Friday, September 29, 2006


French Word of the Day: SDF. It's an acronym for "sans domicile fixe"....or "without a fixed home." So basically, it's the French politically-correct term for homeless person. Good to know that PC-ness has infiltrated societies other than America. In a similar light, Claire tells me that janitors are called "techniciens surface" and dwarfs are now called "personnes de petites tailles" (person of small height).

Between 2000-5000 SDFs are estimated to sleep in the streets of Paris each night.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Educational Television

I've been away from mainstream television for awhile now--during the bulk of my residency program I was completely clueless about the "popular shows" (e.g. Lost, House, etc) and I typically would only watch sports, the occasional episode of "Scrubs", and reruns of Seinfeld, most of which I could practically quote by memory but were better than anything else on.

Well, now that I am in France and television-watching is considered an EDUCATIONAL activity for me, I am trying to fill in the gaps of my cultural knowledge by catching up on the important television programs of the past few years. First off, we have Prison Break , which is quite popular in France. Of note, it features a different theme song which is in French and I have heard a couple of times on the radio; I think this is to drum up further French interest in the show. Next we have Lost, which I am currently addicted to...Claire & I are renting Season I from this cool "DVD Vending Machine"-thingee located in our neighborhood. And finally we have the "The Office", which is perhaps my favorite T.V. show currently showing. Most people are aware that the NBC version (starring Steve Carell) is based on the original British show, but did you know that there are also versions in French ("Le Bureau"), German, and there will soon be a Quebecois version.

Back to our "French Word of the Day": the word today is "le chauve-souri", which is the French word for "bat" (as in Batman). Literally translated, "chauve-souri" means "bald mouse."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

protestation, Louis Pasteur, and more...

So I opened my E-mail today to find that one of my fellow Fulbright grantees sent me (and everybody else in our group) an invitation to a protest to highlight the plight of discrimination against minorities. My very first invitation to a protestation Francaise, how exciting? Don't think I'll be attending this, however...not quite my cup o' tea. And it would be really nice if I could avoid witnessing any rioting and car fires during my year. Apparently we're getting closer and closer to riot season (usually end of Novemberish, when it starts to get cold and people don't feel like going to work).

The highlight of our orientation day today was a tour of the famed Institut Pasteur, which, incidentally, is only a few blocks away from my own place of work, the Hopital Necker-Enfants Malades. Basically, Louis Pasteur was Da Bomb, scientifically speaking. His early work in chemistry identified the existence of enantiometers (molecules can be either "right-handed" or "left-handed", a property which can be conferred from the diffraction of light in different patterns), and his later more famous work in medicine and microbiology led to the development of several major vaccines (rabies, anthrax), pasteurization, establishment of the germ theory of disease, and eventually the use of antiseptic technique during surgery and other medical procedures. Some of Pasteur's original flasks used to demonstrate sterile technique are actually on display in a small museum at the front of the institute, and the media in the bottom of the flask remains free of bacterial growth after over a century!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Orientation Day One

Watta day, I'm spent. And I didn't even set foot in the lab... For the next three days, I'm attending an orientation meeting for my Fulbright scholarship. There are about 20-25 of us I would estimate--Americans who have obtained funding to perform some type of research in France. I am in the "scientific minority"....with the vast majority of Fulbright grantees coming from backgrounds in the humanities or social sciences. What's cool is the incredibly broad array of projects that people are working on. For example, just for starters I met today a dude who is interested in applying mathematical models to literature (don't ask me how the hell he plans to do that), a clarinetist from El Paso Texas, and a professor who studies how animals think. I have the distinction of being the sole M.D. in the group.

Part of the orientation this morning was describing the differences between the French and American university systems...a topic with which I was only vaguely familiar. To sum up what I learned this morning: the French system is infinitely more complex than the American one, with a number of different "pathways" one might take to achieve academic success. In the U.S., most fields can be summarized according to the same general trajectory: go to high school, go to college for four years, then choose to an advanced degree of some sort (PhD, Master's, Law School, MD) depending on your specific focus. In France, you can bounce around between the standard University system, "les Grand Ecoles", different trade schools, etc in a seemingly endless number of ways. Also, while the French system has the advantage of being basically free to everybody, there is an intense "weeding out" process that occurs throughout the educational is not uncommon, for instance, for students to drop out after 2-3 years of unremarkable academic success and take a menial job, leaving without any type of degree or anything else to show for it. It's an interesting topic, and it's in general good for me to realize that there are radically different philosophies which pertain to the purpose of the educational system and universities than those of the U.S.

Another talk was interestingly entitled "French-American Relations: Irrevocably Damaged?" which was also quite enlightening.

After the first day's orientation, we were invited to attend a dinner at the Palais Luxembourg, where the French Senate meets, along with a large number of Fulbright alumni and a bunch of other important academic types. The funny thing is that Claire and I spent so much time chatting and hobnobbing with other folks that in fact we completely missed out on the dinner (served buffet-style, and which I'm sure would have been quite wonderful)! So the night in fact ended with a late-night trip to a McDonald's, quite ironic given the otherwise superior quality of food to which we should have had access. And for the record...this was the first time I've eaten "McDo" since being in France. I was thinking of trying to hold out for the entire year just to prove that I could, but the lure of salty fry goodness was just too much to take...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all you Jews out there. You can click on this link for some Hebrew Crunk to help celebrate this year's Rosh Hashonah.

When I was visiting France a few years ago, I stayed at Claire's sister Laure's apartment in le banlieu (the suburbs). Since Claire was working most of the day and I was on vacation, I would take these long, epic bike rides following the Marne River. One day, I decided to take the bike path along the Marne all the way into the outskirts of Paris. Without asking anybody, I decided that my destination would be "Villejuif"...a part of the city whose name is translates to "Jewish Village." I thought it would be really cool to see the old Jewish part of town.

After several hours, I arrived in Villejuif. There was nothing particularly Jewish about it at all. I'm sure the name derives from some prior history, but now it is viewed as a not-particularly-exciting town on the outskirts of Paris. Definitely not a tourist destination, and upon recounting my tale to French acquaintances they thought it was funny that I would deliberately seek out a non-descript area such as Villejuif.

There is in fact a more interesting true Jewish part of town which is located within The Marais called the Pletzel. I walked around once and it seemed pretty interesting, perhaps I'll go back again to do more exploring.

Saw a movie last night...."The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (French translation: "Le Vent Se Leve" = The Wind Rises...not exactly the same, but close enough). It's about the British-Irish conflict in the 1920s and the formation of the Republican Army. It was much better than I had expected, depicting the complex conflict that occurs in a civil war-type situation. I would definitely recommend it, though it certainly has its violent parts.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Mont St.-Michel

Perhaps the highlight of our trip, however, was the last stop: Mont Saint-Michel. I guess you could describe it as an "island city" which varies with the tides. On the Atlantic Coast right on the border between Normandy and Brittany, one can walk across the mud flats for several miles in order to get to the city, which houses an amazing old Benedectine Abbey as its centerpiece. However, when the tides rise, it completely surrounds the Abbey and its surrounding buildings, looking like an island. I've included pictures of when we were there (low-tide) as well as what it looks like at high tide. Apparently in the past people making the pilgrimage during low-tide would occasionally get stuck in quick-sand and perish when the tides rose--I have been told by Claire's father that the tides rise faster than horses! Now, however, there is a road leading to the city, which is slightly raised and therefore always above the water. There is a sign at the parking lot along the road which tells drivers what the tide is going to do that day, so you know when you have to move your car out of the way so it doesn't get flooded.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

La Tapisserie de Bayeux

Our chambre d'hote was close to the city of Bayeux , which I recently learned is famous for one thing and one thing only: the Bayeux Tapestry, an ancient embroidery which depicts the Battle of Hastings in 1066 during which Guillaume (William) the Conqueror sailed from Normandy across the English Channel to do battle with his friend-turned-foe King Herold of England and eventually claim the throne. It measures 70 meters in length, and since apparently no visit to Normandy would be complete without visiting the Tappiserie, we saw it first thing Sunday morning.

Fortunately for us, it was the Journee du Patrimoine that weekend. The Journee du Patrimoine ("The Day of Heritage") occurs but once a year in France, and on this weekend all publicly-owned buildings and historical locations are free to the public! This includes not only all the major museums and major tourist attractions, but also apparently lots of lesser-known chateaus and other historical buildings which are not routinely open to the public at all. So we were able to view the Tapisserie in all its glory without even having to fork over a euro.

Next up: Mont St-Michel!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pointe du Hoc

Another interesting place we stumbled upon along the Normandy Coast was Pointe du Hoc, another famous WWII battle site. Pointe du Hoc is a small peninsula surrounded by sheer cliffs overlooking the ocean, and was seen by the Germans as impossible to invade given its natural protection. However a group of American ranger troops was able to scale the cliffs with some special ladders and rock-climbing equipment and (after substantial losses) claim the spot as Allied territory.

An interesting thing about the landscape: prior to the attack, Allied aircraft bombed the hell out of the area--both to soften up the German troops before the ground assault, as well as to create some natural hiding places for the invading troops so they weren't just standing out in the open on a large plain. As a result, the landscape around Pointe du Hoc for several miles is pock-marked with old bomb craters. It looks like the perfect place to play hide-and-seek for kids...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Jour J

I guess it makes sense after thinking about it for a few seconds, but D-Day in France is called "Jour J" (the word "jour" means "day).

After Arromanches, we headed over to hike around Omaha Beach, and the very moving American Cemetary nearby. The sheer number of gravestones is eye-opening, and overall I was impressed with the serenity and tastefulness of the display despite it being a rather large tourist attraction. One thing I had never really thought of before: although the majority of the headstones are crosses (just like you see in the movies) every once in awhile you'll see a Star of David (indicating a soldier of the Jewish faith).

More to come, I promise...for some reason's photo capabilities are crapping out on me and I refuse to spend more time on this right this second...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

One Year Old

Happy Paper Anniversary to myself and Claire today! That's correct, Claire and I were betrothed to one another in La Baule exactly one year ago.

In order to celebrate, we spent the weekend at a chambre d'hote (bed and breakfast) in the Normandy region of France. We were quite the tourists this weekend...efficiently hitting most of the important sites. The weekend began with a fairly ominous took us several hours to make it out of the horrendous Paris traffic on Friday after work in our rental car, and when we arrived at our destination, the very tiny village of Saint Gabriel-Brecy, it was well past dark and we had trouble finding the chambre d'hote we had previously arranged. In fact, at one point we even mistook some random person's house as our chambre d'hote, and went so far as to walk through their front door at midnight. Fortunately, the residents were quite friendly and pointed us in the right direction. Our actual destination, which we did finally discover a little past midnight, is actually a small chateau, and is pictured below:

Saturday was our "World War II History Day." We drove to Arromanches, along the Normandy Coast, which was the site of an incredible artificial harbor constructed by the Brits during the War. As the Germans controlled all the major port cities even after D-Day (which, by the way, is called "Jour-J" by the French), the Allies were forced to tow enormous pieces of concrete and floating metal out into the sea and construct an artificial port they could use to create a shelter for ships to unload supplies and soldiers. Although only a few pieces of the artificial harbor remain visible in the sea today, a bunch of the pieces have washed up on shore, where they have been kept for historic purposes. Very interesting.

I have more pictures and stories to tell, but I'll include them on later posts during the week...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What Do a Napkin, Towel, Briefcase, and a Tampon Have In Common?

Today's question comes to us from Arthur Felgenhauer of Menomenie, Wisconsin. Arthur asks: "What do a napkin, a towel, a briefcase, and a tampon have in common?" Well, Arthur it's funny you asked. But each of these objects is referred to as a "serviette" in France. It's hard to believe! Aside from the similarities between the napkin and the towel, it's hard to imagine a connection between the other items...

Watching the UEFA Champion's League (soccer) game on television tonight, Olympique Lyonnaise (from Lyon) against Real Madrid. The "O.L." looks very impressive; they are currently up 2-0 and it could be much more than that--one of their shots hit the post, and they had several other good looks. The Champion's League is where the best professional leagues around Europe play a tournament--kind of a cool idea.

Today's vocabulary (as if my useful tidbits on the manifold uses of "serviette" wasn't enough: let's do the French playing card suits:

hearts = le couer
diamonds = le carreau
spades = le pique
clubs = le trefle

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

C'est la barbe

Things are finally starting to heat up some in the lab, which is, I think, a good thing for me. Lots of experiments (or "manips" in French, short for "manipulations") over the next few weeks...

Expression for the day is one that I've known for awhile now, because it's so easy and useful: "C'est la barbe." Literally it means, "it's the beard", but in everyday use is to express extreme boredom. The funny part is that when you speak the expression it is nearly always associated with a particular movement which involves running your knuckles just under one of your cheeks. It's supposedly evocative of the action of shaving, which I guess I agree is not generally an exciting activity.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bois de Vincennes

Another weekend, another park. Last Sunday, Claire & did some further bike exploring around Paris. This time our destination was the Bois de Vincennes, a huge public park along the eastern border of Paris. It was a lot more congested than Parc de Sceaux, but granted it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and Bois de Vincennes is extremely close to the city. We biked around the Lac Daumesnil and found a nice shady spot in which to read and watch people leisurely paddling around in rowboats. Very relaxing. We only saw probably about 10% of the park, so I'm eager to go back for further adventures in the future.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Couler un Bronze

Saw the movie "Little Miss Sunshine" last night in the V.O. (the original English with French subtitles.) It was funny, but not as funny as I had been led to believe by the previews and my friends who had already seen the movie. In some ways, the movie reminded me a little of the first "Meet the Parents": a series of comically embarrassing events that are so mortifying that you can't help but feel bad for the people they are happening to.

A few French phrases which are almost identical to their English counterparts but just different enough to make them interesting:

The French phrase for "goose bumps" is "chair de poule", literally, "the flesh of chicken". Makes sense.

The French phrase for "throw in the towel" is "jeter l'eponge", literally, "to throw in the sponge." Also makes sense.

One of the many French slang phrases for "to take a shit" is "couler un bronze", literally, "to cast a bronze". This makes no sense at all.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Some Thoughts

Some thoughts....

...nothing makes you appreciate the Paris Metro more than when you miss the last train home and you are forced to walk 40 minutes across the city at 1:30 in the friggin' morning...

...a strangely-appealing French phrase: "J'ai grille le feu rouge." It literally means "I grilled the red light," and is equivalent to saying that you ran through a red light illegally while driving. I don't know why, but saying, "I really grilled that red light!" is cool. Perhaps we could start using this phrase in America? Who's with me?

...can you believe that the French powers-that-be have yet to grant me my official "medical appointment", an obligatory step in the bureaucratic ridiculousness necessary to secure my Carte de Sejour? My work visa expires in about a week, which means that if I have to leave the country for any reason, I may not be able to come back.

...funny saying I heard at lunch today from one of my co-workers. A female graduate student was eating some unsalted crackers for her dejeuner (lunch) and was criticized by their overall blandness by saying, "Un biscuit sans sel est comme une femme sans seins." Which means "A cracker without salt is like a woman without breasts." Claire tells me that she has heard this saying used for things as well, such as "A pen without ink is like a woman without breasts." Nice.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

La Vengeance de France!

The biggest soccer match of the year so far! Last night was the big rematch: France versus Italy, their first matchup since Italy's victory in the World Cup Final. Of course, neither Zidane nor the other guy (the head-buttee, who recently claimed that the only thing he said to Zidane to inflame him so was referring to his sister...) was present. This was part of the Euro Cup '08...I know it's only 2006 currently, but apparently the group play normally starts this early.

The result of last night was a resounding victory for France (3-1) during which they displayed their superiority over the Italian team at both ends of the field. I'm not practised at analyzing soccer games, but even I could tell that the French were the better team. The game featured a pair of spectacular saves from goalie Gregory Coupet (the replacement for former goalie Fabien Barthez--both Barthez and Coupet are pictured below), a pair of nice goals by Sidney Govou, and a goal by France's most popular and most talented attaquant Thierry Henry.

French soccer vocabulary:
off-sides: horsjeu
goalie: guardien de but
foul: faute
half-time: mi-temps
overtime: la prolongation
yellow card: le carton jaune
to shoot, to kick: tirer

Also, if you want to say "the ref sucks", the common phrase or chant is "Aux chiottes l'arbitre!!"

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Baby Talk

I've recently noticed that the French language contains a number of words where a single syllable is repeated twice. This happens all the time in English, especially in reference to words pertaining to or used by children (e.g. "mama", "pee-pee", etc.) Claire and I have brainstormed and come up with the following list of French words of the same pattern:

chou-chou: slang word for "teacher's pet".
pipi: kid's word for "pee"...but I've heard also used a lot by adults. For example, an "arret pipi" is a "pit stop"--when you have to take a stop during a long-distance car trip to take a piss.
zinzin: kid's word for "crazy".
gnangnan: pronounced "nyoh-nyoh", another kid's word for "crazy".
papa: not surprisingly, the word a child uses to refer to "Dad."
pepe: term of endearment for grandpa, e.g. "gramps"
meme: grandma has a term of endearment as well...
tonton: so does your uncle...
tantan: and so does your aunt.
lolo: kid's word for milk.
dodo: kid's word for nap, which is probably related to the French verb for "to sleep" (dormir).
coucou: a common greeting, often used with children as a kind of French version of "peek-a-boo", but can be used amongst adults as well.
gaga: same as in English--e.g. "he's gaga over his grandchildren."
bibi: evidently, a type of hat.
zizi: a little boy's word for his penis--for example, a Mom might say, "N'oublie pas de laver le zizi!" which means "Don't forget to wash your penis!" By the way, the little girl's version of zizi is "zizette."

Probably my favorite of these words is "doudou". We don't have a word for it in the English language, but everybody knows what it is. A doudou can refer to a special doll, an old blanket, or a stuff animal--it is the most prized possession of a very young child. For my young niece Auxanne, it's a tiny elephant doll. For my little sister Susie, it was a raggedy old red blanked which she affectionately refered to as "the gink." I think most children at some point in their lives have a "doudou", and I think it's cool that the French have given it a name.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Your 2006-2007 Duluth Dominators

Oh yeah, and in case anybody cares: my Fantasy Football team (The Duluth Dominators) was drafted online last night for a league with a bunch of my M.D. buddies in Philadelphia. I was blessed with the top pick, and my team is as follows. Keep in mind that there are 14 teams in the league, and therefore the talent pool is somewhat diluted for everybody.

QB platoon of Ben Rothlisberger and Michael Vick--it'll have to be Michael Vick for the time being, as I found out that Ben Rothlisberger had to undergo an emergency appendectomy about 6 hours after our draft finished....
RB Larry Johnson (stud of the draft, I'm hoping)
RB Reuben Droughns (I didn't want any wife-beaters on my team this year, but nobody else good was available)
WR Hines Ward (he always seems so happy when he plays!)
WR TJ Houshmandzadeh (expecting big offense from Cincy this year)
TE Tony Gonzalez (hoping he returns to form as an elite TE this year)
K Mike Vanderjagt (solid but playing for new team)
Defense Jacksonville Jaguars (doesn't it always seem they win 9-6? Seems to bode well for their defense)
Backups: WR Drew Bennett, RB Samkon Gado, WR Kevin Curtis, TE Jermaine Wiggins, RB Mewelde Moore

Stupid Belgians

Two random tidbits concerning French language/culture I picked up in the lab today:

#1: When you want to tell a joke about stupid people, the butt of the joke is usually a Belgian. In Minnesota, we tell Ole & Lena jokes (about stupid Norwegian immigrants); I know in many places in the country the southern U.S. is the reference point for idiocy, and in France it's the Belgians who are seen as the dumb ones. If they're so stupid, though, how did they come up with such mouth-watering chocolate, though? Something just doesn't add up.

#2: I remarked today that one of the guys in our lab had gotten a haircut since the last time I saw him, and he told me that the smart aleck thing to reply was, "No, ils sont tombe tout seul." This translates to, "No, they just fell out by themselves." Perhaps similar to this American classic:

Stating-the-obvious person: I see you got your hair cut!
Smart-alec hair-cuttee: Actually, I had all of them cut.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Professeur Hellboy?

It soon became obvious to me upon arriving in France that I didn't really have an organized plan to learn the French language. Yes, I bought and have nearly finished the "Rosetta Stone" computer-based French language course, both Levels I & II, but although it's a good starting point, you cannot realistically expect it to provide you with fluent French. I doubt there is any language program that can do this short of true immersion. I do pick up some French at work, but in general people speak so goddamn fast that I still miss the vast majority of what people are saying. My "teletexte" experiment with the T.V. helps some, but even this is still a little bit beyond my level of expertise. So I've turned to another medium to help me learn French a little bit better: comic books!

It's nice because (a) the stories are not prohibitively long, (b) there are pictures to help you piece together what's happening, and (c) it allows me to add to my already impressive collection of 2000+ comic books. My comic book ("bande-dessinee") of choice thus far has been the V.F. ("version-Francais") of Mike Mignola's HELLBOY. Perhaps you've seen the movie, which is not half-bad. The main character is a demon originally conjured up by the mad monk Rasputin during World War II in an attempt to gain victory for the Third Reich. Through a twist of fate, however, Hellboy was raised by the British and adopted a rather human sense of morals, at several points in the comic rejecting his pre-ordained destiny as Destroyer of the Earth. He spends his days investigating bizarre occult phenomena through the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD).

As a result, my French vocabulary is a little more distorted. I know the words for coffin (le cercueil), bloodthirsty (sanguinaire), werewolf (loup-garou), to curse (maudire), goblin (le lutin), and witchcraft (la sorcellerie). However, I just learned the word for "keyboard" (e.g. for a computer--it's "le clavier") a few days ago. Well, I suppose I will be well-prepared if I run into any French vampires or poltergeists...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Parc de Sceaux

Finally, Claire & I busted out our bicycles for the first time since moving to Paris. Our generous landlords are letting us use their touring bikes for the year--pretty nice bicycles, although a little hard on the ass after several hours of use. We took the Coulee Verte, a great bike trail which begins at the train station at Montparnasse (very close to our apartment) and goes south out of Paris through a number of suburbs. There are also several cool pieces of art along the way. We went from Paris to Parc de Sceaux, a huge park which was formerly the grounds of a castle but converted into a public area for walking, biking, sports, art exhibits, etc. Some pictures from today's outing:

Friday, September 01, 2006

French Lessons

Why not a picture of cute nephew Henry trucking along in his sweet automobile to lead things off? It's been awhile since my favorite nephew was featured.

I woke up this morning earlier than usual in order to wait in line at City Hall. I've decided to take French lessons, and apparently the City of Paris has an excellent and cheap program. However, it evidently fills up fast, and in order to increase the chances of getting in, it's recommended that you starting making the queue before City Hall even opens on Sept. 1st, the first day of enrollment for the first semester. Let's hope I get in.

French phrase of the day: to describe a village that's out in the middle of nowhere (a.k.a. "out in the boonies") the French expression is "le trou de cul du monde"...literally, "the hole of the ass of the world." So sophisticated, the French language.