Thursday, March 30, 2006

Pocas Nueces

More pronominal French in today's class (que vs qui vs ou) and coverage of common similes. We tied this up with a game of Taboo! a party game where each team has to guess a word described by one of its members, and where 5 common referents for that word are taboo!

Then it was off on the metro to Les Sablons and a short walk thence to Le Jardin d'Acclimatation where a friend of Marta was directing scenes for a short film. Four of us turned up to be extras, but as the production schedule was running hours behind due to technical issues, we had lunch and walked around the park to view the mainly child-centric attractions.

Le Jardin comprises children's activity areas for climbing, jumping, sliding through tubes (comme moi, above), swinging on ropes etc; with amusement park rides, a petting zoo, and even a couple of spectacular (and spectacularly bored) brown bears. It was still fascinating to watch the bears, who seemed to share so much body language (and even body mass) with Bondi.

After a few hours we returned to watch some of the filming: mostly a rather tedious process. With time running out, and the necessity for many children as extras for a circus-audience, we spent a further 45 minutes seated in a permanent circus-tent while the four principal actors were shot arriving at their seats and reacting to some of the show. For that, we got a few squares of bubblegum. Definitely not as entertaining as my acting effort in Wales last year: my screen-career is heading downhill faster than Jar Jar Binks'.

This film Pocas Nueces ("Few Nuts") is a pretty international affair, with a Spanish and Albanian cast, a script written in English but translated to Spanish, and a totally polyglot crew with English as lingua-franca.

The day was rounded out with 7 members of the class plus some hangers-on dining out in the Marais prior to the gradual dissolution of the class over the coming week. It's a little sad as we're enjoying the classroom experience so much and the increasing number of impromptu outings. The group is very mixed: Australian, Pole, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, South African, German, Spaniard, and Nigerian-born Scot; age-range 18-42 (although I've been granted time off for weird behaviour) and 4 males/5 females. Although English is our primary shared language, I'm the only person who has it as first language. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Time for bad weather!

From yesterday's dire weather one would think that Spring had dropped in for a brief aperitif and then sprung out again like Zebedee exiting for bed. The sun reappeared after 5pm, and so with daylight saving in place, we were able to squeeze in a couple of hours walking through Saint-Germain.

I stopped for some cafe crème somewhere - but neither barista nor cream seemed to have participated in its creation. I think I'll have to wait until I get back to London in 10 days or so for a decent cup. An Australian I encountered at the school mentioned the Cafe Malongo chain, but at their Saint-Germain outlet I got the same overheated watery muck as at other venues. I can see why Parisians are starting to gravitate towards Starbucks, but even that's only one step up the chain with its overpriced milky muck.

I'm enjoying Geoff Dyer's Paris Trance, beautiful prose about a couple of 20-something guys spending time in Paris, their aching love for the women they meet there. I'm keen to get to Dyer's earlier D.H.Lawrence-inspired Out of Sheer Rage which I've had sitting in a shelf or a box for years now. I may still be waiting to get over the trauma of a high-school English class where we had been studying Lawrence's Sons & Lovers. I had been "asked" to study up the central character Paul Morel for Q&A by the rest of the class. One of the first questions was "How did I find Miriam's bush?" 30-odd 16-17 year olds then spent the remainder of the class cackling like horny hyenas.

Soundtrack for this week has been Jane Birkin's Fictions, Gonzalez' Solo Piano, and This Melodramatic Sauna's " les fleurs éclosent à l’ombre”. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Chirac contre l'anglais

Weblog - Charles Bremner - Times Online: Chirac contre l'anglais

Thanks to David M, who brought this blog, and hence article to my attention. Bremner is Paris Correspondent for The Times.

Stanislaw Lem 1921-2006

Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem died today in Krakow at the age of 84. He was author of twice-filmed Solaris (1961, English translation 1970), and his many other works, ranging over themes from aliens to cybernetics to utopian technology, at times blackly humorous and sometimes cast as futuristic parables, included (dates those of English translations) The Cyberiad (1974), The Futurological Congress (1974), The Star Diaries (1976), Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1979), One Human Minute (1986), Fiasco, and Hospital of the Transfiguration (1988), as well as nonfiction Microworlds (1985) and memoir Highcastle (1995). Lem was notorious for having a low regard for most American SF writers (except for Philip K. Dick), and had a controversial on-again, off-again membership in SFWA in the 1970s. [via Locus].

A close friend of the young Karol Wojtyla (future John Paul II), Lem probably stood a greater chance of winning the Nobel Prize for literature than any other science-fiction writer of the 20th century (the shorter-lived Phil Dick being the runner-up in those stakes). He was shortlisted for the first International Man Booker Prize in 2005, which is based on an author's body of work. In Lem's case, that body translated into 27 million books sold in over 40 languages. Sadly, a good part of his work has never appeared in English, or (as in the case of his most famous work, Solaris) only by double translation, via abridgements of French or German editions.

Only last week I read of attempts to pass the hat to finance a complete & direct Polish to English translation of Solaris, perhaps by his most respected translator, Michael Kandel. But... Faber and Faber owns the English rights and have stated that they are not interested in having another translation available. One might also hope for a DVD release of the longer cut of Soderbergh's recent film version.

On a personal note, I own Kandel's typed original translation manuscript of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, discovered by chance at a bookfair in Seattle (but not in a bathtub). I had been introduced to Lem's writing when I was about 12 through either The Cyberiad (with its wonderful Daniel Mroz illustrations) or The Star Diaries. Lem's writing in this cerebrally farcical mode anticipate Douglas Adams HHGttG.

» Reuters; CNN (AP)
» Official Lem website
» Vitrifax: The writing of Stanislaw Lem
» Independent obituary by John Clute
» London Times obituary


Spring is arriving in fits and starts: lengthier patches of blue, the fountains are being cleaned out and turned on, more tables are appearing on the streets, and a transport strike has been called (probably in support of winter's retrenchment).

This morning's class began as a struggle after a poor night's sleep. A noisy neighbour 4 floors below,talking loudly out the window while on the telephone at 1am; and then an hour of thunder which brought 71kg of panting, upset dog onto the bed. In class we've been covering the conditional with conversations predicated on "in an ideal world...", "if I were given such and such awful present I would..." or "if I were...". One student's response: "If I were a woman, I would be a lesbian" has nearly convinced me that becoming a language teacher may be one of the most entertaining jobs going.

After lunch, I joined 4 of my classmates for a visit to the Sainte-Chapelle built in the mid 13th century to house various Christian relics such as the purported Crown of Thorns. The imposing but light-filled upper chapel retains 2/3 of the 6500 sq.ft of stained glass from the original construction. The top picture is from the lower chapel, the ceiling painted as a starry sky.

We retired to the Luxembourg Gardens for some gentle sun-worship. Although occasionally windy, it's now warm enough to just wear a t-shirt, but I need to keep my infant tatouage under-cover. I carry around a small tube of Nivea moisturizer, for regular application on the inked area. When I was being scanned for metal objects at the entrance to Saint-Chapelle, we were most amused to discover that the plastic tube registered positively in my pocket, but not so on the outside. I just caught a mutter of "bizarre" from the police officer before being waved on.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Shipmaster from Ballantrae

Another trawl through the 1851 Scotland census has been successful, as I identified the Kerr family living in Stoneykirk on the west coast of Scotland. David is a shipmaster from Ballantrae a little to the north, with two young daughters born here in their mother's hometown. They have a 14yr old servant, Susan H----, living with them.

Son Alexander (my ancestor) will be born in Williamstown Victoria three years' hence.

Noting that only one David Kerr seems to have been born in Ballantrae in the expected time-period, it seems that his mother's surname Wither(s) is the same as his wife's. Noting further that they got married in Liverpool before returning to the area, I'm wondering if he eloped with a cousin!

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae, filmed with Errol Flynn, was written in 1889, but set over a century earlier.

'Pets in America: A History,' by Katherine C. Grier - The New York Times Book Review

'Pets in America: A History,' by Katherine C. Grier: "Twenty-first-century pet keepers may be obsessive and conflicted, but Grier's portraits of our ancestors reveal that earlier generations had their quirks. Some Victorian families were, she allows, 'extraordinarily tolerant even by modern standards,' and offers as evidence the owners of a 'pet sparrow named Bob, who had never been confined in a cage, was allowed to take 'anything he wants' from the family dinner table and slept at night in the globe of a gas lighting fixture.' But the most inspired pet-keeping was surely practiced by the Rankin children of late 19th-century Albany, who turned a hutchful of rabbits 'rescued from their fate as someone's dinner' into a carefully documented kingdom that was reorganized as a republic, complete with a declaration of independence, a census, a postal system and taxes. Over the years, the Bunnie States of America spun off a map company and a medical college. Its calendar included a legal holiday, Fish Day, on which the family goldfish was released into the bathtub. The longevity of the entire enterprise can perhaps be attributed to Article 1 of its constitution: 'No one can sulk' in a meeting."

Sacre Coeur from the Musee d'Orsay

[Friday 24th]

The afternoon light showed Sacre Coeur off to good effect on the Montmartre butte, seen from level 5 of the Musee d'Orsay. Posted by Picasa

Maisons aux Chocolat et Hot-Dog

The wet weather continues, but it's time for the Saturday marathon walk. The ultimate destination was the FNAC on the Avenue des Ternes, a little north of the Arc de Triomphe. I'd a late night downloading a new build of Windows Vista. While that was happening Bondi and I had a little midnight walk - I grabbed a cinnamon crépe from a street vendor and we did a circle through the Marais. Rising late, over breakfast I filed a swathe of bugs, mainly reactivating issues that some person had bulk-closed out in advance of the new build.

So it was off through Rue Montorgueil, stopping into Art Corpus so that David could inspect my tattoo, then into the new Starbucks as I was feeling too lazy to carry a thermos of my own (superior) brew all day. The weather was deteriorating as we forged west, through the Opera district, and the Madeleine, before joining up with Rue St Honoré du Faubourg, which would eventually turn into the Avenue des Ternes. The area seemed to be buzzing with both police and Australians (overheard).

At some point I found myself outside a La Maison du Chocolate and decided to inspect the goodies. One could be forgiven for immediately exiting the shop after seeing the prices: a box the size of Cadbury Roses might set you back as much as €100. I didn't really feel like picking out a selection by weight, as that tends to result in something horrifically expensive, so I went for a 30-piece box of chocs sans nuts or nut-puree (not an allergy, just a preference) for a more reasonable price. Sampling some now - oops choccy fingers - I must say that while "nice", they don't stand up to the marvellous, and undoubtedly less pricey concoctions from Haigh's in Adelaide, Australia which must be easily the best I've had anywhere. (I see they have a Sydney store now... hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.)

I had a pleasant hour looking around FNAC after that: the store being more congenial than the Les Halles rabbit-warren. Bondi crashed out in a few spots around the store while I listened to CDs. Lunch at Angie's Cafe on the way up to the Arc de Triomph - the owner cleared some chairs for Bondi to crash out again near the doorway. Finished reading Andrew Crumey's Mobius Dick, a standout novel interweaving Melville, Mann, Schumann, and quantum mechanics, yet being very readable and humorous.

Then the slow, wet downhill return along the Champs Élysées. A hotdog vendor offered Bondi some of his wares in exchange for some photos. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Musée d'Orsay

Over dinner at Chez Maurice I made plans with two of my fellow students to visit the Musée d'Orsay if the weather was bad. Sure enough, by the time class was over at 1pm, the spring rains had arrived to wash away the winter rains. I met up with Liane (Germany) and Ify (a Scot of Nigerian heritage), outside the Musée at 3pm, joining a long line for a special exhibition on Cezanne & Pizzaro. The skies opened up again, and then all of a sudden there were opportunistic salesmen with umbrellas darting up and down the lines. I figured if they could manage without using one of them, then I could too. Like the lines for the Pompidou, this was for access to the building and a security check, and then another line for tickets.

Finally, ticket-in-hand, one strides directly into the magnificent chamber adapted from an old train-station, scultpures dotting the central corridor, with bands of galleries up either side for two levels. Additional galleries are on floors above and adjacent to this space.

The last time I walked into rooms with so much instantly 'R'ecognisable art was the Hermitage exhibition at the Metropolitan in New York in 1988. I didn't go to the Orsay with any expectations to see anything in particular, so walking into some of the rooms of Renoirs and Van Goghs was a bit of a shock - not to mention being able to walk right up to within a foot of them. There were pleasant little surprises everywhere, such as some of the pastels kept in low-light galleries, including a pre-geometric (fireman-red carpet) Mondrian. On the other hand, there was much of what I'd call "filler" - usually French artists of a particular school, not seeming to advance any genre, or even to represent it technically to an interesting level.

It's also worth noting that many of the commerical galleries in the area e.g. along the Rue St Honoré, have works by the same artists or even "better" works by other artists. Or you may find that if you like a particular work, then a store on the Rue de Rivoli will have a tie based on it.

After we'd arted ourselves out we were joined by Marta (Spain) and headed for Saint-Germain for coffee. Another classmate Satoko passed our table, and joined us for tourist-priced hot chocolates. I remember talking about my family-tree work, and Liane said "oh yes all you Australians are gangsters aren't you?". I was a bit slow on the uptake and thought she meant something about mixed ancestry, then realised she meant "convicts". I like "gangsters" better. I explained to Marta that my ancestors were actually all millionaires deported for tax evasion.

And I didn't forget to bring home some photos of artworks that Bondi might appreciate.

Scotlands People have just released the details of the 1851 Scottish census online, so I did some digging around to fill in details of my Wood/Henderson ancestors between the 1841 census and immigration to Australia. I managed to find a record that showed those living members of the family all in one house in Edinburgh, with more details of where they'd been born. Half the children were born in Edinburgh itself and others in Fifeshire, within an hour's drive (Monimail and Kilconquhar) in the general area of St. Andrew's. When I'm next in Edinburgh I can apparently check the parish birth registers for free.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

J'essaye "Essaye-moi"

My French teacher recommended this inventive French romantic comedy to the class. Luckily she gave a brief plot synopsis (see here ) so when I went to see this - my first non-subtitled or dubbed foreign film - I was able to construct a framework around the rapid opening sequences. Realistically, because of the speed of the speech and the usage of idiomatic expressions, I got about 5% of the dialog. Nevertheless I was able to track the gist of the plot, but judging from the audience laughter, missing out on much funny dialog. Thankfully there was a strong undercurrent of visual humour. About 2/3 of the way through, I was pretty much up to speed with what was happening and was laughing along with them.

I took Bondi to the vet today. Luckily our combined English and French more than covered the needs of the situation, and I walked out €200 lighter after paying for the consultation, and rattling with pills. The vet wasn't aware of the osteoarthritic drug Cartrophen VET, and wasn't sure if it was approved for use in France yet. If it's not the case, then I'll deal with getting Bondi an injection when we get back to the UK in just over two weeks.
A couple of expressions I picked up in class:

1. "chanter comme une casserole" = "sing like a saucepan". One of my high-school class mates said that I was not so much tone-deaf as piano-deaf, because I couldn't get within 88 notes of a tune. Not that I'm going to nurse that comment for a long time...

2. Bell-bottom trousers were known as "les pantalons pattes l'elephant [or l'eph]" = "elephant foot pants". I misheard this as "les pantalones pas telephone" ... well telephones and bells both ring!

It's not surprising when I do mishear things in class, because I usually sit near the window, and whenever a delivery truck blocks the street, the cacophonie of a thousand French traffic-horns is quick to be heard.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Category 5 Pronouns

Bondi scouts out kids and old ladies on Rue Montorgueil this afternoon.

When I looked at my first worksheet for today's class I read

Les pronoms de la catégorie 5...

Hurricane Larry crossed Australia's coast this week as a Category 5 storm, so I was a little peturbed by the possibility that I was about to encounter some lethal pronouns without so much as an anorak (for French readers, that's un anorak!). My next question was "are they all dangerous, or is it just him or her... hmmm ... I bet's it's them". Perhaps I had not enough on my mind, or maybe I had just watched one Family Guy episode too many*:

"in local news we have more on the approach of Hurricane Rue Paul making his or her way up the coast".

*Family Guy is one of the few TV shows that actually has a couple of resident composers and an orchestra to serve up regular musical sequences, such as this rather uncomfortable parody [via Malcontent]. I coughed my way through a few seasons of the show on DVD while I was sick in bed recently.

Bondi's overdue for a glucosamine shot to help him lumber around more comfortably. A large pinkish lump has appeared on the back of his left foreleg, and is giving him more discomfit than usual in that limb. I stopped into a nearby vétérinaire, and surprised myself by being able to describe what he needed and made an appointment for tomorrow.

Alert ears on Wicks Road in North Ryde, around the corner from my old office...

The French don't have dust bunnies: they have moutons de la poussière - "sheep of dust", or as an Australian might say it "mutton dressed up as dirt". Either way it appears that a few quivers of an electron quickly became the titanic dust bunnies (or sheep) we know as galaxies after the Big Bang.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

La Grande Bouffée

At the beginning of Monday's class we always recount our weekend adventures, but I guess I raised the stakes for all time with Je me suis fait tatoué! My tatouage is behaving nicely, with just a slight redness in the inked area. I just have to remember to moisturise it regularly.

Bondi came to class today, and was reinstated under the table beside me. He was very happy snoozing there and half the class were unaware of his presence until he sneezed an hour into the lesson. A little later he made himself a tad more obvious with a small emission that paved the way for a series of language lessons.

1. The French verb for to fart is peter, and a fart - fittingly enough - is un pet [pronounced peh]. Now I'm one step ahead of you on the "so what's a pierre?" issue. Well that's actually as one might expect from Peter/Petros in other languages: a rock or stone. Naturally enough, it's usual to lance pierres through a fenetre. So, if you know anyone called Lance Pierres, then advise them against living in glass houses. (In French, a lance-pierre is a catapult.)

2. A simple meal is un bouffe (my dictionary says "grub"), which is not to be confused with un buffet. Nor is it to be confused with Bondi's contribution to class: une bouffée, or "puff of air". A breath is un souffle.

3. No prizes for translating "silencieux mais mortel!" Celine asked if it was Australian cuisine that caused les pets, but I countered that it was "les poulets Française" and that cordon bleu cuisine was going to generate cordons bleus pets. Who said that grammar was a dry and rarefied subject?

Some other morceaux:

4. If you hear "CB" in a store, then it's a reference to "carte bleu" or "blue card". This is a Visa or MasterCard credit card (not debit card).

5. In France, one's education is not the same as one's schooling. The former is your "upbringing" and is the responsibility of the parents rather than the school. Someone who is rude is said to be badly educated.

6. As in many other countries the vogue for children's names is either to bring back older names or to spin new names via hyphenation. Of course the technique varies between girls' and boys' names. Once popular (even angelic) names like Michel are now de-modé, as are the Jean-Michel, Jean-Claude, Jean-Philippe, Jean-Bernard and Jean-Paul-George-Ringos of yesteryear. Today Oscar, Victor, Lucas, Hugo and Thibault rule. Following the bestowal of the name Lily-Rose upon the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradise, a new crop of floral names debuted e.g. Lily-Cerise (ie Lily-Cherry).

7. The exclusive use of masculine genders for some professions e.g. "le professeur" regardless of gender is unsurprisingly controversial in France, but it's only in Quebec where "la professeur" or "l'écrivaine" (a female writer) are "officially" accepted.

8. Following on to my mention of poisson (-ss-) vs poison (-z-) some time ago, the Japanese fugu or blowfish may be referred to as poisson poison.

Finally, my post title is a pun on the infamous French film La Grand Bouffe. I remember seeing it at one of Sydney's few cinematheques, the Valhalla during an edifying summer in 1982/3 when I lived with some fellow students in Glebe, and we would turn up for random double-features of everything from American indy to horrific Jodorowsky spectacles like El Topo. IMDB says of the latter:
See the naked young Franciscans whipped with cactus. See the bandit leader disemboweled. See the priest ride into the sunset with a midget and her newborn baby. What it all means isn't exactly clear, but you won't forget it.
The Valhalla is now defunct. It seems like only yesterday that every refrigerator in inner-Sydney had one of its 6-month program posters blue-tacked to the door. I must have a dozen or so neatly folded away in a box somewhere in my Sydney storage facility.

What all of this stream of consciousness means I'm not sure, but I hope it's not all forgettable.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

Another 10km hike today: north east through Belleville to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, possibly the largest stretch of dog-friendly greenery inside Paris city.

Dynamited from a rubbish dump and quarry during the 19th century, the park has a remarkable variance in elevation that makes it difficult to get a good photographic overview. The heavily graffitied "temple" atop the rocky butte gives a great view over N-NW Paris, including Sacre Coeur.

I think today's walking path looks like Noel Coward, a little more subtle than my Bart.

Mozart at Saint-Eustache

Despite living only a block from the Eglise Saint-Eustache for six weeks, today was the first day I entered it. My task: to get tickets for the night's performance of the Mozart Requiem.

Later, arriving ten minutes before the concert, I was lucky to secure a single seat in the front-half of the audience. The evening began with the Ave Marias of Schubert & Gounod, a round of Hebrew chorusing a la Verdi, and Beethoven's Ode to Joy (sans soloists).

While the 43m ceilings have hovered over Lully, Liszt, Rameau, Berlioz, Franck and others in concert, the acoustics were not ideal for the Beethoven. It seemed at times as if a couple of spent syllables were chasing around the outer chapels. However, when the central work began, it was as if the heavens were bending in to hear Mozart. This seemed appropriate, given that the funeral of his mother was held here.

A small but committed choir and a fine soprano were some of the highlights, although the former had some raggedy moments. The tenor seemed overripe at first and I wandered if he could find the entrance to a gazebo, but he improved markedly in the second half.

Walking around the outer chapels after the concert, I was surprised to find a triptych "La vie du Christ" by Keith Haring!