Monday, April 30, 2007

Mont St.-Michel, Revisited

Well, I'm chock-full of blogworthy photos and experiences to keep me going for a couple weeks. Nir "Nirycakes" Modiano is currently on his merry way back to the San Francisco Bay Area and we had a great time together. Boy voyage, Nir!

Friday morning we rented a car (travel recommendation: if you rent through Alamo, you can get kilometrage illimité, which is hard to find) and drove to Mont St. Michel, the monastery/village in Normandy which is a self-contained island when the tide is up but is surrounded by miles of mud and quicksand when the tide is down. It was my second time visiting the city, which began as a settlement as early as the 10th century.

Two photos of note: the first is a statue of the archangel St. Michel, brandishing his sword as he prepares to face a dragon. I like the photo because it looks like St. Michel is going to smite the guy working beneath him, who was in the process of assembling an art exhibit. The second (right) is Claire gazing up at the castle walls from the mudflats below. I like this one because it's enigmatic: what is a pregnant woman doing in this vast expanse of muddy emptiness and what is she looking at?

French Word for the Day: the word for "quicksand" is "sable mouvant", translated literally as "moving sand".

In news which couldn't possibly be any less related, I've recently been thinking about the most important dilemma I will face when I move to Boston: namely, what to do about rooting for the Boston-area sports teams. I've spent a good deal of energy the past few years actively despising the Boston Red Sox (fans too self-important) and New England Patriots (too much success, plus they beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl), and I'm not sure if I should flip-flop my allegiances just to fit in with the rest of Beantown. The Boston Celtics aren't a problem--I've always liked them, ever since fellow northern Minnesotan Kevin McHale clotheslined L.A.'s Kurt Rambis--so I will likely follow them more closely. Suggestions?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Culture Up the Yin-Yang

I've been so busy being a tourist the past few days that I've had a hard time keeping up with the blog. We've participated in a wide range of cultural activities over the past few days (a.k.a. "Culture Up the Yin-Yang") guided by our friends--which has included a personal tour of the Louvre (by our neighbor John, a professor of Art History taking a sabbatical in Paris for the year), a clarinet concert (by fellow fulbright grantee Victor Chavez) and a guided visit of an archaeologic dig site from the 5th century in the Parisian suburbs (by my sister-in-law Laure). Each one of these fantastic activities deserves its own blog entry, but due to lack of time I'm lumping them all into one.

This weekend we're going to visit a small town called Perros-Guirec in Bretagne and hopefully swinging by Mont-St-Michel on the way, provided we don't get woefully lost on the 6-hour drive there. Details and photos to follow. For now, myself and Nir with a statue outside the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris. Bon weekend at tous!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How To Open Oysters

We had some friends over for dinner a few nights ago and decided to go with a seafood theme for the appetizers. This included oysters ("les huitres"), which are surprisingly one of my favorite foods I associate with France. It was the first time I had to open them myself, and fortunately I was supplied with a special oyster knife by Claire's sister Laure in order to make the task more manageable. If you actually want to know how to open oysters, check out this informative web site here.
Obviously, I am not demonstrating the proper technique in the accompanying photo.

French Vocabulary Lesson for the Day: in our French class we received a handout with a list of wonderful expressions which all refer to items of clothing. Some of the noteworthy ones:

se serrer la ceinture = literally, "to tighten one's belt", means the same thing as it does in English: to economize during hard times.

remonter les bretelles à quelqu'un = literally, "to lift somebody up by their suspenders," an expression used to mean "to scold" or "to lecture" somebody for doing something wrong.

prendre une veste = literally, "to take a jacket", an expression used to indicate being shot down in a romantic situation. For example, if you are hitting on a hot woman at a bar and she neglects to talk to you, you could say "J'ai pris une veste."

retourner sa veste = literally, "to return one's jacket", an expression to indicate an abrupt change in opinion.

porter le chapeau = literally, "to wear the hat," an expression meaning, "to be wrongfully accused" of something.

être dans ses petits souliers = literally, "to be in small shoes," an expression to indicate being in an uncomfortable or unpleasant situation.

Monday, April 23, 2007

les Resultats

The top two are Nicolas Sarkozy (31.11%, the major party on the right) and Sègolene Royal (25.83%, the major party on the left). These two will face off during the Deuxieme Tour exactly two weeks from yesterday, on May 5th. I'm very much looking forward to their first public debate, on May 2nd. Overall I think this is good news for France in that the two major parties --each with a different program--are both represented. Furthermore, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who during the 2002 Election surprisingly came in 2nd, was relegated to 4th place with less than 11% of the vote. Finally, an astounding 85% of eligible citizens voted. That's pretty impressive when compared with our numbers in the U.S.

In completely unrelated news, I'm posting this incredibly blog-worthy photo of myself and Claire taken by Nir. Apparently there is a Mr. T look-a-like who does a one-man comedy show which is heavily advertised in Metro stations all over the place.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Election Day Has Arrived!

The time has come...for election day! Within a few short moments, we will know the top 2 candidates, which will then face off against one another in the 2nd Round about two weeks from now. It's exciting because the outcome is still definitely in question. Updates to follow.

In honor of the election, I present another graffiti'ed French campaign poster I found outside of the Musée des Arts et Metiers: this one of the ridiculously far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. The balloon bubble coming from Le Pen's mouth reads, "Je suis un gros pd", which can be translated as "I am a fat pedophile." Gotta love graffiti. Let's hope that Le Pen (who has in the past publicly stated that he doesn't believe the Holocaust happened) doesn't make it into the 2nd round, like he inexplicably did in 2002.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mobile MRI Unit

When I was at Penn for my residency, there was a major problem with the MRI machines. I think the Radiology Department didn't have enough machines to adequately deal with the number of inpatients who needed MRI scans, and it was a not uncommon scenario to have patients staying in the hospital a few extra days while they were waiting for their MRI scan to take place. Seriously--you had to call down and seriously beg in order to get your patient on the schedule in a reasonable time. Anyways, Penn's eventual solution to the problem was to get a "mobile MRI Unit"--a trailer that was parked on the street just outside of the Radiology Department which contained an MRI scanner that the hospital rented. I don't know why, but I found the "mobile MRI Unit" incredibly funny. Perhaps its the fact that you have a piece of super-sophisticated medical technology in the back end of a semi-truck. Perhaps its the fact that it conjures up memories of the time that the Popeye's Chicken restaurant I was living next to in New Haven summer of 1994 had a major grease fire and they brought in a "mobile Popeye's fried chicken unit" as a replacement. In any case, I thought it was funny.

So of course I had to bring my camera in to work and snap a picture of the virtually identical "mobile MRI Unit" that has recently popped up in front of Tour Lavoisier at Hôpital Necker, the place where my lab is located. There you go.

I've also included a photo of an advertisement for the new "Spider-Man burger" at Quick (a French fast food chain à la McDonalds), which includes "100% Fromage Filant" (100% stringy cheese, presumably to mimic Spidey's webbing). As many of you may know, I'd be one of the last people to turn down the occasional fast food-based meat product....but in my opinion this looks absolutely disgusting. Who were the ad wizards that came up with this campaign? Who wants to associate cheese with stringy spider webs? Ick.

French for the Day: the word MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) in French is IRM (imagerie par résonance magnétique) .

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nir Does Paris

Look out, Paris, here comes Nir. My college roommate of 3 years and the best man at my wedding Nir is visiting for about 2 weeks. What's on the agenda? Aside from eating the big box of Cap'n Crunch that he brought me as a gift, I have no idea...but I'm pretty sure I will be able to expand my list of Parisian tourist activities at the end of the visit.

Yesterday we took a stroll through the Jardin de Luxembourg to celebrate the fine weather. This picture of Nir "Nirycakes" Modiano was taken at the Musée de Cluny located in the Latin Quarter.

The big news in France is that of course the presidential election is less than a week away! Election Day - Round I will take place on Sunday, April 22nd. There are campaign posters everywhere (by French law, each of the 12 presidential candidates is required to have equivalent public explosure on ads, television, etc during the campaign), including this one of Segolene Royal with the word "escroc" (French for "crook") written across her forehead. Also, on her left cheek is written the acronym "ISF", which stands for "impot sur la fortune"-- a kind of "luxury tax" which only the rich (including Segolene, despite the fact that she is the candidate for the Socialist Party) have to pay in France.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Game Night

Just got back from "Game Night" at Sophie's (from my lab's). Quite a challenge for my français, but at least I understood the rules and required very minimal translation from Claire. We played an interesting game called "les Loups-Garous" (translation: "the Werewolves"). Each player picks a card from a deck which assigns him or her as either a werewolf or a villager. Each night the werewolves choose somebody in the room to devour and thus eliminate from the game. The rest of the game revolves around guessing who is the loup-garou, a process which involves a great deal of deceipt, lying, bluffing, and bargaining.

Starting Tomorrow: Nir Does Paris. (explanation: my friend Nir is visiting us for about 2 weeks.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

la Foire

Still finishing up pics from last weekend in Nantes...I was in for a special treat when we stumbled upon the big spring carnival for the city! Rides! Fried dough! Carnies! What more can you ask for?

The French fair is not too fair off from its American counterpart. There is cotton candy ("barbe à papa"), roller coasters ("les montagnes russes"), gargantuan stuffed animals you can win by throwing darts at balloons, and even the phenomenon of the shady, vaguely alcohol-looking carnival worker operating rides is present. Good times all around.

I went on two rides; one a roller coaster which unfortunately gave me some bruised ribs, and the other this gigantic claw thing (pictured--if you squint, you can see my legs extended out on the left-hand side of the photo) which swung back and forth like the "Viking ship" ride which is one of my personal favorites.

Link of the Day: indulge your inner biology geek and check out this awesome bit of computer animated video depicting the inner workings of the cell. Very well done.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Basketball Vocabulaire

So I just came back from playing basketball for the first time in about 6 months...perhaps my longest time ever away from court?...and I thought I'd begin today's blog entry with a series of basketball vocabulary words in French:

a basketball = un ballon de basket
basketball court = un terrain de basket
the rim = l'anneau
the backboard = le panneau
the basket = le panier
to guard a player = marquer un jouer
to dribble = dribbler
While playing in a pick-up game with some French guys, I also learned a difference in French versus American basketball: in the U.S., when a player shoots an air ball, that same player is not allowed to touch the ball first if he has taken more than 1 1/2 steps--it's considered a travel. The ball has to hit the rim first. In France, as long as the ball passes the plane of the net, it's fair game for anybody. I know this because the French dude I was guarding launched an air ball, caught it, then made another shot. I immediately called a travel on him, but he would hear none of it. Since we're playing in France, we abide by the French rules. Fair enough. In general, I liked playing since I would say on average the French are shorter than Americans, so I was for once one of the taller people playing...
Saw another interesting movie last night: The Lives of Others (La Vie des Autres), a film about the East German Secret Police's surveillance methods during the 1890s. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and I can see why: it was a really powerful and riveting story! We saw the movie in the V.O. (version originale), meaning in the original German with French subtitles. I'm definitely getting better with my French; though I didn't get every single word of dialogue I had no problem following the basic plot.
More Nantes photos from last week: along what used to be the edge of the Loire River (it's been relocated since apparently) there are a series of beautifully restored apartments which are really cool. The foundations have all sunken far down into the soft soil and therefore the buildings themselves are often crookedly aligned with the ground. Check out the windows, which I hope you can see are off-kilter with one another.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Why? WHY?

After learning the rules of "double pronoms" last week in French class, I felt like Nancy Kerrigan after getting clubbed with a lead pipe by one of Tonya Harding's goons. Why? WHY?? Because it's the French language, that's why. The rule is that with sentences in which both direct and indirect objects are used, there are some indirect object pronouns (me, te, vous, nous) you place before the direct object (e.g., "Je te le donne" = "I give it to you") whereas other indirect object pronouns (lui, leur) you place after the direct object (e.g., "Je le lui donne" = "I give it to him").

But rather than dwell obsessively on points of French grammar, I'm going to talk about the new sci film "Sunshine" that I saw yesterday. I'm still in the process of deciding what my feelings are on the movie. On the one hand, the atmosphere was perfect: interesting premise (the sun is going to die and astronauts travel through space in an attempt to re-start it with a bomb) which is at least somewhat explained by real science, an eerie spaceship with stylish sunshields to protect it from the awesome power of the sun hurtling through space, and neato spacesuits to boot. Furthermore, there are some references to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Oddysey" (a ship computer that is similar in many respects to Hal, plus I think I saw a "monolith" at the end of the film when they pan back to Earth) one of my favorites. But about 2/3 of the way through the movie, right about when the crew of Icarus II boards the failed Icarus I ship, the tone changes from a realistic, plot-driven movie to an inexplicable "dream-sequence"-like horror film which features a bizarre Freddy Krueger-like character that terrorizes the crew. In general, I like a good dose of the bizarre and fantastic in my sci fi movies, but as this one did not have a logical explanation or interpretation to go along with it, I was left feeling a little disappointed in the ending, as if I was expecting something at the end which would "tie everything together" which never came. That said, the scenery and effects are riveting, and the story was stressful enough that I was involved throughout. A review similar to my own thoughts (but a tad more negative) is here.

French for the Day: the word "rose pétant" is French for the color "hot pink." It has as its origins the verb "péter" which also means "to fart." So I like to think of the translation of "rose pétant" as "farting pink".

Finally, I leave you with some photos of the Chateau de Nantes (and people doing backflips on its front lawn), which we explored the day after Easter during our brief vacation.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Great Pétanque Balls of Fire

After many long hours of watching old French men playing their pétanque (ed: definitely check out this link!) in the parks of Paris, I finally had a chance to toss the metal balls this Easter Sunday in Nantes! Allow me to explain: pétanque is the "bocce ball" of France, a sport (hey, if you can call golf a sport, you can call petonc a sport) in which nearly anybody could play as long as they have working arms. It begins by tossing the tiny yellow ball (le cochonnet) a few meters away. Each player has two large metal balls you toss in an attempt to be the closest to le cochonnet. You play traditionally in teams up to a score of 13. Claire took some pictures of us playing at Olivier (Claire's brother's) and Dorothée's (his wife) house.

French election-related Vocab for the Day: la procuration. As you may know, the French election is rapidly approaching (April 22nd). Because of a series of boring bureaucratic details I shan't bore you with, Claire is unable to vote in Paris and remains registered in her parents' home of LaBaule. But she's still going to be able to be represented by giving the right to vote "by procuration" to her father. She will simply tell him who she wants to vote for (that is, once she finally figures out WHO she is going to vote for...another story) and then trust him to mark it down for her. Anyways, I thought this was interesting since I'm pretty sure you can't do anything like this in the United States.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Fun in the Sun

Vocab Word of the Day is definitely “le printemps”, the French word for springtime. For springtime, it is! It seems as if the gray, foreboding Paris of March has transformed into a glorious, blooming version of the city within about a week. I’ll have to keep my camera handy in order to record this remarkable transformation.

Fortunately the good weather was readily apparent for the duration of our weekend in LaBaule and Nantes. On Saturday, we went to the beach at LaBaule with our nieces Maeva and Auxanne as well as my friend Scott (a fellow Fulbright grantee who happens to live in nearby Angers, shown in photo making sand balls with Maeva). During the weekend Maeva celebrated her birthday of 8 years old and her sister’s birthday is a few weeks ago (turning 5 years old). The trip also provided us with the chance to raid the closets of Maeva and Auxanne...we are returning home with three large bundles of baby clothes! Our kid will be better dressed than me, although that shouldn't be too difficult.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Joyeuses Paques!

For the Easter Vacation I'm heading to La Baule and then Nantes to celebrate Easter and also the birthdays of my neices Maeva and Auxanne. I hope the French Easter Bell (their totally lame replacement for the Easter Bunny) rings loudly and brings me lots of candy. Will post blog stuff as time and internet access permits.

Also, my wife reminds me that I am longer overdue to acknowledge her victory in this year's March Madness college basketball pool. She picked Florida to win it all--in large part, I think, because it prominently featured a French kid--and as a result beat me soundly. Congratulations, Claire--you have clearly demonstrated a superior knowledge of the game of basketball over your husband.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Pictorial Guide to Pronouncing French Nasal Vowel Sounds

We worked a little bit on prononciation of the French nasal vowel sounds today in our French class. A good thing, too, because I have an embarrassingly bad American accent when I attempt to speak (read: mangle) the French language. Anyways, the teach actually drew some diagrams regarding how you’re supposed to form your mouth with each of the major vowel sounds. I have thus painstakingly created this visual guide. Enjoy!

First, we have the sound “un”—the masculine indefinite article. (for example = Est-ce que tu as un stylo? = Do you have a pen?). The “un” sound, which I find one of the toughest to master, is pronounced while smiling, with the teeth closed. Try it at home!

Next, we have the sound “an” and “en”. An example would be “durant" (during) and “engraisser” (to fatten up). This sound is pronounced with the mouth wide open, as much like a square as possible, according to the teach.

Finally, we have the sound “on”, probably the easiest of the bunch. The mouth is shaped like a little “o”, like the word “tampon” (buffer) or “bon” (good).

As an exercise, you can practice repeating the phrase “un jambon” (a ham), which contains all three nasal vowel sounds. Yes, at one point during today’s class, an entire class of adults was incessantly repeating the French word for “a ham”. If aliens are watching our every move from outer space, they are very confused.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Big News

Big News to share on Nate's Blog! Claire is pregnant (and looking more and more pregnant with each passing day, as you can easily tell by the photo)! The due date ("date d'accouchement" en français) is June 23rd and we are now within the 3rd trimester. In fact, we are now in the 29th week, which is fortunately well past the mark recently set for the world's most premature baby in Florida (an astounding 21 weeks--crazy!) No Guiness Book of World Records for this baby. 2 arms, 2 legs, a normal amount of digits...we don't ask for much.

To address the obvious questions: We don't know if it's a petite fille or a petit garçon yet, and we're going to hold out 'til the end for a surprise. However, I'm feeling pretty strongly that's it's going to be a girl; this is based on a dream I had fairly early on in the pregnancy as well as the fact that this year I've hung out mostly with women (my lab is about 80% female). Not very scientific of me, I know, but call it a feeling. Interestingly, in French you often refer to the baby as a "he" since the word "le bébé" is masculine--a little strange, perhaps, but I think it's preferable to the English practice of referring to the baby as "it". Anyways, we're going to have the baby here in Paris at the nearby Clinique Jeanne d'Arc. We're scheduled to be back in the U.S. by the second week of August, as I am scheduled to start my fellowship in Boston on August 15th. Adventure awaits!

Miscellaneous French Pregnancy-Associated Vocab:
-pregnancy = "la grossesse"
-cravings = "les envies" (interestingly, the classic food iteam for pregnant French women to crave are strawberries, not pickles).
-morning sickness = "la nausée du matin" (and I'm happy to report that Claire has not experienced this).
-to induce labor = "declencher"

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Elvis is Alive

When in Memphis....
Yes, we went to Graceland while in Memphis. How can you not? This was actually my second visit to Elvis' shrine, the first time coming during an impromptu road trip from St. Louis during my wild n'crazy graduate school days. He's still alive, you know. I have proof: a few days ago I saw the face of Elvis in my grilled cheese sandwich.

They say that Johnny Hallyday is the "French Elvis." But we all know that nobody can really compete with the King. I mean, who else could look so good in a jumpsuit with an embroidered tiger on it? Certainly not Matt Ortman, pictured above next to the Pelvis himself.

French for the Day: when it's raining outside and somebody complains about it, a good response is, "On n'est pas en sucre." It is translated as, "We're not made out of sugar." Learned that in my French class this morning.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Congrats Dave and Lisa

I’m back from my 48-hour jaunt to Memphis and back! Does it sound terribly snooty to say that I hopped the pond to visit friends in the ‘States just for the weekend? I hope not. Although on the surface I will admit that it sounds a little crazy to spend all that time and money to journey halfway across the globe only to return a few hours later, in retrospect I’m incredibly glad that I went. Weddings are important events, and I can’t think of any wedding I’ve attended that I’ve regretted going to, and there are more than a few weddings of good friends I’ve felt guilty not attending. And if nothing else, the opportunity to “let down my guard” and speak English all weekend long was truly paradisical.

A good chunk of my close friends from my residency in Philadelphia were there (pictured above are myself, Ellen, Sara, Dave (the groom), Matt, Jeff, Helen, George, and Suzanne). It was the first “black tie” wedding I’ve been to and although it was a major hassle obtaining a tuxedo overseas, I think you’ll agree that the menfolk looked damned sexy in their formalwear.

I was also asked to be one of the witnesses for the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. The finished hand-painted document is shown below (if you squint hard you can even make out my signature, in both English and Hebrew characters) and is quite beautiful. A neat tradition of the Jewish wedding which is perhaps second only to lifting up the bride and groom in a chair and carrying them around. I think this practice is such fun that it should undoubtedly be expanded to weddings of all denominations.

More Memphis photos to come later in the week. For now, our French Expression for the Day is "Jamais deux sans trois", which means "Never two without three. Which I suppose is akin to our expression "Good things come in three."