Sunday, October 22, 2006

Here I Stand

"Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me."

These were Martin Luther’s closing words at the Diet of Wurms in defense of his 95 theses, posted on the door of the Wittenberg Church three years earlier, protesting the pope’s sale of indulgences. His 95 theses had spread like wildfire around Europe, and the pope, realizing that this “drunken German monk” had stirred up a massive controversy, demanded that he recant 41 of the 95 theses which were criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church.


In essence, his criticism centered around the pope’s desire to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, certainly a worthy task, since it sorely needed restoration. The pope chose to send papal commissioners throughout Europe to sell “indulgences” for cash. The commissioners announced that anyone wishing to ensure that their loved one in purgatory would quickly make their way into heaven needed only to pay the price, and “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther had previously preached against the sale of papal indulgences, but had never before challenged the papal hierarchy in a direct way. The controversy stirred by his criticisms threatened the ecclesiastical authority of the Catholic Church and even the secular authority of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It was only by dint of some plucky and independence-minded German princes that Luther was spared capture and death as a heretic at the hands of Charles V and the pope.

In the 95 theses and in later teachings, Luther argued that the pope could only absolve Christians of guilt in connection with church-appointed discipline; in other words, if the church (the pope, bishops, or priests) had enforced a penance against a Christian for a sin committed, then the pope could pronounce absolution as far as the Church was concerned. As for the sin itself, only God could forgive and pronounce the sinner clean.

Further, even if the pope were able to confer absolution, Luther argued, shouldn’t he do so entirely for the sake of love, and not for money? He believed that the pope himself was rich enough to repair St. Peter’s basilica without the hard-earned money of the poor but faithful and fearful Christians that the sellers of indulgences preyed upon. Luther felt that Christians should give to the poor rather than buy indulgences.

Also, Luther believed that if the pope held any power to help sinners, it lay in intercession before God, not in proclaiming man-made absolutions. He urged the pope to intercede on behalf of Christians, not take their money.

Finally, he called upon Christians to avoid the temptation to “buy” salvation. Instead he urged them to take up the cross and “be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell; and thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace” (theses 94 and 95).

Luther’s stand, excommunication, and the schism which followed ushered in the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Catholic counter-Reformation, both of which brought wide-ranging changes in the exercise of ecclesiastical and temporal authority. No longer did the lords of church and state make unilateral demands of the people, and more importantly, Church tradition (the pontifical law which was based on edicts and rulings of the pope, and not necessarily Scripture) was no longer considered equal to the Scriptures in ultimate authority.


OK, there are a myriad of points to be made, but since I’m neither a historian nor a theologian, I’m severely limited in the breadth of my conclusions. First, Luther challenged Christians to seek personal connection with Christ, and trust only in his atoning blood for salvation, not in the edicts of popes or the purchase of false assurances. We would do well to examine our present ecclesiastical situation and make sure we are not promoting a form of works-righteousness in place of God’s unmerited favor toward us.

It is so easy for church leaders to impose a set of behavioral rules and regulations which, while instituted to help the Christian reach a higher level of personal discipline and perhaps a greater measure of sanctification, in fact become a rule book which determines who is saved and who is not. Because no church or denomination can have an exhaustive list, and because internal sins (jealousy, envy, lust, greed, malice, deceit and many others) are very hard to monitor and measure, the list usually involves external markers that are easily seen and measured.

In the churches most influenced by the holiness and Pentecostal movements, the list has included smoking, drinking, dancing, going to movies, card-playing, and whether girls should wear make-up or short skirts. In mainline denominations (non-holiness churches like Presbyterian, Episcopal, Anglican, and even Luther’s own denomination), the list today often runs along politically correct lines: intolerance, environmental abuse, chauvinism (see my earlier blog), homophobia, and even specie-ism (abrogation of animal rights).

I am not prepared (and neither are you, I suspect) to fully debate which of these behaviors is most sinful or the converse of which is most holy. That debate might be helpful to clarify grey areas, but that is not how or why those sorts of debates are usually held. Most debates about holy or sinful behaviors are held more like the Diet of Wurms than like St. Thomas Aquinas’ disputations. Rather than coming closer to a Christian truth or reaching a greater unity in the faith (as Thomas Aquinas attempted), we usually end up trying to find someone to label as a heretic and burn at the stake (if only in effigy).

The second point I want to make about Luther’s stand is this: he did not go looking for a fight, but when he found that papal edicts and pontifical laws oppressed Christians and preyed upon their fears in order to increase the wealth and authority of individuals, he refused to stand by and watch. When he was excommunicated and his very life threatened, he continued to follow his conscience:

“Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason . . .I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”

Having found the key to salvation in the statement “the just shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:38 and Habakkuk 2:4), he refused to back down. He was not willing to live under an authority that oppressed people with rules and regulations that were man-made. He resisted these unnecessary intrusions into the life of the Christian, and staked his very life on two simple creeds: Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) and Sola Fide (salvation by faith alone).

In Matthew 23:4, Jesus denounced the Pharisees because “they tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (NIV). Our ecclesiastical leaders would do well to encourage godliness but avoid tying up these heavy loads of traditional rules; we as Christians would do well to strive to live godly lives and refuse to be burdened with a yoke of slavery to dead works of the law. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (NIV).

Standing requires balance, strength, and awareness; the disoriented, the weak, and those asleep cannot stand by themselves. Luther never imagined that his 95 theses would lead to a world-wide reformation of Christian belief and practice. He only knew that he could not go back to what he knew to be false. He had no choice, so he stood. And there he continues to stand as a model for us. May we say with him:

Here we stand, we can do no other; God help us all.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What you've all been waiting for...

You can stop holding your breath now--they arrived a long time ago, I just forgot to tell you. The statues, I mean. Sorry if you've turned ten shades of blue and keeled over from hypoxia. I didn't mean to kill you with suspense, and besides, if you're that easily transported by my sorry little story, it's really your fault, not mine.

Anyway, we played phone tag with the DHL people in Ohio for most of a week before we finally got a hold of a live person. Or at least a live if disembodied voice named Jennifer. After all that effort, a sort of seance if you will to call up the voice, all she wanted of me was a copy of my Social Security card. That's it.

No manifest, packing slip, store receipt, de-tax form, Passport number, or customs form. Just a xerox copy of my Social Security card. The trouble is, I don't remember when I stopped carrying it in my wallet, so I consulted my organizational manager aka Beth. She looked in all the obvious places, and finally found it in my junk drawer.

I haven't decided yet if that's a case of irony or poetic justice, but the fact is that I had relegated the card (given to me in 1976 and signed in a very adolescent style) to a sort of junk pile. This may just be a Freudian error that betrays my basic belief that I am amassing Social Security benefits for all my older baby boomer comrades, and when I become eligible they will have just finished giving it all away.

No matter, it was of critical importance for at least this one time, and with a touch of the fax button, the now disembodied card was wafting toward Ohio to free our imprisoned personages. Two days later, the box arrived, in one piece with all statues intact and the packing material (new clothes and boots) more or less undamaged.

Without further ado, I present to you the infamous Artisanats Personages:

The 15 personages: I don't think they'll be coming down until after my birthday in January.

Two of the magi and their camel (actually, it's a dromedary).

Two shepherds, their donkey, Joseph (in blue) and the innkeeper's wife (Mary needed a midwife, didn't she?).

Mary and the baby Jesus.

Photos do not do this creche justice. The figures are so beautiful, you want to cry. All the ridiculous labor and hassle and waiting has been worth it all. This is art for a lifetime.

I believe I will be repeating the prior sentences in a few months, substituting the word "Katie" for "the figures." I don't think we'll be sending our infant daughter back from China in a DHL box, though. She is one little figurine that I'll be carrying on the airplane.

I'd better start learning some Mandarin soon...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What is Truth?

Pilate said to him, “what is truth?” (The Gospel of John, chapter 18, verse 38.)

We’ve been asking that question ever since. Lately, what with the demythologizers and the existentialists and the deconstructionists, the whole notion has gotten a lot foggier. The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t all that helpful either: it defines “the truth” as “that which is true as opposed to false.”

Going to the word “true” we get “in accordance with fact or reality; genuine; real or actual.” For you budding etymologists chasing word origins (as opposed to entomologists chasing little bugs around), the word is from Old English treawe, meaning steadfast or loyal.

Mark Twain popularized British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's statement, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." Having grown up in a household of 4 loquacious boys who preferred debate to fisticuffs, I know better than most that one can find statistics or facts to bolster even the most outrageous position.

“Mean Joe Green is the toughest defensive lineman in football.”

“Uh uh, Too Tall Jones is.”

“No way! Mean Joe hits harder cuz he weighs more.”

“Forget it! Too Tall is so tall, when he tackles you, he falls over on top of you and crushes you.”

“Does not!”

“Does too!”

“No way!”


At that point, the debate usually fell into ad hominem arguments, sometimes verbal, sometimes more physical (only to demonstrate for argument’s sake how Mean Joe actually hit or Too Tall actually fell on top of you). This phase of the debate rarely lasted very long, since my Dad usually resorted to the “Divine Right of Kings” argument to silence our debate.

“Shut up and sit down! You’re blocking the game.”

“Why should we?”

“Because I’m your father and I said so.”

Since that is a non sequitur that is unwise to attempt to breach, we usually sat down until the next infinitely important debate began minutes later.

It might be useful to review the various forms that bad arguments can take. I’m well aware of them since I’ve put all of them to fairly good use over the years. I have freely borrowed much of the following material from this critical thinking website.
Ad Hominem means “to the man” and refers to arguments, direct or indirect, that attack the person rather than their belief. Watch any political debate, and you’ll see mostly these body punches (often landing below the belt). “Candidate X wants to raise taxes because he is ignorant.”
Appeal to Authority: this might entail appealing to a famous person’s view, or a view on a certain topic by an expert in a different field. “Lindsay Lohan says that CO2 gas definitely causes global warming.”
Straw man: this refers to the ancient battle practice of placing dummies made of straw on the battlements of a castle to draw the arrows and spears of the enemy. This usually requires one to simplify and misrepresent the views of an opponent, making him an easy target to refute the simplified argument.
Argument from ignorance: here one asserts that X must be true because no one has yet proven it false, or the converse: that it is false because it has never been proven true.
Appeal to pity: playing on the feelings of the listener in order to win them to an otherwise poor argument.
Playing to the gallery: using an example, argument, or story likely to appeal to the observers, causing them to enter the debate (usually by applauding or disrupting the opponent’s speech).
Hasty generalization: an argument that generalizes from exceptional cases or creating a rule that fits the specialized case rather than the majority of cases. This is a favorite of bureaucrats. “A doctor was caught cheating Medicare, so now all doctors have to get fingerprinted.”
post hoc ergo propter hoc: the “false cause” argument where A supposedly causes B just because A precedes B. “Every time I sneeze, the door slams.”
Begging the question: assuming as a premise the very conclusion that we are trying to prove.
Irrelevant conclusion: in a long-winded argument, the actual conclusion being argued is different than the one that is supposedly being argued for. If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your BS.
False dichotomy: here, one argues that either X is true or Y is true. In reality there may be several other possibilities. This argument usually fails to consider all the available evidence.

Which brings us to the idea of critical thinking: not being critical, which usually involves finding petty faults or “picking” at someone, but thinking analytically about a topic. This usually involves an element of open-mindedness, some intellectual skepticism about the claims, ideas, or arguments, and an unwillingness to take things at face value.

Critical thinking asks several important questions about a claim:
Who is making the claim? This question helps you to identify the source of the claim.
What is the authority for the claim? This question will help you to identify whether the claim rests on opinion, prejudice, hearsay, evidence or whatever.
What evidence is there to support the claim?
How reliable is the evidence?
What other interpretations of the evidence might there be?

Thinking critically helps us assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument, assumption, or idea. It’s too bad that most of what I’ve just presented is seen as hopelessly academic and theoretical by most people. Most television shows, popular books, and other media (not to mention far too many educational materials for our children) are composed of long strings of bad arguments connected together by bursts of uncritical thinking.

Critical thinking as I said requires some open-mindedness; not the sort of mushy, hyper-tolerant “big tent” blather that many liberal politicians spout, but a form of intellectual courage that decides to follow a sound idea wherever it goes, as long as it heads in the general direction of truth. It also usually requires a skepticism of “playing to the gallery,” straw man arguments, and false dichotomies often offered by politicians, editorialists, the clergy at their worst, and members of the press in the popular media.

Perhaps the most important aspect of critical thinking lies in an unwillingness to take things at face value. This is simply a disciplined form of intellectual curiosity. We actually learn it at a very early age with the “why?” questions. We often lose it just as quickly in early grade school, when our teacher shushes us for “talking out of turn.”

At its best, critical thinking should cause us to question standard operating procedures, outdated traditions, and "my way or the highway" leadership styles. It should also give us a healthy skepticism for "new and not improved" ideas, fuzzy logic, and fanaticism devoid of intellectual rigor. Heresy under the guise of "church tradition" on the one hand, or "progressive revelation" on the other is still heresy.

Failure to exercise this curiosity over a lifetime leads to a mindset that says, “we’ve always done it that way.” Or, “we’ve never done it that way.” This was the very problem that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day fell into: Jesus brought the truth in the form of “new wine” which didn’t fit well in their “old wineskin” thinking. The leaders failed to apply disciplined curiosity to the epiphany of the Messiah, choosing instead to make a desperate (and violent) stand on tradition. Ultimately, they were responsible for bringing Jesus before Pilate, resulting in the opening quote above.

Jesus himself claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Truth, Jesus claims, is not a concept, but a person. Now that’s an idea we can sink our teeth into: let’s try using some critical thinking to assess Jesus’ truth claims about himself, his mission, and his place in our world. But that I will leave for another day.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Do the Right Thing

Did you ever notice how easy it is to figure out the right thing for someone else to do? I’m never at a loss for advice to give to someone who doesn’t know what to do. Amazingly, I’m often right! It isn’t that hard to look at someone’s situation fairly objectively and pick out the right course of action.

Of course, unsolicited advice is just that: unsolicited. Most people don’t actually want to hear my advice, right or wrong. Maybe they don’t know me, or don’t trust me, or maybe they are so preoccupied with the decision in front of them that they can’t even hear me. Whatever the cause, my words fall on deaf ears.

The word advice comes from (you guessed it) Latin: ad + visum, from videre “to see.” It means “guidance or recommendations offered with regard to future action.” In order to give advice, you have to see a little of what’s ahead, and give the person guidance to find success or avoid disaster as the case may be.

The real trick is to be able to give myself advice on doing the right thing. Every day we find ourselves making hundreds of small decisions in many areas of life. Each decision of itself is entirely inconsequential, but taken together, our decisions come to define us. Make mostly aggressive decisions, and you become aggressive. Make mostly self-centered decisions and you become selfish. You get the idea.

Spike Lee made a movie in 1989 called “Do the Right Thing,” describing one hot day in an urban neighborhood when racial tensions erupt. The day starts innocently enough, with a variety of odd and endearing characters waking up and going about their business. But hidden in their daily routines are racial prejudices and stereotypes built imperceptibly by thousands of little decisions that are subconscious. It takes only a few small misunderstandings, and tragedy strikes in the form of deadly violence. Spike Lee leaves it up to us to decide if anyone on that hot but otherwise normal day “did the right thing.”

My brother’s favorite poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling, opens with the lines:
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
Keeping your head is mostly a matter of perspective: it’s not always all about me; there are more important things in this world than just my own comfort or wealth or freedom or leisure.

Even when I know what the right thing to do is, it isn’t always easy to force myself to do it. It is hard to set aside my longing for what is comfortable or beneficial for me in order to do what is right, especially when it seems like no one is watching. In fact, since the solipsists believe that the self is all that can be known to exist, it follows that what is good for me must be the right thing to do, since I’m the only person that I can be sure of the existence of.

Thomas Hobbes wrote of a “natural state of man” in which everyone is completely free to selfishly pursue all of their own desires. This sounds enticing, but soon one man’s freedom tramples upon another man, resulting in "no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Hobbes offers the idea of a “social contract” in which we give up a few of our personal freedoms in exchange for a society that allows us to safely exercise a host of other personal freedoms. The social contract theories of Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau formed the philosophical basis for the American Revolution, ultimately finding their voice in Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” as well as the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…"

It is interesting and challenging to think that our founding fathers, having decided that liberty was of paramount importance, proceeded to give up everything they had—property, livelihoods, even their very lives—in order to secure for all who came after them the very liberties that they themselves never knew. Somewhere in this irony lies the key to the concept of doing the right thing.

It seems that there are some things (the Declaration calls them “unalienable Rights”) which are so important, so critical to the human spirit, that to lose these things is greater even than losing one’s very life. Liberty is one of those things, as is freedom from tyranny. These are ideals that have a life of their own, and will be present in society long after each of us is gone.

Maybe that is one way to help me decide what the right thing to do is: if the decision pits my own interests against a larger, more universal, and more important ideal, then I should probably choose to deny some of my selfish interests and affirm the greater good. In my office I have 6 partners: I can either take advantage of them and always look to my own interests alone, or I can sometimes put the good of the clinic ahead of my own benefit.

If I only look to my own interests all the time, I reject the social contract, and I can expect my life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Or I can “lay up treasures in heaven” by giving up some of my selfish ambitions in favor of what’s best in the long run. Ultimately, though, choosing against my own interests in favor of the greater good is only possible if I also believe that I will have to give account to God for everything that I’ve done.

The biblical book of Hebrews says “therefore, being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [the saints], let us…run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We can deceive ourselves and pretend no one is watching while we choose the selfish way, but once we realize that Someone is always watching, it definitely makes it easier to Do the Right Thing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Platitudes and Pity

Respect your elders.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Waste not, want not.

These quaint platitudes and many other similar old clichés have been passing through my mind the past few days, but with a twist. I’ve been in Red Wing, Minnesota the past 3 days while Beth attends a “Preserve Minnesota” Statewide Historic Preservation Conference here. I didn’t attend any of the sessions, preferring to catch up on some Continuing Medical Education (and sleep) while Beth attended lectures on color theory for old neighborhoods, preserving and renovating historic city parks, and developing civic efforts to preserve and promote historic downtowns statewide. But I certainly heard about preserving the past over dinner and at their awards banquet Friday night.

Our local neighborhood organization, SCHNPA (St. Cloud Historic Neighborhood Preservation Association), won an award from the Statewide HPC for grassroots efforts to recognize and preserve the historic downtown and Southside areas of St. Cloud. I’ve been on the fringes of most of these efforts, since Beth is vice-President of the organization and has been the architectural and artistic heart of the beast. I have been to more community meetings, city council meetings, fundraisers, civic events, and historic house tours than I care to count.

To their credit, the folks at SCHNPA have instigated a great deal of change: they have succeeded in making important changes to city ordinances, changing biases among city politicians and employees, helped to create two historic districts, and promoted a historic downtown area. Their efforts to create a Heritage Preservation Commission resulted in city ordinances to promote historic preservation and to prevent “remuddling.” It just makes sense to rescue and renovate the best of the old, which is why the old platitudes have been drifting through my mind: it’s just not that hard to figure out that old buildings have a charm and an appeal that is missing in many of today’s mass-produced cardboard (OK, chipboard) structures.

In the same way, the quaint platitudes of yesterday have a charm and an appeal that is easy to identify, but difficult to put to use, at least without some renovation. Modernism and now postmodernism have been hard on these time honored social conventions, just as their architectural soul mates Brutalism and Modernism have been on historic downtowns. Many a lovely Victorian storefront was assaulted by well meaning “modernizers” with a 50s or 60s era aluminum or plastic façade which smothered the charm of the building until it finally lay fallow altogether, another victim of the heartless and soulless Big Boxes of the suburbs.

The anonymity and dehumanization of postmodern life isn’t a result of building Big Boxes; the Boxes are a product of the process. I don’t pretend to be an economist or a political philosopher, but it seems to me that we are becoming victims of our own success. Selling our souls in pursuit of material success and comfort, we wonder how we got where we are now, and how we missed the place we were hoping to go to instead.

It seems to me that morally speaking, we can take a cue from our historical preservation colleagues to look for the charm in what has gone before, and seek to preserve at least a little of what seems attractive but outdated, like old-fashioned courtesy, pity, and charity. Our Victorian ancestors knew instictively how to be kind, merciful, and loving toward one another (whether they actually practiced it or not). Modern and postmodern citizens seem to have lost that instinct, and our social landscape shows its own form of "Brutalism."

Having recently returned from Paris, I’m struck by the “politesse,” or formalized courtesy, of relationships there. There are no malls or Targets there, and it takes longer to get anything done, because you have to actually greet people, shaking hands with the guys and kissing the ladies on both cheeks. But therein lies the humanity: you make real contact with real people who don’t always smell nice or have halitosis, but who also have the power to render to you a measure of humanity and groundedness missing in an exurban SuperTarget. In the same way, our political and social “business district” has suffered from dehumanization.

Pity is utterly outmoded, having given way to dispassionate “rights” and desultory pride. Of course, no one wants to be pitied; therefore it is legislated away. A scene that would have moved our ancestors to deep, gut-wrenching pity (like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath of destruction) now brings mostly pronouncements about which political party or administration is responsible for this disaster, and how important it will be to vote them out of office next election cycle. Pity gives way to political self-righteousness.

Charity has given way to an entitlement society: doctors are no longer allowed to give “charity care” for free, because we have come to believe that “everyone has the right to basic medical care.” So our state governments develop under funded programs that do not adequately cover medical needs AND fail to pay doctors and hospitals enough to cover their expenses in caring for the poor. The doctor no longer sees Mrs. Jones, the widow in need of free care, he sees just another Medicaid patient. Charity gives way to entitlement on one side, and begrudging resentment on the other.

I’m perfectly guilty of this dehumanizing anonymity myself: I am much more inclined to give some money to an anonymous charitable organization and never get my hands dirty actually helping out. It’s true that your hands do get dirty doing good, as I’ve discovered over a number of trips to rural Guatemala to provide medical care to destitute victims of the prolonged civil war there. I recall washing my hands a lot during my visits there, but it’s funny: I never remember feeling the least bit resentful about it.

The best way to address the ills of the world, as I see it, is to get your hands dirty touching other people. Unfortunately, human touch is so old-fashioned, so quaint, so unsanitary, that it isn’t likely to find a large following among the movers and shakers of the modern and postmodern world, who just might prefer to knock down some more old buildings and erect yet another Wal-Mart. Pity. If we all tried it, it just might work…

Friday, September 29, 2006

Fear, Pain, and Romance

I know all of you are on the edge of your seats to find out whether the box of statues arrived intact from DHL: sorry, no news at present.

The six statues that we brought back in our carry on luggage are sitting, proud but forlorn, atop our mantle. The virgin Mary and baby Jesus are there, but no Joseph; one adoring Magus (I think that’s the singular for Magi), who also looks a bit bewildered at the absence of the star and his fellow royals; the older shepherd is looking around for where that nogoodnick young shepherd has gotten off to; and the donkey and sheep look slightly unhappy at the lack of a hay-filled manger.

Joseph, the young shepherd, the other Magi, the camel, the cow, the innkeeper’s wife, the star, and the manger are crowded together in a dark box probably sitting in U.S. Customs somewhere, wondering “where is all the Christmas spirit around here?” Or maybe, “who the heck is going to glue us all back together now that we’ve been smashed into smithereens?”

My hope remains that all will be reunited in time for the Advent season, and what a lovely scene they will all make in the sun room, awaiting the coming of the baby Messiah. The Magi are usually represented as being present at the stable scene for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but we know from scripture that they followed the star to his house in Nazareth, coming when he was about 2 years old.

However, in the Advent season, all of us await the birth of Jesus on Christmas eve, and so we put the Magi into the stable scene, perhaps to represent that everyone, rich and poor, young and old, human and animal, await the blessed incarnation, God become Man. Some people in France told us that it was very important to keep the baby Jesus out of the scene entirely until late on Christmas eve, so that we, like everyone on that day 2000 years ago, awake on Christmas morning to find the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger.

Right now it’s a little bit early to begin the waiting period of the Advent season; I’m simply awaiting the delivery of the infamous box so we can put the entire adventure to rest once and for all. Until then, you’ll just have to wait as well…

I ran across a little bit of Mona Lisa trivia yesterday: the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Leonardo’s painting, may have been pregnant or had recently given birth when she was painted. Images obtained from infrared reflectography show that she was painted as wearing a fine lace veil around her shoulders of a style worn in 16th century Italy only by pregnant women and new mothers. The veil has apparently been obscured by darkening of the varnish and general aging.

From my perspective, it could be that Leonardo himself painted over the veil after initially painting it in, since it took him 4 years to complete the portrait: “…dang it, she’s gone and gotten pregnant…geez, I just got that veil done, and now she’s not pregnant anymore…holy cow! Pregnant again?...”

FYI, my take on the enigmatic smile is that it took so darned long for Leonardo to finish the portrait that her smile was frozen in place, sort of like what a Dairy Princess looks like at the end of a really long July 4th parade. Two days later, her mother declares in a huff, “wipe that smile off your face!” Continuing to smile enigmatically, she says, “I can’t, it’s frozen this way.” It could happen...

Well, my bike racing season is over for the year. In a blog from Paris, I recall talking about jogging in the Jardin du Luxembourg several days in a row, now almost 2 weeks ago. With all the walking we did after that with David Schlough and on our own, I’ve gone and done something bad to my right knee. I have barely been able to walk on it at all it’s so painful. My doctor checked it out last Monday, and thinks it’s a sprained right medial collateral ligament. I don’t remember jarring it at all, but I probably jogged too long and too hard for my poor old knee joints.

I forget that, while I’m in very good shape for my age, I basically only work out on a road bike, which requires very little knee stabilization. To start jogging 30-50 minutes a day is no problem for my lungs or legs, since I have been riding 8-15 hours a week on the bike. The knees are a different story, being saved from all that pounding by the bike. So, I’ve learned a lesson: don’t ever jog again. No seriously, it’s important to start very easy with any workout program, whether jogging or weights or biking or whatever…

We are currently in Red Wing, MN, a beautiful southern MN Mississippi river town, for a state preservation society meeting that Beth is attending. I’m just tagging along, catching up on some CME and blogging, since I had planned some long bike rides in the fall weather, but decided to let the knee work itself out a bit before getting on the bike again.

Tomorrow evening we’ll be going to the Minnesota Opera’s performance of La Donna del Lago, or Lady of the Lake, by Rossini, the same guy that gave us the “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” song. La Donna is based on the book length poem by Sir Walter Scott, who also wrote “Ivanhoe,” one of my favorite books of all time. In fact, all of his so-called “Waverly” novels are knockouts, my next favorite being “The Talisman,” set in 14th century Palestine during one of the Crusades.

The poem is set in medieval Scotland, and represents 6 days in the epic struggle between King James V and the powerful Douglas clan. The romantic hero is Malcolm Graeme, and the heroine Helen Douglas, daughter of the chieftain of the Douglas clan, whom the King has banished from his kingdom. They take refuge with Roderick Dhu in his castle in the middle of Loch Katrine, and Helen, I assume, is therefore the Lady of the Lake. In true opera fashion, Roderick, Malcolm, and the mysterious knight James Fitz-James (the name should give him away immediately as King James V himself) all fall in love with Helen. Since I haven’t seen the opera, I don’t know if it ends like the poem does, and either way, I won’t spoil it for you…

I assume that Sir Walter Scott’s title also alludes to the original Lady of the Lake, the student and muse of King Arthur’s wizard Merlin. Actually, the Lady of the Lake is the name of several related characters who play integral parts in the Arthurian legend. These characters' roles include giving King Arthur his sword Excalibur, taking the dying king to Avalon after the Battle of Camlann, enchanting and imprisoning Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father. Different writers and copyists give her name variously as Nimue, Viviane, Niniane, Nyneve, and other variations. It’s all very romantic and chivalric stuff. I’ll let you know if I come up with any connections between Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish setting and the old Arthurian legendary character(s)…

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Au revoir, Paris

Since sleep has been eluding me for the past 2 hours, I finally gave up and started poking around the house. As I start this blog, it’s 6 AM CST, 1 PM Paris time, and I’ve been in bed for 7 hours, sleeping fitfully for the first 5, and watching the paint peel for the last 2. I thought I would tie up some loose ends from the trip, now that we are back in the States. It’s not exactly a cliff-hanger, but someone somewhere might care about what happened to us during our last day in Paris. Sort of a “Last Tangle in Paris.”

When I left off last time, I was loitering over Thursday’s blog and Beth was packing the suitcases. We finished both, and hailed a taxi to take us and our box of statues to DHL to send it back to the States. Arriving at DHL, the same pleasant but monolingual girls were there, and presented us with two forms to fill out.

90 minutes later, we were still sweating over the forms.

The first, a DHL manifest to attach to the box in the little plastic envelope, was in French, but a particularly diabolical bureaucratic French. Beth and I can both read well in French (the vast number of French cognates don’t sound anything like the English words when spoken, but look very similar on paper), but this was to our written comprehension what Waterloo was to Napoleon. The second form, for the U.S. Customs, appeared to be geared for American expatriates stationed for prolonged periods oversees, say in the armed forces or the diplomatic corps.

We struggled to the bitter end with the forms, signed them, and gave them to the girls along with the box of statues. Then came the final coup de grace (or was it a coup d’etat, or a mal a la tete?): we asked the girls for a de-tax form for the statues, and received a perfect French blank stare.

The day before, we had returned to the Artisanats shop where we bought the statues, asking the owner for a de-tax form for the statues. She agreed, but when we told her that we would be taking 6 statues in our carry-on baggage, and shipping 9 of them by DHL, she said that she could only do the de-tax form for the 6, and that DHL would do the de-tax form for the 9 statues to be shipped. I questioned why they would give us a de-tax form when we didn’t actually buy anything at DHL, and hadn’t paid any taxes there. She shrugged, palms up, pouted a little at the lower lip, and said, “c’est normal.”

Back to the DHL girls: when I described to them what the Artisanats lady told me, they shrugged, palms up, pouting a little at the lower lip, and said, “ce n’est pas possible.”

Finally aware of the Sisyphean nature of my task, bureaucratically speaking, I gave up, sealed up the box, and left it to its fate in the bowels of DHL. There was no way I was leaving the DHL office still in possession of my 55 lb. box. We then walked back to the Latin Quarter, looking for supper for our last evening in Paris, and realized that the Artisanats shop was still open!

Just a short digression here: classically speaking, in Greek theater and later with Shakespeare, the tragedy form reached its zenith. In these plays, a basically good protagonist (like Hamlet or Oedipus) with a fatal flaw, is forced by fate to begin down a path that will end in tragedy (usually with the death of the protagonist, his girlfriend, her father and brother, the bad king, the good king, the jester, and everybody else except maybe the milkmaid). Many times through the scenes of the play, he receives warnings of various sorts to divert from his current path or face the tragedy. Because of his fatal flaw (jealousy, revenge, lust, or just plain stupidity), he is unable to change his course, and comes to a bad end.

Having averted disaster at DHL, my fatal flaw of de-tax revenge drove me into the shop to demand a de-tax form for the shipped statues. Two pleasant but monolingual dowagers were at the shop, and together we struggled to come to an understanding of the task that lay ahead. They finally succeeded in phoning the owner, who was shopping at the local market for her evening meal, and after haggling quite a bit over what the issue was, she reluctantly agreed to return to the shop and fill out the form.

Emerging triumphant with form in hand, I realized that the real test, and perhaps the tragic finish, would occur on Friday when we presented de-tax forms for 15 statues, while only actually having 6 of them in our possession. Like Hamlet, I shrugged it off. We greeted our friend the optician one last time, and he suggested Le Procope for dinner. It’s just across Boulevard St. Germain, on rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, and is a lovely old time café.

Started in 1686 by an Italian named Procopio, the café has served everyone from Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Caron de Beaumarchais to Marat and Danton, instigators of the French Revolution. Each table has one or two brass plaques with the names of famous Frenchmen who ate there. We had a lovely meal, mine was French classique: escargots, Trout Meuniere, and for dessert, Baba au Rhum (a rum-laced sponge cake with raisins, introduced to France in the 1800s by a Polish prince in exile in Nancy who named it after Ali-Baba, his favorite character from “Tales of the Arabian Nights”).

After a short final stroll around the Latin Quarter, we made for the hotel and bed, planning to meet David Schlough for a final time for breakfast Friday before we left for the airport. We ended up just meeting him at our hotel for an hour Friday morning, as we were running a little behind schedule. We checked out of the hotel, hailed a taxi, and headed for the airport and our rendez-vous with the douane agents.

Aeroport Charles de Gaulle--Roissy is, like other modern French grands projets (like Centre Georges Pompidou or the Biblioteque Nationale), enormous without being impressive, technologically advanced without being user-friendly, and bizarre without being charming. Your trip absolutely depends upon the taxi arriving at the correct terminal (there are 3), and even then, one of several common problems could result in a missed flight.

We got there almost 3 hours before our flight, dragged our luggage around the entire central walkway of terminal one’s check-in desks, and finally found the de-tax center, operated by the customs agents. After standing in line for 10 minutes or so, watching several unhappy passengers turned away without the magical stamp on their de-tax form because they didn’t have the merchandise with them (having presumably already checked in and placed the merchandise in their check-through luggage), I began to worry that my tragic end indeed awaited me, with incarceration and hard labor endlessly hauling luggage around CDG airport as my punishment.

I also pondered a lovely French version of a Catch-22: an item on the customs window clearly stated that, in order to get the magical stamp one needed: the form, the merchandise (“no merchandise = no stamp”), your passport, AND your airline ticket. Wait, if I need my ticket, then we have to check in first; no, then they will take our check-through luggage with all the purchased items in them, so if no merchandise, then no stamp. But we need a ticket to get the stamp…

Fortunately, one lady produced a copy of her itinerary and received the prized stamp, so I knew that hurdle had been cleared. We tremulously approached the throne and I began to address the douane in my very best French, even though he had just gotten done sending another merchandise-free lady away in perfectly good English. I shoved my passport and itinerary at him, then each of 5 different de-tax forms, showing him pictures of the statues and pointing at the various bags, backpacks, and valises we had hauled up to the counter. Evidently, between my passable French (he even complimented my on how good my French was “for an American”), the pictures of the statues, and the apparently daunting task of hauling each heavy valise up onto the counter to actually examine the contents, he blithely stamped all 5 papers without any attempts to see the merchandise.

We ran out of there as fast as we could before he changed his mind and decided to have a look at all 15 statues after all. Next stop was to carry all our gear down a flight of steps to the mysterious “hall 5” where we were to check in for the flight. Like Northwest in Minneapolis airport, they give Air France all the good check in areas, and relegate Iceland Air to the forgotten corners. We got in line with what seemed like 100 French people who all knew each other and were talking and laughing. It must have been a tour group heading for Reykjavik for holidays.

We got on the plane, stowed our treasures safely where no one could damage them, and sat in our seats in the back. All 100 of the chatty French folk sat down around us. Well, they only sat down until the plane took off and the captain turned off the seatbelt sign. Boy, would Southwest Airlines be proud of the way these people were “free to move about the cabin.” I know, it’s “country”, but I’m sure they are currently freely moving about the country of Iceland, so it works. In the cabin, they moved about so freely, all congregating near the back of the plane (around us), that I feared that the plane would be forced into a nose-up stall, and we would all die singing Frere Jacques.

It was interesting to note the difference in this gregarious, loud, casually dressed group and the rather private, buttoned up, more reserved Parisians we had just left. Either these people were not from Paris, or there is a dis-inhibition process that goes on when Parisians leave Paris behind on vacation. This group was every bit as funny and obnoxious as any American or Australian groups we’ve seen overseas, except that everything always sounds more exotic and interesting in French.

After that, everything was basically a blur, and all at once there we were, standing outside our house, opening the door on the happy but surprised canine greeting committee, and pushing heavy suitcases inside. As usual, a bittersweet time: sad for leaving the magic of Paris, relieved to finally get to the end of our journey, and happy to get a face-washing from our canine companions. Finally, dogs we can pet without having to ask somebody’s permission in French…

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nous nous promenons toujours

Yesterday, we saw Paris. All of Paris. On foot. Twice.

My dogs are killing me.

The day started innocently enough: we arranged with our friend and former clinic administrator, David Schough, to meet at our hotel around lunchtime. Our plan was to go to Laduree for lunch and then to the Orsay museum to see the impressionists for the afternoon.

Around 11:30, we headed out to Boulevard St. Germain to run 2 “quick” errands. The first one was indeed quick: we had bought 170 Euros worth of gifts at a store a few days earlier, but forgot to get the “de-tax” form from them to get reimbursed for the 17% French sales tax we paid. It turns out that everything carries this tax, and people who do not live in the European Union countries are exempt from the tax. Well, not exactly exempt, nothing is ever that simple: we have to pay the tax, then present the goods and the “de-tax” form to the French customs people to get stamped. Then we mail the form in to the French government, and if you haven’t screwed anything up, they send you a check or credit your VISA card.

Unfortunately, we discovered that the minimum purchase amount to qualify for the rebate is 175 Euros. The employee told us this, and we sheepishly left the shop, having paid only 170 Euros for our stuff. Since it has to be bought all on the same day, we were out of luck for that purchase.

Then we went to the Artisanats shop where we had bought the now legendary Christmas crèche, and asked to get a de-tax form for that purchase. No problem, the clerk said, until we explained that we would be shipping 8 statues back via DHL, and taking 6 statues with us as carry-on luggage. At that point the simple process got very complicated: she ended up giving us a de-tax form for the 6 statues we are carrying on the plane, and a receipt for the other 8, to be presented to DHL later today in hopes that they can give us a de-tax form that will be stamped when the package clears customs on its way to our house. Hopefully, that form will make it to our house with the box, and we can then send both forms to the Artisanats shop, and maybe by Christmas get the check from them for the rebate amount. That’s somehow appropriate, since it is a Christmas manger scene after all.

That whole saga will hopefully end this afternoon when we box up the 8 statues, haul them to DHL, and send them off, praying that they don’t arrive at our house smashed into the crushed rock they were made out of. Meanwhile, poor David was left waiting at our hotel for a half an hour while the French bureaucratic machine slowly moved forward. We finally arrived and set off for Place de la Madeleine, where lunch at Laduree awaited.

We got there around 2 PM, and were served by a delightful young man who speaks at least 3 languages very well, since he works in a French restaurant, spoke to us in flawless English, and spoke to the group next to us in what sounded like fluent Italian. We had a lovely lunch of club sandwiches, swordfish with artichokes, and baguette slices. Then we got to the really good stuff: I tried yet another variety of chocolat liegeois, this one with chocolate ice cream, hot fudge sauce, Chantilly cream, and sliced almonds. As usual, it was the best one yet. Beth had hot chocolate for dessert—I mean it, this was not a beverage, it was essentially a hot chocolate mousse. Laduree, La Maison du Chocolat, and Angelina all vie for the right to call their hot chocolate the best in the world. We’ve only had it from Laduree, but it’s certainly far above any other kind that we’ve every tried. We have the recipe for the hot chocolate from La Maison du Chocolat, and it’s extremely good, but there’s nothing like actually being in Paris.

Having tarried overlong over lunch, we hurried down rue Royal and across the Place de la Concorde to the Musee Orsay to spend the rest of the afternoon with the Impressionists. The building itself is fabulous, having been built around 1900 at the height of the Belle Époque, the full flowering of pre-war France. It’s actually a huge train station that was essentially abandoned in the 30s, and I think the vast interior was used for an elaborate set for Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ tour de force about William Randolph Hearst (it is still considered by film buffs to be the greatest film ever made).

After many years of disuse, there was talk of tearing it down, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and it was converted into the most fantastic museum of Impressionist art. The upper galleries are filled with Monet, Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh, Sisley, Caillebot, and countless other Impressionists. We thoroughly enjoyed the stroll through their sculptures (the famous danseuse of Degas is my favorite), paintings (Renoir’s “Ball at the Moulin de Gallette” is my favorite), watercolors, and pastels.

Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive as early as we had hoped, so we were far from finished with the exhibits when the closing announcement came. We tried to pretend that we didn’t understand the French, but then she repeated it in English, Italian, German, and Japanese for good measure. As we exited one salon, a group of museum hosts would form a line behind us, sort of like the drivers in a deer hunt, forcing us toward the exit. We pointed to the giant clock on the wall of the great hall, which said 5:40, and asked if the museum didn’t close at 6:00? They said, the museum is evacuated at 5:45. I wasn’t sure if this required an emergency crew to evacuate any victims who accidentally remained in the building after 5:45 or not, and the host was in no mood to answer this sort of theoretical question at that point.

We had hoped to receive an explanation as to why they advertised the museum as closing at 6 PM, when it actually closed at 5:45, but the host kept repeating that the museum was evacuated at 5:45. I decided that I really didn’t want to become a victime of this serious event, so I encouraged Beth and David to make for the exit quickly to avoid evacuation. We got out just in time, and this apparently assuaged the Museum Nazis sufficiently. Beth grumbled for several minutes about the bait-and-switch regarding the closing time, but the beautiful sunshine and the spell of Paris prevailed, and the mood lightened quickly.

We spent the next 2 hours walking the first lap around Paris: from the Orsay we walked west on the Rive Gauche to the pont Alexandre III (by far the gaudiest and grandest of the bridges of Paris), across to the rive Droite, past the Grand and Petit Palais, the Palais D’Elysees (where President Chirac lives, the equivalent of our White House, but much larger and more French), on to rue St. Honore, past many embassies, including that of the U.S., and past many high-end shops (Lanvin, Yves St. Laurent, Gucci, etc.). We crossed the Place de la Concorde again, this time entering the Jardin des Tulleries, past the Louvre museum, onto Ile de la Cite, and finally to Café Flore de l’Ile on Ile St. Louis.

We dined there, sitting at a little table on the terrace, of course. The people watching was as good as ever, and we enjoyed another memorable meal with our friend David. Around 10 PM, Beth was feeling her oats, and decided that we needed to walk back to the Eiffel Tower to see it all lit up. We walked for another 2 hours, not quite reaching the Tower, but enjoying the “city of lights” immensely. By the time we got back to our hotel, we were all pretty well done for. We hope David caught the last Metro back to his hotel, which is a good half hour walk from here, and we practically fell into bed, ignoring the brobdignagian task of packing that awaited us in the morning.

As Beth is currently in the midst of said task, and I’m taking my leisure with this blog, I will wrap up this (alas) final post and publish it for your pleasure. We had a final French lesson with Marguerite this morning, this time in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, where we spoke mostly French for the entire lesson, switching to English briefly whenever the frustration quotient rose too high. She complemented both of us on our progress over the course of the lessons, and we parted as friends, with a kiss on both cheeks in perfect French fashion. For any who plan a trip to Paris, Marguerite is a great teacher, not to mention une jeune femme tres sympa, and can be reached via her website:

J’espere que je ne vous ennuyez pas avec ce blog. It was fun for me, and hopefully not too painful for the reader. Until next time, au revoir!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On s’arrache les cheveux!

I’ve decided that we’re only going to shop for little tiny things on overseas trips from now on. Since our next trip (God willing) will hopefully net us a tiny little Chinese daughter, I think I can keep this pledge. The immediate reason for this pledge has to do with the giant headache facing us as we try to haul all our stuff back to the States in two days. Last night, after finally laying everything out on the bed, we both just wigged out. The closest French equivalent Marguerite could find for us is “on s’arrache les cheveux,” tearing out one’s hair.

It’s not that we’ve spent a lot of money necessarily, it’s just that what we have bought weighs a lot. The 3 major offenders are:
1. Paper goods. Paris is brimming over with boutiques, shops, and even department stores full of all kinds of art paper for writing, card-making, stamping, and just admiring. Many types of paper just aren’t available in the States.
2. Books. See previous blogs about our bookaholism. Suffice it to say that, if we were ever “on the wagon” regarding our book collecting habit, we certainly fell off the wagon while in Paris.
3. The mother of all Christmas crèches. I’ve already blogged about this beautiful and morbidly heavy set of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, Magi, and animals, all exquisitely hand crafted and painted, and all made of dolomite, a mixture of crushed rock and resin.

It’s the latter offender that is causing me to become prematurely “chauve.” Just a little bunny trail here: the French word for “bald” has the same root as our word “chauvinism.” This word, by way of the feminist movement of the 60s, has come to mean a sexist or a misogynist, so I thought it might be associated with the balding heads of the “establishment” that caused feminists to begin using this term. Alas, occasionally a word in English looks like a cognate in French, but doesn’t actually have the same meaning.

In this case, a French word (chauve) that looks like the root of another French word (chauvinisme), doesn’t exactly match up. Chauvinism, according to my trusty Oxford PDA dictionary, means “exaggerated or aggressive patriotism, or excessive or prejudiced support or loyalty for one’s own cause, group, or sex” (this last meaning is certainly the one most Americans understand best). The origin is from the 19th century, and named after Nicolas Chauvin, a Napoleonic veteran noted for his extreme patriotism. It’s possible that his family name derived centuries ago from a family trait of baldness, but that is just conjecture, I’m afraid.

In light of the full meaning of chauvinism, it’s interesting to note that almost any vociferous special interest group, including feminists themselves, could easily be identified as chauvinistic. There is good reason to stick to Aristotle’s “golden mean,” always shooting for the middle ground when possible, since the truth is usually somewhere in between the two extremes. It seems like an ironic case of poetic justice to correctly identify a feminist as a chauvinist, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Back to the morbidly heavy crèche: we checked on the internet, and found a DHL office for package drop-off near the Bourse (appropriate, since it’s the French equivalent of Wall Street). We walked there (needing to either walk off lunch or pre-train for dinner) and inquired, in a mixture of French and English, how much it would cost to ship the statues back to the States. It turns out that it’s fairly expensive, but weighing our options of having DHL insure, ship, and deliver the package intact, or having the baggage handling gorillas at the airport abuse the overweight suitcase out of spite, we have decided to put the delicate objects in the hands of DHL.

Of course, they don’t have boxes or packing material to pack the statues in, so this morning we will be going on a mission to find a box, packing material, and strapping tape. I think we’ll pull it off, but not without pulling out more hair.

We had a French lesson with Marguerite yesterday near the Louvre, which is where we identified that we were tearing our hair out. We are making good progress (in French, I mean, not in hair-tearing): I now know the difference between “having style” and being a “goth.” I’ve always wondered where I fit along that spectrum.

For our lesson, we were visiting the Museum of Decorative Arts' boutique shop, and comparing and contrasting the various “artsy” gifts found there. We decided—in French—that French women are “a la mode.” This doesn’t mean they come with ice cream, which is how Americans understand that term; it means that they have a sense of style and an eye for detail that we barbarians can appreciate, but will never achieve.

After our lesson, Beth and I went into the exhibits of the Museum of Decorative Arts, and saw the most exquisite art nouveau jewelry and furniture, as well as furniture and furnishings from the Middle Ages up to the present. It was fun to follow styles and designs through the ages and into the 20th century. When we got to the exhibit on the 70s though, I started to break out in hives. The decade of my adolescence has to be the ugliest and worst decade in history, even in fashionable France. Apparently, all the designers world-wide were high on drugs during that time.

We left the museum when it closed around 6 PM, then walked all around central Paris, from the Louvre to the Bourse to the Madeleine to Concorde to St. Germain des Pres, where we stopped at Café de Flore, one of the two famous cafes on the corner near St. Germain des Pres church (the other café is called “Les Deux Magots” or the two maggots). Many literary and political celebrities have hung out at these two institutions since the 20s, including Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir. The salad and soup was pricey, but the Art Deco décor and the people watching was fabulous.

We got there around 8 PM and got the last good outside table. We spent the evening nibbling salad, slurping gazpacho soup, and eating an omelet (this is lunch or dinner fare in Paris, rarely eaten at breakfast). Many jealous couples eyed our table and grudgingly went inside the café. We just smiled a little and sipped our petit café. We’ll never fully stop being barbarians, but I think Paris is rubbing off on us just a little…

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Language fatigue

I must admit it: as far as French goes, I’m all talked out.

Now that you readers who know me have revived from your swoon or cleaned up the bowl of cereal you dropped on the floor, let me elaborate: it would be a cold day in a usually very warm place when I was truly at a loss for words. I’m a word guy, for one, and loquacious to boot. The French would call me bavard, which can be simply be descriptive (“talkative”), or can be pejorative (“diarrhea of the mouth”).

I grew up with 3 talkative brothers and a talkative Mom, so dinner conversations were quite interesting. At once, I would be taking part in a separate conversation with all five others around the table (including my Dad who was an “average talker” and so appeared positively taciturn when compared to the rest of us). My responses, over a 5 second period of time, might go like this:

“No, it was Amerigo Vespucci, not Hernando Cortez…”

“I think Mean Joe Green is way better than Too Tall Jones…”

“I have a band concert tomorrow night, and my white shirt is dirty…”

“Let go of my breadstick or I’ll stab your hand with my fork…”

“Dad, can we tear down that old lawnmower engine on Saturday? I have to do a project for shop class…”

Of course, everyone else at the table had their own topics that they were inserting as well, so it was a bit chaotic, with each one of us trying to keep our plates spinning conversationally speaking. When Beth entered the picture, she was used to very quiet conversations with her sister and parents, usually focusing on one topic of conversation at a time. Her first family meal with us was an eye opener for her—eyes open and staring, I mean, like the “deer in the headlights” look. She was shell-shocked, and it took her years to get used to it.

I say all that to paint a visual picture of my childhood, which centered on conversation. I rarely had fist fights with my brothers, though we did wrestle and pick on each other as most brothers do; but most of our “fights” were actually verbal debates. I didn’t learn anything about logic, debate, elocution, or persuasion from a book or a debate coach: I honed my debate skills in the crucible of family spats. It usually came down to which brother could wear the others down by the sheer weight of words, not necessarily by eloquence or strength of logic.

So when it comes to the English language, I enjoy conversation and can express myself fairly well. That’s why I’m all talked out in French. It is so frustrating to be in the middle of a simple conversation about an object or a place, and suddenly realize I can’t make myself understood because I don’t know the French word for “around” or “underneath” or “upstairs.” Worse yet, it seems like when I look up the word and finally learn it, it seems to kick out another word that I used to know. I think my brain needs a memory upgrade like you can get for your computer.

Yesterday, in the process of buying and taking home a Christmas manger scene, which I’ve blogged about before, I realized that the box we had all the figures in was too heavy to carry 7 blocks back to our hotel. Don’t ask me how we are going to get the figures home; I haven’t gotten that far yet. I walked out to the street and hailed a cab, asking the cabbie if he could take the 2 of us and a large box back to our hotel. He looked into the back seat of his car, and told me that the box wouldn’t fit there. I could not for the life of me figure out how to ask him, in French, how he could possibly know that without actually seeing the box.

I went to the next cabbie, who drove a sort of mini minivan, with plenty of room for Beth and I in the back seat, and the box in the cargo area. I asked him the same thing and he gave me a blank stare. I told him it wasn’t far, and that the box wasn’t that big. He finally told me to get in, and proceeded to go around the block back to the side street that the shop was on. Unfortunately, he turned right instead of left, leaving us on the wrong side of Boulevard St. Germain, a major thoroughfare which would be impossible to cross carrying the heavy box.

After a spirited argument in which I think I said, “you need to go to the other side of the street, the shop is over there,” and he kept saying that “I’ve brought you to the street that you told me to go to,” he finally broke down, backed out of the alley into traffic, crossed all four lanes of Boulevard St. Germain, and pulled up next to the shop. We loaded the box and ourselves into the taxi, and after 3 or 4 exchanges, he understood where our hotel was. When we got to the hotel, I unloaded the box and handed him a 20 Euro note. He said he didn’t have change for a bill that large (about $25), so Beth dug around in her purse for a 10 Euro note, and he gave me the change and roared off. I got the box up to the room and decided that I didn’t want to have any more conversations in French the rest of the day.

Fortunately, I had an excuse for this anyway, since my former clinic administrator, David Schlough, was meeting us for dinner. So I skipped the planned trip to the Cluny museum, holed up in the hotel for a couple of hours, caught up on emails, and when David came to the hotel, we headed out on foot to Atelier Maitre Albert, a Guy Savoy restaurant just a block south of Notre Dame cathedral. We had a lovely dinner of nouvelle French cuisine, and caught each other up on all the doings since we left the States.

He left home the end of August for a month-long tour of Europe. He took a tour of the Danube by boat, and a bicycle tour of Austria, then headed for Italy, where he poked around Florence and Venice. He had planned to spend a few more days in Italy, then go to Switzerland, but rain forecasts in both of those countries caused him to take an overnight train all the way to Paris instead. Some friends that he biked with are American expatriates now living an hour south of Paris, so he has plans to visit them later this week.

After dinner, and a long conversation, we walked back to our hotel, where we gave him a list of good restaurants, shops for gifts and souvenirs, and a “must see” list of museums and monuments that would take him longer to see than he has time in Paris. Oh well, it all comes down to priorities in the end. And for me, talked out as I am in French, I’d still take a good conversation and a good dinner over almost any monument any day.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Une Propre Ville

I’ve traveled quite a bit in North America, Central and South America, Europe, and Asia. Let’s see, that means I’ve missed Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. Gotta get those on the list soon (not sure what I’ll do in Antarctica—I doubt the sunbathing is any good). That means I’ve been to, and stayed in, a variety of cities, small and large, rich and poor, clean and not so clean. I’ve used public toilets that cleaned themselves automatically once a day (never got stuck in one while it was self-cleaning fortunately), and toilets that nobody has ever cleaned since the day they were built.

Paris is a clean city, a “propre” city. Their trash bags say “vigilance proprete” (vigilance & cleanliness). Our English word “proper” comes from this French word, which in turn comes from the latin word proprius, meaning “one’s own, special.” The meaning of the French word is “clean, tidy, neat, immaculate, proper, one’s own.” There seem to be two different meanings here: 1) neat and tidy, and 2) one’s own. I can think of some properties (even this word comes from the root “proper”) I’ve seen in various cities that I’ve lived in that were owned by someone, but were in no way neat and tidy. For Anglos, possession is nine tenths of the law (meaning that if it’s yours, you can basically do whatever you want with it), so we tend to let people keep their properties in whatever state they choose to.

Not so the French: to them, this is THEIR city, so it will be a PROPER city. The city of Paris, the Mayors of the various arrondissments, and many other public servants are very interested in how the properties of Paris are maintained, but I don’t think this vigilance is foisted upon the citizens; rather, it is an extension of their own sense of propriety (another word from the same root). After seeing other cities with trash on the sidewalks, in the gutters, and crammed into alleyways and vacant lots, the streets, sidewalks, and lanes of Paris are the picture of cleanliness. Part of it is a function of the street maintenance workers, who sweep the streets and power wash the sidewalks every day or two. But part of it is the citizens themselves, who take great pride in their city (and rightfully so). Parisians don’t litter much, have trash cans everywhere, and pick up after themselves. We could learn some civility from them.

Some of this natural respect for the community may come from living in a place with such obvious history. We had a French lesson with Marguerite today at a Café in the Place de la Contrescarpe, near the Pantheon. She lives a block from the Place, and told us about ruins of a Roman arena nearby. After our lesson, we strolled through a Sunday outdoor market, then headed over to see the arena. When we got there, I thought we were at the wrong place because a bunch of men and their sons were playing a spirited game of soccer on the dirt surface, while a theater group was setting up a stage and practicing sword fighting for a play later that afternoon. Then we looked closer, and sure enough, most of the original stone benches and stone walls were still in place, having been built for the gladiators between 100 and 200 AD.

Here were regular people, going about their Sunday afternoon leisure activities, using a facility that had been built 100 years after Jesus Christ walked the earth. Nobody thought that they needed to tear it down to build high-rise apartments to make lots of money for the property owner, nor did anybody demand that the facility be fenced in, preserved intact, and never touched for fear of defacing an archaeological site. They simply found the arena 100 years ago, dug down until they had found all the benches, walls, and “playing surface” (hard to think of the gladiators “playing”), and began to use it again. No one seems to be tearing out chunks of the walls as souvenirs, or clamoring about better uses for the site. They just appreciate it and use it, co-existing happily with history. We could learn some more civility from them.

This respect for property even extends to bicycles. Getting around Paris is easiest going by the Metro, but next easiest seems to be the bicycle and the moto. People use these things as modes of transportation rather than as kids’ toys, as we mostly do in the States. A few of us use our bikes regularly to commute to work and to run errands, but let’s face it, we belong to a car-based society. The funny thing about the bikes here is that they’re mostly old, vintage 3 speeds or 10 speeds, not that many mountain bikes, and no fancy Lance Armstrong models at all. It’s all very utilitarian, as it should be. I’ve got about 500 miles on my cruiser just with commuting this year (as opposed to maybe 6,000 training and racing miles on my Lance Armstrong model). I’m actually beginning to prefer my cruiser, and it’s a good thing since I’ll probably put a lot more miles on it next summer pulling our daughter around the town in a burley.

While we were strolling around the market today, Beth spied a little Tibetan Terrier, the first one we have seen in Paris. Our Pippin is a Tibetan, so when Beth saw the dog, there was no stopping her. She sidled up to the dog, let it sniff her, and tried to pet it. It was a little bit shy, but the owner, a nice older French lady, was quite sociable, and looked a little surprised when we told her that we had one back in the States. I don’t know if we looked uncivilized, or if she thought that people in a barbaric country like the U.S. don’t keep pets, or what. It might be that I actually told her that we have a Yak back in Tibet named Pippin. I’ll check this with Marguerite on Tuesday. In any case, Beth got her dog fix for the day.

Speaking of Tibetans, the owner of Pippin’s half brother (Scooby Schlough) is in Florence right now, and is traveling to Paris. David Schlough, the recently retired former administrator of my clinic, is touring Europe, and we invited him to dinner when he gets to Paris, which is tomorrow. I’ll let you know any news he shares about his trip.

After visiting the arena, we toured the Pantheon, climbed hundreds of stairs to the dome galleries, and walked around the outside of the dome, getting a 360 degree bird’s eye view of Paris. It was fantanstic, if a little taxing. Later, we attended the Sunday evening vespers and mass at Notre Dame cathedral. The Archbishop had his 80th birthday, and as a result, the cathedral was packed out, and the service had many extra added touches (including a breathtakingly beautiful Kyrie Eleison sung by the full choir). Once again, we enjoyed God’s peace and human fellowship, evening if we didn’t understand all of the homily…

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Un Mélange

This post is actually meant for tomorrow, Sunday the 17th, but we have an early morning, so I'm posting it at 10:30 pm Saturday night. Sorry, there will be no deliveries on Sunday.

The last few posts have been rather heavy duty, I’ll admit it. I’m not apologizing for that, I’m just acknowledging the fact. The last thing I want to be is a casse-pieds (a bore), and risk losing the few readers I have, just because I want to pontificate on some outlandish or obscure subject. A few of my faithful readers (actually, I’m afraid there are only a few readers, period, never mind any faithful ones) have e-mailed me some comments, but not having permission from them to post them to the site, the rest of you will just have to imagine their glowing praises of my prose. Any and all are welcome to join the blog and make up your own praises of my prose, or give the electronic version of a raspberry if you like.

Today I plan to keep it light and fast-paced, making this post a mélange of sorts. First off, an admission: when I left home with everything but the kitchen sink, electronically speaking, I searched frantically for the CD-ROM for our digital camera’s upload program. I couldn’t find it anywhere, and the Sony website didn’t allow online downloads of the program, so I have a disconnect between my digital camera and everything else digital, including this blog. Thus, all the lovely pictures you’ve seen on the posts have been uploaded to the blog from the internet. I have my own photos of all these things, mind you; I just can’t get them out of my camera. Also, the few I had on the computer from last year’s trip are so large (2 megs or so) that they take a lifetime to upload to the website. You probably would have never noticed that Beth and I never appear in the photos, but I just had to get it off my chest.

While sitting at the Metro Café on Boulevard St. Germain this afternoon, a couple took the table next to us, and their 2 whippets sat under the table for the whole meal. This despite a veritable parade of other dogs, some on leashes, some not. Children came and admired the dogs, thousands of people passed by (it was a grand afternoon for people watching on a very busy street), and the dogs never moved a muscle. Pippin and Buddy would have torn their necks out of their collars, chased the other dogs, cats, children, and motos, ultimately meeting their frenzied end under the wheels of a cranky taxi. The French must have some secret medicine they feed their pets to make them behave so well in public. I wish I could get the recipe, but the French are notoriously bad about giving out their recipes. Something about pearls before swine…

Some favorite books about France from our collection: Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik, a collection of essays from the New Yorker magazine written over a 5 year period while he lived in Paris. OK, I’ll admit it, I would love for my posts to be compared with Gopnik in some kind of favorable light, but I certainly plan to keep my day job for now. Almost French by Sarah Turnbull is another lovely story about Sarah, an Australian girl who meets and marries a Frenchman, and slowly becomes assimilated into French culture, but not without a lot of funny and poignant escapades, all told from a bemused (and sometimes confused) Anglo point of view.

Anything by Peter Mayle is wonderful: A Year in Provence, Encore Provence, A Good Year. Mayle is a Brit who worked in advertising mostly in New York, and upon retiring decided to by and renovate a run down old house in Provence, in southern France. The first two books detail his own cross-cultural adventures in France with gentle humor and self-deprecation, and the third book is one of the latest in a long line of novels. A Good Year is due out in November as a major motion picture, with Russel Crowe as Max, the stud banker who loses his job and inherits a vineyard in southern France. Albert Finney and Abby Cornish co-star, and Ridley Scott directs…

As far as guidebooks go, our number 1 choice is anything from publisher Dorling Kindersley. Their guides are accurate, tell all the goodies about what you are interested in, and have absolutely stunning photographs, maps, and diagrams. This book is worth buying even if you never travel to France, if only for the 3 dimensional cutaway drawing of Notre Dame—it’s incredibly detailed and fascinating enough to look at just for the fun of it. Their big book is just called France (Eyewitnes Travel Guide). They also have a series called Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides; the one we have is Top 10 Paris. All have excellent maps, including one of the Paris subway, bus, and RER train system. Check them out next time you are in the bookstore: we have several guides for cities we will probably never visit (see my previous post about my bookaholism). We have numerous books, CDs, DVD series, and internet sites for learning French, but I won’t go into detail on these. Suffice it to say that, in 5 lessions with Marguerite ( , Beth and I have both gone far beyond what we learned in the books. There is no substitute for live learning. In Paris.

We were inadvertently caught in a technofest along the rue de Rivoli this afternoon. The roads were virtually shut down as thousands of ravers and clubbers descended upon the otherwise quiet Marais. Large flatbed semis hauled DJs, dancers, and HUGE speakers slowly around the quarter, blasting techno and rave music while young people clogged the streets dancing, milling around, and yelling. We quickly exited to the north along rue Vieille du Temple to find respite in the relative quiet there. We passed a young lady pulling on the lead of one of the tiniest Chihuahua’s I’ve ever seen, shouting “chien mechant! Chien mechant!” (Naughty dog!). It just struck me funny that this girl was so frustrated with a creature that she could have stuffed into her sock or purse. I suppose I’ll find out just how frustrating a little pipsqueak can be when our adoption goes through…

Well, we did it: we went back to the Artisanats des Monasteres de Bethleem store on rue Gregoire de Tours, and bought statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a manger, the Magi, shepherds, a camel, donkey, ox, ewe, and a star, all in dolomite (crushed stone and resin) and hand painted by the friars and nuns of the monasteries. Together, they weigh probably 40 pounds, and would cost too much to ship, so we will be taking them in our carry-ons for the flight back. I can already imagine the faces of the baggage inspection people when they look in the X-ray machine at 13 statues in two bags. We plan to get to the airport early, and wear clean underwear, because a strip search is almost certain.

Yesterday, after our epiphany in Pere Lachaise cemetery, we did what we usually do to recover: we went shopping. GalFriday had emailed us a list of “cheap chic” stores on the outskirts of central Paris where designers sell last year’s lines at steep discounts. The area is south of Montparnasse at the intersection of rue d’Alesia and Avenue du Maine, almost at the very end of the #4 Metro line. While we didn’t care for the Sonia Rykiel designs from last year (or this, for that matter), we found a whole bunch of great boutiques and overstock stores with Parisian chic that fit Midwesterners’ budgets. We bought several very nice things (Italian dress shirts for $18 each), and Beth promises to wear on the airplane the dress boots she bought, because I know they are not going to fit in the suitcase.

My guess is that I will be wearing ALL the clothes I brought along on the airplane home, because we still have 6 days left in Paris, and no room left in the suitcases or carry-ons…


Sometimes, in the process of having a good time (the French would be “on s’amuse,” or to amuse oneself), you stumble upon something that takes you right out of your little reverie and transports you to another realm altogether. This kind of thing happened to me the first time I assisted my OB/GYN professor in the delivery room. There I was, fussing about whether I was using good enough sterile technique, when WHAM! Life happened! The most recent edition of homo sapiens appeared and demanded some air to breathe and a little space on the planet to become something. I stood there, holding a little piece of God’s handiwork while the world stood still to look over my shoulder at it. An epiphany, of sorts.

Today was a day like that, but it started in a rather more mundane fashion: I went jogging. Our new hotel is near the Jardin du Luxembourg, a beautiful large park built by King Henri IV for his Italian-born queen, Marie of Medicis. It has a large pool, a very Italian-looking fountain, tennis courts, pony rides, a greenhouse for growing oranges, and a gigantic palace that now houses the French Senate (the same elected body as our U.S. senate). I did 3 laps around the periphery along with 30 or so other joggers, and headed back to the room. We got ready to leave, and breakfast came just in time to wolf it down and head out to the Odeon metro stop.

We took the metro north to the Sebastopol stop and changed to the #3 line westbound. We took it almost all the way to the end of the line, and got off at the Pere Lachaise stop. Three blocks south on Boulevard de Menilmontant we met our French instructor Marguerite at the gate to Pere Lachaise cemetery. This famous cemetery is built on a former Jesuit monastery that went broke around the time of the French Revolution, I think. Many illustrious people are buried there, including rock singer Jim Morrison, opera diva Maria Callas, writer Oscar Wilde, pianist and composer Frederic Chopin , and a host of French who’s whos.

It’s really quite impressive because, while the people are all buried in labyrinthine passages underground, the surface of the cemetery is crowded with mausoleums, which my Oxford dictionary defines as “a building, especially a large and stately one, housing a tomb or tombs.” The word is Greek in origin, from Mausolos, the name of a 4th century BC king whose tomb in Halicarnassus was apparently especially impressive. It turns out that Pere Lachaise is covered with these buildings, large and not so large, of every make, model, and description. Some are very well maintained, with flowers, pictures of the deceased, plaques, inscriptions, and even little chapels inside where the family can contemplate their lost loved one in peace. Others are run down, broken down, or crumbling.

The cemetery is huge: 700 x 1000 meters, or roughly 200 football fields crowded next to each other in a rectangular shape. Even in death, Parisians repose as they lived: the entire cemetery is divided into sections, like arrondissments, with winding lanes, little street signs, stairways, alleys, and houses crowded together. Each family member is buried beneath the family mausoleum, echoing the family orientation of living Parisians.

We didn’t cover nearly the entire cemetery, though we did walk from the main entrance around the entire south side to the very back, where Oscar Wilde’s tomb is, passing Jim Morrison’s on the way. The latter is not very impressive, but is very popular with the younger set. The former is apparently also very popular, because it is covered (I mean covered) with kisses. Sort of like the Blarney Stone, thousands of girls make a pilgrimage to Wilde’s tomb, smear on some lipstick, and kiss it. The result is impressive, if not a little offensive. Graffiti really isn’t big in Paris, as the French seem to have an instinctive respect for the old, the beautiful, and the sacred; it appears to me that the offenders are Anglos mostly. The graffiti is written in English, which would seem like a dead giveaway.

While on the way from Morrison’s to Wilde’s tomb, my little epiphany occurred, not in the sense of Christ’s manifestation to the Magi (Epiphany with a capital E), but a moment of sudden and great revelation (the original meaning of epiphany in the Greek is “to reveal”). At the far southeast corner of the cemetery stand the monuments to those deported from France to Nazi concentration camps, the “Monuments Aux Deportes.” There are around 14 of them or so, most representing those who died in a particular camp, or victims from a particular group, political party or nationality that perished.

The monuments are evocative and moving, each one compelling in its own way. Some are sculptures depicting emaciated inmates doing tedious work; one has a stylized victim rising upward amid flames; others have stately obelisks or statues with plaques affixed. One, from Neuengamme camp (pictured above), reads (by my translation): “under this stone rests a few of the ashes of seven thousand French martyrs assassinated by the Nazis at the Neuengamme camp. These have died so that we can live free. Their families and their rescued comrades have erected this monument in their memory November 13, 1949.”

Eyes welling with tears, I regarded, photographed, and read the inscriptions of each of these majestic and moving monuments, my eyes ultimately coming to rest on the final phrase of the memorial to the victims of Auschwitz, the mother lode of Nazi barbarism:



And God willing, we will not.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Confession and Fast Food

“Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a bookaholic.”

“Hi, Steve!”

I suspect that’s how my 12 step program would go if I ever sought treatment for my disease. My sweet wife of 23 years would have to go to treatment with me, or it would never work out. She’s more addicted to books than I am, and that’s saying something. We have the “100 greatest books ever written” series, the Harvard Classics series, scads of theological and historical volumes, novels, guide books, how-to books, and books about books (How to Read the Classics, How to Read a Poem, How to Read a Book, How to Study the Bible, etc).

The disease has followed us here: I thought that, since we don’t read French very well and most of the books found around here are in French, we wouldn’t be tempted to buy any books here. The current count, at the halfway point of our visit, stands at 15 books, all but one in French. Ouch! Our suitcases were not that far from the 50 pound limit when we left the States, and now they are sure to be over. Beth cheerily notes that we only brought 3 suitcases and are allowed 4, and she conveniently bought a large zippered bag on one of our many shopping outings, so we have something to stuff books and coats into (shopping sprees: see previous blogs).

To be sure, our French teacher Marguerite is to blame for some of our splurge, since she assigned us a book to work from when we started our lessons. But that’s only one measly book, not 15. The rest happened when we went to get the one assigned to us, and we saw all kinds of other cool books in Gibert Joseph, the big bookseller near the Sorbonne University on the Rive Gauche.

There’s no question that it’s easier for an Anglophone (that’s an English speaker) to read French that it is to understand spoken French. We have been surprised at how well we can read these books (many are on how to learn French, so I suspect they are dumbed down for us debutants), but we’ve been even more surprised to realize that we can read the newspaper, magazines, advertisements, movie posters (“Le diable s’habille en Prada” starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway), and most important of all, French menus.

Last year was a big adventure in the restaurants and cafes because, while I could read some French at that time, the menu at a restaurant has a lot of specialized words for ways of cooking things, as well as the names of different types of meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, and spices. I used to just order the special of the day without even knowing what it was. I did this first, because I didn’t want to ask what everything on the whole menu was. Second, because even if I did, the waiter’s command of English was quite variable:
“What’s this?”
“What’s that?”
“What kind of fish?”
“What’s that?”
“What does it look like?”
“Eet eez white. Eet eez veruh goood.”
“Fine, I’ll take it whatever it is.”
Third, the special is usually the freshest, best, and least expensive item on the menu, and whatever it is, you’ll probably like it.

That system broke down today, and it was only by learning to read French with all these books we are hauling around that I averted disaster. We moved from our hotel in the Marais, Caron de Beaumarchais, to an equally lovely Hotel Saint Paul Rive Gauche in the St. Germain des Pres quarter on, you guessed it, the Rive Gauche (the left bank). There’s an old restaurant Le Polidor (it actually dates back to the mid-19th century) two doors down from our new hotel on rue Monsieur le Prince (that’s Mr. Prince to you), and I told Beth we had to eat there. One of my favorite also-rans is a bike racer from the 50s and 60s named Raymond Poulidor. The name similarity was too much to resist. Besides, who could resist a guy who was nicknamed Pou-pou?

He was a great cyclist, but was the eternal second in the Tour de France, finishing behind the legendary Jacques Anquetil 4 times from the late 50s to the mid 60s; then when Anquetil finally retired and Pou-pou looked like a shoo-in to finally win in 1969, along came Eddy Merckx, the Cannibal, and Pou-pou again finished second. The Cannibal destroyed everyone in the field that year, and Pou-pou took it as a sign to throw in the towel.

I don’t think the restaurant has anything to do with the cyclist, but I took it as a sign to eat there. It was the fastest meal I’ve ever eaten in France by a mile, so it was a winner of sorts (I’ll get to that). The special du jour today was rognon in a wine sauce, which sounded really good until we remembered that rognons are kidneys of some unknown beast. Our knowledge of the culinary language saved us from certain gastronomical disaster. I can eat goose liver (it’s one of my favorite all-time French foods), but I draw the line at this particular toxin-filtering organ.

I ordered: feesh.

The lady who took our order seemed a bit agitated, and came back several times within a minute or two to see if we were ready to order. Finally she told us that the kitchen was closing in 5 minutes, so if we wanted to eat anything, we’d better order right away. We did, and within about 5 minutes, the food appeared (strange item #1, since usually you wait for 15 minutes or so for the first course). Then, before we were finished with our plate, she returned inquiring if we’d be having dessert (strange item #2, again you usually wait a while between courses). We said yes, ordered some ice cream, and she returned in 2 minutes with it.

I had taken the hint at that point, and devoured the rest of my redfish and rice with olive oil and herbs so she wouldn’t take it away from me in mid-bite. Sure enough, she whisked the plates away and plunked down the ice cream (I have been in the habit of ordering Chocolat Liegeois, a fantastic dark chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate sauce and Chantilly whipped cream on top). Before I had many any headway, she was back to see about coffee. I ordered some, and she was back in a flash with it.

A minute later she was back: “you can stay as long as you want, but can you please pay me right away? We’re closed now until suppertime.” This is the ultimate strange item, since I have never in all my French meal experience had the waiter bring the tab (l’addition in French) without me motioning him over and specifically asking for it. There is an unwritten rule here in the cafes and restaurants: once you sit down to a table and order something, even just a Coke, you have the table for as long as you want to stay, and they usually won’t bring the tab until you specifically ask for it.

For instance, three years ago, on my first trip to Paris, a cycling friend and I sat down at a little outdoor café off the Champs-Elysees (see yesterday’s blog) at around 5 PM for a Coke. We talked and talked (the night being fine and the topic bicycling, we could have stayed all night). Around 8:30 we decided we were hungry, so we motioned the waiter over and ordered some supper. Coffee came about 10:30, and at 12:30 sharp we got up from the table for the first time in 7.5 hours. We spent the equivalent of an entire work day sitting at a café table. That’s France.

As I sit here surrounded by my new books, I just realized that I haven’t actually used any of them today to help with my homework for our French lesson tomorrow with Marguerite. Zut alors!

I’m going to stop giving teasers about tomorrow’s blog, because I always forget what I promised to write about. So from now on, anything goes…