Sunday, July 20, 2014


We are not planners so that is one reason we got the van. No need for reservations or tickets. We did block out a week for a family vacation (I had “go somewhere” in the calendar) and we looked to Yellowstone as a destination. It’s about a 9-hour drive from Boulder. You might want to plan your trip, but your itinerary could go something like this:
Day 1: Leave a bit later than hoped and run a couple of errands on the way out. Opt to not stop for lunch, get really hungry, and picnic at a rest area near Chugwater, WY (all Wyoming rest areas have the same distinctive architecture), where one child declares that “this” is a bad idea, that they feel sick, and that we should turn around and head home immediately. End lunch stop by breaking glass coffee press. Carry on driving.
Find a mall and buy a new coffee press and a soccer ball. Dine again en route near Hell’s Half Acre (same style rest area, different location), but this time BEFORE dire hunger sets in and with a soccer ball that runs off much of the children’s energy.
Camp north of Shoshoni, WY, in Boysen state park (spotted by our chief navigator on the one small map we had) along a river in a canyon in the Absaroka Range.
Day 2: Breakfast in the state park includes the company of three horses from the adjacent site who are enjoying grass along the riverbank. Three horses and three people (two bearded) share the trailer. Truck door says: “Dan Boyd, the last circuit riding preacher, riding for Jesus.” Feels timeless.
Petroglyph sign in Thermopolis
Drive an hour to Thermopolis, WY, home of hot springs and another state park. Spend some time in the park, in the pools, on the water slides, in the vapor caves, on the high dive, and of course in the hot tubs. Showers!

Rees, soaking in Thermopolis
Lunch in Thermopolis, visit a bookstore (get map of Wyoming and book about camping in Wyoming) and the post office. Chief navigator now has the tools to plan our tour of northwestern Wyoming and our nation's first National Park. Head on to Cody were we stop to buy a remedy for the child whose ear became painfully plugged on a deep descent after jumping off the high dive. Shop at Sierra Trading Post.
Carry on towards Yellowstone! Almost there, but get stopped by a landslide. River has suddenly turned muddy with red dirt, large trees floating down, road is blocked. Turn around and camp in a nearby state park with other slide refugees. Campgrounds here require “hard sided” vehicles—no tents or pop-up trailers—because of problems with grizzlies (!). Watch big earth moving equipment pass by on the road before we turn in for the night.

Day 3: After a quiet night with no traffic on the road, we wake to hear cars passing through in both directions. We hightail it to Yellowstone's East Entrance (Park has 5 entrances, one in each cardinal direction and an extra one in the northeast) and after passing many a bison on the road, secure a (somewhat cramped but adequate) campsite at Norris in the center of the park for two nights (campsites here are first-come and we arrived just in the nick of time, about 9:30am).
Eat breakfast at the new campsite and drive the northern loop of the park (Park has a main, central road that is shaped like a figure 8. We're camped near the center of the figure 8, on the west side. On the first day, we drive around the top loop of the 8.) to see more hot springs at Mammoth. Sadly, you can’t swim in these, but we have a nice lunch at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and learn we can go in the Gardiner river just up the road where it is joined by the Boiling River. Fun, but also unsatisfying as it is either scalding hot or freezing cold. Like a body-sized mixer tap. Ugh.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Carry on driving clockwise around the northern loop of the park back to the campsite. Takes all day. We hike a bit and see much lovely scenery: horse-drawn carriages, pronghorn, a moose, and a petrified redwood. Also, right in the middle of the park, a dead bison with a huge flock of observers waiting to see the predators (wolves, bears) descend at dusk.

Day 4: Geyser day! We head counter-clockwise around the western side of the southern loop into the heart of the caldera. Unbelievable spurting, spouting, bubbling, breathing places, each one unique. Unbelievable that we are in an active volcano, peering down into the boiling depths. There are roads that are melting. All these people flock here and it is such a draw and so fascinating and at the same time seems like such folly, like it is perhaps tempting fate. And it stinks—with sulphur. This is a supervolcano. This is crazy.

Even the teenagers think this is mildly interesting. 

Lunch is at Old Faithful which is such a phenomenon. Quite the marketing success: do something that lasts about 10 mins, repeatedly, every 60 to 90 mins, for decades, and people will come—boy will they come! Fascinating on so many levels: geologically, historically, socially. The Old Faithful Inn is spectacular too, but I couldn’t help but think about all the floral suncatchers in the gift shop window that would be suddenly gone in the impending blast.
For the rest of the day we see endless holes in the ground, each with its own features and colors and rhythms.

We find a nice place to swim in the Firehole River, except that it is 5pm and 68 degrees and so we pass (if it had been 1pm and 90 degrees…). See another moose (with attendant swarms of cameras), and add bald eagle and elk to the list of animals.
Dinner at camp and a sound sleep.
Is he paid to sit there?

Day 5: Leave campsite heading around the eastern side of the southern loop this time. Pass the dead bison again and see that it is much reduced and scattered. Just miss a view of a pack of wolves (according to the paparazzi frenzy we enquired of), and, after a couple more geyser basins (lunch at the lovely yellow and deco Lake Hotel), head out around the lake (elk!) and the south gate of the park towards the Tetons.

Only glimpse the Tetons before heading diagonally SE across Wyoming again, through the Wind River Range, slightly south of our path on the way in. Ranches and the great outdoors: big sky, horses, cattle, fish, game. Spend the night at a gem of a campsite on Green Mountain, a refreshing oasis between Lander and Rawlins with wildflowers, aspen trees, and a babbling brook.

Day 6: Within striking distance of home, but opt for one more hot springs en route in Saratoga south of Rawlins. Free pools (hot, hot, hot!) and a much more satisfying junction with the river where the water is evenly warm (and the pools are in the shade!). First shower since Thermopolis. Ahhh! The Red Box at the gas station signals salvation for one in our party—a movie to pass the time.
The drive east through the Snowy Range is chilly and steep. It looks like a magical fairyland with its emerald green grass, blue sky, puffy clouds, alpine lakes, wild flowers, and striking white boulders. How have we never been here before?

Late lunch in Laramie where we visit a bookstore and a cowgirl yarn store and then drive the last stretch home….a good week.


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Thursday, September 20, 2012

How to: DIY disposable cloth napkins

Have to share this idea.

The other day I went to my happy place, Anthropologie, and in the sale section they had a sort of cloth napkin that was disposable and that you could tear off a roll. Not with snaps or anything, just a roll of cheap cotton fabric in cute gingham prints that you could tear. Kind of like an upscale picnic item. I was intrigued but I didn't bite. But at home, I did have, waiting for me to do something with them, two worn out pillow cases.

You know when sheets or pillow cases get so thin there is no point in mending them? A sheet might become a tarp for spray painting or a pillow case might become rags for cleaning. Once I made waxing strips out of an old sheet and and old pillow case. But we currently have enough rags and tarps and waxing strips so these pillow cases were just waiting. I couldn't throw them away, but I didn't have much time to deal with them either.

Soooo...idea! I quickly tore each pillow case just to the side of each seam. With the seams dispatched (no cutting needed), I had a nice long rectangle of fabric. That tore easily into long strips about 9 inches wide. I think I tore it in half, but any multiple will work: thirds, fourths. The width doesn't matter, just make all strips roughly a similar width and a width that is a good for a napkin. (You can keep the hems/casing, that part is just fine).
Roll of disposable cloth napkins

Then, I wrapped my strips onto a dowel and voila! A roll of cotton cloth napkins!

The beauty is that the fabric is so thin it tears super easily and it tears straight. Maybe I've just reinvented the wheel here (was this the original inspiration for paper towels?), but I'm pretty excited about this new use for worn out bedding. (And now that it's on a blog, I can "Pin" it! Yes!) I really enjoy using a cloth napkin and these don't seem so "precious," you know?
Tears easily!

Of course, I still can't throw them out, so they've gone into the laundry. They will either be used again as napkins or as rags until...
Rustic/minimalist table setting with "disposable" cloth napkins

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Kadin was working on a math problem for his homework and asked for my help. He actually didn't bring the problem home but said he remembered it. He tried to explain it to me and it was something like this:
A jail has 100 cells. The guard comes in the first day and unlocks all the cells. On the second day he locks all the cells that are multiples of two. On the third day he unlocks all the cells that are multiples of 3 (or something like that, Kadin wasn't exactly sure) and so on. The question was, on the 100th day, which cells would be unlocked?

So we agreed there must be a pattern. Kadin had gone through and figured out a few of the first cells and seemed to have a good grasp of how the problem worked. We decided that it had to do with how many factors a number had. It turned out that if a number had an even number of the factors, the cell would remain locked, but if it had an odd number of factors, it would be open. That was the pattern that emerged.

So then the question became which numbers have an odd number of factors? At first we thought it might have something to do with prime numbers or prime numbers multiplied by 2. Kadin kept testing out various ideas and theories. Until finally we got it: the only numbers that have an odd number of factors are squares. Squares seem so square that it is strange to think of them as uneven, but it turns out that the only way a number has an odd number of factors is if one pair of factors is the same number twice. Get it? Anyway, Kadin did.

I was so impressed how Kadin stuck with it and kept thinking and testing and following the logic. Rees is not like this at all and would never have the patience to mull over a math puzzle. All this time, Rees was off snacking and watching TV—he has a very easy load this year and not much homework.

Later that night, Greg and I were watching an episode of The Office when Rees came in to say goodnight. We pause the episode to chat. "What are you watching?" he asks. The Office. "Which episode?" He glances at the screen and says, "Oh, 'The Garage Sale.'" Then on his way out he adds, "the best pesto." The best pesto? Greg and I look at each other quizzically. Did he have pesto today? What is he talking about? We go back to the computer, press play, and the next line? "The best pesto."

Wow. My kids are so different from each other, but each one a genius.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Final grand theory (France’s gift to me)

What did I learn in France? The big take-away for me was the relative lack of shame. And I am surprised by how revolutionary this is to me. All the functionality and sense of entitlement shown by the French could very well come from what I see as a lack of desire to make people feel bad. Or, put another way, a great desire to shore people up, let them feel good, appreciate them for who they are, and protect them from humiliation.

And it could all be in my head—is probably a theory that says more about me than anything about “the French”—but I am enjoying the fantasy and finding it really helpful. (I chose not to watch French daytime TV just to keep it alive.)

In the US, and even more so in England (and perhaps in other northern European countries like Germany and Scandinavia), I find there is a real sense that when you do something wrong, people want you to feel bad about yourself. The correct response is to show that you feel bad, that you are humbled. Feeling remorse, putting yourself down, is the polite thing to do. Nothing is more infuriating in these cultures than a lack of shame. Pride goeth before a fall and all that.

And England has perfected the art of the put down. They do this brilliantly. They don’t just say, “Take your feet off the table.” They add some shame and say, “Who do you think you are? Have some common decency and respect for humanity. How could you even consider putting your feet on the table?” The idea is that a poor choice comes from a fundamentally flawed personality. Make a mistake and it reflects on your inner character.

In England (and America too, but most strongly in England, I think), there is a huge premium placed on not losing face. It seems that many of the news stories on public figures are about embarrassment, how they were shamed. Sometimes it seems that the whole purpose of public figures in England (and America) is to watch them be taken off their pedestal. It is so common to have someone try to “put you in your place” that one strategy is to simply do it for them, and put yourself down first. Make it a joke. Much of British and American comedy is self-deprecating and about humiliation.

I just don’t see this in France. There is not this strong shame/embarrassment/self-deprecating side to the culture. Sure, the French are seen as having big heads as a result, but do they care? French politicians and public figures are rarely embarrassed. They make mistakes like everyone else, but there is very little “outing” or shaming. Soccer phenomenon Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt at the end of his career would have ruined him if he had been English. In France, he is still a popular and respected figure.

Imagine a place where no one wants you to feel fundamentally bad about yourself! This is the most foreign thing to me yet. Sure, they might get irritated, want you to change your behavior, but they don’t want you to be humiliated. Putting someone down is not a habitual reflex.

In France, if I wear the biggest size in a store and something doesn’t fit, it is not that I am somehow the wrong shape or size, it is simply that the right clothes haven’t been designed yet. Wow.

And people in France are willing to go out of their way to protect you from humiliation. In fact, if you act humiliated or embarrassed when you make a mistake, I think it’s more your embarrassment than the initial mistake that irritates them. The cover up is worse than the crime. They are infuriated by humility.

I love this. If you let it in, stop taking criticism to heart, you might just find a whole culture set up to defend your basic feeling of goodness. It’s a pretty fundamentally different way of seeing things for me, not something that I am used to at all. Imagine a place where you don’t need to be defensive. Where instead of people looking for a chink in your armor, the hole in your façade, you feel the people all around you wanting to build you up, enjoying the artifice you’ve created. They want to appreciate the persona that is you, they don’t want to tear it down.

And this sort of inner confidence is very appealing. Could it be why the French seem to have an inner glow, why they are so attractive? It’s not just the food or something in the water (or wine).

Perhaps this lack of a burden of shame is what gives them the confidence to glide over ice and seemingly effortlessly avoid collisions, how they can walk all day in high heels, feel they deserve leisurely two-hour lunches. It might explain why it is no problem to undress if front of a doctor---there is nothing to hide. And this is perhaps why the burka is so infuriating---it’s wearing humility and shame on your sleeve (or whole body, really).

Imagine there being no original sin, instead just a fundamental feeling of rightness, a whole culture set up to defend a basic feeling of goodness inside. This could even explain the “French paradox” of how they smoke, drink, eat high fat foods and have one of the longest life expectancies in Europe.

Maybe I only see this idealized side of French culture because I’m peeking through the fence and only taking in what I choose to take in, but I still think it’s possible…and what a gift that is.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Words that suddenly sound weird

For examples of my habitual train of thought about language and how my brain is slowly able to put the pieces together, over a couple of days, I kept track of words that stood out for me.

At a café, a sign saying service is only at the “comptoir.” Comptoir, a word I associated with banks and accounting. A compte is an account. So why at a restaurant? And then, of course, the “counter.” Same deal: account, counter. Just the same in English. Only it doesn’t sound weird to me at all in English because I never made that connection.

Stores here have rayons or departments (rayon not a type of fabric). Then I get to thinking about the word Department Store. I guess it comes from when stores used to specialize in one sort of thing, and a bigger store, with many different sections, was a department store. It is not a place that sells departments.

Searching the fabric stores in Paris I realize what I am interested in is the beads and the buttons, or what I discover is called “mercier.” In the US, it would be called “notions.” Try explaining that one.

After ordering two French textbooks for Rees, I realize that “commander” does not mean to abruptly tell someone what to do. It simply means “to order.” It’s the same! But “command” sounds so much harsher than “order.” And then how to explain ordering a room. It’s all connected, but tricky. You need to know the connotations.

And there is quartier, or section. In English "quarter" can be housing, a fourth part of something, or a coin.

A journal is a daily paper. Day/jour, that's where it comes from. Duh!

And this thing in yoga class that sounds like "onches" is actually "hanches," or hips, those things that you might sit on when you are being lazy out in the old west. I think we actually add a "u" and make it "haunches."

A store I visited that had a whole aisle of the little shop signs with changeable clocks for opening and closing times and the perfect red jewelry boxes for my necklaces, did not, I found out, sell to “particuliers.” Particulers? Turns out that’s me. Darn. It means an individual, the opposite of a collective or a wholesaler.

An early noun I came across was an “avoir.” From the verb “to have.” The context was a store giving me an “avoir.” And there seemed to be very few synonyms for this noun about having. It turns out it means store credit, like a gift card.

And homework is called “devoir” or duty, from the verb “to have to.”

I saw a transcription of "Friends" (the TV series, no it is not called "Amis" it is called "Friends") and they were always talking about whether two people would “sorti ensemble.” Exit together. No, wait, “go out together.” What a funny expression, but it’s exactly the same!

We live on the fourth floor. Now that is easy for me to say, but I think that –th fl- combo would trip up a lot of non English speakers.

I was hopeless with vowels, double letters, and spelling before. Sucess here, success there, sujet, subject, centre, center. Now I am forever confused.

My brain hurts from thinking like this…but it does keep the neurons abuzzing…

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Big fat black pen revisited

I had one more trip back to the Mairie to pay Kadin’s school lunch bill. I had recently received the bill for September and October, but needed to pay for November and December as well. They would normally bill me for this in March, but we’d have no French bank (banque) account then. So I went to visit Mrs. Black Pen.

Maybe I had been too harsh on her before. She really had done nothing wrong. She was not rude, she got the job done, she was just a bit abrupt.

So, with a new “voila!” attitude, I arrived right when they opened. This time I was second in line and there was even free coffee, tea, and juice available. It really was a nice looking place.

When it was my turn, I explained that I needed to pay for November and December at the school cafeteria. She looked at the bill and immediately said that was not her, I needed to pay elsewhere. “Ce n’est pas moi.” Yes, I understand, but could she give me the bill for November and December? I am leaving Grenoble permanently on Monday. On Monday? On Monday.

So she said yes, I could pay for November and December and she would print out my bill. Okay, so I was in the right place. See. No passing the buck.

She had this air of entitlement and efficiency. The entitlement part is normal here. The efficiency, not so much, but it caused her to speak (unconsciously) very quickly in a clipped way that I couldn’t readily understand. She was the opposite of deliberate and patient. Not inclined to repeat herself. Once she saw I didn’t understand, she wasn't going waste any time trying to explain.

Finally, after many a mouse click, she prints out my bill. I have a cheque book and ask her if she can help me write the cheque (French cheques are different and you have to spell out the words for the numbers correctly and always cross your 7s, etc.).

She, of course, took the opportunity to write the cheque for me in her lovely script. Which was fine and actually very helpful. And then she even offered to write the cheque for the other place for September and October for me too. All fine.

But still, it was weird and strangely degrading. She was helpful, yes, but very patronizing. I felt like a child. I was sitting there thinking, “I am a competent person.” And she was treating my like an imbecile. Kindly, but not with any respect. She held the power.

At one point I almost tried to make a joke, and that might have lightened things up considerably, but it was a risky maneuver since it could also easily fall flat and confirm the divide between us, so I didn’t in the end.

I really did feel misunderstood on a fundamental level. I got a small taste of what it would be like to be colonized, I thought, to have another culture and another system come with their mysterious ways and confidently impose them on you as THE ONLY WAY. Of course you write the day first in a date, of course you cross your 7s, isn't that obvious? I was not treated meanly, not rudely, but paternally. It was bizarre.

Still, I left feeling triumphant, amazed at how much you can get done and how you can achieve relatively complicated explanations and transactions with very few words. I stuck to my few prepared phrases, my voila! attitude, and it worked. Phenomenal. Bye bye big fat black pen!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two classes

Had my last French class on Thursday and my last yoga class on Friday. These 5.5 hours of classes each week were my biggest chance at speaking French. Invaluable because French was the only common language and we were forced to use it. Awkward/comical as it was at times, there was communication going on!

First I have to quickly tell about the back-to-school night for Kadin’s French-as-a-Second-Language class to illustrate how hard it can be to find a situation where you are really forced to speak French. The teacher introduced herself and said she wanted to start by going around and having the parents introduce themselves. We should say our name, where we were from, and who our student was.

I had just re-learned all this introduction stuff in my French class, so I was excited to say “My name is Jenny, I am from the United States,” etc. in French. But the first couple to go asked if they could speak English, they were from Ethiopia. The next couple also spoke English, they were from India. Then the next couple was from Korea, they also spoke English. So did the woman from Poland and the family from Malta etc. etc.

Wow, a veritable United Nations and what is the common language? English. By the time they got to me, I just went ahead and spoke English too.

But this was not the case in my French class. While a few of the students spoke English, most did not. I was the only American and by far the oldest person. The others were mostly Chinese women in their late teens or early 20s, the one male was a young engineering student from Brazil, and the class was rounded out by a Lithuanian woman doing post doctoral research in Grenoble.

When we introduced ourselves, we found out the Chinese women were all only children. I told the Chinese students that I had been to China when I was 10, in 1976. They looked a little shocked and replied, “You were? Well, I wasn’t.” They hadn’t been born yet and there has been so much change in the intervening decades, it was probably ancient history to them.

The Lithuanian woman seemed the closest to my age, so when we were learning the past tense, she was saying “I was born in 19…” and this is a good phrase because you would use être instead of avoir to form the past tense with the verb “to be born,” and then she hesitated, so I chimed in with “soixsante” the start of 60 and 70, thinking that would give her a good 2-decade range in which to be born, but no. She was born in 1980. So that was the person closest to my age. She was 6 when I last took a French class!

And so it went. I was definitely the most willing to make a fool of myself in the class. Also perhaps the one who knew the least French, but I was glad to be a little beyond my ability since I was only here 4 months. I needed to step on the accelerator!

In one class we were learning the different ways to describe periods of time using words like “since” or “during.” We were supposed to answer questions like, “How long have you lived on your own?” “How long have you been drinking alcohol?” “When did you start driving?” “How long have you been voting?” “How long have you been married?” I actually got to answer these questions with the years, as was the plan, but almost everyone else had to reply, “I have never….” Finally, some age and experience pays off!

I loved the class and I will miss it. It often gave me a headache, but my old and ossified brain has stretched a tiny bit.

Yoga class was also an ideal French immersion experience. Iyengar is a topic I know well and the teacher spoke clearly and slowly all about the parts of the body and where to put them. This was great.

The first class, I wasn’t sure what a cerveau was, I thought maybe it was a deer? So I just channeled my inner deer and imagined antlers growing out of my head while lying on the floor. And I learned the word for floor, sol, which is a perfect homophone for a different English word, and the word for ceiling, plafond, which is quite a nice sounding word that you can easily admire.

In this class, I was the youngest. Once again, nobody spoke much English. Each week I would try to carry on a simple conversation with the teacher about Iyengar in France or if she had been to India. Others in the class would engage me briefly before or after and were very kind and patient with my French. I even managed to make a few jokes during class that people seemed to understand.

The biggest difficulty came in Eagle pose when we were supposed to put one arm au dessus and the other arm au dessous and one leg au dessus and the other leg au dessous. Still can’t distinguish between those antonyms and it’s so easy to get tangled up!

I am sad that class has ended too. My body really liked it and my cerveau did too.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The stale end of the day

This phrase from Greg’s sci-fi novel “the stale end of the day” sticks with me all the time. French bread is really only good for one day. You have a stale end, everyday.

(I am also not a night person, so the end of the day often does feel stale to me as well.)

And things here are fresh, used quickly and discarded when old. Everything is smaller: toilet paper, portions, refrigerators. They are always ready for change.

Yet waste is reviled. The pigeons thrive on this. They are part of the whole ecosystem. People reuse and recycle. Pigeons pick up the pieces.

It makes me think the USA has a proportion problem----maybe because it was largely settled by people who had big dreams, who were not satisfied elsewhere, so left?

And that brings to mind my morning in Paris at the Puces or the flea markets. These are amazing places that have created something from nothing.

According to the brochure I read, the “rag and bone men” were kicked out of the city proper (in like 1870) and so made their living at the margins. Every Sunday they would lay out their wares on the ground for sale. By 1920, there were more organized collections of market stalls at the gates around the city. The gypsies and their manouche jazz became associated with this flea market tradition. So where once there were outcasts, there was now music and food and things for sale. Crowds would gather.

And the markets kept evolving so that today at the center you can find a lovely mixture of pseudo established stalls/stores selling vintage clothing and antiques, second hand furniture and industrial signs, buttons and jewelry, books and prints, and pretty much any kind of bric-a-brac you can imagine. Prices in these well-established stalls seemed high to me, but it was like eye candy to look.

I loved how each stall had its own style and its own specialty. It was all sort of ad hoc and organic with winding alleys where it was easy to get disoriented and turned around. I had been warned not to carry much money as this was also a haven for pickpockets (another part of the ecosystem that thrives on crowds).

The stall keepers all know each other and have their own thriving community. At lunchtime, a neighbor or family member brings a hot lunch, and they lay it out on their antique tables and dine. They seemed incredibly gracious with customers and loved to gab and chat.

One common technique is to take something that would normally be discarded, an old key for example, collect lots of these together, organize them, display them in an interesting way, and then sell them for a couple of euros each. Trash to treasure, just like that. It was beautiful.

Then, around these now-established market stalls, there are other less permanent stalls selling wares from Africa and Asia and usually run by more recent immigrants, and then, on the edges of those stalls, are streets where men just put a blanket on the ground at their feet and sell whatever they can find to sell. It is the same old tradition.

On the fringes there were even the proverbial guys selling watches from the inside of their trench coats. Okay, so maybe not watches and maybe not a trench coat, but more like something they had just lifted from a store. It was seedy and fascinating and incredibly lively, especially on a Sunday morning when other shops are closed.

An aside: later in the day I went to the huge Galleries Lafayette department store in the center of Paris, thinking surely it, of all places, would be open. There were thousands of people there thronging around the building looking at the Christmas window displays, but it was closed. I have to wonder what kind of forces are at work to keep such a capitalist enterprise closed when thousands of people wanted a chance to get inside. Fascinating!

The rag and bone men don’t have that luxury. Their niche is at the edges before something becomes established. They fill in when the other shops are closed. They take what is discarded or underappreciated and turn it into art. Where some see a problem, they see an opportunity.

À Paris

I would like to thank all the service people who are on the front lines: all the clerks, waiters, and other professionals who have borne with my mangled French and helped me to improve it. Now that I know a little bit more, I see how tough your job is and how much further I need to go! Thank you for your courtesy and patience while I learn.

I did finally make a spontaneous, last minute trip to Paris for a day. It was great. I hunted beads and ate at a wonderful gluten-free restaurant.

I was struck by how much English there was all around me in Paris. There is much less in Grenoble. And also struck, surprisingly, by how polite and helpful the Parisiens were.

From my kind of in-between state, I can see how easily misunderstandings and resentments can develop.

Case #1: I’m in line at an urban grocery store buying a pear and some almonds. Behind me are two older American gentlemen buying a bottle of wine. They are clearly on vacation, talking about how good the bread is and what their wives are doing back at the hotel. They are well dressed and look like the golf-club type, relaxed and in tourist mode. In front of me is a local and a regular. She is buying a huge amount of groceries---probably her weekly Saturday morning shop. She is chatting with the clerk and the two guys who are packing her stuff in crates for free delivery (a common service in the city if you buy a huge amount). It is taking a while. But we are all waiting patiently.

After a few minutes, the clerk calls out to someone and then tells me to go to another line as it is about to open. It takes me a little while (as usual) to realize she is talking to me and to understand what her plan is. But it makes sense. There should be an express lane. So I go to the new line and wait for the new clerk.

The first clerk is now trying to get the attention of the men who were behind me. She is telling them to get into the new line. They have no idea she is talking to them. By about the fifth repetition, once she is yelling, they finally realize this woman is saying something to them.

From their point of view, the first they are aware of it, someone is yelling at them. They have no idea what she wants, just that she is yelling. So I tell them to come over to this line, it will be opening shortly.

“Huh? Why?”

I forget what the express lane is called in English, so say something about a “Rapid check out.” They shrug, and move over, a bit jarred, their peace and tranquility upset. They just want a bottle of wine to share with their wives, they don’t want to be yelled at and moved about. The clerk, for the life of her, can’t understand how anyone can be that dense.

Case #2: I’m in a small vendor’s stall at the puces, a conglomeration of antique vendors on the outskirts of the city. There is an American guy buying 8 of some small, funky French antique. He is happy with his find, but also seems slightly nervous, like he might be getting ripped off.

From my perspective, he does everything wrong. He doesn’t start with politeness, he is sarcastic, talks loudly, he is not good with the numbers thing as the numbers thing is always a problem, his French is minimal, his accent terrible. He’ll repeat the numbers the older female proprietor says and say, “Oh, you mean huit.” Acting like he is correcting her.

The saleswoman, meanwhile, is happy to make the sale, is being very polite, and is muttering to herself in French while she packages up his items, “oh, this is a pretty one, and [[crash!!]] don’t worry, it’s not serious, there are lots of things in this shop, things fall, it’s not a problem, I’ll just find a bag,” etc. etc. He understands none of this, is not sure what is going on.

So he tries some small talk. It is unusually cold out, so he chimes in with what he thinks is the old standard weather-related conversation starter: "C'est froid." Just like her, he gets no response. The correct construction is “Il fait froid.” What he said doesn’t make sense. It might sound to her like something about liver or faith, but not the temperature. So she ignores his odd non-sequitor.

Both are trying, but neither is being understood by the other. He is coming across as rude and she is coming across as shifty.

Overall, I came away extremely impressed by how the Parisians actually manage to be polite 99% of the time, given how exhausting it must be to constantly not be understood and to constantly hear your language mangled. I think they have the patience of Job.

And then I noticed the deferential/pseudo shy/apologetic demeanor of Americans trying to be polite---I do this all the time myself. At the gluten-free restaurant I could tell the nationality of who was coming in the door by whether they entered with confidence (French) or sort of apologetically: “I’m sorry, but do you have a table? You wouldn’t happen to have a table, would you?” That would be the Anglophone way. Seeing it with fresh eyes, I think it comes across as cloying. I could see how that too could get tiring.

And during my Sunday lunch at the restaurant, I witnessed an amazing thing. An American couple came in, in that sort of hesitant, American way. By this time, the restaurant was full. I felt bad for the couple because (1) it was freezing out and (2) this was the only gluten-free restaurant in Paris and if you need to be gluten free, it is very difficult to just eat anywhere.

The hostess kindly tells them it is full. They tip their heads to one side and look sort of distressed and pathetic. Full? Yes, full. Their eyes narrow, their mouths hang open with their bottom teeth showing. Then the two women next to me say they are just leaving. The Americans sort of bow and look down and thank them, awkwardly standing to the side as the women leave.

Soon a Canadian couple comes in. The hostess again informs them the restaurant is full. They sigh and leave.

Then, a French family walks in: a mother, father, and three young children. They too are told it is full. The mother, a very stylish, happy blond smiles and explains they have no other options as they need to eat gluten free. The hostess again repeats that they are full.

I’m not sure what all happened next and what the exchange was, but the mother never apologized, never complained, never whined, just held her ground, confidently smiled and made some suggestions and before I knew it, the furniture was being rearranged, a table was being rolled out, and the family of 5 was being seated. A real voila! moment. Everyone was smiling then.