Friday, February 27, 2009

Why I already miss Spain

Well, you know what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words and all that, so without further ado, here it is, Spain in pictures:

Churches and other stuff

Mosaics and markets

He's watching you

Could someone please tell me what the hell is going on here?

Don't drink that tea

Street musicians

Shadow puppets

I like to do muppet impressions when I'm working out at the beach

Eating a delicious dish of Velveeta-covered tofu, swimming in a pool of chocolate. (Just kidding. It was ice cream, and it was delicious).

And this is what I look like with my mouth closed. So, smirky is apprently what I look like with my mouth closed.

Seven days, gone in a flash. Adios, Spain. I'll miss you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why sometimes I wish I didn't speak English

I managed to make it through most of my trip to Spain free of harassment of any kind, however, Sunday night there must have been a flashing beacon over my head, saying "Female Tourist Traveling Alone Here, Please Approach!" I left the hostel that evening in search of a small, guidebook recommended kebab joint where I wouldn't have to spend a lot of money on dinner, and where I hoped to eat in relative peace and quiet while avoiding that ubiquitous question, "Sola?" I meandered down the quaint and narrow streets of Barcelona, losing myself on purpose; I wasn't in a hurry, after all. After discovering squares and churches I hadn't seen before, I set myself on my way again, as I hoped to maybe take in a movie after dinner. Walking down yet another adorable pedestrian street, a man stepped out in front of me. "Hola," he said. "Speak English?" I studiously ignored him and kept walking, as he called something out ahead of him, and suddenly his friend stepped out of the shadows directly into my path. "Speak English?" he said. I didn't answer, not wanting to confirm his response, and while I tried not to look at him, a brief glance showed that his eyes were creepily blank and empty, void of any emotion. "Tall woman," he said while walking along beside me. "Hey, tall wo-maaaaan." I had now reached the kebab shop I had been looking for, I saw, but rather than stopping to peruse the menu, it seemed like now might be a better time to keep on walking. And so I did, striding purposefully ahead, my pursuers eventually losing interest and drifting away. This meant that now I was back to square one in terms of finding another cheap and casual restaurant, and so I wound my way deeper into the gothic quarter. I soon found another option that looked promising, due to its no-frills decor and its chalkboard outside proclaiming a 7€ menu for three courses plus a drink. I went in and sat down in time to witness a bit of a spectacle already in process. A woman was protesting loudly and in butchered Spanish on behalf of her husband and daughter that their bill was "más." Too "más!" The figure in question was 30€, which for three people didn't seem all that unreasonable to me, however this lady kept insisting loudly that it was. The waitress seemed more and more flustered, listing everything the family had ordered and consumed, along with prices, but the woman wouldn't back down. Eventually the owner and the head chef of the tiny establishment got in on the action, eventually writing it all down and scribbling manual calculations for her benefit. The only other customers in the place were all snickering unsympathetically at this point, as the woman's husband kept quiet and her teenaged daughter did a pretty good job of hiding what I'm pretty sure had to be abject mortification. In the end I'm fairly certain 30€ exchanged hands, giving this woman a story for the next ten years about the time she got cheated in a Spanish restaurant, and how she didn't take it lying down. I couldn't have been happier about this, because after a show-down like this one, I knew no one would be taking any notice of little old "sola" me. I ordered a beer and took out my book. When the little old man returned to take my order, I asked for a menu. He directed me instead to the offering of tapas lining the counter, and ran through a quick list of words I didn't understand, instructing me to take my pick. After the ordeal I had just witnessed it seemed perhaps safer to stick to the prix fixe menu, and so I gestured towards the 7€ menu on the chalkboard out front and said hesitantly, "el menu?" So you can have salad or something or paella or something and salad, the man said, looking towards the chef who shook his head gruffly. No, just the salad or the something or the paella, he corrected. I latched onto one of the two words I knew and said "paella," nodding my head for emphasis, and returned to my seat. The paella came out quickly and was only warm in spots, as if it had been nuked briefly in a microwave, which I'm sure that it had. The plate was tiny and decorated with one (empty) mussel shell, which was the only evidence of seafood I found in the dish, except for several spidery and inedible crustacean legs, which I pushed to the side. I sighed, thinking, looks like I got the tourist special again. I thought back to my and Canaan's first day in Valencia when we wandered into a promising-looking cafe for lunch. A man sat reading a newspaper and eating a delicious-looking salad studded throughout with tomatoes and large chunks of tuna. We ordered the three-course menu and received the same salad to start. Only, it wasn't quite the same. Instead of chunks, there was instead what can only be described as a drizzle of tuna, but it was still quite tasty and I didn't think much of it right away. Perhaps he got a salad as a main course and not an appetizer, I thought. Or maybe he's friends with the owner. Our second courses arrived and I was a little dismayed; on my plate was a tiny piece of salmon with a side of yet more lettuce and tomatoes. As I picked through my salmon avoiding the bones, I voiced my suspicions to Canaan, who at first wasn't convinced. I excused myself to the bathroom, though, and on my return she said she had seen three more plates of salmon go by, and they were huge. I looked around, and saw that she was right; they were literally overflowing the plate. The slight wasn't enough to get huffy over, but still, we couldn't help feeling betrayed by our American accents, and offended by the idea that such practices existed. As I sat in this tiny diner-like restaurant in Barcelona by myself, quickly finishing off the tiny plate of paella that had hardly put a dent in my hunger, I felt dismayed that this was happening again, and all because I don't speak Spanish. Since it looked like this was all there was, with my stomach still growling I decided to start in on the bread basket. I'll show him, I thought. He may have given me a tiny plate of paella, but I'm going to eat this entire basket of bread. Which was no small feat, as the basket was quite full. By the time I was on my fifth or sixth piece, the chef came over. "Carne o pescado?" he asked. "Um, huh?" I said, even though I had understood the words. "Segundo," he said, speaking slowly. "Carne? o pescado?"

"Oh, um, carne," I said, putting down my bread sheepishly. The second course came as quickly as the first, and was equally warm and cold in spots. It was some kind of pork meatballs mixed with potatoes and vegetables in a kind of gravy, and if it wasn't gourmet, it was at least satisfying. "Más pan?" the chef asked, passing by my table and casting an eye at my empty bread basket. "Um, no, gracias," I said, blushing. I finished quickly, and the waitress came to take away my dishes. She asked if I would like anything else, but I declined, already full of paella and meatballs and an entire basket of bread. Even without dessert, I decided I had already had my money's worth, and so I paid my 7
€ and stepped out again into the mild night air.

I headed towards the port to check out a movie theater I had seen earlier, wondering if they had any movies in the original English. I came to a wide boulevard where I would have to cross four lanes of traffic. I looked and saw that I could walk a block up to cross at the light, or, much closer, there was a deserted-looking pedestrian footbridge that crossed all four lanes of traffic in a graceful curve, landing again on the other side. Though the bridge was somewhat dark and utterly empty, there were enough people in the close vicinity that I felt safe enough in taking it, and so I did. But sure enough, as soon as I made it to the halfway point a sketchy-looking man stepped out of the shadows and approached me. He started to ask a question, but I just shook my head briskly to let him know that whatever the question was, the answer was no. I continued walking at a no-nonsense pace as he followed me, asking me that ubiquitous question, "Do you speak English?" I ignored him as he followed me, keeping up a constant and somewhat menacing stream of chatter. "
I just want to talk to you, come on...Why won't you talk to me, are you mad or something?" When I refused to answer or look back, he followed after me, saying, "Hey, hey!" more insistently every time. Then he was silent for a few seconds, but I knew he was still there, trailing me in my blind spot, coming closer and closer. Though I had avoided looking at him, my first quick glance had shown that just like the man from earlier in the evening, he had the same blank, dead gaze of a shark circling. I kept walking at a steady pace as his invectives grew more insistent, and more menacing in tone. By now I could see the end of the ramp, and as I exited and once again joined the throngs of tourists below, the man shrank back into the shadows of the bridge, perhaps waiting for some other victim who would be foolish enough to join him in conversation.

A quick trip to the movie theater showed that, like the French, the Spanish are much too fond of American movies dubbed in Spanish (or French, as the case may be), and so I turned away, dejected. I would perhaps have liked to walk around more, but accustomed as I am to feeling small and anonymous in large cities, this recent spate of attention left me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Feeling entirely vulnerable and tired of being surrounded by people, I turned around to return to the hostel (where I would still be surrounded by more people than I would have liked). Making my way through the crowds of tourists in the Port Vell, a man ran by with an armfull of loot- clutched to his chest was what looked like a cloth bag with straps hanging down. Following several lengths behind him at a stately pace were two policemen on mopeds, lights flashing but otherwise showing no urgency. On foot, the thief was able to dart quickly between people, while the policemen on their motorized vehicles were forced to proceed more slowly through the thick crowd, carefully manoeuveuring around couples walking hand in hand and parents pushing baby strollers. It was obvious who was the tortoise and who was the hare in this race, and obvious, too, that soon enough the police would get their man. He was on foot, after all, and they were on mopeds, and as soon as the crowd opened up a bit, they would have him, which perhaps explained their relative calm. But still, the man kept running, and as he ran he glanced back over his shoulder at the policemen in pursuit, and in that moment, the smile on his face registered pure joy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why I like non-dates

Turns out I didn't need to worry about where to go for dinner last night after all. I was in the common room at the hostel, poring over my guidebook and trying to decide which of the restaurant offerings would be best-suited for the budget-conscious, conspicuously solo traveler, when I saw a familiar face. It was Leonardo, the Mexican med student Canaan and I had picked up and invited to dinner with us the night before. I knew he was leaving that day, so I was surprised to see him still hanging around the hostel at 7 p.m. "My train leaves in three hours," he said. We talked about what we had done that day, and realized we had done mostly the same things, and gone to mostly the same places. "I should have asked you if you wanted to walk around today," he said, "but I thought you had plans."

"Nope," I said, remembering our somewhat awkward goodbye the night before, when he had offered his cheek to first I, and then Canaan. Used to the French two cheek kiss, I leaned in for a second as he leaned away towards Canaan, and I blushed and hoped he hadn't noticed my gaffe. Then came the awkward moment when you try to decide what to say to someone you've just met and gotten to know for the last two hours, and will probably never see again. In the end, we didn't say anything at all. "Well, bye," Canaan told him as we entered our room, and he entered his down the hall.

"Well that was kind of weird," she said as we huddled in the bathroom to brush our teeth.

"Yeah, that goodbye was kind of...abrupt," I agreed.

"Well what was I supposed to do?" she said. "I have to get up early in the morning. And he didn't even give us his e-mail or anything."

"Oh well," I said. "It was fun, anyway."

And now Canaan was gone, and here he was again. "Well I don't know if you have time before your train," I said, "but would you maybe want to go get something to eat?"

"Actually, I just ate," he said, "but yeah, I'll go with you."

"Oh, well if you already ate..." I said.

"No, no, I'll come," he insisted. "Let's go."

And so we did, going back to the very same restaurant around the corner that he had dined in not an hour before. Though he didn't order any food, we did share a bottle of wine while I ate. We talked about our travels, where we had been and what we had seen, and as he told me about the five days he had spent in Paris a couple weeks ago, I found myself wishing I had met him sooner. He was smart, funny, and spoke perfect English, even though he insisted that he had forgotten a lot since he doesn't often have a chance to practice it. The icing on the cake was when we discovered our shared love of Radiohead, Coldplay, and Wes Anderson films (see And Bill Murray! we exclaimed. So brilliant! And Anjelica Huston! Amazing! "You absolutely have to see Bottle Rocket and The Life Aquatic," I told him. I told him about how I was supposed to see Radiohead play, and he told me that for years, he thought they would never come to Mexico again, because as the story goes, the band went to a Mexican strip club after playing a show one night, and the girl onstage stripped to the song "Creep." Thom York was apparently so offended he swore never to come back. Then he told me he has tickets to see them play in Mexico next month, so all's well that ends well.

Then his phone alarm started ringing, letting him know that it was time to leave for the train station, and we regretfully drained the last drops of wine from our glasses. When the check came I reached for my wallet. "No, please, let me," he said, placing two twenties on the small silver tray and waving my hand away.

"No, but you didn't even eat," I said. "Don't be silly."

"No, please, the conversation was a pleasure," he said. "This is the first time I have treated someone during this trip, and I am happy to do it."

"Well, thank you so much," I said.

"Here, let me give you my e-mail address," he said, tearing out a piece of paper from his journal and scribbling it down, along with the names of three artists and writers he liked that he said I had to look up at some point. "And then you'll e-mail me and I'll have your address."

"Yes," I said, actually meaning it. "I will."

Then we left and walked to the Metro together, where he would take a train to the main train station, and from there take an overnight train to Madrid. Two days later, he would return to his home in Mexico City to begin his studies in psychiatry. "I'm sorry you have to leave," I told him regretfully.

"Me too" he said. Then, after stumbling over the conditional for a few seconds, "It would have been really great," he said sincerely. Once again he offered his bearded cheek, and this time I kissed it once, congratulating myself on knowing the procedure, this time. But then, as I was ready to turn away, he came back for a kiss on the other cheek. "As the French do..." he said awkwardly, before turning and descending the stairs underground. I couldn't help but smile at the irony of the situation as I walked the few feet back to the hostel. The best date I had had in a long time, and it wasn't even a date, with someone I met for a total of about three hours, and would in all likelihood never see again.

I thought back to another Mexican I had met in France while studying abroad years ago, Patricio, and the few sweetly awkward non-dates we had gone on together. He had lived in Mexico City too, and thinking about his intelligence and good nature was enough to make me wonder why I am not living in Mexico City right now, dammit, as apparently this is where they are keeping all the smart, funny, handsome men.

Come to think about it, my travels lately have been sort of unfairly biased towards Europe. Perhaps it's time to think about exploring the Americas (particularly the Latin ones, please). "You should visit Mexico," Leonardo had told me during dinner, nodding solemnly to accentuate his point.

"I really should," I replied, considering it. "And you know...I think I will." May it be so.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why youth hostels are best left to the young

I think my friend Canaan summed things up quite nicely when she said, "I think I'm getting too old to stay in hostels." Not everyone proscribes to this philosophy, however, as evidenced by the two silver-haired members of our dorm room, who apparently aren't a couple after all, a fact which leaves me all the more creeped out by the smelly, single, boxer short-wearing old man occupying the bed directly below mine. Then there's a young female I've dubbed Sleep All Day Girl, who, true to her name, is currently back in the room sleeping and blasting the heat as we speak. (30 degrees Celsius, I swear to Hades, the thermostat was set to 30 degrees Celsius. Which, for all the Farenheit fans out there, represents a balmy 90 degrees). My only sighting of the final member of our 6-bed dorm was last night, when she decided that the hours between midnight and 1:30 a.m. were the perfect time for reorganizing her entire life, the contents of which were contained in approximately ninety million crinkly plastic bags. Now that Canaan is gone, I can't wait to see what new species of impolite traveler they stick us with.

I left my neck pillow in the hostel in Valencia, I got holes in my tights, and sometime in the night both my towel and my mp3 player took the two-story plunge from my top bunk to the linoleum floor below. I think what I'm trying to say is, Spain is beautiful, the weather has been great, but I'm about ready to go home. Which I will be doing in approximately the longest two and a half days of my life, gah.

Ok, now I need to figure out where to go for dinner tonight. Why is my life so hard?

Vacationing is work, people, and don't you forget it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why there's a hole where my heart should be

A year ago today I was in Boston. I probably read a bit of French literature, I might have stared out of my window a bit, maybe took a nap, stupidly contacted my ex, and then had a bit of a break-down. Well in case you were wondering where you would be in a year, Valentine's Day 2008 Rachel, this is your future....

Today I attempted to head the Valentine's Day blahs off at the pass with some retail therapy. I headed over to the rue de Rivoli and found a shoe store that was closing and selling off its inventory. All boots 30€! And lo and behold, in a sea of tiny size 36's was one lone pair of size 40's calling out my name. I thought they were quite rocking, although now I can't tell if they're more totally sweet or unforgivably clodhoppery. And the survey says...?

A little bit of both? Well I don't care, 'cause they were only 30€! Also, they add on at least another inch and a half to my height, which is just what every 5'10" girl needs, ya know? Because why not limit your dating pool just a little bit more? (More like a dating puddle, at this point). Also, wow those suckers track in a lot of mud. (That'll teach me to go stomping around in my dating puddle).

I got such a good deal at the shoe store that I thought, Hey, instead of eating and going to museums when I go to Spain next week, why don't I blow an irresponsible sum of money at H&M now instead? And you know, that's just what I did. I may go to Spain a penniless pauper, but dammit, at least I will look good doing it. It really wasn't my fault, you see, because you know how sometimes you can go to H&M every week for three months and there's nothing at all you want to buy, and you try things on anyway because you really want to buy something, but nothing, and I mean nothing looks good or is in any way appealing? And then all of a sudden one day you go and there's like ten things you want to buy, and they all look good on you? I really think this is some law of the universe, along with Murphy's Law and the one that says the only guy who's going to call you back is the one you didn't like; either you will buy nothing at H&M, or you will buy everything at H&M, and you never know ahead of time which one it's going to be. But my personal philosophy says strike while the H&M iron is hot, because you never know when you're going to go into another three month clothing drought.

So, in case you were wondering, Valentine's Day 2008 Rachel, after that I came home and baby-sat my roommate's kid for the next several hours, while he went to a rugby match in Paris with his other kid. I just can't get away from the toddlers lately, it seems. The difference being that when it's your roommate's kid, when the parent comes home, you don't get to leave. It's like the baby-sitting job that never ends! When I eat dinner...the kids are there. When I go to bed...the kids are there. When I wake up in the morning...yup! Still there! And in case you have forgotten that they are still there, they like to remind you by making a hell of a lot of noise. All the time! Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, and vrooming, beeping motorized toys, and powerful sets of lungs...that's what little boys are made of.

So, then my roommate and his other kid came home, we ate dinner, and then we watched Beethoven. Did you know David Duchovny is in Beethoven? Because I surely did not, and he is so ridiculously young as to be hardly recognizable. Also, his girlfriend is played by the woman who plays the mom in Everybody Loves Raymond, and how weird a couple is that?

Anyway, after Beethoven I played computer chess while havoc was wreaked all around me, then I took some pictures of my shoes, and now I'm going to bed. I know. I know! My life is so exciting you can't even stand it! At the moment I might even be feeling quite a bit more desperately lonely than the generally humorous nature of this post might let on. So if you spent tonight with someone you love, or living up the single life out on the town with friends and libations, it's not that I hate you, exactly, it's just that I don't want to hear about what a fabulous time you had, or at least for a few days.

So, Rachel of Valentine's Day 2008, if you were hoping to hear how much more amazing your life gets, and how your path to the future is paved with rose petals and gum drops, well...I'm sorry, it's just not true. And though this year may be blissfully lacking in ill-advised attempts at communication with the ex, in terms of this hollow, echo-y feeling inside of my chest, I'm going to have to call it a draw. So there it is, one year ago Rachel, your future: not any worse, just differently bad!

Now if you'll excuse me, I believe I have a half-empty glass somewhere that needs tending to.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why does the rain stay mainly in the plain?

When I first mentioned my desire to go to Spain during my February vacation way back in October, it was just sort of a passing whim. In fact, I came up with the idea while writing about the (very tepid) movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona. A pretty terrible movie, but perhaps not a bad place to visit, I thought. And just like that, I shall go to Barcelona in February, I decided, and then forgot about it for the next few months. Anyway, we all know how things, plans, circumstances can change in four months, and so perhaps no one is more surprised than me by the fact that hey, I actually am going to Barcelona, after all. I leave on Tuesday. And it's almost as if writing about it made it so. (In which case, I hereby declare that four months from now I will be vacationing on an island somewhere with my wealthy and fabulously good-looking French husband and our two small dogs, getting some well-deserved rest after writing and publishing my riotously popular and critically-acclaimed first novel. May it be so). I will be gone for a week altogether, traveling part of the time with my friend Canaan, who unfortunately has real-world responsibilities to return to, and so must say adios to Spain a few days before me, and the rest of the time I'll be traveling alone. We'll head down to Valencia first and spend a few days there, and then up to Barcelona where Canaan will have less than a day to see the sights before taking off the next day.

I'm hugely excited, because I've never been to Valencia before, and while I spent a couple days in Barcelona on a high school trip to Europe, my memory of it is pretty hazy, and limited to:
-weird sand castle-y church
-Flintstones-looking building
-orange trees
The last time I saw Barcelona I was 15 and it was my first time in Europe; everything was so new and strange and unfamiliar and exciting. I'm really looking forward to going back and seeing it again through new eyes (and by that I mean through a pleasantly sangria-tinted haze).

So here's where you come in, Internet. I know I have savvy and well-traveled readers. Have you ever been to Valencia or Barcelona? What can I absolutely not miss while I'm there? I'm particularly concerned for Barcelona, considering I will be spending three days there by myself. I have this (probably irrational) fear that I will see everything of interest the first day, and then have nothing to do with myself for three more days, and hence end up spending large chunks of time napping in my hostel bunk and then feeling guilty for not taking advantage of the city with the time I have, and then I will fall into a depressive funk and the vacation will be ruined. Or so my logic goes. I don't want my vacation to be ruined, Internet! Tell me where I need to go and what I must see and what I absolutely, without a doubt, have to eat. Specific is, as always, better than vague. (Who is this Guadi, and where can I find him?)

My vacation is in your hands, Internet. Guide me. Advise me. Hold me. Internet, don't ever let me go.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why Wordle is wonderful

Already well into the second month of the new year, and I do believe I've found my new favorite thing of 2009. It's called Wordle, and it's a web site that allows you to create "word clouds" out of text that you provide. You can enter a block of text, or even your blog's URL, and it will give you back a delightfully random word cloud, with the words used more often appearing in a larger font. You can then play with the format to your heart's content, changing the font, colors, and horizontal/vertical layout. I picked this blog post for my first Wordle, and was thrilled with the results. I call this masterpiece Think, Just Know:

(Click on the thumbnail to see this image in the Wordle gallery).

I love the surprising and unexpected juxtapositions of words here:
deep-seated certifiably
holding hell
beg lieu
banging head attitude
brick gruff
blown optimism
try two
geographic butterfly
free best end
caterpillar christmas

Fred also professed to enjoy man nice French. ("It's me!" he said).

As happy as I was with my first creation, I couldn't just stop there. I had a taste for Wordle, and it had to be satisfied! And so I chose this post for my second Wordle. I call it Runnin' Out of Fools:

Wordle: Runnin' out of fools

I think this one gives a tongue in cheek perspective of that period of wallowing that follows a particularly painful break-up. (Otherwise known as the last two years of my life). (Ha! I jest. Oh tongue, you're so cheeky! See what I mean?)

I think the reason I love Wordle so much is that it combines what I love (words) with what I am absolutely lacking (any grain of artistic ability whatsoever) and gives me the rare and much desired opportunity to express myself visually, rather than just textually. Anyway, don't take my word for it. Try it out yourself! Leave a link to your results in the comments; I'd love to see what you create. And have fun!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why loose ends are best tied in a neat little bow

Because I know nobody likes loose ends...

Update #1: I went back to the baby-sitting job from hell yesterday, and everything was just peaches and cream. Aside from some minor criticisms/helpful advice regarding a) bath temperature, b) bath water level, and c) my tomato washing technique, everything went just fine. She even went out and bought me slippers (to protect her very nice floors, of course) after weeks and weeks of telling me she would. We went to the Monoprix together last week to pick some out, but ultimately she determined that 12€ was too much to pay for a pair of slippers, and said that she would buy some at the outdoor market later in the week. Yesterday she said she didn't find any at the market, and so back we went to Monoprix to purchase the very same pair of expensive slippers. I guess she's planning to keep me and my size 40 feet around for a while.

Update #2: I received a follow-up text from my teacher friend clarifying his intent to partake of drinks at some point in the as yet undetermined future. "The inspection went well," he wrote. "I'm going to relax at my parents' house this weekend, so let's get a drink next week, then?" Sure, I replied. "Cool," he said. "Anyway, your message yesterday made me really happy. See you Tuesday."

So, end of story, right? We're on the same page and all is well. Except...not! There is still weirdness! Because I know for a fact that he is going to spend a full week at his parents' house during the school break, which is one week away. Why would you rush off to spend the weekend at your parents' house when you are going to see them again for a full week in only a matter of days? Does he like his parents that much? It just doesn't make sense. I hate to suspect someone I hardly know of lying, but it does sound a lot like a cover-up, doesn't it? Theories, anyone?

Update #3: For whatever reason, I sent another e-mail to the health fanatic, trying to see if we could work out a time for a drink, and then maybe a quick wind sprint or two. He replied that he had left town for a week and had gone out to the country in the middle of nowhere with a (female) friend and her two-year-old child. Umm, yeah. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Just a man, woman, and child sharing a cabin in the middle of the woods, enjoying nature together. Tell me, Internet; is this the third strike? He seemed to think it was completely normal, so maybe it's me who's weird? Am I the only rational, thinking person and the rest of the world is insane? Because this is weird, right? Internet, tell me it's weird.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone. I'll be here, acting totally normal and not at all weird, just to show all those bozos how it's done. A la prochaine...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why you have to read between the lines

I sent a text to the colleague I went out with last Saturday, because I know he's being "inspected" tomorrow, which involves a government inspector from l'Education Nationale sitting in on his class and evaluating him, an experience I imagine must be mildly nerve-wracking, to say the least. "Enjoy your day off today," I typed, "and good luck tomorrow!"

"Oh, that's nice of you," he replied. "I would invite you to have a drink with me to celebrate the end of the inspection."

Well, yay! I thought. I mean, I think...? What is that pesky conditional doing in there? I would invite you? Is this a lost in translation thing? Damn French! Given the circumstances, I had no idea how to reply. Ok, let's think about this, I thought. Either he's saying 'I would like to invite you to have a drink with me,' or he's saying 'I would like to invite you to have a drink with me but...' Because the conditional does usually imply that pesky but. I would invite you to have a drink with me but I have to work Saturday morning, for example, which I know that he does. So I replied the only way I could have: "Well, I would accept," I said, smiley face and all.

"Cool," he said (smiley face). "Talk to you soon."

I congratulated myself for interpreting correctly and started planning my date outfit for tomorrow.

But then, then! I was on the train home, pulling into the station where I have to change trains to the local, and where he gets on the train I just got off that goes direct to Paris. And who did I see out the window...A flutter went through my body as the train pulled to a stop. By the time I got off though, he had already gotten on a car further down, and so I pulled out my cell phone once again, and sent him a text: "I just saw you from the train," I typed (smiley face).

"Ohhh, I didn't see you!" he replied. "Sniff. Well, we'll catch up on Tuesday. Have a good night."

...Tuesday?! (The one day a week we see each other at school). What happened to 'I would invite you to have a drink'?! I guess that but was implied after all... But seriously, who sends cryptic messages like that, where the meaning of the sentences hinges on one lousy 's'? (Je t'inviterai=I will invite you vs. je t'inviterais=I would invite you).

I was feeling so bummed afterward that I came home and cancelled on a new guy I was supposed to go out with tonight. In my defense, I really didn't want to go out with him in the first place and only agreed because I had kept putting him off for so long, but in the end he was just too damn persistent. I've gone on enough internet dates at this point (oh my god, so many) that I know that when I get that panicky oh shit feeling prior to a date, it never bodes well. It was also pretty stupid of me to think that I would be up to getting on a train to Paris and going out after spending an entire day at school and an hour and a half on trains already today. Really, I don't know what I was thinking. The problem was that to get out of this I needed an excuse that would allow me to politely say, "I'm sorry, but I can't see you tonight, or also, ever." I decided I would pull the crazy card, if I had to, even borrowing the "I have problems in my life" line, if it came down to it. Let him think that he dodged a bullet.

And so I sent him a text, of course. "I am not doing well at the moment," I began, being purposely vague and at the same time, not untruthful, "and I don't feel like going out. I regret that I can't see you tonight."

"I hope it's not serious," he replied. "Take care of yourself. Let me know when you want to get a drink together; it would be a joy."

So, in the end I got my way and I'm home cozy with my computer tonight. So why do I feel like such an asshole?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why I've gone from Mary Poppins to Cinderella

It started with the dire warnings of home accidents and toddler deaths, which I accepted as a matter of course. She is a mother; she worries. I am a baby-sitter; I try to assuage her fears. When she criticized my technique for opening a packet of cookies, I took it in stride. Entering unexpectedly at bath time, she gasped. "Too much soap in the water!"

"Yes," I said. "She was washing herself."

"But you have to control her!" she said. "Too much soap is bad for her skin."

"Yes," I said. "Sorry." And the next time I kept the soap out of reach.

Yesterday she encouraged me to have a painting session with the little girl, and told me how to put the plastic sheet down on the living room table, a smock on the girl. Then she left us to paint together, an activity that interested the tot for about five minutes until she got bored and started dipping her sponge stencils in the water bowl and squeezing them over the table. As the water puddled and my attempts at correction went ignored, as usual, I decided enough was enough. "Ok," I sighed, "you're done. Let's clean up." Never mind that set-up and clean-up took three times as long as the actual painting session. And so I mopped up and returned all the items to their previous places before beginning a new activity, as per the very precise instructions I had received.

The mother returned home an hour later, and stopped short in the hallway. "What's this?" she demanded, staring at the floor.

"Um," I said, peering at the splotches on the wooden floorboards. "It looks like water."

"But, how did it get here?" she demanded incredulously.

"I...I'm not sure," I said. "It must have happened during the painting."

"But she should not have been in here! That is why I told you to put the plastic over the table in the living room. You have to control her! I have the feeling you just let her do whatever she wants!"

"Er, she wasn't in here," I said, confused. "I'm not really sure what happened. Unless maybe it happened when I was putting things away. I thought I dried everything off but maybe I missed a bit, and it dripped."

"But look, it's over here..." she said following the trail of water stains down the hall. "...and here, and here too! These are very nice floors, and this will not come off!"

"I'm really sorry," I said. "I didn't know."

"Let's see," she said, grabbing a roll of paper towels and dabbing at the already long-dried stain. "No, you see, it's too late. It's already dried."

"I'm sorry," I offered again.

"But I just don't understand!" she said. "This is a very nice apartment, and we paid a lot of money for it. Yes, it's a shame you didn't see the water, but I have the feeling that you don't control her at all. You just sit back and let her do anything she wants!" And here I felt an already unpleasant conversation take a sudden turn for the worse, a transition that manifested itself in her taking two steps to the side, out of view of her offspring, perhaps, and crossing her arms over her chest. "Yes, I see you with her and you seem so hesitant all the time, it's almost as if you have no experience with children at all!"

"Well that's not true," I said through tightly gritted teeth.

"But you need to control her!" she said. "And you act so nervous all the time."

"Well, yes," I said, trying to speak as calmly and as slowly as possible, choosing my words carefully. "I probably seem hesitant because I'm afraid of making a mistake. I know you're a very precise person and I want to do everything the right way."

"Well that is why I'm here!" she said. "To show you the right way to do things, so you won't be nervous."

"You make me nervous," I said, point blank.

"Well honestly, it's not as if this is a difficult job!" she said. "I do not ask very much of you. It's not as if there are two or three children; there is only one child. And I do not think she is a difficult child."

Here I had to bite my tongue to refrain from giving my opinion on the subject, which is that where I come from, there are names for children who spit in your face and then laugh when you tell them no, who think it great fun to yank their hand out of yours and take off running in the middle of busy intersections, whose favorite word is no, who turn every mundane task that must be completed into a monumental, screaming and tear-filled debate...As I said, where I come from, there are names for these children, and difficult is one of the nicer ones. And yes, also, she's three, but given a spectrum of normal three-year-old behavior, I would venture a guess that she falls somewhere along the brattier end of the spectrum. But I guess that's what happens when your child is raised by an ever-rotating string of baby-sitters.

"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way," I said, half wondering if she would be giving me my walking papers, or if not, if I felt sufficiently outraged to walk out of there and never look back. I decided to see how the situation played itself out.

She let out a long sigh. "Here," she said, handing me the roll of paper towels. "Can you just..." and she trailed off while gesturing vaguely with her hand.

"Sure," I said. She went into the living room to look after her daughter, and I snuck into the bathroom and wet a paper towel with just the tiniest bit of water, and got down on my hands and knees to rub at the stains. I had the feeling she wouldn't agree with my methods, since water was apparently the evil element that caused the damage in the first place, but it worked, or sort of. The pigmentation from the watercolor paints came off, and what had been a dark stain turned into a lighter and less noticeable mark. Venturing into the girl's bedroom I saw even more paint-y stains that she hadn't seen yet, trailing up from the floor to the shelf where the paints were stored. Shit, I thought, I can't let her see this, and so I scrubbed those too. Then I returned to the hallway and set to work on the rest.

Returning from the living room, she saw me on my hands and knees. "What are you doing?!" she yelled.

"Um?" I said.

"I asked you to put the paper towels away! It's too late for that, it's already dry! I'll have to have someone come in and look at it."

"Oh," I said, "sorry." And I headed towards the kitchen with the paper towel roll.

"Where are you going?" she said. "No, they go in Louise's room. On the changing table!"

"Oh, um, ok, sorry," I said, returning the paper towels to their proper place.

And then, hoping that my hands weren't shaking too badly, I returned to the living room and tried radiate confidence and authority. Luckily the mother soon left us alone, and so the girl and I played a bit, and we even had a moderately successful bath time, in which neither too much nor too little soap was used. After the bath I decided to start preparing the girl's dinner, while the girl voiced her interest in watching "the Lala's." Recalling that I had once been told that I could put the girl either in front of the t.v. or the computer while I prepared her dinner, I told her ok, and sat her down while I tried to find my way through two remotes and thousands of channels. Then briefly remembering another, conflicting bit of information wherein one or another parent had mentioned that t.v. watching was for after dinner only, I paused. "Um, are you sure you wouldn't like to play on the computer instead?" I asked her, only to be met with a resounding no. I decided it was already too late to say otherwise, and so I let her watch t.v. while I headed into the kitchen. Just then, the mother returned.

"Hi!" I said. "So, um, she just had her bath and now I'm starting dinner."

"Hm?" she responded distractedly.

"She had her bath and I'm starting dinner," I said. "But, I guess the soup isn't ready?" I said, indicating the pot of healthy, green goo boiling away on the stove, prepared by the housekeeper.

"Hm?" she responded again.

"So, er, should I wait until the soup is ready then?" I repeated.

"Well, what time is it?" she said, looking at the clock. "Well, no! It's too early, you can't start her dinner yet! I told you you can start to prepare it at 6:30 at the earliest, or she won't be hungry!" I recalled my first day with her, when she had told me I could start preparing dinner at 6:25, but I decided not to split hairs. I looked at the clock. It was 6:20. "If you start her dinner now she will not be hungry, and she will not eat!" She looked at me accusingly.

"Ok," I said. "So...I'll wait."

"You have to turn the t.v. off," she told her daughter. "T.v. is for after dinner only," which of course provoked a series of wails from the little girl. "No, it is not time for t.v. now," she continued. "I don't know why she let you watch t.v. but it is not time." And she stomped upstairs to make some phone calls.

I then commenced to play extremely half-heartedly with the girl for the next few minutes, which mainly included letting her throw a blanket over my head while she, like a tiny drill sergeant, barked an ever more demanding string of orders I was supposed to follow. At which point the mother came back downstairs and pointed an accusing finger. "Well, you have to start preparing her dinner!" she said. "It's 6:40 now!" And so I shuffled to the kitchen and put her food in the microwave to heat. "Are you heating things up?" she said.

"Yes," I said dutifully.

"But you can't heat things up yet, you haven't yet prepared the table! You have to put down the place mat and the cushions like I showed you, otherwise if you wait to prepare the table the food will be cold and she will not want to eat it. You have to think about these things!"

And so I set out the cushions and the place mat, taking all of ten seconds, and returned to the kitchen to heat up the dinner. The housekeeper had left out a child-sized bowl of freshly made soup, with a plate over it to keep it warm. I added the croutons as instructed (three to four broken up into four pieces each) and some shredded gruyère cheese. The mother again thankfully returned upstairs, and so I brought the child to the table, placed a bib on her, and gave her her soup. She took one bite, and immediately started screaming and spitting. "Hot! Too hooottttt!!!" she wailed miserably. Shit, shit shit! She had burned her mouth on the soup, and which negligent baby-sitter hadn't thought to test its temperature? Her mother would have my head. My blood pressure shot up about a thousand points as I tried to calm her. "Shhh, shhhh, it's ok. Here, do you want some water?" I tried desperately. "Hey, do you know what we do when soup's too hot? We put an ice cube in it!" She seemed sufficiently intrigued by this idea, however once I had the freezer door open I remembered, Shit, we're in France. Where there are no ice cubes, obviously. "Or, hey, you know what else we do when our soup is hot?" I said. "We stir it around a lot and blow on it!" This suggestion brought on a renewed round of wails, which, miraculously, hadn't yet brought her mother running. If she caught wind of this, though, I knew I was toast. I finally somehow managed to get the soup cooled, and even got her eating it again with extra (and non mom-approved) helpings of croutons and gruyère. Her mother once again descended at a blessedly calm moment, as the girl demanded yet more cheese on her soup, and then refused to eat the rest of her meal.

"Did she have anything to eat after I left?" she demanded.

"Um, just a carrot that the housekeeper gave her..." I said timidly.

"Nothing else?"


"What about the cookies she had earlier?"

"Yes, she had the cookies you bought her for a snack."

"And how many were there?"

"Um, four?" I said.

"Ok," she said, apparently unable to find fault with that.

"Well, thank you Rachel," she said making it obvious that she was dismissing me for the day. "And I'm sure it will go better the next time."

"Yes," I said, putting on my coat and preparing to run.

"But still though..." she started, and I felt my pulse jump, and I wondered if there was any polite way to suggest to one's employer to just let it go already. "It is a shame about the floors, of course."

"Yes, and like I said, I am sorry about that," I said for what felt like the hundredth time. And I was sorry. But there was a limit to how much sorry I could muster over some water-stained floors, and I had about reached that limit.

"But you know that this is a very nice apartment, a very expensive apartment that we paid a lot of money for. And I'm sure that if you had nice things as well, then you would understand. Well, I'm sure you can understand."

"Yes, I understand," I said with my jaw clenched, wanting nothing more than to be outside so I could burst into the tears I could already feel pricking at my eyes.

"It's just that, I know it's an accident, but it's never happened before with any other baby-sitter. And also, with dinner, you have to prepare her place before you start to heat the food, because it just makes sense. You have to think about these things, you know? It's just like any other job. And really, I don't think I'm asking a lot of you, I don't ask any extra. I don't ask you to make her soup, or do her laundry. I could ask you to do these things, but I don't." Because you pay someone else to do them, I wanted to add, but didn't. "And it's really need to be strong with her, you know? And I understand, I know what it's like to be nervous. I have some...problems in my life. And perhaps that is why I'm being hard on you. I am not the mother I should be at the moment. She needs someone who..." And here her face twitched strangely, and suddenly she was in tears. "I'm sorry," she said, "but as I said, I have problems in my life..." What the hell is going on here? I wondered. She's crying? So are we just going to have ourselves a little crying fit right now, the both of us, and then a nice hug afterward? No way in hell, I decided, and concentrated on blinking back my own tears as she sniffed and sobbed away. And suddenly I felt disappointed, or perhaps it was admiration I felt for this woman, because by breaking down she had made it effectively impossible for me to hate her. Though while I could no longer hate her, I still found it difficult to muster up much sympathy for the problems of a woman who had her beautiful, expensive Parisian apartment with her fancy floors, and more money than I could probably ever dream of, and all because she married lucky. How could I possibly feel sorry for a woman who has a housekeeper to clean her beautiful apartment, and not one but two baby-sitters to tend to her daughter during most of her waking hours each day, leaving her free to do nothing but pursue her singing lessons and shop for more pink clothing for her precious angel? I'd rather have rich people's problems than poor people's problems any day, I thought. She thinks she has problems? I wonder if she realizes that there are people out there who wake up one day and realize that they have done nothing but flit from one thing to another during their twenties without ever committing to anything, and so find themselves alone, rapidly approaching thirty, and working meaningless, unchallenging jobs for poverty-level wages. That some people are forced to swallow their pride and accept demeaning side jobs and the abuse of their employers, because they simply can't do without the extra 100€ a week of income that this job generates. People for whom this extra 100€ a week represents a 50% increase over their previous salary, and for whom it means the difference between eating or not at the end of the month. The difference between going to Spain during the school break later this month or staying at home drinking tea every day in their kitchen, because drinking tea in a cafe is an unaffordable luxury. There are problems and then there are problems, I am saying, and this woman's Emma Bovary fantasies didn't really impress me much. Still, though. She was crying.

"So," she said, wiping her face and attempting to pull herself together. "I'll see you on Friday, then?"

I let out a slow and defeated sigh. "Yes," I said finally. "I'll see you on Friday."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Why every time a bell rings, a flying baby gets its wings

I went to the cinéma last night to see Slumdog Millionaire for the second time with the second guy in two weeks. (It's a good date movie, what?) As we were waiting for the movie to start, this preview came on for the movie Ricky. (It doesn't matter if you don't speak French; just watch it and you'll get the general idea and tone of the film):

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the preview didn't stop there. And unfortunately for you, I couldn't find the extended version of the trailer anywhere online, so you'll have to allow me the liberty of describing to you what happens next. As the camera panned from the bloodstains in the crib to the baby happily hanging out on top of the armoire, the audience began looking at each other uncomfortably. Then, as the scene shifted to the mother cracking open large, leather-bound tomes in the library (Why are you doing research on wings, madame? a concerned library-goer inquires), the collective discomfort of the viewing public became visceral. A shot of the smiling baby with tiny flutterings under his shirt, and the audience began tittering. By the time the baby was swooping around the room, over the heads of his amazed and delighted family, everyone in the theater was positively howling. And for a movie that I don't think is supposed to be a comedy, I'm going to go ahead and say that this is probably not a good thing. For those hoping to make a profit off the movie, I mean. (François Ozon, what were you thinking?!) Because for me it was a very good thing, and I have to say it pretty much made my night.

The date wasn't half bad, either. So all in all, I'd have to say the night was a success.


Ok, I lied. I just found the full trailer online! This is for you, my dearies. Watch, and and just try not to laugh. I dare you.

Ricky trailer