Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween & Bad French Jokes

Happy Halloween, everybody. I'm definitely missing it this year; although most people know what it is in France, most people don't even realize that it's today, and nobody celebrates it really. You have to admit, it's one of the best possible holidays a kid could ever dream of: getting to dress up in a costume of your choice, followed by everybody giving you candy. If you're American and reading this: eat some candy corns for me!

Two very, very corny French jokes told to me by my 7-yeard-old neice Maeva over the weekend:

Joke #1: Qui est bebe animal le plus malheureux? (Translation: Which baby animal is the most unhappy?)
Answer: Le veau, parce que sa maman est vache.
(Translation: The calf, because his mom is a cow.) The joke is in fact a "play-on-words": the word "vache" means not only "cow" but also means "mean" or "evil". I had to have Claire explain it to me...

Joke #2: Avez-vous entendu la blague de la clown qui dit "non"?
(Translation: Have you heard the joke about the clown who says no?)
It's a variation of an old classic: the victim instinctively says "no" when asked if he has heard the joke before, and thus according to logic he is therefore a clown. Maeva nailed me on this and was quite proud of doing so.

Ah, the bad jokes of a 7-year-old....some things are truly cross-cultural.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Fun at the Beach

Had a great time this weekend in LaBaule. Claire's family has been very encouraging in terms of my gradual improvement in the French language...I get impatient at times with what appears to me to be a lack of progress...but perhaps I don't appreciate my improvement due to the gradual nature of learning a language. I hadn't seen Claire's family since within weeks of moving to France, so perhaps they are more easily able to notice any changes.

The weather was pretty nice; in fact, I think it was perhaps even warmer than last August when we visited La Baule! Sadly, I did not think to bring my maillot de bain (swimsuit), though we were able to spend some quality time searching for coquillages (shells) and building chateaus de sable (sand castles)! Featured in these pictures are my two ever-adorable nieces, Maeva and Auxanne.

Stay tuned on this very blog for sneak-peak details at this year's Nate Hellman-sponsored Chrismas card! It's still only in the earliest of planning stages, but I might try some "audience participation" to brainstorm some ideas.

Friday, October 27, 2006


It's evidently a holiday in France...it's called "Fete de la Toussaint" and although it's officially celebrated on November 1st, the kiddies get an entire week off of school for it. It's a Catholic holiday at its origin ("All Saints Day") and is followed quickly by "Fete des Morts" (Festival of the Dead, intended to honor your ancestors) the very next day. Good times all around.

Anyways, we're headed away for the weekend (yet again!) to visit Claire's family in La Baule. We're taking the glorious TGV (the train) to get there, which I actually find so much more relaxing than either flying or driving. So I'll see y'all when I get back.

French expression for the day: "un chat dans la gorge." You know the phrase in English, "I've got a frog in my throat?", used when you're coughing a lot or have the sensation that something is stuck in your throat? Well, in France, it's evidently a cat ("un chat"). Neither expression makes a hell of a lot of sense, but there you go.

Bon weekend!

Thursday, October 26, 2006


This poster advertising the French movie-musical "Poltergay" is plastered all over the Paris metro, and it never ceases to cause me to giggle to myself. I have no idea what the hell this is about, but I bet it's built on the "it's so bad, it's funny" premise. Perhaps when I have the ability to actually understand people speaking French, I can go and see it.

Today's edition of Nathan Hellman's Blog is brought to you by the French word for the day, which is the verb "tutoyer." French, like many of the romance languages, has two different ways of calling somebody "you." There's the formal way ("vous", as in "S'il vous plait" = please) which is traditionally used to address people that you don't know in a familiar way or as a general sign of respect, or the informal way ("tu", as in "je t'aime" = I love you) which is used when addressing children or people you know in a familiar way. The verb "tutoyer" refers to the act of using the "tu" form of addressing somebody. For example, after we got married, Claire's parents told me specifically that I should try and use the "tu" form with them from now on since I was part of the family.

The entire tu/vous issue is a difficult one for Americans to understand, and in my opinion brings about an additional layer of perplexity while learning the new language. Do I use the "tu" form with my boss in the lab? Who makes the first move to tutoyer somebody in a given relationship? It's not like in English, when you can somewhat avoid the decision whether to call your friend's parents Samantha and Richard instead of Mr. and Mrs. Perkins...in French, you can't really help using one of the two different "you" forms in regular conversation, and at some point you have to just choose. Plus, having an additional form of "you" just adds to the number of verb forms that one has to memorize...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Da Beach

Our last day in Ireland, after spending a delightful stay at the bed & breakfast The Jigsaw House (which I would gladly recommend to anybody who happens to be visiting the area), we decided to hit the beach. Dublin, as you will recall, lies along the eastern coast of Ireland, and we drove north along the Irish Sea until we made it back into town. Along the way we encountered some great sand dunes and did some low-key hiking (as our legs were already starting to feel heavy after the previous day's mountain adventure).

Did you know that Ireland has seals? I can't say that I ever really thought about it, but I can confidently answer in the affirmative after happening upon a family of seals in the tiny town of Wicklow! There was a baby (in white fur, lying on the beach) along with two adults (two brown spots in the water, plus a closer-up version of what we think was the momma seal) nearby.

And there you have our mini-holiday in Ireland! I'd definitely consider going back again in the future, especially to do some more exploring along the many hiking trails.

In other news, I recently got the first positive result in lab (hopefully I won't have to wait another three months for the next one...) and I decided to "demote" myself from the Niveau 4 to the Niveau 3 in my French class (see this post for an explanation as to what the hell I'm talking about) but I think it's for the best.

A revoir!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


The highlight of our trip, however, was certainly our day hike through the mountains of Glendaloch. Sadly, however, I think it was one of those trips where the scenery is mind-bogglingly fantastic while you are there, and you realize that it is--but when you get your pictures back, it just doesn't seem nearly as impressive. Happened to me with the Grand Canyon--it's difficult to capture the sense of scale, especially with a shitty camera like the one we own. Anyways, I will attempt to show some of the better pictures anyways.

The weather was remarkably variable...during the course of our hike, it seemed as if the weather changed every 20 minutes or so, ranging from pleasant and sunny to a vicious hailstorm. I really enjoyed the hiking surface--during the ascent, you climb on these wooden blanks which have small nail studs embedded in them which prevents the wood from getting slippery in the rain.

On the way back, we encountered some more ruins, and some very nice rolling streams. Believe it or not, there was brilliant green grass everywhere, but unfortunately my camera didn't capture the color nearly as brilliantly as it was in real life.

Monday, October 23, 2006

More Ireland

On with the description of our Irish trip last weekend....

Saturday morning we took a quick stroll around the St. Stephen's Green, a local park outside of downtown Dublin. Plenty of interesting sculptures, quaint little ponds, a nice walking path...and of course, plenty of green. Oh, and our complimentary breakfast at the hotel...can you say "cholesterol"? It came with big gobs of bacon, eggs, and sausage--which seems to be the norm. Overall, I can say that I wasn't all that impressed with Irish cuisine, with the exception of a pub burger on Friday night, and for the benefit of my overall health, it's probably a good thing that I'm spending the year in France rather than in Ireland... In general, the people in Dublin seemed to have a lot more meat on their bones than in Paris, though I guess that shouldn't be suprising.

After picking up our Europcar rental (which sadly, through no fault of our own, turned out to be a minivan) we drove about 2 hours south of Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Interestingly, the place where we went was close by to where the bulk of "Bravehart" was shot (yeah, I know...Bravehart was in SCOTLAND, not IRELAND, but the landscape is not altogether different). Our first stop was in Glendaloch, the site of an old (build in the 6th century) monastic community. You can see some of the ruins off in the distance in the pic.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Color Me Green

This week's blog topic will be All About Ireland. Claire & I just got back from a 3-day weekend in Ireland and have some good pictures to share from the trip. Great weekend, but after all the flying, busing, metro-ing, and hiking about, tonight I kind of feel like I need one of those "vacations after a vacation", if you know what I mean.

Overall, the trip was great. However, it got off to a somewhat ominous start as our flight via Ryan Air (which I purchased for like $40) was delayed some 3 and a half hours. The airline is one of these budget airlines which somehow manage to make money despite selling tickets for 1 euro on a regular basis (I was recently told that they make a profit by selling "last-minute" spots for much higher sums of money to people who are desparate to get somewhere without having planned ahead). In any case, although the flight itself between Paris and Dublin was only about an hour and a half, we spent probably a total of about 8 hours in transit. So most of our experiences in Dublin itself were in the dark. Here's a pretty shot of some of the downtown bridges, lit up in green (of course), over the River Liffey.

The population of the greater Dublin area is about 1.6 million, which is about a third of the entire population of the Republic of Ireland (about 4.2 million according to wikipedia). So to give you a sense of scale, there are more than twice as many people living in the Paris metropolitan area (just under 10 million) than the entire island of Ireland!

So Friday night we took our own self-guided tour of Dublin-by-night (lots of cool castles, churches, and Viking ruins), had the only decent hamburger I've eaten since July, strolled around the grounds of Trinity College, and just generally people-watched, which can be quite entertaining in a city like Dublin which is dominated by drunken pub life in the late night hours. Here's a shot of some locals lining up at a Fish N' Chip joint which is, of course, painted green.

More to follow!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is your country a man or a woman?

Those crazy French....what will they think of next? I learned tonight that not only do all objects have a gender--e.g. a car ("la voiture") is feminine whereas a pen ("le stylo") is masculine--but so individual countries. France, for example, is female....that's why you say, "Vive la France!" and not "Vive le France".

Fortunately, there are rules which help define which countries are masculine and which are feminine. All countries which end in the letter -e, generally speaking, are feminine. For example: la Chine (which is China). All countries which end in letters other than -e are then mascule. For example: le Perou (which is Peru). The United States (les Etats Units) are thankfully masculine, as the word for "state" (l'etat) is masculine.

But what good is any language if you don't pepper it full of hard-to-memorize and illogical exceptions to the rules? There are, of course, a few exceptions to the male-female country rule. For example, le Mexique (ends in -e, but yet strangely masculine) and le Zimbabwe (ends in -e, but spends its Sundays watching football games and drinking cheap beer) are some of the exceptions. Furthermore, there are countries which for whatever reason don't even merit a preceding article! I'm not sure what Cuba and Israel have done to deserve such shame, but neither of these countries has an article associated with it. In general, island countries (Chypre = Cypres; Malte = Malta) also don't have articles.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pretty Pictures

Just returned home from a Fulbright-sponsored "Wine & Cheese" (two of the most classic foods for France, and sadly for those who are taking them, two of the foods most classically associated with hypertension crisis due to taking a class of medication called monoamine oxidase inhibitors, a type of antidepressant) reception.

Since I can't think of anything exciting to blog about tonight, how about some pretty pictures from the lab? Here's a peek at what I've been up to: the picture is a sheet of kidney cells which can be grown in "in vitro"--that is, in a tissue culture dish. I've used two different immunofluorescent stains in order to visualize them: the green one stains actin, which makes up the cell's inner skeleton--you can see the green defining the borders between cells in the photo. The second orange stain is against alpha-tubulin, an important component of microtubules, which helps build a structure in the cell called the "basal body"--you can see it as a single orange spot in the center of many of the cells. The basal body helps anchor an organelle called the "primary cilium", a long extension of the cell which juts into the lumen of the tubule (where the urine flows) and which we think is where a lot of the action takes place when the kidney develops.

French words for the day: "la pate". A very versatile word, it can refer to either pasta, or the crust of a pie, or batter used to make, for instance, crepes.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Victom of Testology

Allow me to explain the title of today's post. It begins with a story. I heard this in a somewhat roundabout way, but will paraphrase whe gist of it: it involves a professor at a medical school who wanted to illustrate to his class of students that tests are simple. His hypothesis was that everybody who had made it into medical school--in general, a highly competitive field where the supply of eager college graduates exceeds the number of alloted slots for U.S. medical schools--has to be pretty good at tests in general. To illustrate this point with his class, he challenged them to select any multiple choice test from any field for him to take given 1 month's time to prepare. Their selection, testing the very boundaries of esoteric knowledge, was the New York Tugboat Operators exam. Apparently, he passed with flying colors. I don't think he quit his day job to become a full-time tugboat operator as a result of it, but the point is that all throughout our medical training, we can never escape tests. Just two months ago I had to endure a marathon 8-hour Internal Medicine boards exam, and sometime in the next few years I will have to take a similar certifying exam for my chosen subspecialty of Nephrology. It never ends. And as a result, I'm pretty good at taking tests.

Why do I bring this up today? Because we got the results of our French "placement tests" today which were designed to determine what appropriate level of French course we should take. I had gone in thinking that I was a "Niveau 2", but when I arrived tonight I was on the list for "Niveau 4". And after the first day of class, I'm not so sure that's entirely appropriate: most of my classmates seem to be on a far more advanced level than I am, at least as far as conversational speaking and comprehension are concerned. Keep in mind that: (a) I've never had any formal French in my entire life, and (b) I just moved to Paris about 3 months ago. I would guess that I would probably fit a little better in the "Niveau 3" course.

I'm going to give it a try--perhaps my learning curve will be steeper being in a class with people who are more language-proficient than I am. But this whole dilemma has been created by the fact that I'm good at taking tests...and thus a "victom of testology"!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mystery Photo

See if you can guess what this photo is before I reveal what it represents at the bottom of the page...

Our trip to see Laure's archaeologic dig site was really great. I had never seen such a project in action and it was pretty interesting. I took several photos of some of the skeletons from the Middle Ages unearthed at the site, but unfortunately for you I can't put them online at this moment since the work has yet to be published. Take my word for it, though: it was pretty cool.

Today (Saturday) also involved some brief activities in the region while gradually making our way back to Paris, including walking around the medieval village of Yevres le Chatel and a quick hike in the rock-filled forests near Fontainebleau. A few pics from today's activities:

Finger-like red ivy projections along an old wall in Yevres.
Claire climbing a rocky path at Fontainebleau.
Claire and Laure having their picture taken by a beet farm. That's right, I said BEETS. If you guessed that pile of non-descript objects in the first picture was beets, give yourself a gold star! I definitely saw more beets piled up by the side of the road in the past 12 hours than in all of my life combined.

The French word for "beet" is "le betterave".

Thursday, October 12, 2006

American Refrigerator

A funny bit of vocabulary which reveals some of the attitudes of the French towards the United States: "the American refrigerator." Most people in France have rather modest refrigerators...take our apartment, for example; I can just barely squeeze a small pint of ice cream into the freezer compartment. However, if you want to live in the lap of luxury, you buy what is called "le refrigerator americaine"--a big-ass fridge complete with double doors and perhaps even an ice-maker thrown in for fun.

This weekend's plans: we're going to visit Laure's (my sister-in-law) dig site (she's an archaeologist) close to Orleans and stay overnight. Details to follow...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

As the French say...

Again, not a very exciting day (the highlight was when my hepatocyte growth factor arrived by Fed Ex a day earlier than anticipated) so I'll amaze and delight you with some more amusing French expressions. I find that writing these things down helps me remember them better, too.

"appuyer sur le champignon": means literally "to push on the mushroom" but is used to say "step on the gas" or "speed up" while driving a car. I guess you could say there is some similarity between a gas pedal and a mushroom (for insance, they both have a stem and a top)...

Also when you're hand falls asleep after you lean on it too long, instead of saying that you have "pins and needles", the French expression is "avoir des fourmis"....literally, "to have some ants". Makes sense.

Also, the "wave" at sporting events (in a stadium where successive sections of people stand up and sit down to create a wave-like effect....ah, what the hell am I describing this for? You all damn know what "the wave" is!) is called the "Ola" in French. Wikipedia.org claims that although the origin of "the wave" is still controversial, many believe it began under the direction of professional mascot Krazy George Henderson, then of the Oakland A's baseball team in the early 1980s. I swear I'm not making this up.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Occupe-toi de tes oignons!

Since nothing of import happened to me today...how about a few random French expressions?

One of my personal favorites: "Occupe-toi de tes oignons", which literally means "Worry about your own onions," is a much more creative way to say "Mind your own business." I've also heard "Mele-toi de tes oignons" (Mix your own onions) as a variant.

The French word for hubcap is "l'enjolivant". It comes from the infinitive verb "enjoliver", which means "to embellish", which is pretty much all that hubcaps are really used for when you think about it.

Finally, we have "tomber dans les pommes", which literally translated means "to fall amongst the apples" but is an expression used to describe somebody who passes out.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Level Three!

In a good mood tonight because I did well on my French test...it was the first night of the French class I am taking through the city of Paris, and to begin with they have you take a test to determine what niveau ("level") of French at which you can start. There are five levels, and I had rather hopefully signed myself up as a "Level 2". Well, I took the test tonight, and was pleasantly surprised that in fact I can be bumped up to a "Level 3"! I guess I've picked up a reasonable amount so far...

Saw the movie "Le Diable S'Habille en Prada" ("The Devil Wears Prada") yesterday night; I have to admit that for a "girl movie" it was actually tolerable.

French expression for the day: After somebody sneezes, you are supposed to say, "A tes souhaites", which means "To your hopes."

After the second time somebody sneezes, you say: "A tes amours" ("To your loves").

And after the third time somebody sneezes, you say... "Tu es malade!" ("You're sick!"). (I made up that last part...)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Nuit Blanche

I know what you're thinking: WTF is that?!? Well, I still can't rightly say, but it was one of the peices of modern art on display at last night's "Nuit Blanche", an annual tradition in Paris during which a number of churches, public buildings, and open spaces house temporary artistic exhibits open to the public to view during the night. Claire and I went yesterday to see some of the ouvres d'arte in Le Marais (a neat, old part of Paris on the Rive Droite) and one of my favorites was the one pictured above. Other highlights (shown below) included the 700-kilogram gigantic necklace made up of Venetian glass and the huge table filled with burning candles which represented different monuments of the world (you should be able to pick out the Eiffel Tower and Twin Towers in the photo). Then again, we also waited in line for twenty minutes to witness a bunch of old shoes with candles burning in them, so not everything could be claimed an artistic victory....

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Nate Update

Been away from the blogosphere for the past week since it's been a busy one. I just returned from a scientific conference in the small town of Dordonne which is about an hour and a half outside of Paris. It was for all the different clinical and basic researchers at Hopital Necker, and several people from my lab (not to mention my wife) were also in attendance. The vast majority of the talks were in French, so I was not able to fully comprehend the full importance of all the presentations. However, I was at least able to come away with a few additional connections and a substantial addition to my French medical vocabulary. Just a few examples:

le moelle osseuse = bone marrow
le mucoviscidose = cystic fibrosis
la rate = the spleen
le souche sauvage = wild-type control strain
le cervelet = the cerebellum
la substance blanche = white matter
l'epissage = splicing

In other news, France's most famous point guard, Tony Parker, is here in Paris along with the rest of his San Antonio Spurs, for a pre-season exhibition match this weekend. Unfortunately, I didn't get tickets and don't get cable, so I won't be in attendance.

Monday, October 02, 2006

French Games

The name for "tag" in French is "le chat", which translates to "the cat." The person who is "it" is evidently the cat. Perhaps everybody else is the mice? I'm not sure.

Also the name for "hide-and-seek" is simply "cache-cache" from the French verb "cacher" (to hide). Therefore the literal translation would be "hide-hide". The rules, however, remain the same between international versions of this kids' classic.

Also, when you're playing "peek-a-boo" with a baby, instead of saying "peek-a-boo!" you say "cou-cou!"

Also, "Red Light-Green Light" is played under similar circumstances except the person calling everybody over to the other side says "Un-Deux-Trois...Soleil!" (1-2-3...Sun!)

A few random bonus thoughts for the day...

Did I tell y'all about how friggin' cheap it is to travel in Europe? We found some stupendous deals and we're visiting Dublin at the end of October and Prague sometime this spring. The tickets were on the order of about 50 euros each round-trip...

People in the U.S. should stop complaining about prices at the gas pump. Factoring in the conversion rate between euros and the dollar, I estimate that it cost me roughly $100 even to fill up the tank of our rental car two weeks ago, a relatively non-gas-guzzling diesel-engine VW Passat.

My friend who plays the clarinet taught me more about the clarinet than I ever thought I would know. Did you know that there are two types of clarinets in the world? The German and the French. Apparently everybody in the world uses the French-style clarinet now except for the Germans, who cling to their German-style clarinet.

That's it for today!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A French Political Primer

There's been a lot of political interest in France currently with their upcoming presidental elections in April 2007. And although the political system has distinct differences with our U.S. system (e.g., in France there is a bewildering array of alliances and coalitions which are necessary to establish a long-term government), as best as I can tell the decision as to who gets to be president usually comes down to two distinct candidates, much the same as our "two-party" Democrat-Republican system.

So: the two main parties--one from the right (the "UMP", currently in power with Jacques Chirac serving the 2nd of two terms as Prez) and one from the left (the Socialists being the main party) are in the process of officially determining who the main candidates will be--a process which is similar in a sense to the primary elections in the U.S., in which only party members are allowed to participate. Although these elections have yet to take place, I can already tell you with fair certainty that the race will come down to two candidates: Nicolas Sarkozy (on the right) and Segolene Royal (on the left).

Sarkozy is currently the Minister of the Interior as part of the Chirac government. He is the son of Hungarian immigrants and has recently returned from a trip to the United States to meet with George Bush, a move which was widely publicized here in France and indicated generally pro-American stance. As in the United States, the political parties on the right tend to be supported primarily by business and corporations.

If elected, Royal would be the 1st female president in French history; she is currently president of the region Poitu-Charentes and is partners with Francois Hollande, another prominent politician in the Socialist Party (I say "partners" because they are not in fact married...they have four children together and are bound together by the "PACS", kind of like the "civil union" of France). Interestingly, the French have only had one president from the left, Francois Mitterand in the 80s; all the others have been from the right. And in general, universities and the "intellectual elite" are more likely to support the more liberal left, although it seems to me that there is often a division of opinion within the left which sometimes prevents them from acting as a unified party.

A recent scary development in the whole French political system has been the rise to power of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a political leader on the far right whose ideas have found favor with those seeking to blame immigration, especially from Northern Africa, on the financial woes of the French economy. In fact, in 2002 Le Pen's political party received slightly more votes than the left party, nearly 17%! Hopefully 2007 will not continue this disturbing trend.