Monday, January 30, 2006

How to tell a French person

One of the fond hopes that we parents had in bringing our children to France was that it would teach them to be more understanding and accepting of other cultures and points of view. Over the five months we have been in Paris, it has been amazing to see how well they have adapted to a flood of new experiences.

Therefore I had a warm glow of satisfaction and even pride this evening when my six year old son announced that he had a sure fire way to tell if someone was French.

I inquired, “how is that?”
“Easy,” Alexander replied. “They salt almost all of their food.”

To understand this conversation, you have to go back to last May, which we spent in Italy. Our boys – knowing of their imminent exile to Paris – were desperate to see what French people were like.

As luck would have it, we had lunch in Sicily next to a table of French people. This table made a big impression on our boys for two reasons: first, because one of the men salted every single piece of food he was served, including the bread; and second, because they committed the unforgivable sin of complaining about the street musicians whose performance we had been enjoying before the flustered waiter shooed them away.

It turns out that our boys' first - and highly unrepresentative – impression of the French is still what stands out most in their minds. Over time, they have even embellished the story to the point where they now claim that the salt-oholic Frenchman they observed exhausted the contents of three full salt shakers during his lunch.

I certainly hope that European children don't hang on grimly to their negative first impressions of Americans.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

All the time in the world

One of the great luxuries of being new in town is that you have nothing to do. There are no piano lessons, no swim meets, no dinner parties – only white space on your calendar as far as the eye can see.

Even in a boring city, this is bound to change, but in Paris the change is accelerated. My once pristine calendar is now a mass of illegibly-written entries. It’s Thursday and I haven’t had a single relaxing, sip coffee at home morning yet this week.

On the other hand, I have wine-tasted, learned how to make blanquette au veau, gone to fencing and music classes, and so forth and so on. Maybe Americans are just genetically not up to the challenge of sustaining la dolce vita.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Elephant plumbing

For our kids, winter in Paris means Circus time. Their tents and high-class squatter villages pop up all over the city at the start of the year.

On Saturday, we took Austen and 14 friends for a late birthday party to a circus near where we live - Cirque Alexis Gruss. The circus is located in the Bois de Boulogne, sort of a super-sized central park on the west edge of Paris and a 20 minute walk from our apartment.

The most harrowing part of the day was the first hour, when the kids descended on our apartment for cake. Just think of the mayhem a dozen hyperactive 9 year olds armed with lemon soda and chocolate cake could wreak on an 80 square meter apartment!

After that, we marched at near-military speed to see a charming old-fashioned circus with jugglers, acrobats and horseback riders, nearly all of whom were named Gruss. Despite the many jaw-dropping feats, the moment which made the most lasting impression on the children was when the elephant took an unscheduled potty break in the middle of the ring.


Monday, January 16, 2006

Fun with sharp sticks - fencing in Paris

One of our unsuccessful efforts to build our children’s enthusiasm for the big move to Paris was to let them see the movie, “The Three Muskateers.” They loved the movie, but still hated the move.

Of all our many shortcomings as parents, perhaps none are quite as glaring as our inability to instill any sort of pacifistic tendencies into our children. Every object is transformed in their chubby hands into a weapon of devastating power.

At some point, we shifted our focus from prohibiting violence to channeling the violence (it’s ok to hit each other with sticks, just don’t use sharp sticks). In keeping with this philosophy of appeasement, it was only a matter of time before the sharp stick injunction went by the wayside too.

At his school, Austen befriended a girl who was taking fencing classes and who showed him a few basic moves. Then he went to see her practice at her fencing academy (where half of the fencers are girls!). Last Saturday we took both boys for their first lesson.

Having talked about it for a week, on the day of the outing the boys both got cold feet. At issue for them was not a fear for bodily well-being but the much more precious commodity of self-esteem – the only language spoken at the school is French.

It is one thing to endure normal school in French and a very different thing to volunteer your Saturday for more instruction in French. Austen declared that he had thought so much about the difficulties of learning fencing in French that his tummy hurt. Alexander announced that he was going to make the instructors repeat everything in English.

Every child dreams of being transported into the middle of a three musketeer’s movie – last weekend that dream came true. The sight and sound of 30 children beating on one another with swords puts the action scenes in any Three Muskateers movie to shame.

The other children were patient and polite with ours, the language was not a problem, and we have now retreated to the almost completely untenable parental position that it is ok to hit each other with sharp sticks as long as you are both wearing padding.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Parisian literary salons - alive and well

As an example of the the devious lengths to which the mind will go to avoid doing "real work" (aka implementing my New Year's resolutions to get to work on my book), I misspent an entire day this week delving into an obscure episode of the novel "Ulysses" by James Joyce.

How did this happen? First of all, we found the wonderful alesian literary salon in Paris that happened to be studying Ulysses, which was initially published here. We then found a great English language bookstore in Paris, Red Wheelbarrow, in one fell swoop ruining another New Year's resolution, this one about reading only books written in French.

The last link in the chain was when I got a bee in my bonnet to track down a reference to the Arian Heresy in Ulysses. Result - four pages of turgid, toe-curling fodder for the global Ulysses de-obfuscation association. An excerpt follows:
Begotten, Not Made - Ulysses And The Arian Heresy
Ulysses, by James Joyce, is a famously incomprehensible book, in part because Joyce seems to assume that all his readers grew up in Dublin and were educated by Jesuits. A good example of this is his cryptic reference early in the novel to Arius, a Christian theologian and heretic from the fourth century. This article delves into the links between Ulysses and the Arian Heresy.

Stephen's Dilemma
Stephen Daedelus, the Hamlet-esque protagonist of Ulysses, starts the novel with a lot on his mind. Appalled by his father's behavior, ashamed of his own behavior at the deathbed of his mother and unsure of his artistic skills, Stephen longs to escape the "nightmare of history" - particularly his own.

In characteristically gloomy fashion, he compares his attempt to separate his own destiny from his boozy father's with the unsuccessful efforts of the Christian heretic, Arius, to separate the Son (Jesus) from the Father (God).

Arian Heresy
Arius (AD 256 – 336) was a Christian theologian who claimed that God existed before Jesus. This is consistent with Mark’s gospel in which Jesus was a man who ascended into union with God, but conflicts with John’s gospel in which Jesus is a divine being who has always been in union with God (also called “consubstantiation”).

In the early church, there was an active debate between Arius - who felt it was dangerous to blur the lines between God and Jesus - and opposing theologians - who felt it was more dangerous to make Jesus too human. The debate took a nasty turn when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in the Roman empire.
The full article on Ulysses and the Arian Heresy is here

Reading this full article will demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that I: a) have way too much time on my hands; b) thought way too hard about Dan Brown's Davinci Code; and c) am capable to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid writing on the topic I am supposed to be addressing.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Best of European Travel 2005

After six months crisscrossing Europe with kids in tow, we’ve seen the inside of a lot of hotel rooms. We’ve endured drunken, singing neighbors rolling merrily home at 2am. We’ve had major trucking routes located less than 50 ft from our shaking headboards. We’ve spent bleary wee morning hours tracking down crafty mosquitoes.

Mostly, however, we have also gotten to enjoy exquisite resort settings across all of Europe. From these, here are our personal favorite spots for 2005.

· Most beautiful spot in Europe: Wengen, Switzerland, Near Interlocken, Hotel Caprice ( Looking across a deep valley at a waterfall that tumbles straight down over 1,000 feet, hiking across a carpet of flowers masquerading as an alpine meadow, listening to the oddly soothing clonking of the cow bells. Not coincidentally, this was also the most expensive spot we stayed.
· Best summer resort for kids in Europe: Lech, Austria. Austria, Lech, Near Innsbruck, Hotel Omesberg ( Almost as beautiful as Wengen and much more kid friendly. A lovely place to rent bikes, hike everywhere or just drop the kids off at a local soccer clinic and spend the morning drinking coffee and munching pastries.
· Best agro-turismo in Italy: Locanda Rossati ( A working farm with an excellent kitchen and a luxury swimming pool, where the kids can pick raspberries in the morning, lay around the pool all day and milk the cows at night. Close to the gorgeous hill town of Orvieto in Tuscany.
· Best ski chalet in the Alps: Chalet Chardon, Val d’Isere. We spent an incredibly pampered week here in a luxurious catered chalet with exquisite food, a delightful staff and panoramic views of the mountains. Only recommendation would be to come later in the season, late-January or February, when more of the mountain is open for off-piste skiing.