Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Alive in Tel Aviv

In spite of hostile missiles in the south, catching the family cold in France, and being interrogated by two Israeli border control officers--after about ten minutes of benign questions, "I have to ask you a very important question. Did you come here to join the Palestinian resistance?"--I have arrived safely in Israel.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 29, 2008

I have answers

And it's about time I figured out the French, as I'm leaving their country this evening for the missile-strewn land of the holy.

Excrement according to Fred:
Americans, subject to a Protestant national heritage, like to pretend that bodily functions and needs do not exist. The Catholic French, on the other hand, acknowledge that humans are physical creatures. If a French man is walking outside and has to pee, he pees. It's not a big deal. An American man in the same situation, plagued by the Puritanical values of his ancestors, runs inside to relieve himself behind closed doors where no one will know about his shameful bodily need. (French) Catholics are so unabashed about doing their business that their kings used to receive the court sitting on a throne with a hole in it so that they could pee and poo as necessary, right in front of everybody. (I want to know what they were wearing for this--pants with a hole? royal robe? just a lap blanket??)
As far as French toilet rooms, they do not have a sink because the French are dirty people who do not wash their hands after using the toilet. Even when they do have sinks in their bathrooms, they don't use them. Older people in France bathe no more often than once every three days, but daily showers have caught on with people of Fred's generation (or so he says).

Fred on fruit and veggie peels:
Why do French people insist on peeling their potatoes, apples, and pears, I asked Fred. Why do Americans only eat their fries with ketchup, he countered. I protested that I ate my fries with other things, too, but apparently that makes me more open-minded than the average Joe, who will eat his fries with ketchup until the day he dies and dismiss other condiments. Similarly, the French will maintain their fruit and vegetable peeling habit. I tried to argue that all the vitamins were in the peel, but Fred assured me that the smoking, drinking French do not care about vitamins. Furthermore, he said, potato skins can have a slightly bitter taste, and potatoes are supposed to have a neutral flavor to accompany other things.

"Blood of Christ"--red, or white?
Over Christmas dinner my heathen family got into an argument over what color the communion wine was at church. The five Americans at the table said it was red, but the sole Frenchman insisted that it was white. Of course, none of us had gone to church in recent memory, much less on Christmas, so we couldn't really be sure. Lucky for us, former-altar-boy-Fred had the answer: white. The priests have very fine, expensive, white vestments; given their advanced age and their tendency to dribble, white wine is the most practical. However, red is also permitted: one priest that Fred worked with demanded a good Bordeaux.

A few last, weird tidbits about French people:
  • They have this thing called a "cadeau de rupture," or "break-up gift," that a guy can give a girl that he doesn't want to date anymore. Sometimes, when he gives it, he has already verbally broken up with her, but sometimes, the gift is accompanied by a break-up note. Women cannot give break-up gifts to men, and a man does not give one to a woman if the woman has dumped him. French folks...weigh in on it for real??
  • They own forests, especially if they are descended from nobility.
  • If an elderly person is hard up for cash, but does not want to sell his/her house, he/she can arrange a deal with a buyer whereby the buyer gives a down-payment and a monthly stipend to the elderly person. When the elderly person dies, the debt is considered payed, no matter how long the person took to croak, and the buyer can move in. So the buyer is essentially waiting for the old person to die, and hoping that it doesn't take too long. Morbid?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Joyeux Navidad

Hope the non-celebrants out there are having good Chinese food and a movie, and the rest of you survive (and enjoy) your family gatherings.

It's a relief to speak English again. The hardest part of being back in a half-American household is re-acclimating to the American keyboard (a portent of reverse culture shock to come). Today, my sis gave me a lesson in practical, rude French. Here are a couple sentences I came up with to practice my vocabulary:

Il qui croix que manger la peau de la poire est degueulasse est dingue.
(He who thinks that eating the skin of a pear is disgusting is nuts.)

Eplucher les pommes de terre me fait chier.
(Peeling potatoes bugs me [lit. makes me shit].)

As you can see, I'm still stuck on the fruit and veggie peel debate. The French man in residence (my "uncle") argues that peels are disgusting and ruin the flavor of apples, pears, potatoes, and who knows what else. The American contingent keeps trying to sneak peels into dinner.

Merry Christmas!!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Time passes.

My fingernails grow; I cut them. My hair grows; I ignore it. Occasionally, I shower.

Yesterday I made some soup out of the weird stash of root vegetables that Vincent has in the cellar. The veggies would probably be ordinary to anyone who actually cooks, but take away my Trader Joe's frozen food section and I'm helpless. It came out orangey-green (ew) and tasted fine, but once it occured to me that I was basically eating baby food, that's all I could think of.

Yikes--tomorrow is my last day on the farm! Saturday I'm biking to Angers, taking the train to Versailles, and biking to my family's house. 'Twill be a nice, easy day. Am looking forward to being in the company of people who speak my language!

Sometime in the next week, I'm going to meet up with my old pal Fred from work, who's coming to Paris for Christmas with his family. I'm hoping that he can help me with my burning questions about his people: how and why they organize their indoor and outdoor spaces in relation to bodily functions, and why they insist on retaining the childish need to peel their apples. I am confident that there is a neo-Freudian academic thesis in there somewhere.

Oh, and the map is updated. Link is to the right.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gratuitous gripe and photos

In a country renowned for its cuisine, adults peel their potatoes and apples. Always. The last time I ate a peeled apple was probably at the age I also ate bread without the crust, and I'm pretty sure that if I tried that here, I would be burned for heresy. Every time I cook for French people, I try to incorporate some unpeeled potatoes, just for spite...don't they know that's where all the vitamins are?

That said, please enjoy some new photos. "Farmer E's" is from my second farm, and includes a visit from my dad and his girlfriend; "Cycling through château country" is from my trip from my second farm to my third. (Read: no dead animal parts.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The old-fashioned way

If you haven't received real mail from me yet, please email me your address! Writing letters entertains me in this frosty December.

To Kill a Pig

Here's another belated photo album, but this one comes with a warning: if you are squeamish, vegetarian, and/or an observant Jew, you may want to skip it. During my stay with Jocelyne a couple of months ago, she and her parents helped a friend to kill his two pigs. I got to join them for the second. It was one of my favorite parts of this trip, not because I enjoyed watching the slaughter (it was interesting, but not something anyone should do or see often) but because I got to witness people whose family had farmed for generations pass their knowledge down to John, a British man in this thirties who was a relative newcomer to the French countryside. Bizarrely, I could imagine the same scene taking place a hundred years before, with few changes. The tools were primitive, but the people were skilled. After the pig had been hung outside to cure, we shared a leisurely midday dinner with John's family, including little kids, Jocelyne, her son, her parents, Benjamin the foster kid #2, and a couple of friends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Oh, G-Rod

Am working on more photo albums, which I'll parcel out one by one to keep you coming back...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

To the Holy Land...and beyond!

Yes, dear friends, it's true: I'm leaving the land of fromage. Late next week, depending on the weather and my laziness, I'll bike or take the train to my "aunt" and "uncle's" house outside of Paris for Christmas. My sister and her husband are coming from Chicago for the fête! Then, on December 30th, I'll hop on a plane and travel approximately 53 times as fast as I have been by bicycle toward Tel Aviv.

As if the shock of speedy travel won't be enough, I'm going to spend two months in Jerusalem, whose biggest fans even call it a madhouse. My girlfriend, Kyle, is living there this year, playing the student card. Since I had already renounced my salaried position for the life of a vagabond, it seemed like I might as well visit. And if things don't work out so well, I'm sure there's a kibbutz out there that will let me participate in its utopian experiment. I even have farming experience.

My official plan, besides violating the strict "no guest" policy in Kyle's dorm for seven weeks straight, is to volunteer to write grants for an organization in Bethlehem that helps Palestinian kids. We'll see how the commute works out; it looks like it's about five miles, but there will be lots of machine guns and a passport stamp on the way. I'm convinced there must be a way to walk or bike it. Then again, I don't want to come home in a box.

Post-Israel, I will return to my beloved land of aceitunas, vino tinto, really sparkly shoes, and Almodovar. Tentative itinerary includes Madrid, Sevilla, biking up the Mediterranean coast to Barcelona, maybe Bilbao....and then probably back to Paris for a week in April. And then maybe I'll be broke.

Your input, please: If anyone has suggestions for where to go in Israel or Spain, or wants to meet me there, or knows of pottery I could check out in either place, or has ideas for how not to go broke, or wants to say anything else, relevant or not, let me know!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Poop like the French

(Yes, it's another post about bodily waste. I never made any claims about highminded content.)

So, funny thing about French bathrooms: they are split in two. This is different from a US-style "powder room" with just a toilet and sink. The French quarantine their toilet into a closet of its own and have a separate room for the sink and tub. Thus, if you have to pee (and you are not a French man), you walk into a room, close the door behind you, and find yourself in a very small space with nothing but a toilet. Since everybody just saw you go into that door, with nothing but a toilet behind it, everybody knows what you are doing. Or at least they can make a pretty good guess from a limited number of options. Bottom line: there's no pretending that you are tweezing your eyebrows, shaving, or making faces at yourself in the mirror. Clearly, you are taking a leak or you are pooping. (If you're a French man, you're definitely pooping.)

What makes this set-up advantageous? Frenchies out there, enlighten me! All I can tell you is that the inside handle of the toilet room door HAS to be germy.

Further, it's a bit odd to be closed in a room with the walls a mere foot or two away and have nothing to look at. Many households try to ameliorate the boredom of pooping while staring at white walls by putting up posters. Even adults with otherwise sophisticatedly decorated houses have paper posters tacked up on the back of their toilet room doors. I couchsurfed with a student in Angers last night who had a map of Europe on the wall. Might as well get a little studying in, no? Others, in addition to the posters and artwork that their small children made ("honey, it's beautiful....we'll hang it right next to the toilet"), have magazine racks and stacks of books. Very practical.

Man, I feel burly--the illustrated version

Does this tractor not bear a striking resemblance to the morphazoidasaurus from before?
Gratuitous self-portrait as lumberjack:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Semblance of a social life

Last weekend, Vincent and Florian took me with them to a party at the farm where Vincent's brother works. Florian had warned me that the brother, who was 26 (two years older than Vincent) was often mistaken for his younger brother because he was such a dreamer.

The brother met us outside and showed us into the party barn. It was dark; they were screening a documentary about a non-violent protest in India. The fifteen or so people there were watching the film projected onto a screen, but we sat on bales of hay behind the mac used to play the DVD, so we got a double view. Two other features of the barn jumped out at me immediately: they had turntables and there was a huge, rainbow-colored butterfly kite attached to the wall next to the screen. I couldn't figure out what the protest in the movie was for, despite the fact that most of it was in English. There were various Indian and international people giving interviews about how lovely it was that fifteen thousand people from all over the world had come, and about the importance of non-violence. Perhaps my favorite interviewee was an American woman: she was white, fortyish, blond, and had a red bindi smudged across most of her forehead.

Despite how extraordinarily compelling the movie was, it was hard to focus on it, because there were people milling about taking soup out of a steaming pot on the table in front of us and then sipping it out of huge bowls. Further, there was an approximately seven-year-old boy running around chasing multiple cats with a piece of yarn. When the movie ended and the lights were put back on, we realized that the barn was filled with smoke from a fire in a metal trash bin that served as a heater. Vincent's bro and a friend scrambled to find a ladder to open up a few windows near the roof. The seven-year-old skipped over to a Yamaha keyboard and put on one of the pre-programmed jam beats, over which he started playing sounds with the keys. He soloed for awhile until the adult party guests wandered over, a few at a time, to fool around with the different beats and sounds. (There was no one around to get my Ferris Bueller reference--ach, ach, ach, ach, ach, bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh.) Eventually someone put on vinyl, too, and hooked up the mac to make weird images to go with the sounds (like windows media player does). Then, with the moving images projecting onto the movie screen, about five people started an interpretive dance party right in front of the screen.

It was the hippest party I've been to since the Tupperware party with old British ladies at Jocelyne's house.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Man, I feel burly

For the second afternoon in a row today, I helped Vincent and his father, who looks remarkably like Belle's dad in Beauty and the Beast, haul around wood. They were felling branches from several huge trees on the farm to make firewood. (Vincent's and his parents' adjacent houses are both heated entirely by wood all year.)

Vincent and I started out by throwing big logs and fat branches, which he had cut yesterday, into a wagon attached to the back of a tractor. I'm not sure why, but somehow, tossing huge logs was the most entertaining thing I've done in awhile. They were all somewhat heavy and unwieldy, and there was immense satisfaction in pitching them all the way to the back of the wagon to pile the wood evenly, and in keeping up with Vincent while doing so. It brought me back to childhood summers spent flinging mud balls at the neighbor kids and building forts in the bushes with my brother.

I alternated throwing the big logs into the wagon with picking up smaller branches and hurling them onto the top of a pile that will be used to make wood chips for compost. Some were teeny, but others looked like small trees in their own right. I had a sudden, strange urge to find a red and black flannel shirt and eat flapjacks. Fortunately, I reconsidered the flannel part pretty quickly. Maybe my next project should be to train for the Highland games (except for the part about the kilt).

When Vincent and his pop had finished carting off all the logs from a tree or two, Vincent used a robotic claw on the front of the other tractor to pick up all the smaller branches still littering the ground and move them onto the little branch pile. It was SO COOL. I'm sure that my awe was not unlike what three-year-olds all over America feel when they go through their "construction worker" phase. With the claw in action, the tractor stopped looking like farm equipment and took on the semblance of a toothy dinosaur, or the huge Power Ranger thingie that they turned into when it was "morphin' time":

Monday, December 1, 2008

The world is their urinal

Cities may be an exception, but it seems that everywhere, at any time of day or night, French men can be found peeing outside.

Age is no factor: from boy-children to old men, they all piss outside. In public. Without saying a word, they step a few yards away from their companions and let flow onto a bush, the nearest fence, or just the dark night air. Recently, I saw someone actually go outside for the purpose of peeing, even though there was a toilet available. Further, French men driving cars have no qualms about pulling over to pee by the side of the road. Once, when I was riding my bike up a hill through the countryside, I startled a middle-aged dude maybe eight feet away who was about to take a leak. It was broad daylight on a main road.

The profusion of public pissers perturbed me at first. Then I started thinking, why not? As long as there aren't so many people peeing that it starts to stink, it's kind of a practical thing to do. At least it saves toilet water and time. Maybe we Americans are just prudish. However, I'm not ready to condone public pissing until it is an equal opportunity venture. Why don't French women get to pop a squat in the great outdoors? Practically speaking, if everyone were to pee outside, half of us would have to start wearing skirts all the time or carrying some sort of special funnel. (Yes, they exist.) And I'm not about to recommend one of those options, either. So until I come up with a better solution, and unless I decide to go renegade, I'll only be peeing outside alone, concealed by darkness and/or shrubbery, when I can't find a toilet.