and by fatter I mean as fat. Also, he was bald. And a cheater and a pathological liar! Man, can I pick 'em. But the point here (ahem), is that no one will ever accuse me of being shallow).

I've clearly had more than my fair share of bad dating luck, leading me to wonder if I wasn't some kind of sadistic uber-bitch in a past life. So the question now is, how do I get my karma back on track? Do I hang around street corners, waiting for little old ladies who need help crossing, or hope that there will be a cat in a tree that needs rescuing? Or do I break down, e-mail Benjamin and Aidan, and tell them that though I had fun, I just don't think we're a match?

Suggestions welcome.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Why picnics on the beach are overrated

As this post perhaps shows, as a matter of course, I do not get asked out by men. I am unfamiliar with the concept of meeting someone at a bar, or a grocery store, or on the street, or wherever it is that people are meeting other real, live, actual people these days. (Hence perhaps my heavy reliance on the internet for this part of my life). Heck, I can even strike up a conversation with a dark-haired stranger who happens to be reading exactly the same book as me on the métro and still not get asked out, which has to take a certain level of skill, in my opinion. Thinking back, there have been other equally unsuccessful real-life encounters that sort of make me wonder if it might be time to consider changing my deodorant brand. Clearly, I am not the kind of woman that men stop traffic or cross subway platforms for, and giving out my phone number or accepting drinks from strangers on a Friday night are concepts as foreign to me as burkas or birkenstocks; they're just not a part of my experience. All of which is to say, of course, that while generally I have no idea what happens when two people's trajectories intersect, there was actually this one time...

I was living in Boston, fresh off a particularly difficult break-up and looking for any excuse to distract myself. And so when I found out that my favorite Parisian food blogger would be in Boston to speak and sign books, I decided to go. By myself, even, because that was the kind of thing the New, Independent Rachel would do. And so I found myself at the French Library on a weeknight in the presence of the lovely Clotilde and dozens of her (mostly retired) admirers. After the lecture and questions, there was wine and some light food items featured in her cookbook. And here came the awkward part, as I found myself with a plate in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, and my signed book tucked under my arm, looking for a place to sit down. I spotted an empty wing back chair next to perhaps the only other person around my age in the room, and approached it. "Is it ok if I sit here?" I asked, not knowing if it was already taken.

"I was saving it for you," he joked, and I turned about a million shades of red. We got to talking, and it turned out his sister lived in Paris and had a passing acquaintance with the author, and so had encouraged him to come to this event. His name was Adam, he worked for a t.v. station, and from what I could see, he seemed cute enough. Everything happened so naturally, from the conversation to leaving and walking to the T together, and I could tell he would ask me out. Though I was a bit disappointed when we stood up to find that he was actually fairly short, who was I to argue with a nice guy who actually wanted to go out with me? So, when he asked me for my number, I gave it to him without hesitation. After all, this is what the New, Independent, More Adventurous Rachel would do.

True to his word, he did call several days later, and proposed an afternoon excursion to the beach. In Boston. I had not been previously aware that there was a beach in Boston, and also expressed my concerns that it may have been a bit early for beach season. "Oh, we won't go swimming," he said. "I'll bring a picnic!" And so I met him one weekday afternoon further down the red line than I had ever been before. I arrived first and waited, and when I finally caught sight of him, I wondered if there hadn't been some mistake. It seemed that quite a transformation had taken place on the formerly business casual, sweater-wearing man that I had met just days before, and I didn't quite know what to make of it. He was significantly shorter than me, even shorter than I remembered, and that was saying something. The fact that we wouldn't be swimming didn't prevent him from wearing swim trunks that prominently featured his pale and hairy legs. He wore a visor over his light-colored hair that turned out in the sunlight to be studded throughout with gray. With his backpack and sensible sandals, he looked as if he might be preparing for a day of waiting in line for Space Mountain. We made forced conversation as we walked from the T station to the "beach," where we spread out our blanket and sat down. He immediately removed his shirt, revealing a pasty expanse of back, and a chest and stomach covered in hair. It wasn't just any hair, mind you, it was rebel hair, and it made its way up his chest to sprout out of his neck and shoulders and other places that hair should never, ever be left to grow. He handed me a bottle of sunscreen and asked if I would mind applying it for him. No one's ever going to accuse me of promoting skin cancer, so I slathered up my hands and did what I had to do, while averting my gaze and focusing on the gulls overhead. He thanked me and stretched out on his belly to bask in the springtime sun. I rolled up my jeans a few inches and hugged my knees awkwardly to my chest. Finally, though, it was time to eat, and I couldn't have been happier, both because it would give us something to do, and because I hadn't eaten lunch in preparation for our picnic. He said that he was a vegetarian, and then he unpacked his cooler, pulling out homemade hummus, bean salad, carrot sticks, and an apple apiece. And...that was it. I tried to conceal my disappointment as my stomach growled in dismay. Not even bread! I thought. Not even pita bread, for the hummus! Even vegetarians can eat bread! I dug into my carrots and beans and imagined what I would have brought if I had been in charge of the picnic. The hummus and beans, sure, but also bread, cheese, and olives. Fresh strawberries and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I scraped up my last bean as my stomach protested angrily. He put down his carrot stick and sighed contentedly, stretching out once again on his towel. "So," he murmured from his reclining position. "Tell me the Rachel [last name] story." And then I was glad that I hadn't eaten more, because I was suddenly overcome with the urge to throw up.

"Um, what?" I said.

"Tell me about you," he said, or rather demanded.

"Er, what do you want to know?" I asked.

The conversation continued just this awkwardly for quite some time, until thankfully, one or the other of us determined it was time to go. I mentioned that I had a headache to avoid the suggestion of any post-beach activities. He said that he had some Advil at his place, which conveniently happened to be right down the street. "No, I should just get home and lie down," I said. He walked me to the T, and by the time we arrived I had worked myself into such a tizzy over whether or not he would try to kiss me (heaven forfend!) that I pretended I heard my train arriving and took off running. "Bye!" I waved, while tapping my pass and slipping through the gates. "Thanks for the picnic!" I called over my shoulder. (I'll admit, it was not my finest moment). Then I went home, took an Advil, and ate a damn sandwich.

If this is meeting someone in real life, I decided, I think I'll stick to the internet. And so far, though the results have not dramatically improved, that's exactly what I've done.

Tell me I'm not alone in this, Internet.
Let's form a virtual support group right here and now, and pass around a hypothetical box of Kleenex and some imaginary (although still delicious) Milano cookies. Tell me, Internet, have you ever had an awkward or particularly painful first date moment? Do share. You'll feel so much better afterwards, I promise. (And if not, you should eat a cookie. I know I will. Works like a charm).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why I will soon be blogging from a cardboard box under Pont Neuf

Well, it had to happen eventually. Weeks of not checking my bank account online because I was too scared of what I might find, weeks of planting my head firmly in the sand, ostrich-like, have finally caught up with me, with the result that for the past nine days I have been spending money I don't actually have. I finally broke down and checked today, and after the initial shock and tight, squeezy feeling in my throat, I chose to look at the bright side. Exactly $0 dollars! I thought. Not overdrawn! What are the odds that I spent my account down to the penny without overdrawing, without even realizing it? Except that, no. Due to my bank's overdraft policy and my accompanying line of credit with them, it seems that every time I made a purchase, my bank ever so generously deposited the exact amount necessary to cover the charges. The result of which is that I have now spent over $400 that is not actually mine to spend.

Now, I am not the kind of person who overdraws her account. I am the type of person who, in an increasingly fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants society, actually balances her checkbook (two years of being a bookkeeper dies hard). I have one credit card, and I pay the balance off every month. So why this oversight, you ask? How could this have happened?

Well, since you asked...

I arrived in France at the end of September and commenced working for French National Education on October 1st. I, along with my language assistant colleagues were informed that it would not be possible to be paid at the end of October for the first month of our service, however, if we turned all our documents in on time, we would be eligible for an "advance" at the beginning of November. This "advance" would not be the full amount for October, but 70% of the amount, and then at the end of November we would receive the following 130%. Here I have to take issue with the term "advance," which typically indicates that monies rendered are given before the normal term of payment, but I guess calling it a "retard" doesn't quite have the same reassuring effect. I have already mentioned my difficulty opening a bank account here, but once I did that, I submitted the information to the secretary at my school, signed the accompanying forms, and breathed a sigh of relief, glad that the responsibility was out of my hands, and sure that my worries were finally over. (Ha! Ha ha!!!! Although, on the plus side, the callous I've developed from banging my head against the wall covers the forehead wrinkles nicely). My first indication that everything was not hunky-dory was when what could reasonably be called "the beginning" of November merged into the middle of November, and no money arrived in my account. After some asking around, it seemed that my colleagues had, in fact, been paid, and so I tracked down a phone number for the Rectorat and called to inquire. I described my situation, and after typing my name into her computer, "No, you have not been paid," the woman informed me.

"Er...yes, I know..." I said. She then went off to look for my dossier, leaving me on hold for an agonizingly long time, during which I could practically hear the ching-ching of centimes going down the drain on my highly expensive French cell phone. She finally returned. "Yes, we do not have it," she informed me brusquely.

Bwahhh? "But it was sent before the vacances," I managed to sputter.

"Perhaps it is in the mail?" she suggested, her tone of voice indicating that she had far more pressing issues to attend to, like filing her nails.

"But that was over three weeks ago," I said.

She shrugged. I couldn't see her, mind you, but I know she did. She apparently couldn't give two shits about my situation, and so I told her I would have the secretary at my school call her. Because while I am quite capable of speaking French under normal circumstances, the combined difficulty of speaking on the phone and being fairly stressed out left me incapable of impressing on this woman the magnitude of situation, as it resulted in me not being paid for the forseeable future. And, as I've learned, the only way to fight a catty French woman is with another catty French woman. So, I'll throw another one in the ring. Let them duke it out, I thought. It seemed to work, although unfortunately it didn't result in any better news for me. "Yes, she says she didn't receive your documents," said the secretary. "But I told her this is ridiculous, since I sent them weeks ago. I sent them the same day you filled them out, you remember?" I did. "I faxed her your documents again but she says she needs an original copy of your bank account information. She says you will not be paid until December."

"December?" I squeaked. "But...that's serious!"

"I know, that is what I told her. She is...not easy. I was very angry with her."

So, to make a long story short (too late), after a very long and out-of-my-way journey to the Rectorat on Wednesday to hand deliver a document that the difficult French woman already had a copy of, I was assured that I would be paid by the end of November. Or maybe the beginning of December. However, it would not be the full amount. It would be an "advance." I had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting "When it's two months late, IT'S. NOT. AN. ADVANCE!!!" But I decided to take what I could get. The end of November was better than January, after all (another date that had been tossed around for a while before I talked her down to November/December). And as for the next two weeks, my dwindling bank account, and the fact that I hadn't received a paycheck since July? Well, I couldn't think about that at the moment. Hence my head in the sand, and my sudden and totally uncharacteristic fiscal irresponsibility. It is unlike me to spend money I don't have, but at this moment I have no other choice. Unfortunately, like all good things, my line of credit too will very soon come to an end, and then...I can't really think about that now. Head in sand, la la la!

In other, less depressing news, I am now marginally closer to becoming a temporarily legal non-citizen of this country, as I had my state-mandated medical appointment at the ANAEM today. I received an x-ray featuring my perfectly healthy lungs (and a prominent curve in my spine, which the doctor was kind enough not to mention, as I sat before him discussing French literature in jeans and a bra). Contrary to what I was told at the préfecture, I did not actually receive my coveted carte de séjour today, however. Instead, I was given a piece of paper and told that I had to take it back to the préfecture in Melun (oh my god, no), and then wait for another convocation to return to the ANAEM to then receive my carte de séjour. Ok, so maybe this is not less depressing news, after all. Although, in my manila envelope, along with my chest x-rays and informational pamphlets on AIDS and the health benefits of regular exercise, the doctor quietly slipped in two condoms, each discretely contained in its own floral cardboard box, like two small, gift-wrapped presents. They're only good until December 2011, so let's hope for the best. Knock on wood, folks. (Although, one might say that lack of wood is sort of the problem here. (Sorry! You know I had to go there)).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I used to think falling off the wagon was a metaphorical expression

If stumbling-down drunks can teach us anything, it's perhaps that you should never, under any circumstances fall down an up escalator. Fall down a down escalator if you must, as eventually your body will land in a sad and crumpled heap at the bottom, but unfortunately this is not the case with an up escalator. Fall down an up escalator and your body will tumble down, yes, only to be carried up again, until you try to right yourself and fall again, eventually achieving the perfect ratio of upward and downward propulsion so that essentially you are tumbling head over heels over and over again, and yet you will remain in exactly the same place. It's a freakish trompe l'oeil that seemingly defies the laws of gravity and will cause mothers to clap their hands over their children's eyes in horror. (Someone did eventually come to the stumbling-down drunk man's aid, helping him up the escalator to, I don't know, pass out on a bench somewhere).

Actually, a better lesson here is that if you are so stumbling-down drunk that you are unable to remain upright under your own volition, maybe you should consider taking the elevator. (I'm just saying).

(Today's post brought to you by your favorite jaded and stone-hearted diarist, who was actually quite traumatized by the ordeal).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why stereotypes are made to be broken. (Or not).

I went on a date with Emmanuel on Saturday night, and we lingered over our three glasses of wine long enough for the table next to us to change over twice. Two out of the three groups of people were Americans. And now I will tell you perhaps a little-known fact about me: no matter how interesting the conversation, and no matter how devilish and distracting are my date's eyes, I find it impossible to concentrate completely on a conversation in French when there is English being spoken in the near vicinity. And while out of my left ear I was listening to Emmanuel's glowing and hilarious description of the classic American film Ricky Bobby, out of my right ear I was hearing this: (spoken loudly and condescendingly, as if to a three year-old, or an imbecile) "CAN I TAKE THIS HOME WITH ME?" I cringed. By home, I assumed she meant her hotel suite, because she was clearly not a native here. In France, if you ask to take your food home with you, you may as well be asking if you might take a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom with you, for later. It is just not done. The waiter (dubbed Gilles, by my date; "He just looks exactly like a Gilles," he said) then replied, in perfect English, "I do not have a doggie bag, but..." and then he retreated to the kitchen and returned with a modestly-sized sheet of aluminum foil. Trying as I was to follow the conversation at my own table, I didn't get a chance to see what it was exactly that the woman was trying to take "home." I could only hope it was a piece of beef, for example, and not mashed potatoes, any kind of loose grains, soup, or a custardy dessert. (Though I wouldn't put it past an American to try. I can't even begin to tell you the kind of leftover food items I've seen my grandmother secret into plastic baggies and deposit in her purse over the years). However, the fact that her cultural gaffe had been kindly accommodated by the restaurant staff seemed to appease this woman not at all. In fact, she commenced to complain loudly to her dinner companion (who I suddenly felt quite sorry for). "Was he being snobby with me?" she demanded. "I think he was being snobby with me!" It was here that I lost track of the the conversation thread and only caught bits here and there, and it sounded like, "I just saw him with...and he had a plate...could easily have helped..." It was at this point that the couple finally left and were replaced by a group of French speakers. I breathed a sigh of relief and tuned out the French conversation to my right to focus on the French conversation going on in front of me.

"So," I said. "What is it you like about Ricky Bobby?"

"Well," he said, "there's a character in it who's French, played by...you know, the guy who played Borat? And so he drives a race car, and while he's driving he's smoking a cigarette, and he's drinking an espresso, and he's reading Camus, all at once. C'est trop bien!" I admitted it sounded pretty funny. "But, you know," he said, "it's funny because it's true."

And so we continued to talk, and we ordered more wine, and at some point the group of completely unremarkable French people next to us left, and were replaced by yet another table of Americans. Four this time. Young. And drunk. Oh boy. As we were talking it became progressively harder and harder to hear each other as the decibel level at the next table continued to rise. We raised our eyebrows at each other, and then we smirked a little, and then we rolled our eyes, just as the French do. "But honestly!" I complained, exasperated, unable to concentrate on my own conversation at all. The conversation next door had risen to screaming level, led by one particularly drunk guy who seemed to have very strong opinions on something, or everything. Possibly the economy. What's more, he had a voice only an American can have, the kind of voice that is distractingly annoying in timbre, pitch, and nasality, the kind of voice, I'm going to say (and no offense to anyone out there), that can probably only come from New Jersey, or perhaps certain burroughs of New York. The kind of voice that, unlike the dulcet tones of French, grates on your ear drums and your nerves until you start searching for a blackboard to scrape your nails across, anything to drown out that sound. "Gah!" I exclaimed to my date, exasperated. "Americans!" He smiled. "And did you hear that woman before," I asked, "asking for a doggie bag?"

"Yes, but she didn't know," he said. "It's like when French people go to restaurants in America and don't leave a tip. It's the same thing."

"Yes," I said. "I suppose so. But at least they don't talk so loud!"

He smiled again. "I was afraid you would be like that," he said.

"What?" I said. "You thought I would talk loudly?"

"Yeah, well, I thought I was going to meet this loud American girl."

"Really?" I exclaimed delightedly. "That's so funny! Wait...I mean, I'm not, am I? Am I talking really loudly now and I just don't know it?"

"No, no," he assured me.

"Well, maybe I thought I was going to meet a guy who smokes cigarettes while drinking coffee and reading Camus."

"Well..." he said.

"Oh, right," I said.

And then, because we were in France, we left the bar and bought a crêpe on the street, and then made our way to another café (empty this time) for one final glass of wine before saying goodnight. Because there are some stereotypes, after all, that are worth keeping.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Why I don't want to get out of bed

What do you do when someone tells you something about yourself, that while possibly true, is so deeply unkind that it takes your breath away? Do you initially curl into a protective ball of dazed confusion, trying to fend off more blows while evaluating the depths of the injury? Is it a mere flesh wound? Do you shake it off, walk it off, put a band-aid on it, go to bed? And then, once in bed, does the righteous anger build, slowly spreading through your body like a fire, the flames licking at your face, your chest, your fingers and toes? Will you survive it, will it leave scars? The morning after when you open your eyes to the faint strip of blue beyond the shades, will you remember? Will it all come screaming back like a bad dream, or will a night spent in sleep act as a balm and lesson the sting?

This is what happens when you open yourself up to someone without extracting promises first. I will tell you this but you have to promise not to hurt me. Please sign on the dotted line. You may think that in the sharing of confidences this is implied, but it is not. If the proper procedure is not followed, everything you say can and will be used against you. It will be your fault. You will say, this is what happened to me. You will say, this is what happens when love falls apart. He will say this: Men do not want a sad woman. And deep down, you are truly unhappy. Men can feel this. I saw it, even before. He will say that he is helping. He will say it is because he cares. He will think that now you will commence to be happy, now that you can see, as he does. He will say that it is a choice, and that there is a switch you can flip. Happy/sad. Sad/happy. On/off, light/dark, flip/flop. But it doesn't work that way. Instead of making you happy, the sadness becomes more profound. It has been verified, authenticated, the words give it weight and make it real. You carry this weight around with you and now you feel naked, unmasked, because it's no longer a secret, and you realize that everyone else can see it, too.

And then it gets worse, though you didn't think that it could, when you come home and he tells your other roommate (when he thinks you can't hear) that he has said things that have hurt you, though he says it without remorse, and then you only catch snippets, but it sounds like ...helpful for me because now I know what I want...what I don't want...I need a woman who's really passionate... And you realize the whole thing hasn't really been about you, at all, but that your life, your hopes, your frustrations, and yes, your sadness, have been appropriated by someone else as an exercise in their own self-discovery.

And what is the response to that?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Why signs are for suckers

I.
I saw Aidan again last night. I know, right? But app
arently the magic words to win back my favor do exist, and those words are David Sedaris.


And so I found myself at the Village Voice Bookshop in Paris last night with front-row seats for his reading. I tried to take surreptitious pictures without a flash, but ended up with a bunch of blurry photos. Let me tell you, that guy does not stop moving.

I feel like I've been waiting my whole life to see David Sedaris live and in pe
rson (though it may be more like seven years), and while he regularly packs theaters in the U.S. for high-paying audiences (I mean, he performed in Carnegie Hall, for heaven's sake), I feel so lucky I was able to see him for free, and in such an intimate venue, right here in Paris. Though it was perhaps not entirely free; in honor of the event I bought a new camera, with all the money I don't have, after my old one stopped working just in time for me to not take my first vacation photo last week. I also bought a copy of his newest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, to have him sign. He came an hour early just to sign books, and as he slowly, agonizingly made his way over to my side of the room (as everyone was too scared of losing their hard-won seats to go to him), I tried to think of something remotely witty or entertaining to say to him. For 18€, I wanted to have my "moment," after all. Of course when the time came it was all I could do to squeak out my name. But he, being an understanding sort, and likely accustomed to helping out with this sort of "manufactured moment," piped up.

"So, Rachel," he said, "I'm sure that you're a Gemini. Tell me you're a Gemini."

"Uh," I said. I turned to Aidan for help. "How did he know?" I tittered nervously and unconvincingly. How could I tell David Sedaris, the David Sedaris, that he was wrong? How could I ruin David Sedaris's credibility in front of dozens of people? Or maybe that was the thing? Was he trying to be funny? In any case, I didn't get it.

"Aw, she's just humoring me," he said to his attentive audience.


"Yeah," I admitted.

"Well," he said, "in that case, I'm sure you like turtles."

"Um, yes!" I said. "Of course!" (Sycophant!)

And when he handed me back my book, it looked like this:

I thanked him, and sneaked a quick peek at my neighbor's book. He had signed his full name in hers, whereas he only signed his initials in mine. But then again, I did have the turtle. There was that.

Then he read, not from his book, but from an article he had written for the New Yorker, a piece he had written for submission to This American Life (and which was ultimately rejected, because, as he said, it has to be read out loud for it to make sense), and select entries from his diary. It was everything I hoped it would be. My life's dream fulfilled, afterward Aidan and I fought our way against the current of people like salmon swimming upstream (although, wouldn't it be like swimming downstream, if you're swimming against all the other salmon?), until we reached the refreshingly chilled outside air. Once again it was that magic hour, 7:45 p.m., and there were rumblings in my tummy. "So..." Aidan began, "what do you want to do?" And before I had a chance to reply he said, "I actually don't have any money on me, so I can't go out anywhere, but if you want, we can go back to my place and have tea." Tea again. Has this line actually worked for him in the past? And again, before I could answer, he asked, "So, do you work tomorrow?"
I wanted to say yes, because it seemed like he was providing me with an out, but I'm a terrible liar, so I said no. Instead what I said was this: "Actually, I don't have any food in the house, so I should really get back before the grocery store closes." Which, as an excuse, is infinitely more lame than simply, "No, sorry, I have to work tomorrow," but had the benefit of being at least partially true; I didn't have any food in the house, and I was hungry, but it was already too late to go to the grocery store, so on the truth-lie spectrum it fell right about the middle. The important thing is that I was able to half-lie convincingly, and so after a quick peck on the lips I made my exit.

II.
I jumped on a subway train and settled in for the ride to the Gare du Nord where I would take my next train home. I wavered between which book to read, but as I had already read (or at least listened to, on audiobook) David Sedaris's new book, I pulled out the book I had brought with me, Windows on the World by Fréderic Beigbeder. A fictional minute by minute account of one man's experience on September 11, it's not exactly light reading, but though the title would indicate otherwise, it is written in French, intertwined with the odd English phrase here and there:
"it's none of your business," "she's hot," "oh my God." Every chapter starts with the time. I was on 8h40. For some reason, something made me look to my right. There was a man sitting next to me, also reading. The top of his page read 10h02. That's strange, I thought. Unlikely, but... I took a closer look. The first sentence started out, Les pirates de l'air vivaient confortablement dans les petites stations balnéaires de Floride... I flipped to 10h02 in my book: Les pirates de l'air vivaient confortablement dans les petites stations balnéaires de Floride...

No way. What else could I do? I tapped him on the arm, causing him to remove one ear bud, and said, "Excuse me, but I think we're reading the same book."

"Mais non," he replied, with typical French skepticism.

"Mais si!" I said, presenting my book for his inspection.

"But that's incroyable!" he said.

"Yes, it's vraiment bizarre!"

We stared at each other in genuine amazement and befuddlement for a few seconds. "So, how do you like it?" he finally said.

"Oh, I like it," I said. "I just started, but I like it."

"Yes, this author," he said, "I haven't read anything else by him, but he's...and well," he flipped to another page, listing the author's other works, and pointed to one, "this one's supposed to be really good too."

"Yes, I like it because the language is fairly easy, it's good for me."

"Yes, how he mixes English with French..."

"Exactly! I love that."

"So, what do you do?" he asked.

"I'm an English assistant," I said.

"Oh, I'm taking English classes, for my job," he said. "It's good because we have lots of teachers from different places with all different accents: Indian, British, American..."

"Which accent is your favorite?" I asked him, shamelessly angling for a compliment.

"Irish is easiest to understand," he said, and I realized I had never actually told him I was American.

"That's funny," I said, "because sometimes we have a lot of trouble understanding Irish people, when their accents are really strong."

"And you're from...?"

"The U.S.," I said.

"And what do you do?" he asked.

"Er, I'm an English assistant?" I said.

"Yes, but, what does that involve?"

"Oh," I said. "Well, I'm in a high school and a middle school, and I'm basically there to provide authenticity, I guess. I'm not supposed to teach, exactly, just try to get them to talk and use what they know. I just play games with them, really."

It was about this time that I realized that I was enjoying myself more than I ever had enjoyed myself in a Métro car, that I could get used to looking at this face that was inches from my own, that I wanted this conversation to go on and on, and also that my stop was rapidly approaching. I started gathering my things. "The next one's me," I mentioned.

"Oh, where are we?" he asked. "Ah, Gare du Nord. I'm Porte de Clichy," he said. And halfway between one stop and the next, I realized, and perhaps he did too, that it was now too late. Even if that awkward question was broached, there would be no time for scrambling for cell phones, for grasping for pens and scraps of paper that are never to be found when they are needed. The futility of the situation hit me as the seconds ticked down and the train inched to a stop.

"Well," I said, "it was very nice to meet you, and so strange, as well, and, well..."

"Yes!" he said. "It was so nice talking to you, and..."

"Well, good night," I said, and we shared one last look, still that half-dazed look of wonder and bewilderment, as if we still weren't sure exactly what had just happened. "Good night," he said, but his sentence was still unfinished, even as I left the train, the weight of everything unsaid hanging in the air between us as I walked away. I made my way to my next train through crowds of people, but there were no footsteps behind me, and suddenly I felt my body become unbearably heavy, crushed by missed opportunity and bitter, bitter disappointment. I dragged my feet as my mind cried out: This was not supposed to happen this way!!! I have seen the movies, and it doesn't end like this!!! And I know what you're thinking, because I have been thinking it myself: I should have given him my phone number, I should have pretended my stop was elsewhere, I should have asked him if he wanted to get together to discuss the book over a coffee after we had both finished. But ultimately, I know that I did everything I could. Even just initiating a conversation with him in the first place was a huge undertaking for me. My face flushed immediately red and likely stayed that way for the duration of our conversation, my tongue tripped over words and I lapsed immediately into my very worst, most American accent. And then I smiled, and I looked him in the eye, and I blushed some more. I did everything I could, and it still wasn't enough. And yes, he very well might have gone home to his girlfriend, but the truth is, I will never know.

And now I am sick to death of signs: if a bird shitting on your head on a first date, or finally meeting someone you were supposed to meet in Boston on the other side of the world, or reading exactly the same book as the person next to you on the Métro aren't signs, then nothing is. After a lifetime of never having a meet-cute story, I suddenly am finding myself with enough meet-cute stories to fill a book, or at least a novella. But what I quickly realized about the meet-cute story is that the meeting is not actually the most important part. If the meet-cute is the icing, the cake is everything that comes after. And without that, without the after, all you have is a gloppy bowl of icing, and it's sweet enough to make you vomit. If there is a god, I've decided, he has a twisted sense of humor. It's like presenting a five-course meal to a starving person, and then yanking it away again at the very last second. But for some reason, instead of learning, the starving person falls for it every single time, thinking, maybe this time it's for real...

III.
And so I came home, made dinner, and drank the remaining inch and a half of wine remaining in the bottle from our Obama celebration the other night. Then my roommate (who shall hereafter be known as Fred, because The Mediterranean is a silly nickname) came home, and upon hearing of my "depression," offered to go out to buy another bottle of wine, which he very kindly did. And we stayed up until 2:30 in the morning drinking and talking, and for some reason I ended up letting him read my blog, because he had already seen me typing on it, and he had already remarked upon the title, Diary of Why. ("I find it perfect," he said). The only thing stopping him from reading it anyway was my go-ahead, because he is an honorable sort, and said he wouldn't unless I said it was ok. And so, due in no small part to the half a bottle of wine I had consumed, I'm sure, I figured I might as well get it over with. "Ok," I said, "you can read it."

"What's...olive-complexioned?" he asked. "What's...twinkly-eyed?" Oh lord. Kill me now. And so, if my posts from now on are light on mentions of the general chaotic disorder of the household, or of the relative twinkliness of my roommate's eyes, well, that's why. And though I hate to censor myself, for a place to live near Paris and (their tendency to leave dirty dishes in the sink aside) the two best roommates anyone could ask for, well, it's worth it. I may have a bowl of frosting with no cake, but as long as I have wine, and roommates to come home to who tease me about my search for "signs" and laugh at my inadvertent grammatical errors, I think everything will be ok, after all.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why the French don't worry about credit card fraud

I dropped my friend Canaan off at the gare bright and early this morning after a weekend of gabbing, eating, museum-hopping, online t.v.-watching, and beer-, wine-, and cider-drinking (and smuggling the empties out to the recycle bin, after). Since I was already there, and since I still have three more days of vacation left (I have already been off a week, and seriously, is this vacation never-ending or what?), and since I had no train to catch and nothing on my agenda, I decided it would be an ideal time to recharge my monthly Navigo pass for November. Since the machines only accept coins or French bank cards with a computer chip, and as I had only an American card (and paying 58€ in change seemed a little outside the realm of possibility), I joined the queue in front of the ticket agent's window. A dozen impatient commuters shifted impatiently and huffed and puffed and murmured "putain" under their collective breath when they felt someone had surpassed their allotment of window time with too many questions or too complicated a transaction. But as I had nowhere to go, and nothing more pressing on my schedule for the day than perhaps seeking out a membership at the local library, I waited patiently in line. A new employee arrived and waved anyone recharging a Navigo pass over to the next window, and so I jumped in that line instead, and soon I was able to state my request through the plate glass and place my (American) card in the sliding tray. "Oh no," she said, with something approaching disdain, "I can't take this kind of card."

"But," I said, "I just came from that line, and..." I looked over helplessly at the other window and the line that had grown even longer in the meantime. Shit. I guess I should have stayed in the other line after all. But instead of sending me packing, she hesitated, and I knew I had her. Because, though many French people believe otherwise, a card with a magnetic strip functions equally well as a card with a computer chip, as most credit card machines here have the ability to accept both. I mustered my assertiveness and told her, "Madame, if I had a card with a puce I would be able to use that machine over there." Implying, or so I hoped, that using the machine would be far preferable to dealing with the likes of her, and so if I was at the window presenting my puce-less American card, it was because I had no other choice. She took my card gingerly, and held it up to the machine.

"Like this?" she asked, miming a swiping motion. Since I am always happy to advise the French on how to perform their jobs, I nodded. And lo and behold, it worked, which of course surprised me not at all, but which is always regarded as a minor miracle of sorts by the French, who are accustomed to inserting their card in the machine and entering a pin code. She handed me my receipt to sign as if I was dealing in cowrie shells. Signing receipts is so primitive, she was probably thinking.

It reminded me of a similar experience I had had at a tabac as I was attempting to purchase a phone card. After initially expressing skepticism as to the likelihood of my foreign bank card actually working, and after I had once again instructed him as to the proper swiping motion, "Eh voilà!" he exclaimed in surprise and amazement. You would have thought it was the Virgin Mary on toast. "You should be careful with that," he warned as I signed the receipt. "Comme ça, anyone could use it." I thanked him and walked away, a bit bewildered and unable to come up with a response. No, really, it's ok? Where I come from everyone does it? But for some reason these arguments didn't seem convincing enough to me. I tried to conceive of Americans as this French tabac-owner saw us: naive, trusting lambs but one mugging or misplaced wallet away from losing everything. And then I thought of the alternative: a country where you can buy a Coke from a machine with a 5
€ bill, but apparently you're supposed to pay for your 58€ train pass in coins. I realized then that my mentality will never be truly French, or truly American, but somewhere between the two. And though I may have French tastes and sensibilities, my accent and my magnetic stripe clearly label me as American. And so I will continue on my way, one foot in America and one in France, forever straddling this cultural divide.