Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Déménagement sans cesse

Tomorrow begins the final countdown.  We'll officially be moving into our new apartment on Sunday, the 4th of September.  Before that, partner has a half day of med school Friday, which I assume is orientation and scaring the crap out of students to make sure they take this seriously.  Tomorrow we'll be renting a truck to move the last of our stuff in, and on Friday we'll take the things that we're too scared to casually put in the back of a moving van.  Saturday will be our one day of solitude before the final push on Sunday to make sure everything's taken care of.

I spent today intermittently getting my hourly hit of email, bit of a net addict, I admit, and bagging up what we have left.  All of our clothes that we have in this country fit into a single box.  The largest is our blue IKEA sack full of video games.  Believe me, it's entirely indispensable.  I still have the game consoles to pack up, but they won't be leaving until Friday, so I've got a day on that.  If it really comes down to it, I can pack them up tonight.  I already packed up the monitor and keyboard for our desktop because we're taking the desk tomorrow.

As I was putting stuff in boxes, I realized that this is my fourth move in 2 years, and moreover eleventh move since 2002.  Now since some of those were between college and home when I lived in the dorms, we may have to remove 3 or 4 of those, but still I think 6 moves is still pretty impressive.  I also should mention I'm one of those people who loves chaos.  I have seriously just thought about throwing on a backpack and disappearing sometimes (which is still more reasonable, I think, than my brother's "move to China and become a Shao-lin monk" idea.) but I always had something to hold me back from doing it; college, family, friends, debt.  I guess maybe I should just take it as a sign to enjoy manageable chaos, and leave the real stuff to the experts.

If it were just boxes and sacks, that would be one thing.  I have learned to hate moving furniture ever since the enormous dresser fiasco of 2004.  Admittedly, the first moves were nothing, because I had no furniture.  Even when I moved in with partner, I was over at his place constantly anyway, I still didn't have to worry about furniture.  However; my partner is not like me.  He needs to be comfortable.  He can't sleep on a couch or a mattress on the floor.  He needs a bed.  The truth is, he's spoiled me!  The first time we moved into the place that we chose together was the first time I ever had to rent a truck.  We got everything in and it went pretty quick.  I was never happier to be done though.  When we moved back with my parents before the move abroad, we had so much that we had to leave some stuff behind.

I like to take moving time to simplify my needs.  That's a fancy way of saying not having to schlep six boxes of Dark Shadows cassettes across multiple time zones.  There are always exceptions, though.  We have an entire messenger bag full of cords, connectors, and adapters.  Since moving to Europe, we've had to by a fleet of connectors and adapters.  The bigger problem I have though is the crippling inability to get rid of cables and connectors, especially the ones that we don't even have any use for, but you never know when you might need it.  I blame my father for this instinct.

Should something ever happen and I have to move back to the US alone, don't be surprised if you see pictures of my apartment online, and I have a beautiful matching set of milk crate with cushion chairs, bookshelves from the design house of Plank and Cinder Block, and a desk made from two sawhorses and a car windshield.  However, if I can get FiOS, you know I will!

All right, it was a nice break.  Now back to packing....

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Je Veux Du Soleil!

Just a song I like and haven't been able to get out of my head.  Enjoy.

Monday, August 29, 2011


One of the things we've heard all of our lives is about how certain things are "a sign from God."  I myself am even guilty of taking missed buses or a stubbed toe as some sort of supernatural warning.  We've all made predictions based on something inconsequential and saying that it is ordained in the heavens to be such.  Lately though, it's not so much small things that are captivating the attention of people as a sign from above.

Michele Bachmann (Can you tell how she's the final straw when I write something political?) recently said that the hurricane and earthquakes that have recently effected the eastern seaboard are God letting us know that he's displeased with the politicking that's taking place.  She actually told a crowd in Orlando that "now it's time for an act of God and we're getting it."  But of course, she's using it to grandstand.  It's something all politicians of all stripes do, especially when he or she is falling in the polls.

For years, there have been numerous examples of not only religious extremists meddling in political affairs, but moreover religious extremists wanting to blame any natural disaster on whatever the cause may be.  Rabbi Yehuda Levin recently announced in a video that the Virginia earthquake was due to the legalization of same sex marriage on the east coast.  Although Rabbi Levin may appear to be a front runner, let us not forget about our christian friends.   Pat Robertson blamed Hurricane Katrina on abortion and later blamed the earthquake in Haiti on a "pact with Satan."  John Hagee, a well known and highly respected minister on the right famously stated that Katrina was God's wrath for Southern Decadence, a gay pride event in New Orleans.  Clearly the years of practice have really placed the good reverends in a higher position of understanding, but maybe we can take something from what they're saying.  The truth of the matter is that God is creating natural disasters to tell us to get our shit together and improve or repair the crumbling infrastructure we have or God will knock it all down to show us where we have failed.

I remember winters back in my hometown.  There were times when school would close for a week because the wind chill was so low, you could not stand outside for more than five minutes without getting frostbitten.  In Defiance, I think most people can tell you what Thundersnow is, if they haven't seen it.  I remember listening with my brothers and sisters as they would announce school closures the night before because they knew how bad the weather was.  Sometimes it wasn't even directly because of the weather that school closed.  It had gotten so cold that the diesel used to run the buses had changed from a liquid to a gel. 

Summers were no different.  Without school, it most likely meant that there would just be some days where we would be in the basement waiting for the all clear after a tornado warning.  The sky would change to yellow or pink, and even sometimes shades of green.  My mother always told me that pink meant hail, green was a tornado, but she never had any idea about yellow.

The one constant among the natural disasters we faced growing up had one common point, we would almost always lose power.  Sometimes it would last a day, but other times it meant that we were happy that Dad had kept his camp stove charged.  It meant no going outside because we couldn't clean up after.  This is not unusual though, as we did grow up in the middle of nowhere.  This is something that we just learned to deal with.

However, my life since moving to a city hadn't changed much.  There was still always a chance of losing all power in a natural disaster, but there would be times in Columbus where the campus side of High Street had power, but the public side didn't.  (Ohio State had its own power plant.)  Back in 2006, I remember that a good deal of the eastern half of the country was in a constant brownout stage for at least a day.  I remember when the entire city lost power after Hurricane Ike.  I had friends who went a week or more without power, and this was in central Ohio.

We have people in positions of power blaming imaginary beings for what's happening to us in the world today.  People like Bachmann or Robertson may very well believe that this is some sort of divine retribution, but the bigger problem is the devastation that these disasters leave behind.  The Eastern Coast got lucky this time that Irene wasn't as big of a disaster as it could have been.  Although highly unlikely, we could use this latest disaster as a wake up call.  There's no excuse for the state of our electrical grid among other infrastructure problems in the first world country we supposedly are.  It's disappointing that this opportunity is being squandered by people who prefer to deal with imaginary beings than those directly effected.

The Poetry and Insanity of French Roads

Frankly I have found myself more and more at peace with the idea that I will most likely never drive in France.  I have seen too many shenanigans in French city driving and on highways to ever wish to risk it.  I'm sorry, but when you actually have to consider whether or not to buy a car because it may be too big to get down the street, that's when it's a problem.  Most cities in France predate any kind of city planning so sometimes roads will only be wide enough for one car to pass, or your car may just be too wide for the road.  We're not even talking like a hummer though.  There are cars the size of an Impala that can't navigate some roads.

Also, most cities have roads named for World War II.  In Rennes, there's a section of town where all the streets are named after allied countries.  Ploërmel actually has a side street named for the day the city was bombed during the Occupation.  I think every city has a road named after Charles De Gaulle and usually General LeClerc.

One thing you can be sure of though is that if you miss a road that connects with another, you will need to turn around and catch the road coming back the other way.  There is no simple way to reach a road once you've missed it.  As all the roads predate actual planning it's just a mass of twisting paths that come together however people decided they should be laid out.  Sometimes, you'll just be driving on roads and they will spontaneously change names.

Like in the US, there are a bunch of divisions for roads in France.  Most of what I've discussed so far is for communal roads.  Those are the roads that connect the cities of a commune.  A commune in France is a collection of cities and villages that work together. The roads are usually denoted with a number preceded by a C in a black rectangle.  It's kind of like what we could call township roads.  The next step up is the departmental roads.  These are denoted with a D before the road number in a yellow rectangle.  They're something like a county highway.  After that we have Rue Nationale, which are more similar to American State and National Routes, commonly denoted with RN before the number in a red rectangle.  The largest grouping by far though is the Autoroute system, which is comparable to the Interstate System.

The strange thing is, most of the signs are blue on the Autoroute, while they are white or green on all other roads.  There is the exception of point of interest signs being in brown, and they're usually a lot nicer than what you'd see for the point of interest markers in the US.  However, the markers between departments are really basic.  They just have the departmental seal and the name of the new department.  Regional markers that I've seen usually aren't much more impressive. It is neat that on the Bretange sign, they actually put the Breton phrase for welcome on the sign (Degemer Mat.)

They do have a system as well that takes you around cities, but it's not like in the US where you have a 2 or a 4 before the number.  They have what are called Rocades.  It just translates out to beltway.  The main issue is that it's not one continuous road.  Basically there are 4 rocades that intersect at certain points.  So you have the north, south, east, and west rocades.  The connections are just exit ramps, so you really have to know the road you want to take. (Hence the problems coming out of IKEA.)

They also don't just list the largest city like from what I remember with 270 around Columbus.  You head North, and you're headed towards Cleveland, South/East is towards Wheeling, and West was towards Cincinnati.  Around Rennes the Rocade will take you towards Caen, Le Mans, Lorient, Vannes, Brest, St. Brieuc, St. Malo, Nantes, and Angers as possible destinations.  It doesn't really explain things well, so you can get lost pretty quick.  All of these routes are accessed through Portes.  There are 22 Portes that take you to different places, and not all of them take you to different cities.  Porte d'Alma just takes you to Alma Shopping Center.  It's a quick way in from the South though, and if you take the opposite direction, you can get to Angers.  All of this is saying nothing of actually learning to drive in France. 

Almost all cars here are manual transmission, and to actually drive an automatic, you have to get a special permit that allows you to do so.  Most French people also consider automatics for old women who don't want to be bothered with shifting gears.  Another obstacle is the shear cost.  My partner said he probably paid about $2000 to get his license.  He had to take first aid courses, and before he could get in the car, he had to pass what's called the code.  I have never seen anyone speak positively of the code.  It's an essay test first off, so it really makes our multiple choice test for a permit look pretty ridiculous.  After you pass the code, you can start driving with an instructor or your parents.  After you feel confident enough to take the test, you have to take it in a car that's provided by the examiner's station.  It's a nightmare because every manual transmission has a different clutch.  Finally after all this, should you pass, you have to have a sticker on the back of the car that denotes you as still learning to drive for 2 years.  That's what the red A is on the back of French cars.  They're not adulterers.

So I'm more than happy to take a bus or a subway and be nice and safe.  It's a great system and I'm more than happy to oblige.  If you are from the US and decide to brave it, you can get a 6 month driving permit.  After that, you'll need to get a full license, but I'm not sure how that process works.  I'll write more when the inspiration strikes. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Inscription Day

We had been planning on going up to Rennes just a few hours, we had thought probably about 5, or somewhere around that.  We left around 10 am because we wanted to do a few things in the morning at the Caisses d'Allocations Familiales, which will now be abbreviated as CAF.  I looked up where it was in the morning, right next to the Charles DeGaulle stop on the metro, so we wouldn't have to look around for it.  We estimated we'd probably be there until about 1:30 pm, when we'd have to leave for partner's inscription into med school, which was set for 2.  Being realistic about time constraints, we figured we'd get the CAF done, go to the inscription, which would take about 2 hours, and then finally talk with Numericable at the store in Columbier.  After that, we'd have dinner, and get back home around 9 or 10pm at the latest.  So much for planning.

We get to the CAF and gird our loins for what we expect to be at least an hour wait, and maybe an hour of paperwork.  Since he was just requesting student housing assistance it went much faster.  We were finished pretty quick.  After that we had some time to kill, and mother-in-law remembered that she saw a lamp at Pier 1 that she thought would look great in our place.  As usual, she was spot on, so we bought it then and there.  We put the lamp back in the car, and made it to campus around  1.

I had remembered my orientation at Ohio State.  It started on Thursday night and ended on a Sunday afternoon.  I had to fill out all my student loan information.  They talked to my parents about letting your children go, an how hard that might be.  (This was the fourth time they'd done it, so well, old hat really.)  I got my student ID, met people from my program, and got a big talk about how wonderful OSU was, the history, etc.  I was expecting one thing, and got the other.

This was an inscription, not an orientation.  We came in, and there was only one other student registering at the same time.  Since partner was doing continuing education, he was classified differently, and they did everyone in his classification the same day.  They took him and his mother in, and they worked out everything.  It was all good.  He had all of his info, his student ID, and we were in and out in about an hour.  I also want to mention, hint hint every American University, that partner's entire bill for a year of med school was less than 200 euros.  It makes me sick to think of the 30 thousand some debt I have from a State School.  Bitterness aside, it was all good. 

On the way back, we got a few more forms filled out that we weren't expecting to get done that day, and we had some extra time.  We also decided to get the cable taken care of then too.  We got 100megs/second internet service with 150 TV channels, unlimited telephone service to French land lines and cellphones along with unlimited international calling to 100 countries (cellular and land lines), an unlimited cellphone SIM free until December with unlimited calling to French land lines and cellphones, for 40 bucks a month.  To top it off, we got 2 months free because we went to the kiosk.  So we still had more free time. 

Like that, we had a chance to grab some lunch.  There was a place nearby that had a lunch offer, but only one left.  Mother-in-law took the lunch offer and we had these really good pizza thingies.  Any time someone puts coppa, roasted tomatoes, and mozzarella together, I'd call it a win!  Then I got a pain chocolat and a coke.  We ate in the car, and thought since it was only 4:30, we had time do to some more things to lighten the load later. 

The logical solution was, of course, that we should go to IKEA to look for dishes.  We didn't need anything more than that, and it would be quick to do.  It was right on the rocade and it would take all of 20 minutes.  We'd take that stuff back to the apartment, have dinner, and head home.  Everyone agreeing this is a logical way to save time, we go.

When we get there though, we do realize that we'd like to buy a piece of artwork for the walls, and we don't really have any silverware.  We still didn't have any pots or pans to cook in, much less tupperware to put leftovers.  Remember how I said this would be a quick shopping trip to IKEA?  The store is designed to prevent a quick trip.  We got distracted by pretty pretty things, all of which we did need all and all was gorgeous, and ended up staying at IKEA for, wait for it; 3 hours.  We had two carts worth of stuff.  We had a carpet, a framed art piece, a lamp, silverware, plates, a dish scrubber, something for next to the sink, two of those metal hook things that hang on the back of the door for coats, etc.  Somehow, we got everything into the 106, which was better than playing tetris, and we finally got it loaded in to our apartment.  By the time we got back to the apartment, we were all dying of thirst and starving.  It was 9pm, and we needed to go get food or we would all die. 
Not so fast there bucko.  There was still the slight problem that we still needed to get groceries to last us til Wednesday, partner's last day of work.  There was a Carrefour close by, so we did our shopping there.  It's good to know because of how close it is, and especially because of how much cheaper it was shopping there.  Usually for a weeks worth of food, we spend about 50 euros.  If we hadn't bought school supplies, we would have spent 35 total.  With how small our refrigerator is, we will not be able to buy much.  So every few days it's a trip to the market.  We were among the last people in the store, but we got it done.  Thursday we'll have to go again, but at least it won't be as insane.  Soldiering on, we finally make it to the restaurant.

We had a nice relaxing dinner.  We went through 5 carafes of water; three of them before the food arrived.  We talked about a lot of stuff with moving, and how much we'd gotten done that day.  Also, the schedule for moving is becoming cramped, and we'll have to rent a car to move up the last things from Ploërmel.  While we're talking, partner looks over at a table and then tells me to look at the second person from the right.  I look at him and I realize I'm starting at the French doppelganger of my older brother.  He had the same hair, the same facial expressions, and I was just floored.  I spent the rest of the meal trying to stop looking like some kind of creep staring at this guy I didn't know.  It was so positively strange.  We finish our meal, pay, and look at the time.  We leave the restaurant at 11:30pm.  It's an hour trip home...

That's how Friday shaped up for me.  I hope you all had a great weekend, and there's probably going to be at least one story coming out of building IKEA furniture tomorrow, on Sunday!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Vamos a la playa

(Just a side note; are all of Loona's songs pretty much about partying, dancing and the "rhythm of the night?")

Through some sort of fluke of nature, my partner had his weekend off, and after spending the entire afternoon lifting IKEA the day before, we decided to go to Carnac.  For those of you who have never been to Bretagne, maybe just Morbihan, Carnac is a town along the Gulf of Morbihan with 3 or 4 beaches.  It's also where most Bretons go for a day trip in the summer.  It's always packed, always warm, and I've never left without going in the water.  (Even the first time I came in December of 2004, we walked along the coast in Carnac, and got wet.  I wanted to be able to come back and be the first of my brothers and sisters to be able to say I'd been on both sides of the Atlantic.)

The car ride was a little rough, I'll admit.  It takes about an hour to get there, and there's no direct route despite the traffic.  However most people who come there are actually staying a while.  There's lots of Germans and Dutch, but the most common are the English.  I have never gone an entire day without hearing someone speak English there.  Luckily though, it was nearing the end of vacation, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.  Plus, my niece was ready to see the nude beach that we had jokingly told her we'd be going to.  her natural question was,"You mean everyone will be able to see your zizi?"

So we set up on the beach close to the railing so we would be sheltered a little bit.  We had brought a few things to eat and some water, so we put the cooler on one of the towels to keep it down.  The others we held down with sandals and the like.  We didn't really have to change as we had just worn our suits under our clothes.  There aren't many places to change on the beach, and after last time when I had to change in a car, I wasn't looking to repeat.  So we unfolded the transat and left our stuff with my mother in law while the four of us went swimming.

I don't remember if I mentioned it before, but the last time I had come to Carnac, I got burned really bad, and it lasted for a week.  I could barely move my arms or my neck and my partner laughed at me.  I wasn't about to repeat that week, so I used the sun block my sister had taken with them to Spain.  If SPF 50 wasn't going to stop my ass from burning, I don't know what would.  So I did the best I could to cover and I had to brow beat my partner in to putting it on.  He's lily white to begin with and works 5 days a week in a lab.  When he's off two days, we stay inside and play video games.  The only time we leave the house then is for groceries, and even that doesn't happen sometimes.  He doesn't tan, he burns.  I won't say I'm a thousand times better, but I wasn't the one refusing to wear sun block.  So we coated ourselves, and went swimming.

Now, it was very warm as I said, so I figured that with the temperature being about 32 (90), the water should be about 25(80).  Yeah, no....  It was about (20)70!  Oh, but it was the ocean, and when would we see it again, so we went slow, and eventually just gave up that plan and jumped in.  It knocked the wind out of you at first, but the longer you stayed in the nicer it was.  We played around and acted as bouys for my niece for a while.  It was low tide, so we walked on the rocks looking for crabs or starfish.  It was a bust.  The water was too cold to have jellyfish, luckily, so we celebrated the small victories.  After about an hour and a half, we came back to the shore.

My sister and mother in law tanned for a while and talked while my partner and niece were building a sand castle.   I went with my partner for a bit, but my niece got tired of it pretty quick.  We hadn't taken anything to dig with or buckets to make the sand castle with.  So she wanted to go back with her mother.  I was ready to seize the opportunity to take a nice quiet walk with my partner.  We walk about 30 feet away and we hear my niece calling behind for us to wait for her.  Apparently whatever my sister and mother in law were discussing wasn't very interesting to her.  So we went out on the rocks.  So we started looking and my sister in law came over with my mother in law.  I started looking for rocks, because I'm a geek like that while my niece was looking for crabs with my partner and sister in law.  They found a few very small ones.  Of course my niece refused to touch them, and would run screaming when they found one.  I talked with my mother in law a bit when all of the sudden we heard my niece screaming! 

She had found something living in one of the shells!  She found a very small hermit crab in a shell probably only about an inch long.  In French, they're called bernard-l'ermite, and my niece kept saying Bernard Bermite, like it was his name or something.  So then began the controversy of what they ate, to which the answer we responded was plankton.  She had no idea what that was, so we just told her little things in the water.  Then she wanted to find some way to keep him alive and take him home.  So she puts the poor thing in a shell with some water and takes it up to where we were.  So my sister in law tells her that it's not enough water in the shell and that she should put some water in the bottle. So she runs back to the beach, all proud and fills the bottle full.  But the hermit crab needs sand  and a little bit of air at the top.  So she runs back a second time and does it.  She even added some seaweed, even though she refused to touch it earlier because there were crabs hiding in it.  She was determined to take that bad boy home with her.  She said that she could just give it some water from the tap, but then we had to explain the difference between seawater and freshwater.  It was getting complicated and we needed to start thinking about getting back, so her mother told her to put the poor thing back in the ocean, which she did, in the most disappointed 8 year old manner she could. 

Afterwards we took a final swim, and then started packing up.  I took back some rocks and my niece a fistful of shells.  We through out poor Bernard Barmite's now empty home on the way
 back to the car, distracting our niece with the two things that could make everything better: churros and ice cream.

I think it's pretty straightforward, but I am not sure how familiar the audience may be with churros.  I had never eaten churros growing up.  That may have had something to do with my parents never wanting to take 5 children to the county fairs.  I can't blame them.  I really didn't know much about carnival food until I started high school and I had to go because I was in the high school marching band.  Pretty much, churros are the same dough used for  Elephant Ears and funnel cakes, but they are long pipes and after they're fried, they're rolled in sugar.  I actually didn't learn about churros until I watched someone make them on food network and ate my first churro in France.

We got four churros with a tub of chocolate sauce for dipping which was an excellent appetizer for the main event. The igloo ice cream stand is the biggest in town.  They have something ridiculous like 150 different flavors.  They range from the normal chocolate and vanilla, to the not so outrageous blackberry or currant, but getting to the out there chive and curry flavors.  The line is always around the block, so you have to pay for what you want first, and then you stand in line for service.  I got two scoops, one blackberry, the other black currant.  My niece couldn't finish all of her's so I ended up finishing her brownie ice cream.  I tend to like sorbet more than ice cream, but I was satisfied. 

After that, we headed back home.  We'll probably spend the week recovering from the weekend, and this Friday we'll be going back up to Rennes for my partner's med school orientation.  I don't really know what if anything we'll be doing other than that.  I think the next post will probably be about the French highway system anyway.  I seriously am bothered by it, if the IKEA Saturday wasn't an indication. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rennes, Caen, and other IKEA adventures

I should probably mention that Saturday was the hottest day of the entire summer in Bretagne.  We decided to move what we expected to be three carloads of IKEA flatpack furniture in 31 (88) degree weather.  I, being the genius that I am, decided to wear a black long sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up.  I didn't want to look like hell and it was just fine back in Ploërmel.  I neglected to remember that when I wore this shirt there, it was never over 20 (70.) 

I should also mention that we had already decided on everything we were going to buy a couple of weeks ago.  We'd gone to the store, took all the references, and we were just really going to pick things up.  It wasn't going to be anything spectacular, but it would all be good quality stuff that could last a while.  So with our lists in hand, I'm all done up with cologne and all that,  we all get into the little Peugeot and make the trip up to Rennes. 

We meet my sister in law at our apartment, we show things off and plug in the refrigerator to keep things cold while we get all the rest of the stuff around at IKEA.  They had just gotten back from a trip to Spain a few weeks ago and they had brought stuff back for us.  I might mention that if you stood my partner next to his sister, you could tell that she'd been out in the sun, and my partner had been hiding in a bunker somewhere.  We're more inside people.  So we take the rocade north from Alma to catch rue national 12 to get to the IKEA.  It took us maybe 15 minutes to get there.  We park our cars, and go grab some food first at the cafe.

After grabbing something quick to eat, we get into it.  So we're going through the references when Mathieu's sister says we should come over and look at something.  We got this couch for half price.  It's much more modern than the one we picked, and it's a convertible.  Vendu!  We take down the reference, and forget about the other couch.   We also got a very nice TV stand.  It was more expensive, than what we had originally imagined turning on the side and buying a couple of storage boxes inside it like drawers.  So I'm pleased that we got something more adult.  The only other big ticket item was the bed, which I can't find a picture of, so I'll have to take some apartment pictures.

I know you're all thinking the same thing I was.  How the hell are we going to get this back.  We had my sister in laws 9/5, but even that wasn't gonna hold all this.  So with the first load, we got everything but one part of the couch.  We're already starting to sweat, so we decide that we would let my niece and mother in law stay at IKEA with what was left, and we'd start putting stuff in the apartment.  So we pack the first load, and she says she'll follow us.

Like I said, it took 15 minutes to get there, so you'd think logically the same time back, right?  If you know where the hell you're going, yes, that's all it takes.  However, we did not.  I want to blame the majority of it on the rocade system in France and especially on Rennes while factoring in the area around IKEA is exceptionally poorly laid out, none of the signs make sense, and the area around IKEA is a black hole or the Bermuda triangle.  Take your pick, it adds up to fuck all.  The first time, we took the Rocades to follow towards Le Mans and Caen.

We're just happily driving along, and all of the sudden Mathieu asks me what color the signs were.  I responded with blue.  I don't think I had ever heard more shouting and cursing in French than at that moment.  "J'en ai ras le bol de cette--!" is about all I can actually print because of how fast he spoke and content.  So finally, he stops to catch his breath and I ask him what's wrong.  We were on the A84, headed towards Caen!  So I said, thinking logically, why don't we just turn off at the next exit, and he said, this is an Autoroute, there are only exits for major cities!  We lucked out though, and we found an off ramp.  Of course, we were in a Peugeot 106 that my father in law has had since 1995.  It's not wise to push it up to interstate speeds.  So, an hour and a half later, we're at the apartment unloading.

So we get cak to IKEA, another 15 minute trip, and we take the second load.  We asked my mother in law what would be best to do this time.  She said to take Rennes-centre.  So we take it, sure and it's a nice scenic drive through town.  45 minutes later, we're there.  We're all starting to get suspicious about how long this is taking, so with the third load when we're all coming back together, we try another exit, this time towards Nantes/Angers.  15 Minutes....  Third time's the charm, I guess.  At least I'll have to tell myself that so I won't end up in the bathtub with the cake mix.  So that was that.

There is another adventure to tell while the family was together, so I'll talk more about that in the next post, and probably talk more about the highway system in France after.  I hope this finds you all well, because I'm still recovering.  I'll tell you this, the next post involves churros!

Monday, August 22, 2011


So lately here in Brittany, we've been dealing with an infestation of what everyone here calls la guêpe.  I had seen these same things back in the US, but I fear anything that buzzes and flies in my general direction, so my logical solution is to hide behind my partner.  He kills it, and we're fine.  So I had worked out in my head that these were what we calle honeybees.

Now, in my mind, there are two real groups: bees and wasps.  Among the bees, the smallest we called sweat bees, because they were attracted to sweat and would land on the back of your knees and in the crook of your elbows.  Then you would move and they would sting the crap out of you.  After that, were honeybees.  These little buggers would hide in clover and sting the crap out of you when you walked on them.  The next size up were hornets. After that, came bumblebees.  Among them, were yellow jackets and blue jackets.  The second group were wasps.  I never knew any name for them other than wasps.  They might be black, brown, purple and yellow; I hate them all.

So I decided that I needed to get my head about all the different names I had heard for these things, so I started by looking up the word guêpe. It was not a honeybee in the French mind, in fact.  They were calling honeybees wasps.  There was no such thing as a honeybee,  I am still not sure what a frelon is.  Bumblebees though, are called bourdon.  They're almost identical as to the ones in the US, but they're darker in color.  There also only seems to be one kind.  Big and scary.  Also, what I always called wasps apparently don't exist here.  Did I mention how happy I am about that, because I hate wasps, ever so much.

Most commonly in France, you run into honeybees, or at least what I call honeybees.  I had always heard that we actually never had honeybees in the US until they were imported from Europe with flowers or by bee keepers.  In fact, I believe that's the reason they're called honeybees.  Obviously some were bound to escape from the beekeepers and made it into the wild.  So as I understood it, that's why we had honeybees in the US.

Looking up these pictures though, I was apparently wrong in how I differentiated.  Apparently what we always called wasps were actually mud daubers.  It's a type of wasp, but apparently what we always called hornets are actually wasps too.  Apparently French people don't worry about killer bees coming up from Africa.  I always remember hearing about the killer bee menace from South America and how they were already in the South and it was only a matter of time before they made it up to Ohio.  So, anxious child that I was, I assumed that I was going to die in a killer bee attack.  Highly logical, I know.  Step on one honeybee one time in your life, I was 5, and this is what happens.

So time marches on, I still hate bees, and someday, I will win the war against them.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


So with my niece having been here, it made me think about some of the previous times she came.  I love her to death, but she's 8 years old and a girl.  I just can't get into playing Barbies or Smurfs myself.  Give me a pack of Hot Wheels and I could amuse myself for hours probably, but I digress...  So she loves to play Barbies, and it's always the same stories.  I think a lot of kids do this though, because I remember the soap opera that my brother and sisters and I had going.  Ask me to explain about "the Cute Bunchies" someday.  Those are stories that will curl your hair.

So naturally, with the three of us here, my partner often is drafted into passing sometimes 2 or 3 hour sessions of Barbies.  Considering how well he can stomach it, I have no doubt who will be playing with our daughters.  Now normally he has a good time, but there are some nights where he was just exhausted.  He worked an almost 12 hour day, and now he comes home and gets to spend two hours minimum recounting the previous episode of "Winx" that she just saw on Teletoon.  But she wants to play with her Ton Ton, and I can't blame her.  But well, her uncle is exhausted after work, and the other one has to ask you to repeat what you just said.  So finally, one night, the four of us decided to play with my mother in law.

So, I'm expecting it to be very calm and very story driven, and I was thinking this was going to just be a nice little story about some happy little thing.  Well, it started out that way, but I could tell that my mother in law was getting a bit tired, so she started making the story interesting for herself.  So it's actually starting to get good now, and I think it's hilarious, and as we're playing, my mother in law has one of the Barbies say, "Tais-toi, blondasse!"  My partner and my niece were on the floor laughing. 

Now thinking of the word, I had worked out that it had something to do with the fact that she was blonde, but I had only had a few experiences with words ending in -asse.  For Francophones, the first two that may come to mind are the ever popular connasse, and the less directly said pétasse.  These words are not for polite company.  Knowing that, I was a bit taken back that she would use them so freely with her fairly young granddaughter.  However, my mother in law actually was born speaking French, so maybe I'm missing something.

Asking my partner about it later, he told me it's just like what you would call a bubble headed bleach blonde in English.  From what I've seen on the internet, they translate it as a brassy blonde, most likely to mean a fake blonde.  So as near as I can tell, it's like calling someone Paris Hilton or Anna Nicole Smith.

Now, like I said most other words in this classification are not for polite use.  Connasse, for example, basically means dumb bitch. Connasse is the feminine form of connard.  It comes from the widely used Indo-European root meaning vagina.  In English, it shares the same root as cunt.  Pétasse, conversely, is more about being slutty.  It's roughly the equivalent of slut, but from when I've heard it used, it tends to mean a piece on the side.  It is very similar to the British English slang word slapper.  It originates as a form of péter, meaning to break.There's also the more familar radasse, which would probably just work out to ho, much like the ever interesting putasse. 

There are a few other words that fit in this category.  One that has always amused me is poufiasse.  Technically, it works out to the oft neglected English word floozy.  I have heard the word in three places I can think of, but I really believe it's an underused, and beautiful word.  Another fun word is grognasse, meaning a grumpy bitch.  Chaudasse usually means someone who has sex a lot, so my preferred translation is ever classic hot pants. 

However, words of this group don't necessarily have to have a sexual connotation.  In fact, -asse as an ending is really only a familiar form.  Bonasse usually works out to meek, and fadasse is used for dull. Feignasse is usually translated as a lazy ass, but cocasse tends to mean comical.  Dinde and asse put together make dindasse, or more simply put in English, stupid like a turkey.  Hommasse is the equivalent of butch, but more like tomboy than lesbian.  Finally, one you'll hear more often is godasse, which is like saying kicks instead of shoes in English. 

In truth, when you see -asse at the end of a word, think familiar, and in some cases, low quality.  The real functionality of -asse is mostly just to denote familiarity, and as a result of that familiarity, a lack of respect.  I am sure there are other forms, but these are just the one's a found the most amusing.  These are words you'll hear, but in reality, it's best to avoid if at all possible.  The best advice I can give you is when you hear one of these words, smile to yourself, and keep it going, because if you use it yourself, someone's going to correct you.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Ghosts of Apartments Past

I decided that I should include this, just to give a preface to where I was coming from before moving to France.  I grew up in the middle of nowhere.  There are seriously 3 fields around the house I grew up in.  It takes 20 minutes to get "to town" by car.  I grew up where distances are measured in time, so it takes an hour to get to Toledo, and three to get to Columbus.  It took 3 minutes to get to my high school if my mother drove, 45 seconds if it was me.  I could not wait to get to an actual city when I went to college.

Now, I went to Ohio State for a few reasons.  Number one, it was still open enrollment at the time, so it was my safety school if I couldn't get into Penn State.  Penn State wanted me to start at a satellite campus, and I thought fuck right and never looked back.  Number two, from what I had heard, Columbus had a huge gay community.  Clintonville apparently had a higher concentration of lesbians than New York, and the Short North more gays than the Castro.  This excited me.

I lived in the dorms my first two years of college.  The first year was with three other guys, and the next year in an apartment like place.  I loved being in the center of everything.  I always had a roof over my head, food in my mouth, and a bus ride away to get to movies or shopping.  Wonderful, it was.

After tiring of dorm life, I moved into my partner's place because the rent was much lower.  Of course, it was also a 500 square foot studio.  We could take the bus directly onto campus, most of the people there were grad students so there was virtually no noise whatsoever, and there was a strip mall with a Kroger and a Raising Cane's on the corner.   I also had just  got a car, and he already had a parking pass, so it worked well at the time.  Eventually though, we decided we wanted to have a little more.

We started looking around for apartments in November, because we would need to be out of our old place by the end of May that year.  (In Columbus, if you don't have an apartment by February, you probably won't have a place to live.  Apartments fill up fast!)  So we looked around for a bit, and we found these places that were beautiful, but were they $1100 a month beautiful?  In our old place, we were paying $500, but that was with utilities included.  Most of these places had individual water and gas.  So we kept going.  We found a place a bit further north that we were looking at, and it was also ridiculously expensive for what you got.  So with tears in our eyes, we headed back home.

Well, we would have if I hadn't gotten turned around.  It was snowing and I was getting hopelessly lost.  All the roads looked the same, and I kept getting turned around, when we came out onto this one road, and we looked across, and through the snow, we saw this grouping of townhouses.  They looked really nice, and my partner said we should go check them out.  I told him I could tell they were going to be just as expensive just by looking at them.  He said there's no harm in looking, so, we did.

I was completely wrong.  We ended up signing up for a beautiful 1200 square foot apartment; crown molding, open floor plan, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a terrace,  and a private entrance to a mall larger than the city in which I grew up, for less than $700 a month!  Everyone was impressed, and to this day I don't think we'll ever have as nice of a place until we buy or build it ourselves.  We were over the moon in love.

Of course, lots of crap happened before.  I remember frantically getting our contract up to them to get signed, worries about credit scores, and the move in day was a disaster.  Imagine two gay guys, each less than 120 pounds lifting a 250 pound, 6 foot long dresser into a U-Haul, and after getting there, one locks the keys (the only set of keys) in the car.  We figured out that water bills are always more expensive than you think, and that satellite dishes are considered an eyesore by most apartment complexes.  But it was really our first place that was really ours.

When we left, there were some tears, and an all out rush to pack five years of our life into a u-haul, a neon, and an impala.  From that point on, we had our lives spread across two continents.  Still bitter about that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Two enter, One Leave

If I haven't scared you enough with the realities of looking an apartment in France, allow me to finish the job with explaining the nuts and bolts behind it.  The realities of the market have changed slightly from before.  Now at least you may not have to pay to see the listings for apartments.  The internet saw to that.  There are more places available now than there were before, and for more reasonable prices.  It should however be noted that if you're looking to buy an apartment in Paris, you'll pay on average around 8300 euros per. square. foot.  I wish I were joking, but that is far from the case.

Looking for an apartment online is one of the easier ways to go , but then you run into dealing with the particuliers.  Particuliers are private owners that see no problem with coming into their apartment whenever they feel like it.  Sometimes with no notice.  It is their property and completely allowed to, but when you're never sure how people will react to seeing two guys sleeping in the same bed, you learn that it may not be the wisest route.  So in that case, your only real option is going through a real estate agency.

As I mentioned before, a few years ago you couldn't even get to look at the listings of available apartments without paying a fee of anywhere from 30 to 150 euros.  This didn't even guarantee you would find an apartment, but you could see if there was one that interested you.  In a day, you might spend 500 euros just looking for a few apartments.

In the system before, after you found a few you liked, you'd need to make appointments to go and see them.  The availability of appointments at places where they still practice this method varies depending on the time of year.  The worst time tends to be after college students get words on their scores from the baccalaureate, the national exam for your high school diploma.  It becomes even more complicated in late July and August as most people are taking vacations, and some people are pressing to get it done before they leave on vacation.  So you may be able to make an appointment the following week to when you come in.  There's sometimes better availability, but it's better to check ahead than get screwed out of a place you really like.

Most places now will simply give you the keys to check out on your own.  The only thing they require is that you leave a form of ID at the office so that they can contact you should you run off with the keys.  I find this to be the preferable method because then you can be as truthful as you want.  You don't have to smile and find something nice to say.  For this process as well, take a map or a GPS with you, unless of course your from the city.  I can't tell you how much gas we burned trying to figure out which streets crossed which.

After you've visited a few places and decided where you will live, the next step is the application.  Basically, they will ask you for everything short of a blood sample.  They want proof that you have a bank account, your pay stubs, and a copy of your ID.  If you're a student, they want to see a copy of your acceptance letter, and if you work, they want a copy of your employment contract.  If you have a co signer, they want copies of his bank statements, income and property taxes, and a copy of his ID.  The place we went to had 3 copies of the contract that all had to be signed and initialed multiple times.  All this, and you may have to possibly pay a fee for submitting your application, which you won't get back if they reject you. 

Should they deem you worthy of living in their property, the next step will be to pay for your first month's rent, the security deposit, and my personal favorite; the honoraraires.  The first two are totally reasonable, and exist internationally, but the third just pisses me off.  You had to jump through all of these hoops, with a smile to boot, and then they have the gall to expect you to pay 90 percent of the cost of a month's rent for all the help they supposedly gave you?  Vive la France!  It's enough to make you question your sanity.  So then, you have the apartment, right?

Well, yes and no.  You technically don't have the apartment until they've given you the keys, and you have to wait for everything to be accepted.  You may get a call telling you that they need something else signed, or something needs to be done initially, so just watch out. Should you make it beyond the thunderdome, you're almost home.

The final hurdle to clear is the état du lieu.  Some places consider this, the check in inspection, a formality and are quick about it.  Other places take a special joy in picking apart everything they find.  It's a matter of knowing what kind of organization you're dealing with.  It's best to take the best possible care of your apartment, and in the end, things usually work out ok.  Remember, if they find anything wrong with the apartment when you leave, it comes out of your security deposit.

So you get the keys and you're all set, right? They may not give you the keys if they don't see certain other documentation.  Every person who rents is required to have renter's insurance in France.  If you can't prove that you've taken it out, you don't get the keys, and you may lose out on your place.  Renter's insurance isn't very expensive though, so no worries about that.  you should be able to get it for less than 20 euros.  You also need to make sure you take the readout on your apartment's electric counter, and possibly the water meter too.  Elecricitè de France will ask you for it, along with the former owner's name before they allow you to start the new account. 

The processes can wear you out, but it's worth it in the end.  I also never understood how apparently easy it is to get out of a contract.  Usually the agreements are for somewhere between 1 to 3 years.  No one seems to worry too much about breaking it in the middle though, so really once you've taken care of getting the apartment, there's little that can stop you after.  Just make sure you've got your i's dotted and your t's crossed, and you can make it as painless as possible.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


So with all of the taches ménagères taken care of for the day, I can now sit down and regale you with my sad sad tale of the frantic apartment search that's been going on now for two months.  Yes, I kid you not; two months.  Now, for me, as an American, this seems unreasonable that the search would take more than maybe, two weeks.  Of course, I also haven't looked for an apartment in the US since before the housing bubble burst, so that may or may not have something to do with it.  It became a necessity though.

Now I don't know if I had already explained it, but currently I live in Ploërmel, a city of around 10,000 in the department  of Morbihan (56) located in the region of Bretagne (Brittany), where we live with my mother in law.  We have what's called a Type 2 (usually abbreviated simply as a T2) that's around 157 square meters, which works out to around 613 square feet.  Apartments and houses are always smaller in France.  It may have something do with having 90 million people in a country roughly the size of Texas.  For three people, two of them sharing a room, it works out pretty well, but it's definitely a change.Recently though, my partner got final word on his acceptance into medical school at Pontchaillou in Rennes.  So we were really happy about this, but of course, the question became, where were we going to live?

So logically, with it being a 40 minute drive to Rennes, we'd need to move to the city.  The question was still where?  The logical first thought was close to the medical campus, which is in Villejean.  It's a fairly nice part of town, and it would really cut down on the commute.  At first, we had decided that it needed to be there.  So we started looking at places around the campus.

Now, I guess I should explain a little about Rennes.  It's the capital of Brittany, located in the department of Ille-et-Vilaine (named for the rivers that run through it) [35].   It's the smallest city in the world that has a subway system.  It also has high speed rail service and an IKEA.  (IKEA makes me happy, and I believe it should make all people happy.)

There were a few problems in this search.  One: my partner worked 5 days a week, which meant no extended amounts of time to take trips to see places.  One of his days off was Sunday.  Two: the Rennes housing market is insane.  If you see something you like, you have to take it immediately, or you will never see it again.  Three:  my partner got his results exactly 5 days before the baccalaureate results came back.  Rennes has 60,000 students between two universities and about 6 écoles supérieures.  Everyone and his brother was looking for apartments.  So every Wednesday, we were furiously driving up to Rennes to look for and at places. 

We started looking in July, and we were pretty precise about it.  It needed to be in either Villejean or Beauregard.  We were looking for a real kitchen, what they call a "cuisine américaine" if possible.  (All it means is that the kitchen is open to the rest of the apartment.)  It needed to have some storage, and it would be nice to have a balcony.  A terrace would be nice too, but was unessential, just a nice bonus to have.  I wanted something a couple floors up, after remembering the horror that was living on the ground floor in our old apartment in Columbus, and the bedroom absolutely had to be separate, so that took out all the T1s, studios, and T1 bis offers.  All this and more for under 500 euros!

So as we looked, you could literally see our crests fall.  They all had kitchens open to the rest of the room, sure, but that was because the French idea of a kitchen is a sink, a refrigerator, and a hot plate.  Some only had a sink.  None of the places we saw had a cupboard, much less more than about 3 inches of counter top.  Closets, in the French mind were a luxury.  There were places for sale, and I joke not, 18 square meters (a little less than 200 square feet) for 380 euros a month!  The first few were funny, but eventually the sad reality of the situation started to sink in.  So we started to expand the search.

So that Friday, we made an appointment to see two places.  One of the two candidates we eventually decided on, was in Villejean, just a short walk from the university.  It had a separate bedroom, and a very nice bathroom.  The kitchen left something to be desired, but overall, we were pleased.  Excluding the kitchen, it seemed to have everything we wanted from the pictures we saw.  So we made an appointment to see it. 

The pictures, much like the cake, were lies!  The neighborhood was really industrial, and the building was dirty.  It had that church smell to it, like the rectory or convent at the catholic church back home.  there were closets, but the bedroom was about big enough for a bed, and that was all.  The kitchen opened into a room too small to make an actual living room, but too big to just leave as a kitchen.  So overall, the first place was just disappointing.

Now, we weren't in very high spirits coming to the next place.  The first good and bad point was that it was in the Lorient/Saint Brieuc neighborhood of Rennes, really close to what's called Les Trois Marches.  It was across the street from a motorcycle repair shop.  We were unimpressed from the building, and the staircases and elevator as well.  So we persevered.

Never judge a book by its cover!  The apartment had a separate living space and bedroom, plenty of cabinets, a fully equipped kitchen with plenty of cupboards, and it was completely redone!  After the last place we saw, we said we'd take it on the spot!  So we asked if we should sign something or what was the next step.  The realtor asked if we could come back tomorrow to fill out the forms.  My partner, having one day off that week, had to work, and couldn't make it back until Wednesday.  So she said that she would hold the place for us, and we could come back with all the paperwork and get it done.  So all proud and excited, we headed back home.

Two days later, I'm talking with a friend back home on the computer, when my mother in law opens the door and tells me that she just got a phone call.  Apparently another agency had the apartment listed, someone else saw the apartment after us, and they had all the paperwork signed on Monday....  So my mother in law and I battened down the hatches for when my partner would come back for lunch.  There was no way to properly sugar coat this, and no amount of pastry was going to make this any easier.  He took it about as well as expected....

The week after, he didn't want to look at any of the places we showed him, and when he did, he would immediately find fault with it.  We tried to tell him that we were all sad about losing the place, but it wasn't going to do any good to cry over spilled milk.  He came out of the funk in a few days, but time had been wasting.  So we started looking again.  We found two more candidates.

For those of you playing along at home, you might notice a pattern.  We saw a place in the same neighborhood as the one we liked.  It was on the way into town, right next to a bus stop, which turned out to be a bad thing really.  The neighborhood was kind of run down.  None of us were impressed with the ambiance.  It went downhill from there....

We had come to a group visit to an apartment that looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the late cretaceous.  The kitchen had a refrigerator and freezer (replete with mold, perfect for my partner to take a sample to college to identify exactly what strain was making our flesh drop off.) and hot plate.  The floors were filthy and the radiators were covered with what I hope was just grease covered in dust.  If it was anything more than that, I had no intention of finding out.  My personal favorite though, had to be the clothes line that was hung over the toilet!  I think the best French word to describe it was crade! 

The problem was that it was a group visit, so we couldn't really speak our minds.  In our case it wouldn't have been speaking so much has howls of laughter at the sad predicament we were facing.  The realtor herself was turning seven shades of red at how angry and embarrassed she was at the state of the place.  She kept apologizing, profusely for the state.  The worst part was is that there was a couple that was looking at the place and seriously considering taking it.  I have never wanted to hug two people and let them know that things get better more in my life.  No one should have been living there, and really the only way to clean that place up might have been an exorcism.  At least after we left, we had a good laugh.

Now that we'd seen the gamut, we had pretty much abandoned all hope of ever finding a place and just decided that we would go live in IKEA.  (Yes, I read "From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler" too many times as a child, but tell me who wouldn't want to live in a museum!)  At least I would have Orangina Sanguine whenever I wanted it, and Swedish meatballs galore!  We went to Columbier and distracted ourselves at Fnac until it was time for the final appointment.

We got there a bit early, so we decided to check out the neighborhood.  There was lots of open space, parks all around, Centre d'Alma was about a 15 minute walk away, 3 by car, and all the roads were named after allied countries.  I was already liking this place.  The building itself was recent construction, and after reading a little more about the information sheet, we found it was the biggest apartment we'd seen yet at 56 square meters (a little over 600 square feet.)  So things were looking up.

It wasn't as nice as the apartment we lost out on, and it was in Brequigny, so that meant about 8 stops on the metro.  There was a bus line that went up that way too, and if it really came down to it, you could probably get there in 10 minutes on the beltway.  It had a nice entry way with lots of closet space, and the bedroom was plenty big.  There were no closets in the bedroom though, and not a lot of built in arrangement in the kitchen.  Overall though, it was pretty good.  So we decided to go with it.

So we'll officially be moved in the second week of September.  I'll be more mobile, and also looking for work.  So if anyone has any suggestions for work in Rennes, I'm all ears!  I'll be posting more about this in the coming days, and actually get into the nitty gritty of the process of apartment hunting and the contracts here in France, and also give you a little more info about my background.  My 8 year old niece will be visiting this week though, and my sister in law will be coming to pick her up this Saturday, so this week is going to be complicated!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Do as I say, not as I do.

So since I've been here, I love how French people will do something or say phrase, and think nothing of it.  However, if you as a foreigner do it, you get corrected.  I think this is something that would frustrate me less if I weren't 28 years old, and sometimes being corrected by people 5 to 10 years my junior.  Then again, it doesn't take much to get under my skin if I'm in the wrong mood. 

One of the most normal problems I run into in France is discussing time.  Technically, all time in the strictest sense should be discussed on a 24 hour clock, which is what they use in France.  Not a problem, in general.  I learned military time when I was a kid.  We had a VCR that only ran in it.  Of course, in English, we'd say 4 pm as 1600 hours in that case.  But no, France has to be well....French about it.  So should you be discussing 6 PM in French, you write it as 18h.  Now that's perfectly reasonable, but I did start to notice something....  No one says "dixhuit heures."  Everyone instead says, "six heures du soir."  So in reality, they're using the exact same AM/PM system as the US, but if you as a foreigner were to say "six heures du soir," expect to be corrected at least once.

There are also words that you're not supposed to use in French, especially when discussing money.  Earlier I had started reading manga translated into French.  I had picked up some words, among them was fric.  I decided to use it when discussing something with my niece, and she was quick to correct me.  The best word to use is argent.  Now, that wouldn't be so bad, It's really the difference between saying money and dough in English.  Here's where it gets more complicated though.  Almost no one uses fric.  It's a possible translation, but when people want to be casual in discussing money, the word of choice is poignon.  It's about the equivalent of saying bread as far as I can tell.  The hierarchy of words for money in French, as far as I can tell (from most to least preferable) is argent, liquide (which is only to be used when talking about cash), fric, and finally poignon.  The correction stung slightly less, as she was in her twenties.

Just as a final reference, I was studying some books for a French exam here, and one of the first things I remember learning was that in French, you're never supposed to end a sentence with "avec."  It's kind of the same sense when in English you're not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition, but it's just avec they tell you specifically to avoid in French.  So a few nights later, I'm watching TV and there it is.  A national television ad for what I believe was a bank, ending their sentence with avec. 

So the moral of this story, or at least some sort of takeaway, is to take everything people tell you under advisement, but personally, I wouldn't trust it further than you can throw it.  Although there's a French Academy of Languages, no one actually listens to a word they say unless they're writing for Le Monde.  Much like English, new words are minted every day.  If the language isn't changing, maybe someone from the Academy would like to explain to me the historical origins of "meuf."

I plan on having a big article this weekend about the Hunt for Red October, also known as the mad dash to Rennes every day my partner had off to find an apartment.  We get the keys this Saturday, so we'll go from there.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

So she's the terminator?

(I apologize for the flippant nature of the title, but well, it's not every day you get to type that.)

While reading through a few articles the other day, I came across this article from the New York Times: which discusses the beginnings of the republican primaries. All things considered, most of the article is information I have already read.  The focus of the article is on two candidates.  Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, who made a comment to which he received silent agreement when he said that republicans have the advantage, and the fastest way to lose is to choose "the wrong candidate."  Conversely Michele Bachmann, a current representative for Minnesota, garnered what was described as thunderous applause for her comment that "Behind this dress is a titanium spine!"

One must admit, not only is it beautifully crafted but it does a delicious job of satisfying so many wants the republican party seems to have now.  The primary process is always chaotic, but it seems that this round carries more weight.  After riding high from midterm elections, the luster of those representatives has worn thin.  They have thoroughly proven that they were not the promised change in Washington.  In fact since the mid term elections, the party is screaming in all directions.

The republican party needs a leader.  They need someone who can reassure all stripes that their interests will be heard and represented.  They need someone who is wiling to roll up his or her sleeves and get dirty.  Additionally,  party needs change but cannot afford to change horses in mid stream.  Therefore, they must find someone among the candidates who can strike that balance to satisfy each faction, all while appearing to remain evenly keeled.  This one well crafted phrase functions to separate Michelle Bachmann from the crowd while simultaneously convincing the nation of her down to earth nature, all the while reassuring elite conservatives concerned at losing their first estate representation.

First and foremost, the structure of this phrase leaves something to be desired.  Bachmann begins this declaration with "behind."  Technically speaking, the idea of having a titanium spine behind the dress would mean it to be outside of the body, outside of  the material of the dress itself.  Colloquially though, behind often serves as an alternative to beneath.  Most speakers of English couldn't tell you the last time they used beneath, but behind conveniently has a much higher frequency.  With this single word choice, Bachmann has proven herself as the every man.

One might also find it curious that Bachmann would specifically mention that her spine is behind a dress.  Before I begin, I should say that this point is not an indictment of all conservatives, but specifically evangelical or fundamentalist conservatives.   For this class of conservatives, more so than the general public, has a definition as to how women should be attired; often influenced by if not taken directly from biblical codes.  There are private, usually christian, universities where women may actually face disciplinary actions for wearing pants.  Even in the military, there are rules in place that restrict females from gender neutral attire.  For some conservatives, the idea of a woman wearing something that does not conform to their standards is not only an affront to them, but moreover to their God.

Concurrently, although it should have no place in politics, the general public judges a female candidate not only on issues, but on her fashion choices.  Looking back on the 2008 election cycle; remember that the media was incensed because Hillary Clinton wore pantsuits.  Even after the democratic primaries finished; the conversation switched to Sarah Palin.  She presented herself in a far more palatable manner as she wore skirts and dresses.  With that single move, she fell into what is expected of a woman and thereby sidestepped any questioning of her fashion sense.  Michele Bachmann, following Palin's lead, avoided this pratfall by presenting herself in an acceptable way to the media.

Bachmann's use of a titanium spine could be compared to the famous quote from Elizabeth I at Tilbury.  Both reference parts of the body, but each works as a code to a specific audience.  In Elizabeth's full statement she said that she may have the body "but of a weak and feeble woman;" but"the heart and stomach of a king.  Although, the queen's reference to the heart is straightforward, one could interpret her reference to the stomach as to say that she can "stomach" the troubles that come with being a ruler.  Bachmann, in her case, is using the code of political spinelessness.  In having a titanium spine, she's saying that she will not bend to the interests of others.

Admittedly few would think of a reference to an obscure speech by an English queen, especially in the United States. In my case, I would not know the reference unless I had taken a course on Elizabeth and her court.  Without blowing too much smoke, only those with higher levels of education would recognize the connection.  Therefore, the Elizabethan reference serves a second function, what some call a "dog whistle," to let the educated know that she is far more shrewd than she may appear. 

Messaging like this is really what a candidate with such a questionable background like Michele Bachmann needs.  Such simple but effective phrasing will allow her to show herself as calm and responsible to those who need to see a candidate of that nature.  She is also able to show conservative circles that she knows their belief of where a woman's place is.  Bachmann also speaks to both a more conservative and educated audience.  Bachmann can use what she has built with this single phrase to position herself as a break from the perennial choices of Paul and Romney.   Maybe more importantly, she can show the party that she, like Elizabeth, can weather the battle and come out the victor in the upcoming war.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Keep Your Distance

I always dread when I either meet someone new, or when I see someone I haven't seen in a while here in France.  If they're family or something like that, it's not nearly as stressful, but I always feel a bit awkward when meeting someone.  Should we just shake hands?  Is it proper to "faire la biz?"  I have always found the easiest way to handle it, obviously, is to let the other person take the lead.  Then you know exactly where you stand.  I never thought about how complicated  this is when meeting someone until I had to learn a system that doesn't always quite line up to my American notions.

First and foremost, I should admit that even in the US, I'm a bit unsure of what to do.  Nine times out of ten, I'll nod my head and say "'s'up" and just leave it at that.  If it's someone I'm trying to impress, of course there's a handshake, but well, you know, it's complicated.  It's not that I'm shy, but more that I never know how to deal with people when I first meet them.  I really think the best phrase I ever heard to describe how Americans generally interact from each other comes from Scott Adams:  "I was raised in a country, where touching meant you're standing on the same carpet.  Any closer, and you were engaged."

When I came to France, his family understood the nature of the relationship between my partner and I.  The first people I met were family, so pretty much the rules worked out the same as with my family.  The best way to handle it, is of course to let the other person decide the necessary proximity between you.  After all, you're on the outside of this culture looking in.  It's rude to act like you know the rules.  If the other person extends a hand though, it does send a pretty clear message.

I was meeting my partner's aunts and uncles when we came back for the first time.  The aunts and the female cousins who were there did the kiss thing, and husbands was a handshake, as with all the males there.  Though one aunt and uncle weren't able to make it until later.  So we talked about a lot of stuff, and the night continued swimmingly.  So the uncle comes in first and makes the rounds, and it's a handshake of course.  The aunt though, was as well.

So I was a little puzzled, but the night continued.  We talked some more and eventually we went to see the aunt and uncle's new house they had built.  So we were over there, and they started asking questions of course, and well, as it continued, I kept noticing that they were directing questions at me and using vous.  It took me two or three questions to realize that they in fact were using the second person formal vous, and not referring to my partner and I, or to the three of us including my mother in law.  By the end of the night, we were saying tu, and closed the night with the kissing thing, and that was that.

This also may be something I haven't really defined before, so stop me if I've already explained about how the kissing thing works here.  When you kiss on both sides of the face, you actually don't kiss the person's cheek.  You only make the kissing noise on both sides of the face.  The only exception is if you are close enough to the person, usually blood or marriage, where that situation changes.  You might kiss anywhere from 2 to 4 times.  It varies by region, age, and affectation.  

Now, when to vouvoyer. when to tutoyer, is hard enough to remember, but throw in that you have to keep using the same form consistently (Happily people are understanding if you make an effort, and are usually pretty cool about it.) and it's enough to have you sobbing between bites of baguette  So the question becomes; how does know when one is cleared to start using the informal tu?  The easiest way is to listen when they speak.  If they use tu, you're golden.  However, the clearest way to know for sure, will always be, much like Betty Everett sang all those years ago, it's in his kiss.

Now originally, the concept of two forms of reference comes from royalty.  As we all remember, the queen's famous line, in the US at least, "We are not amused."  Sometimes, we call this the royal we. Most languages of Indo-European descent have this remnant.  For those who studied German, it's called duzen und siezen.  English is one of the few languages that ditched the form.  In fact, depending on where you are in the Spanish speaking world, the terms change.  On the mainland, there's vosotros, but in South America, you need to say ustedes. 

The one thing that always bothers me about this though, is that I remember my German teacher calling it "the respective form."  Now, in reading this, it partially makes sense.  This is the form you're supposed to use with someone older or a boss.   It's showing respect to the other person.  If you are really annoyed with someone, you show it by using the tu form if you don't know them well.  People will be horrified if you are a native speaker of French and don't use vous. Using tu with a stranger is kind of like saying, "I have no respect for you."

Vous though,can be taken much more strongly.  Vous implies not only that you don't know the person, and therefore you're forced to give them standard politeness,  but furthermore you have no interest of making his or her acquaintance.

 So in France, social distance is something hugely important.  If you're in douby,  let the other person decide where you are to be kept.  It's safer for all concerned.    And remember, no matter what your teachers and professors may tell you,  tu and vous function less about respect, but more the ability to push someone away with a single word.