samedi, février 03, 2007


After the past couple of weeks of going out many nights in a row and exhausting myself, it was sort of nice to have a quiet Saturday. I hung out at home and did some reading and writing, then went over to a colleague's house for dinner. It was a big family-style dinner, so we had some fantastic onion soup and a boeuf au tomate (beef in tomato ragout), as well as some fantastic cheese and little sweet dumplings for dessert. Another one of my colleagues was there for dinner, too, and we ended up fixing a date for ceviche at her place in a week or two. Apparently, she knows where to find good sea-bass. Mmmm.

vendredi, février 02, 2007

Don Giovanni of the Financial District

By the time I got home and got to bed the night before, it was really, really late (or rather early, depending on how you see it), so I slept in quite a bit before finally crawling out of bed and taking care of some work. That evening, I had been given tickets to go see Mozart's Don Giovanni at Opéra Bastille with some colleagues from work. It had been a while since I had dressed formally, so I put on a suit and tie and headed off to the opera.

Although Mozart's score and Da Ponte's libretto are beautiful, and the musical performances that night were mostly lovely, the mise-en-scène I don't want to say "terrible" or "stupid" or whatever, because I think the idea had potential, but the execution was disappointing. The director took the story of a young corrupt noble / shameless ladies' man from 18th-century Spain (and his eventual comeuppance) and re-set it in a steel-and-glass office building. The set is a monochrome blue-grey, showing what seems like a break room / common area downstage, offices and an elevator stage left, and a set of windows looking down over an atrium stage right. Everyone is in business attire (or, for the peasants, janitorial uniforms), Leporello reads his catalog aria from a palm pilot, and this deserted cafeteria stands in for bedroom scenes, outdoor scenes, party scenes and even the final dinner scene. This image, from the Bastille's website for the performance, gives a taste of the staging and costuming:

Anyway, the visual palette for the opera was monochrome to say the least, and this also informed the stage direction and musical performances. The performers tended to move very little, often eschewing the stylized expressive gestures that serve as a coded language of affect and emotion in operatic performance. The music was similarly flat; Leporello's catalog aria was smooth and lyric and controlled, rather than buffo and brilliant and campy. Similarly, Donna Anna's rage aria (Me tradisti quell'alma ingrata) sounded more like a Gilbert&Sullivan patter song. In an odd change of libretto, Don Giovanni doesn't deliver his famous canzonetta, Deh, vieni alla finistra, to the maid of a woman he had romanced and abandoned (as a show of how insensitive and promiscuous he is), but instead pathetically to himself, lying on the floor and wrapped in Leporello's jacket.

In fact, there were a lot of odd changes. Many humorous or fun scenes were made dark and uncomfortable, often with the goal of painting Don Giovanni as a sadistic rapist. What was wooing in the libretto became aggressive groping onstage; what was flirting became sexual assault and humiliation, and what was ravishing became full-on rape. While one might argue (and I think the director would) that Da Ponte's libretto implies the latter terms when he employs the former ones, this attempt at détournement/verfremdung through making things explicit just seems to result in banality. Modernist deformations of pre-modernist works is now a long-standing tradition, so the effect for me was less "scathing critique" and more "cheap shock value."

So, all of this adds up to me saying that the mise-en-scène was wrong. The idea of doing a Don Giovanni--The Office mash-up could've been great, but the end result was preachy and heavy-handed rather than funny and tragic. Meh.

jeudi, février 01, 2007

Art Openings and Party Crashing

So, one of the folks on my floor (we'll call her A. for this post) had received an invitation to an exhibition opening at the Palais de Toyko, which is this fabulous modern art/media gallery next to Paris' modern art museum and across from the Eiffel tower. There was a new exhibition called "News from an upside-down world" (nouvelles du monde renversé), and we had invitations to the opening night party.

We had to hurdle a few obstacles to get to the event. The thing started around 20h00, so we were planning to get there at 21h00. I had sent en email to A. from work that morning, telling her to give me a rendez-vous time and place, since she taught an English class somewhere in the 18th arr. until 20h00. Without realizing it, the battery in my cellphone died, so I hung around my roon until nearly 20h00, wondering why A. hadn't emailed or called me back. Finally, one of the other residents on my floor knocked on my door, with his cellphone in hand. "A. wants to talk to you," he said. A very flustered A. told me that we were supposed to meet at her workplace now, but she's going to head back to her place and change since I was still there. Confused, I said OK and hung up. That's when I went to look at my phone and realized that the battery was dead. !@#$.

A. got back to our building and put on her party attire. I was feeling guilty about missing the rendez-vous, so I was already dressed and ready to do out when she knocked on my door. A few minutes later, we were on the métro, heading toward our destination. We had initially planned to meet earlier and then grab a bit of dinner before heading over, so neither of us had eaten and we were starved. When we got to the museum, we walked past and headed over to a cluster of bars and brasseries near Pont D'Alma. The place where we finally ended up ("Devéz," which seemed to have unnecessary diacritics as if it were a pseudo-French restaurant in the States) offered tapas-like combinations of food from the south of France. We each got a different combination and then split each of our portions and shared them between each other. The food was mostly delicious, if a bit pricey. 12€ got you six little two-bite portions on a piece of slate (yes, we're in the kind of neighbourhood that invests in "conceptual" dinnerware), but some of those bites involved pan-seared goose foie gras or beef carpaccio.

I also had an amusing cultural-learning moment while we were eating. We ordered a half-bottle of white wine, which was poured for us when the waiter brought it out. A little while later, A. had finished her glass. I hadn't finished mine, so I kept cheerfully chatting away. After waiting a moment, A. piped up: "Luis, can you serve me some wine?" The decanter was closer to her, but I nodded and pour some wine into her glass. Perhaps sensing my puzzlement, she said, "Women don't pour their own wine here. It's simply not done." This would explain why, during my sister's visit last November, waiters would lunge across the dining floor to rip the wine bottle out of my sister's hand whenever she made to pour for herself. Mind you, the better waiters always refilled our glasses before we noticed they were empty.

By the time we finished our food and got the check, it was getting pretty late. We were supposed to be there for 21h00 and it was 23h00 already. A. had been getting intermittent text messages and calls from the person who invited her to the event, so the pressure was on. We tore back to the museum, convinced that the party was over. When we got there, there was still a pretty substantial crowd of people standing near the door and smoking, and even more inside. A. had lost her glasses that day, so she wasn't entirely sure she would be able to identify her friend from a distance. After wandering around the opening for a little while, we headed into the exhibit. There was a really great installation where someone had filled two large dumpsters with soapy foam and then thrown a coating of light Styrofoam pellets on top. The pellets were light enough to rest on top of the bubbles, but they also broke the surface tension of the bubbles, so they danced downward, bubble to bubble, in a spastic shower. There was another installation that involved towers build out of molded orange rinds. As my friend Amy would say, "Ultimately, it's the concept..." There was also a room dedicated to flags, passports, currency and other documents from imaginary countries and kingdoms. Very cute, if a bit of a one-note act.

We didn't see much more of the exhibit, because we got another call from A.'s friend, wondering where the hell we were. We zipped back to the entrance and found him chatting with the staff. As soon as I saw him, I was struck by the fact that he seemed so familiar, but at the same time clearly somebody I didn't know. It was an odd mix of familiarity and estrangement. Anyway, he handed us an invitation, a drink ticket, and a meal ticket (adding a layer of irony to our rather expensive dinner a moment ago). As it turned out, the "invite only" event was going on upstairs, on the second floor.

Off we went upstairs, only to find that there was no food left (all was not in vain, it seems) and only a couple of beers left. We got our beer and then A. ran into a few other friends and classmates. We hung around and chatted a bit, then A.'s friend (the one that had an internship at the museum) invited the group of us to come out to a courtyard area near the administrative offices. While everyone smoked (tobacco and otherwise), I sat down and struck up conversation with the folks around me. I got into a friendly chat with a girl across from me with long blond dreadlocks and white eyeliner. She was really excited that I was from Canada and had great things to say about my French (which was greatly appreciated, given my recent misgivings), so she turned to her friend and initiated the following conversation:

Blonde Dreadlocked Girl:Hey! This guy is from Toronto, and his French is excellent!
Brunette:Well, duh. He's Québecois, and they speak French there.
BDG:No no, he's from Toronto. It's the anglophone side of Canada.
Brntte:Ah. I always confuse Canada with Quebec.
Me:*forced smile*

I made a split-second decision, based on the crowd and the amount of intoxicants circulating said crowd, and didn't bother to bring them up to date on the last century of Canadian anglo-franco domestic politics.

At around 1am, the group suddenly realized two important things: 1) the last subway train would be passing very soon; and 2) there was no more alcohol. We slowly made our way out of the building, chatting and generally getting lost in the darkened hallways. As we were heading out of the building, the brunette grabs my arm, saying "Hey, if you want to keep partying, stick with us. There's an afterparty nearby. I think you should come with us, 'cause you're cool. I once 'flirted' [this term in French is a euphemism in the way 'date' often is in English, -ed.] with this guy from Québec...he was really hot...and, you know, Canadians have such a different mindset. Not stuck up like the folks here, don't you think?"

So, to sum up, this girl had proven to be rather under-informed about Canada and its politics, smitten with a rather idealized notion of Canadians (in a "love for the colonies" sort of way), and possibly hitting on me (why are girls hitting on me so much here in Paris?!). On the other hand, she was very friendly and she invited me to an afterparty. So, I nodded and said something non-committal about Montreal being "laid back" and followed them, with A. in tow.

The party was actually in the sub-sub basement of the Palais de Tokyo, which was accessible from a long set of stairs right next to the building, which ran down the side of the hill upon which the palais was perched. At the bottom was a small (now dry and barren) garden; at the other end of the garden was an unmarked metal door leading back into the building, where it seemed that the partygoers had taken over an unfinished storage area. The music must've been really loud inside, because we could hear noise when we were only half-way down the hill.

Just as we arrived at the foot of the hill and approached the garden, a pair of police officers walked passed us and approached the door. As a result, only half of our group got through the door before the person opening the door spotted the police and slammed it shut. The officers began asking the rest of us who was in charge of the party, and whether they had clearance to hold the event. Since I was truly a random arrival, I had no clue, but anybody who did kept their mouth shut anyway. After getting nowhere with us, one of the officers approached the door and knocked on it. Since the door had no peephole, and possibly presuming that the officers had left, the doorman opened the door. When he saw the officer standing there, his expression fell. He said, curtly, "This is a private event," and closed the door. This is the wrong way to deal with the police in Paris. What you're supposed to do is invite them in, apologize about the inconvenience, promise to turn down the volume, and then bribe them. The officers were not pleased.

It's funny how moments like these are never clean, fast-paced narratives like you might see in a movie. Many minutes were passed repeating the same questions and non-answers, shrugging and pacing, waiting for someone else to make a move. The door opened and closed several times and wiser people began to leave the party, avoiding the questions from the police officers. One guy stumbled out, obviously drunk, and began yelling at everyone outside for "bringing the cops." He was getting physically and verbally aggressive, until he realized the the police were still there and they were reaching for their nightsticks.

And then, as if some decision had been made, the lights came on inside, the music cut off, the crowd booed, and people began leaving the building. The doorman, himself clearly drunk and/or high, stuck his head out the door and said "The party is over!" He went back into the building, but the police officers made no show of leaving. Clearly, they were going to talk to him whether he liked it or not.

A few minutes later, A. reappeared (she had made it inside) and we decided to cut our losses and get back home before the last train (which was coming any minute). We scrambled into the station and caught the last train heading for République. A few minutes in, the train stopped and we heard a message saying "Due to a grave incident médicale, service has been interrupted on all lines running through Nation station." Everybody took the phrase 'grave incident médicale' to mean 'suicide by subway,' and braced themselves for a wait, cracking awkward jokes that all translated to: "I realize this is awful, but it sucks that some guy killed himself and delayed my ride home." A. was getting saltier and saltier, as it was becoming clear that we wouldn't make our connection at République.

The train started up again, but then stopped one station before République. We got out and asked the train conductor if he knew when it would start up again, but he had no clue. After a moment's consideration, we headed up to the surface and walked towards République, accompanied by a young guy named Momo (a common N. African nickname), who had been on the train with us. He worked at a grocery store near République, and he lived in the banlieue (burbs), so he decided to head back to the store and sleep there that night. A. and I thought about taking the night bus (which passed right by République), but instead decided to call a cab. However, before getting into the cab, I snapped a picture of this fantastic thing:

Partially obscured by a nearby building, this lit sign was hanging high atop a wall (nearly 6th floor), with the words "Cry Me a River" in rainbow colours. I don't know what it's all about, but I plan on investigating.

mercredi, janvier 31, 2007

DJ Does Paris to speak.

Well, I'm a bit behind on my blog entries, so I don't have the time to crack jokes at his expense and/or make ribald insinuations--much as I'd like to. Sorry, DJ, I'll make it up to you soon. In the meanwhile, here's the Reader's Digest version of Wednesday:

DJ--a colleague from U of C working on Jazz in Paris--arrived this morning at CDG and I headed over there to meet him. His plane arrived a bit early, so I caught him just as he was heading over towards the RER station. I gave him a hand with his luggage and we were off to his new abode in Paris. After a thoroughly pleasant ride (haha) back to his place by subway and bus, we unloaded, had a drink, and set off to search for lunch.

First, we tried to grab lunch at Les Trois Marmites, which is a favourite of his. It was closed. We headed over to a Pho restaurant that I am fond of (the same as last Sunday) called Tin Tin. It was closed. Finally, we headed to a Thai place nearby (I can't remember the name for the life of me), where we finally got some food. I had this fantastic dish that was just a bunch raw vegetables and then this very spicy ground chicken sauce. I really like the idea of it, and I think I'm going to adapt it to beef+south american spices. I love the mixture of cold, fresh, raw vegetables with well-prepared meat. DJ had a pile of shellfish, which he seemed to enjoy a whole lot. After a bit of coffee, we were off and went our separate ways home.

When I got home, someone had again managed to hog so much bandwidth on the network (with filesharing programs, no doubt), thus making it impossible for anyone else to get onto the network. I turned off the WiFi radio for a moment, blocked all the ports associated with filesharing, and then started it back up. Already there was a substantial decrease in traffic. So, I spent the next couple of hours doing the same thing to the other two network routers. It's not a perfect fix, but hopefully it'll "throttle" the bandwidth use a little bit.

In the evening, I went out with an old friend from my high-school exchange program days (in Le Mans), who took me to a restaurant/wine-bar called Le Domaine Léopold. Since I had already eaten a bit earlier that day, I didn't order a whole stack of food. Nonetheless, I ordered a plate of foie gras (of duck), which came with a bit of salad and some potatoes. The foie gras was AMAZING. I just ate it with a sprinkling of sea-salt and some bread and couldn't stop. Of course, I still had room for several glasses of wine and a bit of dessert (caramel-centred fondant tart). After that, we headed off to the métro and headed our separate ways home.

Voilà! A short description of what was actually a rather full day. More to come tomorrow...

Wikipedia: the Timesuckening

Not since the hectic days of my undergrad have I experienced timesuck like this. Timesuck is an apparent loss of time, bordering on a petit mal seizure, where an activity or object engages you so thoroughly that you lose track of time passing. Sometime later, you jolt back into the present flow of time, realize how much time you've "wasted" and dash of to the next task for which you are now hopelessly late.

Today, on the venerable MetaFilter, I came across a thread that offered a link to Wikipedia's own listing of Unusual Articles. Don't click on that last link if you value your time! I spent huge chunks of today reading the articles on this gargantuan list, then clicking on the articles linked from those articles, and so on down a spiralling hole of knowledge. Illumination through knowledge mon oeil! It felt more like a dark labyrinth.

Anyway, I did get some work done today, despite my significant distractions, but I'll admit to being far less productive than usual. Unfortunately, the OCD part of me won't allow me to continue with anything until I check out all the entries on that list. So much trivia still to know!

mardi, janvier 30, 2007

Life Stages and Life Insurance

This is another one of those "my day was too unexceptional to warrant a major post, so here's something else" posts. My day can be mostly summarized by the French phrase "boulot, apéro, dodo" (work, [post-work, pre-dinner] drink, sleep). Dinner actually came before the apéro; I had skipped lunch, so I ate a really early dinner (6pm). Then, a certain next-door neighbour--let's call him P.--invited me to drink wine and hang out in his room listening to music. I didn't want to be antisocial. I also didn't want to turn down good, free wine. Several hours later, I went back to my room, cleaned the place up, did a bit of catch-up blogging, and then hit the sack. Voilà, my day.

So, I took these pictures of an advertisement I saw in a bus shelter on the way home a week ago:

So, this is an advertisement for La Poste's insurance trust, Vivaccio (the postal service here also offers banking and insurance, for reasons that are probably historically interesting). The ad type translates to "Vivaccio life insurance: because one can live many lives in one life." What I found interesting in this image is how the "many lives" of their (presumably male) audience are portrayed. You've got:

Baby Life:
a relatively conventional representation of an infant, but no toddler/child/tween stages.
Teen/Young Adult Life:
already approaching the workforce and/or higher education (with a tie?), although the hair is indy-boy-messy and the guy is clutching a guitar.
Adult/Middle-Age Life:
neater hair, full suit, cell phone and document envelope.
Mid-Life Crisis Life:
greying hair, receding hairline, visible jawline (double-chin?)...but also Hawaiian shorts (which is not common swimwear in France, as I've noted before), a surfboard, and no shirt.
Old Age Life:
no longer engaging in youthful sports, this old man is now dressed in age-appropriate fashion (collared shirt and sweater-vest, slacks) and engaging in more sedentary hobbies (painting). And he's wearing glasses, now.

I'm particularly interested in the representation of the teen life and the mid-life crisis life. I'd imagine that an equivalent rendering of the teen in an American ad would involve a rock concert t-shirt or A&F pseudo-sports-team shirt with baggy jeans and a reversed ball-cap. This character in fact seems to be referencing the early-20s phase. In a country where there are many viable and respectable alternatives to university study, it isn't out of the ordinary for someone to be working full-time or in an internship by their early twenties. So this seems to reference a post-school, career-oriented youth culture participant that doesn't seem to figure us an archetype in North America.

I'm also amused by the mid-life crisis guy. Perhaps this is partially fuelled by the social services system and union pension plans that are widely available throughout France, which allow people to retire earlier than they would in the States or Canada. One of my old friends from my high-school language exchange program has a father who worked until 40-something as a train conductor and now lives the happily retired life, tending his garden, running marathons, travelling all over, and making jams and preserves. Sure, North Americans certainly have their mid-life crises, but they usually keep on working, and it's usually seen precisely as a moment or a passage, rather than a prolonged stage.

Well, feeling rather amused and completely under-interpellated by the ad, I snapped a few pics of it and waited for my bus. I wonder what "perpetual doctoral student" would look like in this ad?

dimanche, janvier 28, 2007

You know too much

First, my day:

  • Slept in
  • Went to an art show in a squat near Belleville, called "Fragile," which was all art based on and around the body. The works themselves were hit or miss, but some of it I really liked. There was one video installation called Allumettes, which was time-lapse footage of a book of matches burning. The shots were taken from the side, so what looked at first like one match would eventually flower into a twisted bouquet of charred wood. I don't know why, but it was beautiful.
  • A friend and neighbour, who had accompanied me to the art exhibition, came with me to a Vietnamese restaurant on the other side of the Belleville métro station, where I had some delicious, delicious pho (apparently pronounced "feu"). This time, I didn't go for the "special" pho (with tripe, tendons and nerves).
  • Got home and blogged and emailed and generally tried hard to wrap up the previous week's business.

So, I've been noticing something about me over the past week, but I've only thought to comment about it now. I've always thought that there were three basic stages in language acquisition:

  1. Total know-nothing beginner. You sould like a moron and you have real trouble articulating yourself.
  2. You're familiar with the language. Although your pronunciation and vocabulary aren't perfect, you can speak with ease and you begin to feel confident about your proficiency.
  3. You're fluent. People mistake you for a native speaker. You're a linguistic rockstar.

What I've come to realize is that there's actually an intermediary step that I was unaware of:

  1. Total know-nothing beginner. You sould like a moron and you have real trouble articulating yourself.
  2. You're familiar with the language. Although your pronunciation and vocabulary aren't perfect, you can speak with ease and you begin to feel confident about your proficiency. You're making tons of subtle errors that make you sound "foreign," but you can't tell and you manage to make yourself understood.
  3. Now that you've absorbed the "feel" of the language, you begin to realize how many glaring errors you are still making, and you become hesitant and halting in your speech.
  4. You're fluent. People mistake you for a native speaker. You're a linguistic rockstar.

I've noticed this because I recently plunged into this new stage. It seems like I've finally absorbed something like a Chomsky-esque "deep structure" of French, which has made me all the more aware of my lack of proficiency. What makes this difficult is that I can't produce idiomatic and "natural" French phrases, but I can totally detect them; I can now read English-French translations and say, "That's correct, but it doesn't really sound French," without knowing how or why. As lovely as this sort of subconscious knowledge may be, it has also rendered me hyper-aware of how un-idiomatic all my utterances are. All of a sudden, I've lost the smooth confidence I had only a few weeks ago--even though I know objectively that my French has improved overall.

So, the result is that the French that I DO produce tends to be much better and "natural," but I'm a lot slower and I tend to obsessively correct myself. Agh! This is especially frustrating because so much of socializing in nightlife (i.e. clubs) relies on a "smooth" experience. Too many pauses, errors or breaks risk causing me to lose my rapport with the people I'm interacting with.

Also, I think my English is getting worser.