The morning after

“Keep calm and fuck the Jews, brother.” Picture source: You can order t-shirts, coffee mugs, and even a keyring.

I totally screwed up my commute to work today. I haven’t done that in a year and a half! I looked out of the window of the metro wagon (subway car), and didn’t recognize any of the station names. The buildings were not ones that I had seen before. My immediate suspicion—and I don’t even want to think about what this says about the functioning of my mind—was that the metro had smoothly slipped into an alternate universe. Hm, what to do… A check of the sign above the door verified that I was on the right line. A glance out the window verified that I was going in the right direction. Finally, I asked the teenager sitting next to me if they had recently changed the names of the stations—nope. OK: time to go over the various options again. I took a closer look at the sign above the door. It lists the stops, in order, and I soon found the strange station names that I’d been seeing—and realized that I had missed my stop.

I’d missed my stop because I was deep in thought about yesterday’s elections. In the first tour (the first round of voting), the far right National Front party had placed first in six out of thirteen regions. Not surprisingly, I had been greeted in the metro station this morning, the day after elections that saw the far right take a region that had been held by the Socialists, by the following new piece of graffiti: Vive la France—sans juifs. That’s “long live France—without Jews.”

It’s not a great time to be Jewish in France right now. The right wing has always been anti-Semitic; at the moment, it’s à la mode (fashionable) to be anti-Semitic on the left, too; and, according to The New Yorker’s George Packer’s recent article on the poor suburbs of Paris, the tendency among North African voters is to figure that the far right hates Jews even more than they hate North Africans, so: vote for the far right.

I grew up visibly Jewish—peyos (sidecurls), a yarmulke, all that—so, I am not a stranger to visible expressions of anti-Semitism by any means. I grew up around way too many people with numbers tattooed inside their arms not to know that it can be deadly dangerous. I also have seen it so relentlessly in my own life since then—as an adult with my mother’s French and German Christian looks and tattoos all over my…well, a lot of tattoos, I’m not visibly Jewish, and people often don’t bother to hide racism around me—that I know that most of the time, it’s just assholes. I know that if you don’t go to anti-Semitic places, you will never go anywhere. You most likely won’t be able to stay at home, either.

Everything in the history of Jews in Europe tells you that you have to keep an eye on anti-Semitism–Germany was one of the most civilized, cultured countries in the world–probably the best one for Jews in Europe–right up until it killed 6,000,000 people just like me, just like my grandmother, just like my kid. Everything in the history of everyone in the world also tells you that it’s not adaptive to get freaked out by anything—even malignant assholes. So, no more getting so deep in thought that I screw up my commute–fragility gets you nowhere with this shit. But, I’ll be watching the second tour (second round of elections, with the just the top three placers from the first tour running) pretty closely. I’m totally into the vive la France (long live France) part of that graffiti. But, regarding the sans juifs (without Jews) part: je les emmerde—screw them.

  • le scrutin: poll, polls, ballot, vote, voting, election.


On the transnational adorableness of little kids

Kids everywhere are equally totes adorbs–well, maybe some a tiny bit more than others.

French children dont throw food
“French children don’t throw food,” by Pamela Druckerman.

I’ve traveled much of the world–I had to count how many countries I’d been in over the past five years to fill out a form a while ago, and at the time, it was 15.  I’ve come to the following conclusion from my travels: adults are definitely not equally attractive everywhere you go, but kids are uniformly, absolutely adorable, absolutely everywhere.

I have to say, though: French kids kick it up a notch.  I’ve always heard about how much better the French are supposed to be at raising well-behaved kids than us Americans are, but I hadn’t actually spent any time with a French child since the mid-2000s.  That all changed this evening.

Hoping to keep myself from spending the entire weekend holed up in my apartment, I bought tickets to three random concerts this weekend–Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday evening.  I didn’t realize until I showed up at the Philharmonic today that the Sunday evening thing was a “family, participatory” event.  So, there I was: 799 parents with kids, plus me, listening to Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, both Strauss and Lully versions.

In the US, this whole experience would have been hell, I think.  In Paris, it was a totally different situation.  For two hours, those kids sat and listened politely.  When it was time for everyone to get up and either dance or bang on a drum, selon their assignment, everyone got up and either danced or banged on a drum, with great enthusiasm.  Through the whole thing, there was no talking, no whispering, no video games, and no whining–I think I heard what was probably a two-year-old wail at one point, and that was it.  Perhaps I am unfair to my compatriots, but I am pretty sure that in the US that audience would have been a sea of pouting, whining, talking, Candy Crush, and parents surreptitiously checking their emails.  Please don’t think I’m claiming that French children are a bunch of little angels–Adam Gopnik describes the French playground as Lord Of The Flies.  But, their behavior around adults can be impeccable, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say about my own kid.

So, yeah–all kids everywhere are equally adorable, but some have that little bit of charm–and good behavior–that makes them…just a teeeny bit more.

Of course, Zipf’s Law visits us at the Philharmonie de Paris, just as it does anywhere else:

  • la sonorité: (of an instrument) sound, tone.




Robert Doisneau’s famous photograph “The kiss by the Hôtel de Ville.” It was staged–as Doisneau said, “I would have never dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.” Picture and quote source:

While doing my shopping today, I saw a couple kissing on the street. Despite Paris’s reputation as the most romantic city in the world, this is unusual—kissing in public isn’t really a thing here. Debra Olivier explains in her book What French women know: About love, sex, and other matters of the heart and mind that there’s actually only a limited window of time in a relationship in which it’s really OK to kiss in public in France. Before you start sleeping together you don’t know each other well enough, and after you start sleeping together it’s thought of as an ostentatious show of the fact that you’re in a relationship, so you only get that small period of time in between to lock lips in public. The couple looked to be in their 40s, so it’s likely that either they were in that little window, or they were American.

As I said, I ran into the young lovers while doing my shopping, and I never do my shopping without running into Zipf’s Law. Here are the words that I learnt in the process of picking up groceries today. (Translations from

  • le céleri: Pronunciation: [sɛlʀi], despite the accent aigu. I checked it in two places.
    • le pied de célerie: bunch of celery. (Literally, it’s “a foot of celery.”)
    • la branche de céleri: celery stick.
  • la betterave: beet.

If you’re French and you don’t get the title: “PDA” is “public display of affection.” It has its very own abbreviation because it’s forbidden in certain contexts—students in some high schools, members of the military in uniform, stuff like that.

No theorbo–wake up the dawn!

A theorbo. Picture source: “Given by Cezar MAteus (the author of the instrument) expressly for Wiki”

I learnt a great expression from the Coffee Break French podcast once upon a time. Rester cloîtré means something like “to stay holed up”—you might recognize the English cognate cloister, a place where nuns or monks stay in isolation. As I’ve said, it is mostly dark in Paris in the wintertime, and without some incentive to leave the house, I can spend an entire weekend en restant cloîtré dans mon appartement—holed up in my apartment–reading, hanging up laundry to dry, and napping (minus the obligatory weekly shopping trip on Saturday morning).

I’m hoping to avoid that this winter–starting with this weekend–so, I blew about $50 US on tickets to the Paris Philharmonic for Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday. I didn’t even look to see what was being played—I just knew that I needed to “get out of the house,” as we say in my native language. It mostly turned out OK. Saturday night is Louis XIV et ses musiques—Louis the Fourteenth and his musics. I like motets, so that should be cool. Sunday night is Le bourgeois gentilhomme. I’m not that into Strauss, but they’ll also do the Lully version, and that should be cool. Friday night, though—tonight was another story. Tonight was…an educational experience.

I rushed in the door late, having no idea what I had bought tickets to. Showing up late for a concert in France turns out to be a more linguistically intensive experience than one would think, as I was handed off to a succession of ushers hissing, in rapid French, things like this way, please, sir! No, don’t follow me—follow him! You have to wait a minute before I can seat you. There’s a seat open at that end that I can get you to easily, or do you want to stay here? (I think that’s what they were saying, anyway—it could have been who the fuck do you think you are, showing up late?  My French isn’t actually that great.)

I’ve spent much of my adult listening life assiduously avoiding modern classical music. My tastes run more to a theorbo/harpsichord duet, perhaps with a nice soloist singing in Italian that I don’t understand. I never really got atonality, arhythmicity, discordance. Wasn’t I surprised to discover that I had just taken the metro all the way across town on a Friday night to listen to a full evening of the stuff.

I loved it! I learnt something: you have to hear that kind of music live. I never understood before that there is a rhythm to that stuff—you just have to be able to watch the conductor’s body move in order to be able to understand it. Those seemly random bangs, clashes, and screeches? They’re an incredibly carefully orchestrated (sorry) sequence of tightly timed interactions between musicians who have none of the structural or melodic cues that you get in a normal musical piece for a group (orchestral music, sorry—I couldn’t bring myself to use the word again) that let you anticipate where you’ll come in and drop out.  There’s a feeling in the air when a group of musicians finish playing something fun.  I felt it in the concert hall tonight.

One of the pieces (Calmo, by Luciano Berio) involved a mezzo-soprano singing. The lyrics were a pastiche of different poetic pieces. For some of the Zipfian obscure vocabulary items that I had to look up today, I’ll give you the first verse, because it’s actually a nice tie-in to the darkness of the Parisian winter and the joy that I feel when I see the sun rise in the morning here:

Mon cœur est affermi My heart is strengthened
Mon âme chante My soul sings
Réveillez vous, mon luth et ma harpe! Wake up, my lute and my harp!
Je veux éveiller l’aurore I want to awaken the dawn
Cantique des cantiques, par Salomon Song of Songs, by Solomon

The translation is by me, so take this with a bit of salt, but: my recollection is that the Hebrew words are “I will see the morning.” I think I like this version better–the idea of waking up the sun is very powerful.

  • affermir: to consolidate, to strengthen; to firm up
  • éveiller: to arouse, to awaken

Definitions from the Collins French-English dictionary, Kindle edition.

Defy and define the darkness

What it looks like outside my office window right now. Picture source:
What it looks like outside my office window right now. Picture source:

Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.

–Anne Frank, from

Adam Gopnik, the best expositor of the American experience in France for my money, says in his book Paris To The Moon that the main difference between New York and Paris is that Paris is at a much more northern latitude, and therefore the days of darkness are much longer in wintertime in Paris than in New York. This has its disadvantages: I find that the darkness sucks the life and energy out of me. In the Paris summertime, I am out and about constantly. In contrast, in the wintertime, it’s pretty much what Parisians call métro, boulot, dodo for me–go to work, come home, eat, read for a bit, and then to sleep.  Not the most exciting life.

There’s a plus side to the short days, though: in wintertime in Paris, I never miss a sunrise. Every morning, riding the train to the southern suburb where I work, I watch the sun break over the horizon and get a shot of beauty in my morning. Quite lovely, really.

We talked about words for sunrise, sunset, etc. in a previous post, so let’s focus on words for darkness, instead.  (Definitions from

  • l’obscurité (f.): darkness, e.g. after sunset.
  • les ténèbres: darkness, but literary or figurative.

To check the difference between these, I just pointed out the window–it’s 5:42 PM here, and literally as black as night–and asked my office mate what to call it.  Obscurité, he said.  [Crap–this means that I’ve been using the wrong word for “darkness” for the past year and a half.]  He came up with the word tenebrous as an English cognate (I didn’t know how to pronounce it, either–turns out the stress goes on the first syllable), and remarked that French has not just the noun, but also an adjective, ténébreux.  He explained that the adjective is an interesting word because in addition to meaning things like “gloomy,” which you would expect, it can actually be positive when applied to a human–it connotes a certain power and mystery.

To the symphony tonight–must defy the #%^*! darkness. 

I broke a nail

The most trivial encounter with Zipf’s Law EVER.

A nail file. Picture source: me.
A nail file. Picture source: me.

Pulling my suitcases off of the luggage carousel at Charles de Gaulle airport the other day, I broke a nail.  So, I go into the hell that is Monoprix and want to ask a saleslady for a nail file, but of course Zipf’s Law strikes–I don’t know how to say “nail file.”  The sales lady and myself have the following conversation.  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)

Me: It there is something to fix?  [I show her my broken nail.]

Saleslady: You want a lime?

Me: Um…is for make like this.  [I pantomime filing my nail.]

Saleslady: Ah–you want a lime.  Long, or short?

…and, I go home embarrassed, but with a brand-new nail file.

  • la lime: file.
  • limer: to file, file down; to sand, sand down.  Also: to screw, to boink.
  • la lime, la lime à ongles: nail file.

Definitions from

A special kind of sin

Starbucks terminology
I totally agree with this guy’s sentiment, but you’d have to be a real schmuck to take it out on the poor barista.  Picture source:

There’s a special kind of sin that you can commit in Paris: in the city with one of the most renowned cafe cultures in the world, you can go to Starbucks.  It’s actually pretty popular–the one down the street from the apartment that I rent when I’m in town is always busy (and unlike an American Starbucks in that the terrasse (patio, roughly) out front is always full of people smoking).

Starbucks does have two things going for it: (a) it opens before any of the cafes on my block, and (b) you can get the really big cups of coffee there that we Americans are so accustomed to, and that are quite different from the small cup of espresso that you get if you go into any normal French place and ask for un café, s’il vous plait.  So, on this, my first day back in Paris, having neglected to buy coffee for the apartment yesterday, I walked in.  I felt guilty, mind you–but, I did it.

Although Starbucks does have those two things going for it, it also has a real downside, and today it led to linguistic humiliation for me.  As I mentioned in a previous post, my name doesn’t work very well in France.  It’s not completely unknown, thanks to the popularity of Kevin Costner, but it’s not pronounced the same as in English, and when I pronounce it the American way, it gets wildly misinterpreted.  This is a problem at Starbucks, where they want your name so that they can write it on your cup.

Today, when the barista at Starbucks asked me for my name, I thought, screw it: I’m going to give her my name in French.  Now, you have to realize that my name is pronounced in French nothing like in American English, so I was taking a big chance here.  Kévin, I said.  I can’t even describe to you what this sounds like–we don’t have the second vowel in English.  (In the International Phonetic Alphabet, it’s [kevɑ̃].)

Now, you have to know that I had fumbled when the barista asked me for my order, due to my crankiness about the whole Starbucks tall/grande/vente terminology.  So, I was especially disappointed when, after telling her my name in my best French pronunciation, she gave me a puzzled look and asked–in English–“what was your name again?”  This set off a linguistic chain reaction.  When she asked the guy behind me for his name, he spelt it–it was “Glen,” as American as can be–and the guy behind him ordered totally in English.  Either this morning I contributed a tiny bit to the death of the language that I am trying so hard to learn, or there were hella Americans in line today.

So: I committed a very Parisian sin, and I received a very Parisian humiliation as a result.  That seems fair–First World Problem, I guess.

  • gêné(e): embarrassed.




This is actually a much nicer neighborhood than it sounds like

2015-12-01 16.14.59
After a long flight from the US, I’m tired, but not too tired to pick up some flowers. Yes, that’s the guy across the street having a cigarette on his balcony. Picture source: me.

All seems to be right in my little neighborhood.  The old drunk who likes to sit slumped against the stanchion of the metro tracks with a bottle of booze between his legs is ranting at everyone, or at no one–I can’t understand him well enough to tell.  The oddly blonde Roma woman who has been begging by the machines where you refill your transport pass for the past year and a half is…begging by the machines where you refill your transport pass.  Giorgio, the owner of the place where I get my nonexistent hair cut, is surprised to see me, but always happy to schedule me for a shearing.  (From Giorgio’s very branché accent, I’m guessing that he was born and raised right here, probably as Georges.)  Pretty girls walk out of the metro station.  The fruit marchand suggests some grapes, and also thinks that the clementines are worth considering.  The baguettes from my favorite boulangerie aren’t hot at this time of the day, but I’ve gotten there early enough to get the kind that I’m in the mood for today.  (Yes, there are different kinds.)  The guy who works in the tabac (tobacconist’s shop–you buy everything from postcards to lottery tickets there) gives me a nod.  The pickings at the fleuriste are slim, but I find some pretty orange things.  A knock-out woman of a certain age is having a proper lunch in the corner cafe with a kid who is either her grandson, or the youngest gigolo in creation.  The lady behind me in line at the metro ticket counter is wearing a short white raincoat and combat boots, and muttering something about Africans.  Or hurricanes–I really hope it’s hurricanes.  I very badly need to improve my French…  When I’m in Paris, I live in what is generally considered to be the most boring arrondissement in the city–but, I am terribly fond of it.

I managed to do my shopping without running into a single word that I didn’t know, but that streak will end as soon as I open the copy of Le Monde that I bought.  Come back tomorrow for the usual obscure vocabulary items.

Paris, two weeks after the attacks

Eyelash curlers in action. They were notoriously subject to confiscation by the newly-formed TSA after 9/11. Picture source:

Out of the plane, to the right, to passport control, pass through with a cursory bon jour from the border control officer…Nothing different there.  The taxi driver grunts as he lifts my suitcase into the trunk–47 pounds (21.32 kilos) of books that I can’t live without for the next month–nothing different there.  I catch bits and pieces of the talk show that he’s listening to on the radio:  …Latest unemployment numbers…school drop-outs…the “excluded”…  Same as usual.  Motards (motorcycle police) zip between the traffic and wave drivers to the side to let the occasional Mercedes through–sometimes a stretch limo, sometimes a van with darkened windows.  Nothing big there–just minor functionaries attached to the COP21 climate change conference, I imagine.

Finally, after 45 minutes of driving, we’re almost to my apartment, and I hear it.  It’s the first full sentence that I’ve understood on the radio today: The extension of the state of emergency is interfering with our right to demonstrate…  Oh, the “fouille de bagage,” the security guards try to pick me up, it’s terrible… I ask the driver: “fouille de bagage,” is that when they search your…um…  Him: Yes, the police, they [unintelligible]

I love it.  My fatherland (America) gets one big terrorist attack, and the whole country is down with nationwide phone surveillance, taking their shoes off in airports, confiscating eyebrow curlers.  My motherland (France) has been experiencing terrorist attacks literally since before I was born; even after one so horrible that the entire world is flying the French flag, the French are their usual lovable, fractious selves, complaining about being deprived of engaging in the national sport of standing up for themselves en masse.

I get out of the cab with my suitcases and backpack.  A guy who I don’t know from Adam, but who looks vaguely familiar, is walking up the street towards me.  Ah, you’re back!  Did you have a good trip?  The waiter in the cafe on the ground floor catches sight of me and waves.  I think that France is going to be OK.  Me, too.

  • la fouille: excavation, digging.
  • la fouille de données: data mining.  This is the way that we use the word fouille at work.
  • la fouille de bagage: bag search.