Monday, September 27, 2004

African friends and francophone mating rituals

Kaci's African friends are pretty cool. She's a friend of mine from the program and started dating Geoffroy, the president of the Gabonese in Lyon club, so we suddenly have this instant circle of Gabonese friends. I think it's so cool to have friends from Africa; it's exactly what I was hoping for, actually. 

At first, I was a little weirded out because — brace yourself here for some brutal honesty — I've never hung out with black people before. I know that sounds so 1950s to say, but seriously, Oregon is that white. It's not like I thought they were bad, they just have a different culture that I've never seen up-close. Growing up in western Oregon, just about the only cultural diversity we have is some Mexican immigrants who are usually fluent in English and more or less integrated.

I've also been a little worried about what they think of me. Every time another group shows up, I wonder if these people are going to be like: what's with the white American chicks? But they've all been really nice and we've had a lot of fun. Last night I went out to an African club that didn't get started until 2 am. I left around 3:30 though because I'm still trying to get well. I keep almost getting there and then I'll go out and ruin it. But now the weekend's over so it'll be easier to avoid going out... hopefully.
It's been great, too, to learn a new accent. Africans generally speak slower, but I'd never really heard the accent before so it was hard for me to understand. I still can't understand sometimes, but I'm getting a lot better. Having them to speak French to is also really good because I usually can't cheat with them like with my other friends because they don't know as much English. So I'm forced to come up with a way to say what I mean in French.

Mating rituals here are starting to take my head (a french expression meaning to piss off). Male-female relationships back home, with their large measure of ambiguity, were seriously getting on my nerves, too. So, I thought it wouldn't be so bad to go where men were more direct. And it was nice. For about two days. 

I live in a rather safe neighborhood. There are big, well-lit streets, high-priced shops and lots of bars and nightclubs so there are always people on the street. All the same, I get at least three "Bonne soir mademoiselle"s or worse as I walk to and from the bars or to friends' houses. 

I've gotten so used to ignoring men who say things to me on the street to get my attention, I completely ignored my host dad when he passed me on the street saying "Bonne soir." About a block later, I realized who it was.

At bars, parties or any other social situation, it's much worse. Not counting catcalls on the street, I've gotten seven serious offers to date from people I know. That's almost two per week. Back home I was lucky if I got one per year. Some of the men have been a little smoother than others, but in my social context being so direct is a turn-off. Yeah, it's a cultural difference, but we just met two hours ago, could you wait until I know you to find out if I'm interested? Yikes! One of Geoffroy's friends in from Paris this week will not leave me alone and it's really pissing me off. If he weren't so insistent I'd probably be his friend and show him around Lyon a bit but he keeps insisting on getting my number and asks me what he did to make me not like him. Arg, it just drives me up the wall when people are manipulative like that. He keeps forcing me to make a choice between sleeping with him or telling him to fuck off. There's no in-between for this guy, so it's elevated to the fuck off point a couple times. Thank God he's leaving tomorrow. But there'll be others...

Monday, September 20, 2004

No soup, but the streets are paved with dancers

My illness has lead me to discover a vast deficit in the diet of my French comrades. Soup. It is damn-near impossible to find soup here. The only soup available is in a tiny section in the back of the epiceries. All dried packets, no cans. The closest they have to chicken noodle here is "fisherman's soup" or "soup des pêcheurs," which is a fishy broth that looked far better in the store than at the table.
This shortfall literally lead me to dream about it the other night. I was in my friend Elena's house where she had a huge cabinet; half was filled with every Cambell's product made and the other half was filled with plastic wrap and Ziploc bags – another part of American life I miss. Certainly it's nice that French landfills aren't choked with the one-use plastic, but it's so depressing to find what looks like something delicious to eat but is actually stale and inedible.
My other dream about Matt Damon has lead me to realize the wisdom of my friend Zach's sleep-filled lifestyle.


This weekend is nationwide Heritage Days (Journées du Patrimoine), meaning that public buildings – City Hall, museums, churches, etc. – are open free to the public. Thankfully, this afternoon I got to feeling well enough I was able to join my fellow Lyonnaise in the beautiful late summer weather. I walked freely through the Museum of Fine Arts and the toaster-shaped Opera House. Meeting up with a friend, we wandered through the festive atmosphere at the Place des Terreaux and topped off our day with a kebab – a ubiquitous Arabic dish of roasted meat flakes and french fries inside greasy bread, topped with a mayonnaise-based sauce. Yummy.
Tomorrow, in addition the end of heritage-ness, is the finale of Lyon's Biennial dance festival. The 4500-participant dance parade is expected to have over 600,000 spectators, both on the streets and through TV It's reportedly the biggest dance parade in Europe and I wouldn't miss it for the world.
But first I'm going to wake up early to take a tour through the famed secret passageways (traboules) in Lyon, and maybe hit up the beautiful pure white basilica at the top of Fourvière hill.


A big new movie starring Will Smith and Angelina Jolie made its debut in Europe last night with a big party in Venice. Normally, I would understand all the hoopla, but this movie is animated. Meaning the fact that Smith and Jolie are a part of the film will only be relevant to Angliphone audiences because the rest will hear a dubbed version. The rampant dubbing of American-made entertainment is an interesting fact of life here. As far as I know, the voice talent gets no recognition besides a flash of end credits. And I would think it's a rather difficult job. You have to get the same meaning in a different language into the mouth of an actor before it stops moving, which usually means dubbed entertainment is faster than regular t.v. Additionally, I find it quite amusing during fight scenes and the like to know that someone sitting in a studio somewhere had to make convincing grunts and gasps to coincide with the action.
During my illness, I watched a couple DVDs in French with French subtitles to help me out. Unfortunately there would be, although slight in meaning, frequent differences between what was said and what was at the bottom of the screen. This would mostly confuse me and I would go by what was written, but the few times I could both concentrate on what flashed on the screen and what was said gave me interesting insight into the interchangability of certain phrases. What's more educational is watching old subtitled V.O. (version originale) films on the Arte channel. For instance, while watching "The Truth About Harry" I found out that "Golly, that woman sure is nicer than syrup on pancakes" is "Elle est charmante."


So today I'm walking along the street with a baguette. (That's right, a baguette. That's what people do here, just walk around with baguettes in their hands. If you don't belive me, come over and see it for yourself.) And so I'm thinking to myself, today's a great day. Today's a great day because I'm finally healthy, I'm living in France, the weather is beautiful, every public institution is open for free and there's a massive dance parade on the other side of the river. 

Friday, September 17, 2004

Vive the French medical system

The French medical system rocks. After partying way too hard in rainy weather, I have a nasty case of strep throat. After realizing the seriousness of my illness today, I explored my options. Most doctors make house calls here, but being used to rape-and-pillage American prices, I figured I should drag my butt halfway across town. It worked out, but I now know that it would've been better to make the doctor come to me. For being a student under the age of 26, I'm required to buy insurance that covers 80% of medical expenses for a grand total of $120 for the whole year. This means that a 40E house call would have cost me 8E. As it was, the medical visit and the antibiotics cost me about 35E total, meaning after reimbursement, I pay only 7E. That rocks. 

Why don't we have socialized medicine? Oh yeah, "quality of care."

I was able to make an appointment with a general practitioner for two hours after I'd called. The doctor I visited was completely bilingual, as was the woman at the pharmacy. I'm used to doctors whom I know personally because my mom works for my general practioner. So, I usually have rather pleasant experiences at doctor visits and it has come as a total shock the few times I've entered the harshness of the "normal" American medical experience. This was by far the best interaction I've had with a alopathic doctor. He was patient, caring, unhurried and willing to explain everything. Unfortunately the treatment took a few days to work and it still hurts quite a bit to swallow, but I don't think that problem arose from socialized medicine.

Now, I can't speak to the intricacies of the available surgical techniques, technological innovations nor the quality of cancer care or AIDS treatments. But from what I know about the American medical system, those extremes are only available to the few people who can afford them anyway. 

I say hooray for cheap medical care.

French stereotypes

Granted, I've only been here two weeks, but I think I've learned enough to confirm and dispell some stereotypes about the French.

1. The French are arrogant and rude.
Not any more than Americans. I think this stereotype came about because for most people it's hard to take a cold, hard look in the mirror. Americans, though varied and diverse, are mostly indifferent to people they don't know and don't have any reason to know. They tend to be reservedly friendly to people they meet in a social context, but sometimes someone is particularly warm or cold. Once a repore is established, Americans are very friendly. The same is true for the French.
Most French will allow you to speak French and only a few (like the guy I got my cell phone from) will treat you like an inferior if you speak poorly. On the whole, however, I've found that because many French speak more than one language they are more sympathetic to your battle with the language barrier than I would assume most Americans are.

2. The French smoke, drink wine and eat cheese.
Yup. But an unexpected added curiosity is that they love peaches. You can get peach-flavored anything. I had a peach-flavored beer the other night, good but weird.

3. The French love little yappy dogs.
This is only partly true. Many French own dogs, but they're not neccessarily little. Sometimes they can be very large, but they are almost always very furry. This love of dogs, however, is quite annoying considering that pooper-scoopers are not trendy. The streets are a landmine of doggy-doo and I only have the laws of probability to thank for not having yet stepped in some.

4. The French laugh like "onh hon hon" and say "oo-la-la."
They don't laugh like that, but I have heard them say oo-la-la. Only, instead of the high-pitched "oo-la-la!" we credit them with, it is often more of a deep sigh: "ho-luh-luh."

Those are all I can think of, let me know if there are others you'd like me to confirm or dispell.

I'm a real boy!

I got my luggage back!!!!!!! Yay!!!!!!!!
Not only that, I just got a debit card and a cell phone today! I feel like an actual person again! Living as a tourist was fun for a while, but I'm surprised to find out how relieved I am to have all my creature comforts. I feel established now.
So, before I forget, my number is (country code: 33) +
All three of these things required courage on my part, so I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate myself.

Yesterday was September 11th. The French media covered the remembrance ceremonies in New York in about the same way the American media would. They showed a bit more graphic footage of the planes hitting the two towers, I think, but that was about it. For the French, however, September 11th is merely a backdrop for the story of the continued capture of two French journalists in Iraq. The journalists have been hostages for more than 20 days now, and people all around France staged rallies yesterday to express solidarity with the two men.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

J'ai marre de la chaleur

It's so freaking hot here, and it won't quit. I keep expecting it to stop to no avail. This morning, in my pre-awakened haze I thought it was raining on the river out my window. I slept so contendedly for the next ten minutes in my delusion that it would be a little cooler today.

My mouth hurts.
I have little scrapes all over the inside of my mouth from eating real French bread. Real French bread is the beautiful marriage of thin, hard, crunchy outer crust with soft, delicate, but never doughy, inside. So for a person unaccustomed to eating this wonderful creation, shards from the outer crust mar a otherwise perfectly enjoyable experience.
The back of my tounge hurts too. The reason for that took a little longer for me to figure out. At first I thought it was because the British Airways toothbrush I've been using since they lost my baggage is like sandpaper. But this morning I woke up in particular pain and after yesterday's elocution lesson I suddenly realized it was the French language. "R"s in French require one to lift the back of his or her tongue to the roof of the mouth and exale forcefully. Sort of like the "X" in Russian, or just about every letter in Hebrew. Also, a lot of vowel sounds are preformed in the back of the mouth and sound a little nasal.
To aid in healing these maladies, I bought the only form of mouthwash I could find. Industrial strength Plax. Ouch.

I have French friends!!!

The other night I went out with my host brother's friends to a pretty cool bar, l'Abreuvoir "the water hole," with really fun dance music. My host brother lui-même actually didn't come out with us, but I had a great time with his friends. Camilla is his girlfriend and she's got this cool, calm, Bohemian air to her. Guillemette is a totally awesome girl who speaks several languages, but understands that I'm supposed to hear and speak French to get better at it. Anne Laure knows English too, but wanted to speak it with me (as well as her boyfriend, Guilleme, which I'm totally not spelling right), which I actually found kind of difficult after speaking in French for several hours. It seemed weird for speaking to be so easy.

Tonight I went to a party at Anne Laure's house and just generally had a good time. There were about ten or fifteen people there, all French, but most knew English so if i was talking to them and they didn't understand, I could just say it in English. It's kind of cheating, but it makes for a better relationship. It's awkward and embarassing if it takes too long to remember how to say something.

They all had a good time laughing at my mots à apprendre book, a notebook where I write down words to learn. Half of the things in there I'd spelled wrong and about half are words... well, that you just don't learn in class. But I suffered through the laughter good-naturedly and came out in the end with about a dozen more words and phrases.

I really wanted to go with them to this bar on a boat that travels down the Rhône, but tomorrow's Thursday and I have about eight hours of French class.... speaking of which.... bonne nuit.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Stray thoughts from my first days in France

If you think Starbucks has too many outlets, you ought to see a French city. I've only seen one McDonald's (called "MacDo" here) and a Subway, but there's a ridiculous number of "Tabac Presse" (a small store that only sells magazines, tobacco and calling cards) and green-cross pharmacies. More than once, I've seen them right across from each other or within a block. Also, "Petit Casino" is a small, ubiquitous grocery store that one can never find when they need it, or if they do, it's closed.

My French is great when I forget to be afraid of saying the wrong thing. But for some reason, the longer I stay here, the less often that happens. I think it has to do with that old saying about the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. I'll go back to certain sentences I said that, although understandable, were either gramatically incorrect or not how a French person would say it. So then I feel a little stupid and the next time I open my mouth, I'm a bit more self-conscious. I wish there were a pill to take for that. Someone suggested Valium, but then I couldn't drink....

They have the strangest park here. I can't believe nobody told me about it. Le Parc de la Tête d'Or is a huge park with a lake in the middle of the city, like New York's Central Park. What makes this one unique is that it's part-zoo. You'll be walking along a gravel path with grassy fields on either side and suddenly to your right is a docile, grazing herd of deer. Fawns frolicking in the sun, the whole nine. Walk a little further and you will see flamingoes, monkeys, turtles, giraffes, elephants and cheetahs. Some, like the cheetahs, are encaged, but most of them are out in the open air with no visible fence. Only when you walk up to the foot-or-two-high rock wall do you see the ingenious method of enclosure: a steep, narrow ditch.

There are always a few key things that I've found in my travels to be remarkable in every culture. Toilets and advertisements tend to top the list.
The toilet in my house is not too different than an American toilet except that it looks about a hundred years old. Not in a gross way, in an antique way. One has to pull up a knob and then fiddle with it to make sure both that everything has been flushed and that the water stops. The toilets at the university are more interesting. First of all there's only one kind, no men's/women's. My conjecture is that this is because the university was built during a time when it was inconceivable to have women at an instution of higher learning. This would seem a problem with American-style stalls, but European stalls tend to be floor-to-celing enclosures. The soap in these old bathrooms is a bar skewered on a steel rod coming out of the wall.
Advertisements, as reported, have naked women, though I have yet to see one here. The strangest thing I've noticed is that on television, they advertise the advertisements. When a show goes to a commercial break, the first thing you see is a little five-second animation with the word publicité (ad). The actual ads don't seem that different from American ones, but I haven't watched too much of the stations with ads. There are eight stations on non-cable, one is news, which doesn't have too many, and the other is some sort of government-funded tv.

Today I went to Kiliwatch: a fantastic used clothing store close to my house. After sticker-shock from all the other trendy places around la Place des Terreaux, I was so happy to find a place with pants from 13E and shirts from 6E. But the fashion trends are strange in one very distinct regard here: no one wears shorts, and practically no one wears skirts above the knee. It has been ridiculously hot here, so it's not temperature; naked women aren't a problem, so its not modesty. Simply fashion. I don't understand it at all, but since my razor was packed in the bag I've yet to recover, I've been obliged to do as the Romans do.

The cheese has heroine in it, I'm sure. When I first ate French cheese, I thought, cool... rotten milk. But ever since, I can't get enough.

Mary just left. She's on her way to Budapest, Prague and Poland, and will then return home to Oregon and the Rec Center. Unfortunately, it will be without her camera, as I just found it on my bookshelf.
We had a great weekend together and were able to catch up a lot. It's been really nice for me to get information in advance of what studying abroad in France is like. She was able to give me a lot of cool phrases and words that will help my French a lot. In school, you don't learn the little things of how to converse with someone — the little ways one buys time while they're thinking of what to say. Those things are the most important when you get here.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Shasta Kearns Moore: World Traveller

Hello everyone,

French keyboards are different, so if there are a lot of typos, youll know why. For instance, I cant find the apostrophe anywhere, even though its a very integral part of the French language...

Well anyway, voici, my thoughts so far. I only have access to the internet through my host fathers girlfriend for now. He says well get internet in the next three weeks.


But we'll get to that later.

I got to the Philidelphia airport a little early, so everything went smoothly there. I checked in at the British Airways desk and as I walked away, I looked at my boarding pass. There, directly beneath my name, were the words: "World Traveller," in the way one would write James Bond: International Man of Mystery. Shasta Kearns Moore: World Traveller. I eventually figured out that was the name of BA's priority class and the only reason I had it on my ticket was because I had gotten in the wrong line. But it added just the right tone to my embarkment that I couldn't help grinning to myself.
I'm thinking of having business cards made up.

Once the plane got off the ground at PHL, an hour late, the flight was uneventful. I sat next to a woman who spoke the most interesting language into her cell phone until the last possible minute before takeoff. It sounded to me like a weird combination of German and Russian.
"It's Polish," she laughed when I asked.
So, I was right.

The flight from London was where things went south, both literally and figuratively (Ba-doom tsh). Fortunately, a friend and fellow exchange student Ashley was on the same flight and became an invaluable help.
The St. Exupéry airport in Lyon was very disorienting. Not because it was a foreign airport, I'd seen plenty of those, but because just before landing, I came down with an ocular migrane. For those who haven't experienced one, it's very much like staring into a bright light and then looking away. You can't see anything but white and some colorful shapes for a while. Usually, it goes away in about 20 minutes, but this one hung around for two hours.
To add to my troubles, only one of my two bags arrived (fortunately it was the less-important one, but still). I had to wait in a very long line, leaving my other bags with Ashley, to discover a whole trolley had been left in London and wouldn't be in until at least that night. Ugh.

Ashley and I arrived at the meeting place for the Centre Oregon (that's what the exchange program is called) in a train station. I met my host father, whose name I still don't know. His last name is either Araignous or Didier or both. I just call him Monsieur. He's a relatvely trim man who just turned 45 and has a friendly kind of class. I was impressed with my ability to hold a conversation with him as he showed me the sights on the way to the apartment in the middle of town.
His fourteen-year-old daughter is very pretty and speaks rapid-fire French. I can usually keep up if I don't pause to wonder how she can possibly talk that fast or if she realizes how fast she's talking.
His fifteen-year-old daughter seems less intense but I haven't seen much of her. His 18-year-old son is in Barcelona right now and then off to Normandy so i might not see him for a while yet.

My room is on the second-story of a very interesting apartment. It's an amalgamation of old and new. Well-kept, but falling apart. The bathroom fixtures leak and are in need of replacement, but the walls are a very pretty aged plaster-and-rock combination. The front room is large, sunny and looks out on the Saône to the cream and peach townhouses lining the opposite bank.
My room is very cute and damn-near perfect. I have a dark green desk on one side and a low dark green bed on the other. The floors are Pergot (unharmable wood) and I have lots of closet space. But the best part is a low half-moon window on the far side. When I lay on my bed, I can watch romantically as the Saône flows by.

I got myself lost today. That's the best way I've found to educate yourself about a city. Go on long walks and don't take the same route twice if you can avoid it. In these old European cities with winding streets and no grid pattern this means you really have to let go of a set destination or you won't enjoy it. I didn't have any place specific in mind when I found the Place de Rouville, a beautiful outlook over Old Lyon. I was looking for the Place de Terreaux, but it was fun to find. Looking on the map now though, I must have taken the longest possible way to get there. It's about three blocks from my apartment if I'd taken the right road.

The weirdest thing about here is that if it weren't for the old buildings and everyone speaking French, it so far seems exactly like Portland. My host family is pretty chill and my host sisters watch WB shows dubbed in French. It's so much the same, I sometimes forget I have to speak French. I have had a bit of culture shock though. Id heard about the "bises," the French custom of kissing one cheek and then the other, but I didnt realize that it is done even when you first meet someone. Its a little disconcerting to know what to do when, but Im slowly getting used to it.


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