Saturday, March 24, 2007

Succeed this

The French verb réussir, to succeed, is both a transitive and an intransitive verb.

I find this detail of vocabulary a telling counterpoint to typical Gallic fatalism. In French, success isn't an abstract thing you bring to one subject or another, but something that you can actually bring to act upon an object. It's almost an optimistic concept, really.

It's also extremely annoying, because it's primarily used in incessant, annoying ad campaigns which explain just how to "succeed" a career, a real estate transaction, or pratically anything than can be advertised through billboards in the Métro. Am I the only one who finds nothing relaxing about the idea that I have to "succeed" my vacation? How do you "fail" a vacation anyway, do you screw up the internet booking and wind up in Siberia instead of the Seychelles? (Anyone who wants to point out that my previous post demonstrates clearly how one can fail a vacation is kindly asked to keep their comments to themselves.)

I feel that all this puts unnecessary pressure on me, the poor consumer, by trying to make me believe that if I were only smart enough to spend my money in the right place success would come easily. I'd have to be stupid not to succeed, since I can just follow the instructions. I resent it all, thoroughly.

So I was honestly offended when I came down the escalator to the RER A platform one morning and ended up face to face with a billboard of a picture-perfect, cuter-than-the-Gerber-baby tike with the caption "Réussir son bébé." Succeed your baby? Surely parenthood isn't a contest, and if it were, would buying the right playpen or bottle warmer really put me out ahead? Surely this vocabulary quirk had been taken it to its most ridiculous extreme.

I noted the store, promised myself never to go there, and then promptly forgot all about it. I wasn't pregnant yet at the time, and car seats and diaper pails weren't exactly on my shopping list. Now, however, I've started to care about such things, and while surfing the web comparing cribs and changing tables, I wound up on this retailer's web site. And as much as I hate to admit it, they have a very nice selection of products.

Alas, however, it's all much worse than I could have possibly imagined. On their web site I've learned all I need to know to succeed bed time, bath time, meal time, and traveling with baby. There are detailed lists with everything I need to purchase. Best of all, at around six months old the rules all change. They should come out with a board game or something.

Perhaps I'll give up and just stick with succeeding vacation this year. It may be all the pressure I can handle.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


There is one French euphemism that I just love. Your car window has been busted and your stereo stolen? Your apartment broken into and your television missing? Your purse has suddenly disappeared from your locked desk drawer? You have been "visité."

We headed off to Normandy this weekend to visit le Mont Saint Michel, a trip that my husband had been looking forward to for ages. The weather wasn't the perfect blue sky, unseasonably balmy with temperatures in the 60s that we'd had the week before, but it wasn't raining, it wasn't too cold, and we were looking forward to finally seeing le Mont at a season when it isn't [quite as] overwhelmed [as usual] by hordes of tourists. The dramatic, biannual high tides were due in a few days so we expected somewhat of a show: the island completely surrounded by water, waves advancing at nearly a horse's gallop. It sounded perfect.

We arrived at the coast around noon and stopped to eat lunch at a beach overlooking le Mont and its barren sister island of Tombelaine. The parking was empty except for one other car, also from Paris. The restrooms and tourist infomation booths were locked up for the winter, and the only other human being around was a farmer on a tractor mowing a nearby field.

We got out, opened the trunk, and grabbed the cooler. I changed my shoes, threw my purse in the trunk, and we locked the car and headed off toward the beach.

My husband has long warned me never to open the trunk in a parking lot unless we're leaving immediately. There may be people hiding somewhere, he told me, watching with binoculars and waiting for us to walk away from the car. They'll break in, steal everything, and ruin our vacation, all because I visibly put my purse in the trunk. Paranoia, I thought. Surely such patient surveillance of parking lots can't actually pay off! Where would these thieves be, anyway? Hiding in the bushes? In the window of the farmhouse across the road? Nonsense, all of it. Nearly ten years of my insouciance and our collective luck had made my husband give up nagging me. I almost said something about how we certainly needn't worry this time; what criminal ne'er-do-well could possibly be hanging around here?

Almost predictably, thirty minutes later our weekend morphed into one of those depressing "don't let this happen to you" American Express Travelers' Cheques commercials. The side window was broken, my purse and make-up bag were gone from the trunk, along with a backpack containing our road-worn but well-loved binoculars and digital camera.

I lost it, of course, and started sobbing hysterically. I imagined that they, whoever they were, were still watching me and laughing, so I yelled all sorts of incomprehensible insults in English. That poor, stupid petite américaine, I imagined them thinking. My wallet... my phone... our camera... everything gone.

As in most crisis situations, my husband kept his head while I was panicked and useless. Both our phones were gone, so he drove us to the nearest village. I stayed to secure the car and what was left of our belongings, while he went into the tourist office to call the police, our bank, and our cell phone provider. I sniffed, periodically wiped my eyes or my nose, and started a mental inventory of everything we'd lost. My identity card, my national health care card, 250€ worth of cosmetics (I've recently developed expensive tastes), the annotated birdwatching guidebook we've dragged all over Europe, a card my husband sent me when we were first dating. The new purse he'd helped me pick out. My house keys were gone, along with the only key to the file cabinet at work that I'd conveniently remembered to lock before leaving on Friday. What we could replace would be expensive, and there were plenty of things we couldn't easily replace at all. And all because I was stupid and naïve, and didn't listen to repeated good advice.

[Cue Alanis Morrisette's Ironic]

The rest of our idyllic afternoon was spent at the Granville Gendarmerie, where we learned from the very friendly officers on duty that our back window had been shattered with a bit of lateral pressure from a screwdriver. Like a can of sardines, I thought. Did I mention the car is practically brand new, delivered to us a mere month ago? The gendarmes seemed genuinely interested in our case, and even searched in vain for fingerprints.

I did get to observe something very French, and if I'd been in a bit more of an ethnographic mood I might even have been fascinated: they spent over an hour taking down a detailed description of exactly what happened to us and everything that was missing. The subsequent report was printed, signed and stamped in triplicate, and will serve us over the next few weeks to replace my phone and my identity papers and confirm the cancellation of my credit card.

Reassurance through paperwork. Nothing sustains French society more than the fact that every official document must have some sort of stamp on it. Otherwise, I guarantee you, we're headed for another revolution.

We finished up at the station, taped some plastic on the window, and started back to Paris. We took the two-lane highway instead of the autoroute, and I got to appreciate some classic Norman countryside, rolling hills complete with cows and hedgerows, so perhaps the trip wasn't for nothing after all.

This evening my husband just finished ironing his entire collection of shirts, an exceptional event triggered by last weekend's chagrin but fueled by the first three seasons on DVD of The West Wing. "That's 46€ worth of ironing," he just proudly announced, "And if I do it twenty times, I'll have paid for everything that was stolen!"

That's the spirit!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Brother, can you spare a book?

Recently, while I was waiting on a crowded Métro platform at Saint Lazare, a bum walked up to me. He didn't ask me for money. He asked me what I was reading.

"Qu'est-ce que tu lis de beau?" he asked good-naturedly. My nose had been buried in Molière's L'Avare, and I was too startled to do anything more than tip the spine of the book back so that he could read the cover.

"Ah, Molière! L'Avare! A very good choice," he continued. I noticed that he had thick-rimmed glasses that gave him an almost intellectual look, despite his wild hair, unkept clothes, and the boozy stink of his breath. Must be some frustrated writer who followed his muse to the corner bistro a few too many times, I figured. He didn't have much to say about the play, though, and I was almost disappointed that he didn't quote me at least a few lines.

"Listen," he said to me urgently, "I have no money. I have nothing to read. Why don't you give me your book?"

I had been trying desperately to finish reading it before my husband took me to see the play the following evening. From experience, I knew that either subtitles or reading beforehand was essential to my comprehension of anything more complicated than the evening news or a soap opera. I'd calculated I could just finish by the end of my morning commute the next day, so I wasn't about to make a generous gesture. Besides, the book and the tickets to see the play were part of my Valentine's Day present.

"I'm sorry, but I have to finish reading it by tomorrow, I'm going to go see the play," I told him, hoping it'd be enough to make him go away.

"Je n'y comprends rien," he exclaimed, the all-too-familiar "I don't understand anything," as much for the people around us who were starting to pay attention to the whole scene as for myself. I repeated myself, loudly, very conscious of my American accent but also eager to make myself understood.

"I can't give it to you. I need to read it for tomo--" Before I could finish, he grabbed hold of the book and tried to pry it from my hands, explaining again that he had no money, and nothing to read.

I pulled it back and he finally gave up and walked away, but not before looking intensely at me and then suddenly, and quite quickly and unexpectedly, stroking my hair with one hand. I hadn't time to pull away, but in the second that he reached out I managed to notice his filthy fingernails.

He wandered away muttering to himself, and tried to stroke another woman's head as he passed.

"Are you okay?" asked someone who was nearby observing everything.

"Yeah, I think so. That was... bizarre. Why me? All these people... why me?" I giggled, as I always do when I'm nervous. I couldn't think of anything more intelligent to say. The train arrived, and I had more than a little trouble getting back into my reading on the rest of my trip home.

Still, the first time I've been panhandled for a book, and I hadn't even a good comeback. L'exception culturelle, indeed.

No, I haven't forgotten

I haven't abandoned my blog, honest!

Although it has been well over a month since I last added an entry, I have been thinking about blogging plenty. In fact, I've had at least a half a dozen great blog entries come to mind, but they've all been left unwritten as I've focused on more pressing matters.

Like sleep.

Everyone told me that the first trimester was the most exhausting, and that by the time I entered second trimester I'd be in great shape, almost feeling back to my pre-pregnancy self (with a slight belly). I found instead that I was hardly tired at all during my first trimester, able to keep exercising, working long hours at work, and staying up unreasonably late for nights on end with few repercussions. Come the fourth month, it caught up with me. Now with anything less than seven-and-a-half hours' sleep I turn into a monster, and am either exceptionally irritable or half-unconscious most of the day.

So I've learned my lesson. Sleep is a priority. Not that I've been slowing down, for I've found the time for plays, concerts, long hikes around Ile de France, beach treks in Baie de Somme, and even a long weekend in Berlin. I simply haven't found any time to write about all of it. So, I'll start backtracking now to cover the interesting bits, and perhaps even add in some of my pregnancy gripes and my observations on the upcoming French presidential election. And, as always, I'll have some gastronomical observations, because after all, I've been paying extra attention since I'm eating for two.

Don't act so excited. Really, it is nice to be back.