Sunday, November 09, 2008

In the zone

From last week's election campaign...why does it seem so long ago already? I wrote this for the blog Found in Translation and my class in Education 140 at UC Berkeley, where we talk about Vygotsky and others...

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is talked about so much in language and literacy classes around here that it’s easy to forget what it means from the first-person perspective: an experience of learning with the help of more capable others, becoming able to use language and other signs in ways that you didn’t know you could. Even in the space of an hour or two.

The scene: the Oakland office for the Obama campaign, three days before what is no doubt one of the biggest presidential elections in the history of this country. A room packed with volunteers calling people up to share information, to urge them to vote, to ask them to talk about the election with others. “Hi, is so-and-so there?” The room is filled with the voices of men, women, older and younger, sitting around the table with their cell phones in one hand and a pen in the other. “My name’s so-and-so calling from Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change and I’m calling to see if you’ll be able to get out and vote early this weekend…”

I dislike getting phone calls like this, and I really dislike making them. It makes me nervous and self-conscious, and I know many friends who talk about being annoyed with the cause after getting the calls. No small congratulations to my good friend Ree for twisting my arm long enough to finally get me out there!

But beyond the question of my discomfort in principle with the task of “getting out the vote” among folks in Florida, Ohio, and other battleground states, there was the question in practice of knowing how to talk to accomplish this goal: How can you so quickly assume the identity required for making these calls? The energetic, knowledgeable, confident (yet not overly assertive) campaign worker whose skin isn’t too thin to get really annoyed after being hung up on repeatedly? How can you have this tricky conversation on the phone, without gesture or expression to help in making the connection? And how can you do it in front of so many other people, sitting at that table, hearing the sound of your own voice—novice, accented, loud—echoing among the more experienced voices of others?

The turning point for me happened when I learned how to listen. The other volunteers were only sometimes, and only partially, reading from their scripts; they were all improvising too, speaking in fragments of Spanish when they needed (why were there no Spanish language scripts??), asking how people’s day was going, giving their own twist on why it’s so important to participate in this election. I tried imitating first the contours, the accents, the rhythm and pacing that the guy next to me was using, to communicate immediately that, at the very least, this was a real human being, and not some automated robo-caller interrupting people’s day.

Gradually, though, it got easier. I needed a reason to tell people why they should go out and vote early, and immediately what someone else had told me 10 minutes before popped into my head: “The lines are probably gonna be long on Tuesday, so if you have a chance, try to get out and vote this weekend…” And though nobody had written it down, the fact that the 877 phone number for the Obama campaign headquarters is toll-free seemed important: “and if you’d like to find out where your early polling place is, you can call this toll-free number: 877-….”

I heard myself saying these things and was surprised. I had thought I’d just stay through the first list of 25 names. But after the first 15 or 20 I thought, this wasn’t so hard at all. I got another list and kept at it, and soon an amazing thing happened: after I had just hung up on another call, I heard someone else in the room say, “and to find out where your early polling place is, you can call this number toll-free: …”.

Within those 90 minutes, I wasn’t the only one learning how to talk. Everyone was making someone else’s script their own, and bringing their own accents to it in the process. While they could have practiced at home, I thought, this must only be possible in the zone, with the help of others. It’s subtle, how the ZPD works. Learning seems so natural when it’s about doing something meaningful with others. But it’s still amazing when you sit back and think about it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Multilingual Congress ... on the train

Thinking about my recent trip to Essen, Germany to participate in an applied linguistics conference, I realize that one of my most lasting memories is also one of the most mundane. That’s not to say that I’ll soon forget gazing into the sunset in the reflecting pool by the Zollverein coal mine, or having late night discussions in the open creative spaces of Essen’s Unperfekthaus, or even admiring the gothic spires of neighboring Cologne’s famous cathedral. But these brief tastes of Germany, postcard-perfect as they are, nonetheless didn’t strike home as much as the short metro ride across town that showed me what I might have been.

Of course, I went to Germany expecting nothing less than intellectual inspiration. The event at which my American colleague and I were scheduled to present is actually called a “congress”, and not ‘just’ a “conference”. This highly touted gathering takes place only once every three years, and was to bring together people from across Europe and around the world to discuss “aspects of multilingual matters and the linguistic richness of [the European] continent,” as the website says. For our part, my colleague and I were ready: we had theorized and debated about the meanings of multilingualism and multiculturalism in classes, at universities and other academic gatherings across the U.S., and in a variety of other countries. On that cool and overcast day in Essen, I was looking forward to learning how the changing linguistic tapestry of Europe related to that of my home state of California, where over 40% of the population uses a language other than English at home.

However, sitting on that train as we wound through the city streets, I was struck by a fact of life more basic than any theory I have learned. I, and my friend from the multilingual state of New York, live in a country where monolingualism is the norm.

Both of us, of course, had learned another language as we grew up and moved through our respective school systems. He had studied several years of German, a fact that made our navigation of local trains and restaurant menus in Essen much easier (just like the high school textbooks promised!). And I had taken Spanish classes for four years in middle school and high school. Not much help in Germany, to be sure, but, as many of us who grew up in monolingual California homes argue, an ability that is valuable nonetheless.

Yet, as I sat on that metro and listened, I realized that my years of Spanish instruction had left me with only one tongue: the world I lived in after high school was still written in English.

Well, I protested to myself, if German or Spanish was not my respective strong suit, then surely Japanese was. I had studied it for 3 years in the university and, through odd twists of fate, both my colleague and I had ended up living there for several years. Each of us had used the Japanese language to take classes, to negotiate apartment contracts, and to build friendships and working relationships alike. And perhaps because they were aware of the fate of non-English languages in the U.S., nobody we met in our many cross-cultural encounters had given us anything but praise for our linguistic accomplishments.

Yet, as the metro train approached the city center, and as I continued to sit, watch, and listen, I wondered: have either of us ever learned to be like...that?

The two women who sat across from us gestured and smiled as they moved smoothly between two languages. The woman facing me asked a question in one language, and her friend leaned forward without a blink, answering in the other. A moment of silence followed. Both looked out the window. Perhaps they were considering what had just been said. Then the first made a quick assertion in German, only to qualify it in English as her friend shook her head in disagreement. She glanced over at me (was I staring?) while her friend leaned back in her seat, agreeing (I think) in German. All this before using English to quickly change the topic yet again!

Did they realize that I sat enraptured by the movement of their conversation? These two languages could not have been reduced to one—why would the two friends switch so often and so strategically if words in either language ‘meant’ the same thing? And did they realize that this conversation was also a performance, hiding, revealing, and then hiding its details again to its ‘linguistically challenged’ audience, all the while helping to build their own bonds of camaraderie?

This was not, of course, the first time I had heard fluent bilinguals speaking—far from it! But hearing the prestigious academic congress’ theme of multilingualism alive in the words of everyday people in such an everyday setting, I found myself thinking, how ironic that I—a hopeful scholar of language—am bound to my variety of English for the vast majority of my linguistic life. I found myself wondering what that life would have been like if I had followed my father when he was sent to work in Cologne in the 1980s, when I was still a child. If I had lived in Germany, would I now be able to intuitively see the layers of meaning between German and English? Would my eyes have been opened to other possibilities of being if other languages had been prized in the schools I attended? And if more people in the U.S. had experiences like that, would we as a society be able to realize that multilingualism cannot, in fact, be captured on a postcard?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Getting these words online

I’ve finally sat in the lair of the enemy in order to write these words to you, one step from surrender. When did the solitude of simply being with one’s voice and thoughts become oppressive? We used to be able to recite our words in our minds without necessarily giving voice to them. And there was a time when we could type them out without sending. Have these two things become the same?

I’m drinking the wine of the enemy as I write these words to you. It’s not for lack of trying, you see. I’ve been looking for hours now. Or is it weeks? It feels like so long since I could rest assured that my words would find their way, far away from all of the...the easy connections of home. Is that what home has become?

I’ve walked the streets here with my compass in hand, not wanting to give in so easily. I checked at every street corner and every public place of gathering, monitoring for signs of openness, availability, potential. I need to get these words online but...things work differently here.

I must have seen two hundred names flash past my eyes. They all turned out to be mirages, fading quickly or remaining behind locked doors. And though I’ve tried to ignore her, the princess in her dark green circle beckons at almost every turn, promising a quick end to my suffering, offering me refuge in her cozy web of connectivity. I never would have thought that forest green and hot pink were so natural together. Have they always been?

Codes, codes, codes...human faces glance this way and that on the street corner, but they offer no help. It’s the shop signs and apartment names that might point the way, though sometimes the least secure-looking structures are the most impermeable. And why? Codes nowadays reveal no treasures in themselves; having the right key only enables you to walk through their portal, to the same place you always go. How is that even possible? In what kind of world does that make sense? One where businesses can claim proprietorship and charge for the privilege of using ‘doors’, doors that apartment owners name and protect, and doors that individuals covet and spend hours upon hours searching for, when they all lead to the same place?

This coffee is turning lukewarm. My ‘compass’ sits in my pocket, powered down now after leading me into this T-Mobile network. My feet hurt after covering miles in downtown Düsseldorf. And now I’ve been at this table for almost an hour. It’s been fifteen since the nice gentleman in the green apron, same princess emblazoned on front (surely you know the one!), cleared my tray. My power adapter is still plugged into the wall, bulbous universal adapter bringing down the 220 volts for my old G4 PowerBook. Battery’s back at 96%, the only consolation I have for placing myself in this establishment. It’s time to give in or head out.

How bad do I need to send those emails, to check my profile, to post on this blog? After powering my laptop up, I had taken my wallet out, even pulled out my credit card, the ultimate act of submission in the world of online access. I was ready. How much would it be? 4.95 for an hour? 9.95 for 6? Expensive but fine, I need to get online.

But 8 € for 60 minutes? That’s $12. That’s twice as much per hour as it costs to watch a movie. That’s four times as much as the cost of this coffee. That’s the same as it’ll cost me to take the train back to Essen tonight, my last night in Europe before resuming life in Berkeley, a place of easy connectivity, where I spend more time on the other side of the door, where everything is the same.

Sorry, Starbucks. I went as far as buying a drink, sitting down, and opening my internet browser, but you can have your network. By next year I might not be able to stand being disconnected. And the price will have surely gone up by then. But for now, I’ll hold on to these words a little longer and keep on walking.


* Uploaded 1 day later from O’Hare Int’l
** Thanks to Woyton for the free WiFi in Düsseldorf!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Speak English or be suspended?

Several golf and sporting-news sources have reported over the last few weeks on what is being called a first-of-its-kind language policy for professional athletes in the U.S.: “Speak English or be suspended.”

The new policy, if it remains in force, would require that all of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA)’s 121 international players from 26 countries, including 45 players from South Korea, would have to pass an oral English proficiency examination after 2 years of membership. Explaining the LPGA’s reasons for initiating the rule—first announced by commissioner Carolyn Bivens before the Safeway Classic in mid-August to an audience of only South Korean players—deputy commissioner Libba Galloway explained,

We live in a sports-entertainment environment. For an athlete to be successful today in the sports entertainment world we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this. Being a U.S.-based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English. (quote from the International Herald Tribute article linked above)

Such policies have not been considered by other pro sports organizations in the United States, the IHT article noted—this includes the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League (based in Canada), each of which has significant numbers of international players. And, after growing opposition from players and civil rights organizations, it appears that the LPGA has started to rethink this rule: Golfweek magazine, which first broke the story about the rule, reported that the organization has proposed a revised approach to its so-called “effective communication policy”, stating, “there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities for every tour player.”

This issue appears far from resolved, and it raises more questions than can probably be addressed. What moved me to write about it here was not only the probably discriminatory nature of the rule itself in linking performance in sport with oral linguistic expression (“an absolute slap in the face of women, minorities, immigrants,” said California State Senator Leland Lee), nor only the draconian idea of imposing mandatory English testing on its players as a way to enforce the policy, but also the money-making logic of professional sports that has even many international golfers nodding their heads, saying the English testing idea makes sense.

The imperative to inject broadcast sports with sound bites and interviews with media outlets and corporate sponsors before, after, and, increasingly, during sports events is something that gets my ire as a spectator of baseball (mid-inning interviews with the manager? When did these start?), football, and even the recent Summer Olympics (who ever thought of interviewing a sprinter 20 seconds after the race?). What it seems to mean is that professional athleticism is growingly contingent on a form of self-marketing, or even self-packaging, that takes place largely through language. And the idea that English should form the currency by which sports and other ostensibly non-linguistic activities are commodified, seems alarming.

Or…am I just off base here?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Duped by Saussure

Well...perhaps 20 would have been a better goal than 100? Now back in Berkeley for several days, I can feel the visceral sense of difference, the energy of being a displaced body, continuing to evaporate. Of course, it'd be just as possible to keep writing about little things I notice about life in the U.S., life in Berkeley, life on my street. Writing such a list might count as much for writing about life outside the U.S. as when I was in Lyon, since there is a period of time even after returning 'home' when familiar sights look strange, everyday behaviors look out of place. But this heightened awareness is lost all too quickly.

Why is it that even in Berkeley "diversity" seems to be more of a salad dressing than a salad bowl?

18. Langue - Parole - what's "French"?
Saussure's distinction between three interrelated aspects of language was foundational in my language studies at Berkeley, as it is undoubtedly in programs across the country and around the world. Yet now, after having spent 6 months off and and on (more off than on unfortunately) studying French, I wonder how much of my fascination with this three-way distinction came at first from the fact that they are in another language, and that learning them--though off-putting at first, I thought, another example of the snooty barriers of academic discourse--was a tiny step in a new direction, an eye-opening language learning experience and, thus ... pretty darn cool.

"Langue", Bill Hanks reminds us in his Language and Communicative Practices (p.25 though I've extrapolated from his glosses here) is the formal system of grammar that forms the collective knowledge of a group of people at a particular instant in time; "parole" is the realization of langue in actual talk--what real individuals produce as they talk to each other with all their individual style, their stutters, stops and starts; meanwhile "langage" is the larger human phenomenon of language that encompasses both langue and parole (or, as many of our professors here say, "language with a capital 'L'").

It's not often that English speakers in the U.S. are told that the words we have to describe our own reality don't cut that reality up into as many pieces as they could--in a sense, that English isn't as fine-grained or precise as it could be, when you look at the world in a certain way. Sure, we (especially those of us living in low altitudes in the sunny state of California) are willing to cede the fact that we don't have as many words for snow as do the Inuit people are reputed to (a misunderstanding of what a word is?), an often-cited example when talking about linguistic relativity. But "language"? Wouldn't it just make sense in English to have a different word for the human faculty of language when English, Moldovan, and Nuahatl are languages too?

And why stop there? When one says in English, "The language of this document seems to indicate that...", isn't the speaker actually talking not about langage or even langue, but parole, a particular, unique instantiation of a larger system replete with idiosyncrasies, even errors?

That would seem to make sense. Or so I thought, smugly, as I left for France recently, armed with foundational theoretical insights that not only allowed me to slice up linguistic reality in my mind, but would also undoubtedly speed my acquisition of spoken French.

Wrong again. In four weeks of strained listening I don't think I heard the word "parole" once. (Maybe that's because people don't talk about it, they just do it?). When I tried using the word in conversation with a fellow grad student at the university, she looked at me a bit askance. Then I tried mentioning the name "Saussure" but it didn't help. Was I supposed to have said "de Saussure"? Was I mispronouncing everything horribly?

Determined, I dropped my efforts at "parole" and refocused on "langue" and "langage". After all, I was there to work with people who were experts in FLE, or Le français langue étrangère, teaching French as a foreign language. And there it was in the title--French as a foreign "langue", just like the theory said.

So why was it that I kept hearing the word "langage" when I thought everyone was talking about the French language or the English language in particular? I wish I had a tape recorder to show you, to prove to myself. Ha! Why did I keep feeling like I was having my utterances corrected, that every time I tried using "langue" it was upgraded to "langage"? Can French be a langage? What would that mean? French is universal? Or wait, did I only hear that word because it sounds more like the English word and all the 'langues' of conversation were getting lost in an incoherent stream of sound? What am I supposed to call the language I'm learning, the language I'm writing?

And why can't they just have one word for it? That'd be so much easier. :)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Touching the interface

Written in the St. Exupery airport, outside Lyon
Dawn, Wednesday July 16.

It’s hard to write when you’re bleeding. I think this is what I meant when I was trying to explain to Nicolas what I meant by “disembodied” interaction online. Our bodies are not implicated in very important ways when we’re online. Sure, you have avatars. Cutting edge webcam technology may even be able to track your movements, gestures, expressions (some might even say emotions these days—you should be able to see it all, right?) and reflect these forms of corporeal communication in real time with an avatar or approximation of the self on someone else’s screen.

But something is missing when the inevitability of your contact with the interface is not then an artifact of the communicative process. When that engagement with the medium itself is in a separate perceptual domain than that which is apprehensible to both or all parties to an interaction. Put another way, if you’re bleeding onto the keyboard when you type, who knows? How does that get digitized, encoded, sent through some server?

Maybe that’s what it means to have a body anyway. Sure there’s an interiority inherent in consciousness itself. An (at least minimal) awareness of one’s own body as a type of medium in the world, one that is private, limber, stiff, joyful or sad, in pain or in pleasure, etc. etc. etc. But perhaps the experience of physical pain more than any other can bring into relief the hereness of the engagement with the medium of communication. People are fastidious about cleaning fingerprints off their cell phone and ipod screens—how about other less seemly traces of the fact that we have, we use, we inhabit, or rather we are bodies even more than we are avatars in Second Life or profiles on MySpace.

You can probably tell a few things about people by looking at their keyboards. Mine, on this PowerBook G4 (the label stares at me right below the screen), has repeated wear on a lot of keys...and, thankfully, now, no drops of anything else.

Wait, time to board the plane soon. What is this taste in my mouth, in my nose? Perhaps, like they say in that commercial back in the U.S., “It’s the cheese...” I’ve had it since I was up in the Alps. Will I carry it with me all the way? Will it last even after getting off the plane? We'll see...

Friday, July 11, 2008

lEft anD rIgHt

I've been in Nice the last few days with a friend from the GSE in Berkeley. Hoping to get out and take some pictures before going back up to Lyon tonight...

14. Left and right. There are a million ways left and right can be organized in any place you go, I guess. Lately I've been marveling at how cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, but trains, metros, etc. go on the left. Unless, of course you're talking about a tramway, which I assume has to go with car traffic and run on the right. Wouldn't it be interesting if it were the other way around? Walking is another story--like in Korea, where cars drive on the right but people tend to walk on the left. Here I think the general protocol is for people to walk on the right but I've been running into people on both sides...any insight out there? :)

15. Door handles. From the sort of mundane to the really mundane. I just can't figure out why door handles on apartment doors, when there are door handles at all, are positioned in the middle of the door instead of near where the key goes in. This means of course that you have to pull harder on heavier doors and you - or I at least - end up slamming doors a lot of the time when I'm closing them. What up?

16. Eyes, the gaze. This deserves more space and I'll write about it more later, but just wanted to get it down while I'm thinking about it. Students at Berkeley mentioned it in the context of videoconference interactions - the experience of looking at and being looked at in another language. Eyes have appeared in photographic and comic-style representation in several magazines, newspaper ads, etc. that I've seen while I'm here (hopefully will post some later). And eyes in French -- why does that have to be the hardest word for me to pronounce?

17. cApiTalIzatiOn. This is something that I've been wondering since last time I was here, in March. A lot of the time in the casual emails I've seen, people have capitalized at odd places in the word, and I've been wondering: what's going on? Are there times to do this, people who do it, is it just having fun, does the CAPS LOCK key get stuck on a lot of French computers (ok bad joke), is it just vowels that get capitalized, are you supposed to spell out separate words by looking at the caps, etc. etc. etc. Separately, I have noticed that a lot of people do capitalize their last names when writing them - this seems to be a convention for distinguishing between the nom and prenom. Do they get confused sometimes or is this just for ease of identification overall?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

J’ai cassé la chaîne

Note: due to issues of practical necessity (i.e. how the hell am I gonna get 100 insightful, well-developed thoughts and stimulating impressions written on this blog?) this list is now about my experiences in France and learning French.

11. Sitting, talking, drinking. Maybe, just maybe, life doesn’t have to be a rush of over-caffeinated warmongering accusational testosterone-fueled stress cookies. People here seem to spend a fair amount of time just chilling out, sitting down, having a drink, checking out the scene. And that’s OK.

12. Life on the street. Speaking of the scene...why would you want to sit on the street in a Starbucks or Jamba Juice looking out upon a strip mall parking lot, an expanse of concrete with the sun glinting off the rims and mirrors of an army of SUVs? Or sitting overlooking the vastly underpopulated sidewalks of many American cities? I may be comparing apples and oranges—a critical take on suburban scenes from the U.S. after years of experience, vs. a number of days in some major metropolitan centers in France—but I have spent dozens upon dozens of hours walking, and there are cafes everywhere with tables, chairs outside.

Sure, this is something I knew from before and even have experience with to a limited degree—not totally new. But I think it bears mentioning because of just how everything’s arranged. Namely, everyone seems to be looking out. To the street. Whereas I had expected if a couple were going to sit down, or a couple of friends for that matter, they might sit across from each other with the table between them. Don’t you go out somewhere to look at each other in a different context?

That is how seats are arranged in a lot of the cases here to be sure, but what I was struck with (in Paris especially) was the number of places where chairs are arranged side-by-side, friends, couples, or people sitting by themselves looking out at the life in the street.

What, then, is the life in the street? Or is that it at all? What is everyone looking at? Surely, more than the curious tourist wondering what everyone’s looking at...

13. Verb of the day: Casser. To break. I wonder if there’s anything to the idea that it takes a contextualizing experience, or a counterpoint experience, a metaphorical projection, or some other way of getting distance on a word or expression before you can really learn it. Romain had just explained to me what you should say if a couple breaks up. Of course there are other expressions but if you want to be colloquial and leave no doubts about the state of the relationship you could say, “Ils ont cassé.” (they broke up). I think he made a rough and sudden pulling apart gesture with his two hands, indicating the rupture.

Good enough for the time being, but the word was cemented the next morning when I was riding my VeloV from home to ENS. I knew I had a clunker—the chain was skipping and grinding a little bit as I rode but it was holding up. I took it down the walking path along the quai of the Rhône. Beautiful morning, some clouds in the sky and a vibrant blue. Everything was fine until the little uphill segment which, given the gearing on the bike, I really had to grind up.

Push. Push. Push. Push again, and then >BOOM<.

My legs go flying and the pedals are spinning around, suddenly free from their lifelong connection to the crank to the chain to the gears to the wheel to the ground. And with no purpose.

I had about 15 minutes left on the bike and was wondering how I was going to get to Debourg just walking or pushing the bike. Got up to the street level, thought I’d try to use the bike like a scooter but after a few scoots the damn chain got stuck inside the plastic housing around the rear wheel. I stopped and struggled to get it out, pulling the chain while tryhing to stabilize the bike, the whole assemblage moving around in circles. I must have looked pretty helpless because a guy about my age came up to me and asked what happened.

Of course, I didn’t have the words but he figured it out soon enough when he saw my greasy hands.

“Ah! Tu as cassé la chaîne.”
“Cassé, tu as cassé la chaîne.”

You broke the chain.

He probably didn’t realize why I was asking him to repeat himself, but at that minute there was a bond forming in my mind between the broken chain on the bike and the separated couple that Romain was telling me about the night before. Ils ont cassé. Et j’ai cassé la chaîne.

He kindly explained where a closer VeloV station was, which of course I didn’t understand, and I thanked him and was on my way. Oh well. One verb at a time.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Rainy day sur le quai

Spent most of the day commuting from campus to campus and then working at Lyon-2...all because of a rainy day that started off decorating my window this morning:

And now back to the list!

9. The Smart Car. Who can come from a country populated by gas-guzzlin' SUVs and fat-tire monster trucks without marveling at a car that you can park perpendicular to the road? In Lyon there seems to be a contest among businesses for most outrageous design too...

10. Sides. One of the first words I learned when I came to Lyon was the "quai" as in "j'aime faire du velo sur le quai," I like biking along the riverside. The translations listed on my favorite online dictionary (sorry, internet, paper's better) for this word are "dockside", "bank", "wharf", "embankment" etc. I'm not sure if any of them cover it. Given that two rivers, the Saone and the Rhône, pass through Lyon (or rather, the city was built around them), the quai and the bridges that traverse them form a defining aspect of the human geography here. You can follow the quai, run into the quai, have a nice apartment by the quai, and, yes, as of a few years ago, even rollerblade several miles up and down the quai.

This might be deserving of its own entry but I started out talking about "sides" because I was also thinking about the phrase "à côte de" (to the side of). This expression has popped up again and again recently, probably because it’s short and I’ve started to recognize it, but I’ve been wondering if the expression “on the side of” might occupy some semantic space that’s taken up in a different way in English (ode to Saussure and the concept of “value” here). In the project I’m working on, with Berkeley students videoconferencing with tutors in Lyon, it’s probably typical in both languages to specify which group you’re talking about with expressions like, “on the Berkeley side” and “on the Lyon side”, or “à côte Berkeley” and “à côte Lyon”. So far so good. But today in the office a student who I met for the first time, and who knows about the project, was asking me if I do research about the students or the tutors, and he asked if my focus was “à côte apprenant ou à côte tuteur” (on the learners’ or tutors’ side). I guess this expression would be possible in English but it struck me that I’d probably try to express this two-way choice by saying something like “à propos des tuteurs ou des apprenants” (about the tutors or the learners) in my infant interlanguage....

Are “sides” used more commonly in French?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

100 things about France...

One time when I was in Thailand I tried this out--writing a random list of things that I noticed from my 'American' discursive self. I was thinking that while I was still very much a stranger, and before I got used to even the things you get used to in a few weeks' stay, I should write things down as they come to me. So...voilà. Here we go. I've got my little notebook and hopefully over the next 2 weeks before I head back to the U.S. I'll have 100 little things about France that I've noticed...feel free to comment...

1. Water
. You have to pay 2euro for a little bottle at a cafe when all I want to do is drink glass upon glass upon glass (noted when I was standing sweating in the metro & related to #5.

2. Coffee. Am I missing something here? Almost everything I've had so far is all pre-measured espresso in colored instant packages (depending on flavor or strength, I've heard), loaded into espresso machines. I think I've become too used to the kick-ass fusion power of Peet's regular blend.

3. Boobs. Yep. That's right.

4. Being late. I usually am though I've been trying to make up for this, leave earlier. It always takes longer than I expect to get somewhere. And I can't figure out what I should say to the people who are there when I show up late. Pragmatics as a whole is something that's beyond me--I just need more time to observe, participate. But in the meantime I guess I should just be on time.

5. No AC. Anywhere, it seems. I don't object to this necessarily, but it's a change. Especially thinking of my experience of being 'abroad' in Japan, in department stores, on buses and trains....remember the "weak air conditioning cars" and "strong air conditioning cars" on trains?

6. Africa has never felt so close. Of course this sounds like a trivial comment in a list like this one. It deserves its own essay, or blog entry at least. I just got a sense as I moved around and talked to people today that I really don't have a sense of what the "Africa" in "African American means when I'm living in America. Being here where other facets of life and peoples from many places come to the fore might help to learn...

7. Driverless metros. OK, a trivial comment after the last one. But I'm not trying to impose an order on this list. Actually I'm just writing things down in a little notebook I carry around with me as I go around (will I get to 100? Will it matter?) and i think I wrote this one on the metro. So anyway, OK, the metro is underground and it's not going to hit anyone anyway but somehow it strikes me as odd that there's no driver in a metro, the green line in Lyon in this case. I mean, you can just sit in the front car of the train with a big plexiglass window in front of you and watch the track roll under your feet. It's an eerie feeling. Makes me think about the BART operators, I think they're called (not "drivers" for sure), and how their only job is to poke their heads out of the window and make sure it's safe to close the doors. Is this ia function that can't be entrusted to motion detectors and sensors in the U.S.? Some legal requirement or cultural practice that the BART directors and broader U.S. society have agreed on? Airport shuttles don't have drivers...why should BART?

8. Street signs. This one I'm writing several hours later as I'm lost on the way home from Nicolas' house after dinner up in a part of the city I'm not familiar with. Which is basically the whole city. And as I strain to make out the street signs on the corners of buildings I'm struck again by this point: the street signs aren't visible before you get to the intersection. Because they're on buildings near the corner and they face the street that they name, you either have to already be on the street to read the name, or you have to be in or passing the intersection to see the name of the cross-street. So how are you supposed to know where to turn?

Well that's it for now. #9 coming soon...

Monday, June 30, 2008

Studying French* on the TGV

The Train à Grande Vitesse speeds through the countryside: fields of green and brown, hills rising in the distance, rows of grapes, houses and farms dotting the spaces in between. Chapter 7, page 183. “Ou etes-vous allé(e)?” (Where did you go?) The perfect way to frame a chapter introducing the use of “le passée composé avec être”, allowing me to finally relate past events correctly with the verb “être” (to be). Because it’s a well-known fact that when beginning learners of French try to talk about the past, they frequently mix up the verbs that take “avoir” (to have) and those that take “être”—very often verbs of coming and going, of motion. And what better way to learn how to recount moving through the past than to do it on the TGV, through the beautiful French countryside?

So, a few pages later, on p. 190, we find the vocabulary list with many verbs of motion, including:

aller - to go
venir - to come
monter - to go up; to get into
sortir - to go out of

Vocabulary never seemed so real.

I sit in Car 12, Seat 96 (voiture 12, place 96) of iDTGV No. 7912, departed Lyon Perrache station at 14:46 with a brief stop at Lyon Part-Dieu station, scheduled to arrive at Paris Gare de Lyon at 16:59. 4 seats face each other on the second floor. A woman, another student I guess, sits diagonally across from me and tries to close her eyes and rest, a brief respite from the stack of books on the table in front of her. A couple talk in the seats on the other side of the aisle, animated discussion interrupted only by cell phone calls coming and going. The TGV—my TGV—speeds through the French countryside: fields of green and brown, hills rising in the distance, rows of grapes, houses and farms dotting the spaces in between.

What kind of conversations will I have when I arrive in Paris?

Page 189.

“Êtes-vous arrivée en train?” (Did you arrive by train?)
“Oui, je suis venue en train.” (Yes, I came by train.)

The train rocks gently back and forth. “I have arrived” is incorrect, I am reminded. I should rather say, “I am arrived”.

Isn’t this what studying French is all about? What more ‘textbook’ experience could there be? Perhaps a cup of coffee at an open-air cafe when I arrive, maybe a little trip to the Louvre tomorrow after a stroll along the Seine?

This is not French study, I think, but rather French study*. Or maybe it’d be better to write French study™. As I sit with my book open, 90 km south of Paris and closing, I struggle to reclaim my experience from immediate conversion into idealized, sugar-coated, and eminently marketable icons of language learning experience, as written right into the cover of my textbook—and, for that matter, into the brochures of a thousand study abroad programs promising to lead students up the mystical slopes of Mount Fuji in Japanese, to admire the grandeur of the Statue of Liberty in English and, yes, to take them up the Eiffel Tower in French. Everything is perfect in this illustrated geography of language learning.

Trees dot the distance outside my window. The sun has moved across the sky just a bit, or maybe the train has inscribed a slight arc on its ascent to the capital. It’s hard to tell, cruising smoothly at more than 200km/h. The sun shines through the window and glints off the base of the window frame. Fields rush by. Are those really grapes? I look around the cabin. And then I notice something interesting.

Nobody seems to be looking.

Surely a coincidence? Qu’est-ce que vous regardez? (What are you looking at?) When the scenery is so nice, what else is there to regard? The woman across from me has shifted but still has her eyes closed. People who sit further away are reading, sitting in contemplation, talking in hushed tones.

Then the highlight for me, a moment that tells me what to do with my overly serious reflections. The woman on the other side of the aisle, who had been talking on the phone, is again talking excitedly with the man across from her. And in the middle of all this, perhaps to illustrate a point, he reaches down, grabs one of his feet and pulls it up towards his nose. He smells it.

No, seriously, he takes a good, long sniff. Might even say a drag. Says something and the woman laughs. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, he extends his foot straight across the space between the two of them, up towards her face. She leans over and smells it too.

Je suis venue. We’re still 80 km away from the promised streets of Paris and the myriad ‘authentic’ conversations that are supposed to make the French in my textbook come alive. But, I think, I am arrived.

I look at the woman across from me. She sits now, eyes open, her slight smile telling me she might have seen what I saw, or seen that I saw it. I put down the book, and we begin to talk.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fourviere at night

When I left last time I looked back at you...

Now you look at me every night.

How did you know?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

une petite liste

Bonjour tous!

OK, let's be honest. Hi, me! What can you expect after being absent from your own blog for something like 6 weeks. Life has intervened. I'll try to chronicle a little better what's going on now that I'm back in Lyon for another 3 weeks, almost a month total, trying to get the rest of the data I'll need for this blasted dissertation. Will be uploading some photos soon and hope to do this every day but I'll start with a pretty low-stress style of blogging, probably more for me than anything but if you happen to be reading this and happen to be able to give me some feedback about the questions that pop up, I'd much appreciate hearing from you.

Yes, you.

OK, and you too.

Questions of the day:
  • “on se voit demain” – we’ll see each other tomorrow, let’s see each other tomorrow....?
  • “Bon courage” as a way of signing off in emails and letters = “good luck”?
  • When the heck do you use capital letters? When V wrote a street name that started with “rue” the “r” was lower-case but the first letter of the actual street name was capitalized. People often write their last names all in capitals, so I’d write my name “David MALINOWSKI” I suppose. And then there are all kinds of plays with letters, like I remember the tutors writing their names with caps in the middle of the word, like “mariOn”
  • I heard N say something about nodding one’s head: “auche la tête”? Why are the vowel sounds so hard to get a handle on? --> just looked it up. "hocher".

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Salut tout le monde! c'est la meme comme "Salut à moi" parce que il y a longtemps...that I haven't written here. I've been away from studying French for the last few weeks but hoping to get 'back on the horse' now. (Comment on dit "get back on the horse" en français?)

And my dessin has been too long in coming:

See you again soon!

Monday, March 31, 2008


Savez-vous le "OXXO Shop" à Lyon? I thought this was funny...

Thursday, March 27, 2008


8am, Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Made it onto the airport bus headed to St. Exupery. More people getting on the bus now, cramming on, as an old guy finally decides to move the coat and bag he had sitting on the two chairs behind him off the seat so someone else can sit there. Nice. And someone comes up from the back of the bus and sits right down there. Kind of like on the funiculier this morning when I had my bag sitting on an open seat in front of me as I stood. There were multiple other seats available but I moved my bag out of the way as a middle aged woman with white hair came on to the middle station on the way down the hill, and she promptly sat right where my bag had been without acknowledging me. And so it was.

If I had any doubts about whether there’s place in non-place maybe I found out in the last hour or so. After dropping off the keys for Romain’s dorm room in the mail box at Caroline’s place, I decided I’d walk to the next stop at Bellecour and get on the metro there instead of walking back to Vieux Lyon. Fair enough. The river was brownish grey looking since the sun hadn’t come up. Mostly clear sky, pretty cold, probably in the mid to high 40s. that part was fine. Took a few pictures. Postcards do it better so I haven’t taken many of these kind of pictures but something possessed me to turn back and take a few of Fourviere and the scene around there. Maybe because this is the day I’m leaving?

Getting to Bellecour though was the start of a mini-crisis that’s obviously resolved as I’m sitting on the bus right now, speeding past the green countryside just outside of Lyon. 1:55 remaining til flight time. Plenty, right?

I spotted the elevator on the other side of the street as I walked along one edge of Place Bellecour. Vast expanse of open ground there where kids had been playing soccer last night, running around, when I had checked out what turned out to be my last VeloV out of pure gluttony (?), just to ride around and try taking a video while riding. I had something half in mind like the silly Foux de Fa Fa video that the tutors had shown us and which I’ve since watched several times on Youtube. But nothing of the sort at 7am on a weekday. I went directly over to the elevator—that is, crossed the street after waiting for the crossing light to turn green (why is there no blinking red light here? You never know how much time you’ve got left on a ‘red’, that is, just how ‘red’ a red light is. And the drivers don’t stop for you, like Rick was saying last night...)

Get to the elevator. Great. Some dude is loading a bunch of boxes from his truck onto a mini-lift/cart thing that’s already inside the elevator taking up most of the room. I decide I don’t want to enter into a linguistic interaction with a likely unknown outcome (“Can I ride this elevator too? How many more of these freakin’ boxes are you going to load before this thing goes down the floor”). I was getting a little annoyed since I hadn’t slept much and I had already schlepped the bags around quite a bit, thought that the stairs in the dorm leaving earlier in the morning were the only stairs I’d have to navigate, unlike the trip up the hill 11 days ago with its multiple staircases, sidewalks of varying or completely disappearing width, unpredictable walking surfaces, etc. And of course the jaws of death, the subway gates that, like any urban setting where gate-jumpers have figured out ways to avoid paying fare, snap shut after you put your suitcase through and you have to pry them back open or risk turning into a piece of chopped meat.

What would I have said in that interaction? French as an object, something I can reasonably think about and talk about right now, seems rather far away. Because I’m tired? Because I’m heading back to California to rejoin life there? It’s interesting, the French is there, but...but I get ahead of myself.

So next up is to walk back across the street and take the escalator down. I had noticed that the escalator near the elevator was totally fenced off/blockaded, so I was glad there was another one across the street. Wait for the light to change. It’s not changing. Since there are no cars, I decide to just walk across the broad street and hope nothing comes peeling around the corner. Reminds me of last night when I had asked Rick what “Jaywalking” is called in French, and after pondering for a minute he said something to the effect of, there’s no word for that since it’s what everyone does anyway. And it seems true based on 11 days of observat—er, participation.

As soon as the cars have passed people are walking across the street. But Bellecour is one of the wider expanses of pavement between sides for pedestrians, or pietons (one of my favorite words...I was wondering if the expression “je suis soulamente un pieton dans la vie” makes any sense...)

OK, the bus has arrived at the airport and now it’s time to do the check-in thing. TBC in a few minutes...


Well that was more than a few minutes. I’m sitting next to Gate 14A now after going through security twice, listening to the musical sounds of the woman working at the Segafredo stand singing to customers, “Bonjour, monsieur!” “Merci monsieur!”.

Monsieur. I was just getting used to being “아저씨” (uncle) in Korean and now this...but it’s just a question of how you greet people, not just saying “hi” but “hi sir!”. Sir.

The wine, the wine, how could I have forgotten the wine? How could I have forgotten the all-important 3 ounce limit? This of course came after my bag weighed in at about 25kg. It didn’t seem to be a problem as the Lufthansa attendant processed my passport but then I asked her (why did I ask her?) and she mentioned casually that when it’s checked onto United in Frankfurt it might be a problem. And I thought, I’m glad I asked. Seemed like it wasn’t even an issue on Lufthansa. What’s an extra kilo? But I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out somehow that since my baggage was over weight with United, they fined me or kept the luggage back or something. Just because. Welcome back to the USA. Looking forward to paying for my peanuts.

But, yes, the wine. The two bottles that Romain’s father had given me after they had so kindly invited me over to their house for Easter lunch with their family. The second time I got to eat with them and soak in all the little things I have access to as a foreigner here who speaks only enough of the language to get a few laughs. To see how they talk at the lunch table, the laughter, the joking, moving from champagne to wine, from appetizers to main course, to the even smaller things like learning how to eat bread.

How to eat bread? Well, yeah, where to put it. It’s fine, of course, to put your bread on the table. Nobody was putting it on their plate. And when the cheese goes around and if you already cut one kind with the knife and you don’t want to infect the next block, what do you do? Get a new knife, right? Pas du tous, just wipe off the cheese with your bread. What else would you do? Around the table with in the living room with the interlocked diagonal wood floors and high ceilings and electronic picture frame that rotates all the family photos by, admired by all the family gathered from different parts of Lyon—uncles, aunts, cousins, a baby and an infant (whose? I wouldn’t know if they told me), Romain and his nice sister Marion (siblings whose names have the same letters, just arranged differently, he told me the first time I met her. Was this on purpose? It reminds me of meeting with the professor yesterday with the little Scottish terrier, named Aya. Why Aya? Well, it’s short. But why does Aya’s name start with an “A”? Because, of course, all purebread dogs born in Aya’s year have to have a name that starts with an “A”. By law, or by practice? I don’t know...) and with Romain’s grandfather.

His grandfather, with whom I had one of the most substantial conversations in French that I’ve had here. Substance in terms of import, of content, and not of length, and certainly not in terms of my contributions, since I didn’t really say that much. But he, smiling, wearing jacket and tie, with no teeth to be seen, told me he had fought in the war. That he admired the English, admired the Americans. And what was to happen in the next U.S. presidential election? Something about democrats and republicans. It was hard to tell. I nodded, I listened. I could feel his words but not separate them. Could feel good will and respect and the weight of history that probably had few outlets at the lunch table with everyone else...nobody else who had fought in that war. Did he talk with Romain’s joke-cracking uncle, who talked of all the bizarre things he had eaten and seen eaten in Vietnam? Had his uncle fought as well? Had he lived there?

These conversations, these meanings, remain veiled behind a haze, a haze that lifts for a few words and then descends back upon the melodic, the whispering, the unfolding, winding streams of sound around me. And I can tell in places when I myself am being interpellated, being spoken to or spoken of—actually a fuzzy distinction a lot of the time for me as it must be for other language learners who find themselves in group settings. At certain points I realize I’m being spoken to, in a way, but when the speaker realizes that I’m not capable of responding or following what’s going on, they reorient themselves to the other competent speakers around them and what had been second-person address terms slip into the third person. “He...”

...doesn’t speak French.

Around the lunch table, I know Romain’s mother was reaching out to me, asking questions to include me that she must have realized halfway through I couldn’t quite grasp, or know where they were coming from, and the questions died in flight, and I was aware of myself at the table as a spectacle or maybe rather as a static image, part of the background to the ‘real’ conversation going on that somehow wouldn’t let itself be just a background.

Since it did ask for another piece of bread once in a while.

But it certainly did not ask for a bottle of wine, and even more certainly not TWO. Yet Romain’s father, the pinball repairman who hunts and had a fur hat made for the babies that still hung in the room, who loved his wine and loved his cheese (bleu’s the best, he said knowingly), who was a step or two behind his wife in conversation, a bit more reserved, but who had smiles aplenty to fill the linguistic gaps left wide open, was insistent that I should take some with me. I felt awkward as I saw him reaching into a case and pulling one out, then the other, putting the first one back, and deciding which he would send with me. I, ignorant of where they came from or what they mean, what’s a ‘good’ wine there—the most important lesson I learned when getting a few bottles to take over to Caroline’s house several nights ago was that as long as there’s no barcode on the front of the wine, you’re doing OK, since barcode says less than 5 euro.

I had put those two bottles in my backpack, separated carefully so they wouldn’t be banging into each other. Yet where did I think I was traveling? And more importantly, when did I think I was traveling? Certainly before September 11 2001. I had thought of putting them in my suitcase, congratulating myself on the ingenious solution of putting a bottle each in my two rollerblades, well protected and needing only a little extra wrapping on the tops to insure they didn’t meet the fate of my plastic razors that must have received an impact from the outside as the handlers dropped one bag on top of another. But that would have been too heavy, I thought...

So I checked the luggage once I had pulled out some more of the weight, and threw away some of the daily papers that I was planning to bring back for other students in my French language class in Berkeley. Got ready to go through security, took out my computer, got waved through the x-ray machine, and everything was cool. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes. But the young guy was saying something about bottles in my backpack. I said yeah and he looked away, did something else, didn’t make anything of it, so I started putting my stuff back together, computer back in case. Got everything put together and was ready to go when he said, “Excuse me.”

“You have two bottles in your bag?”
“Can you show me please?”

I took them out and it was only as I was removing them that I realized what I was doing, what I had done...was wine somehow exempt from liquid restrictions in my mind? It was a gift, how could it be a problem? And how could it have been a problem when the security guy was being so pleasant about it? I’m pretty sure (though there are exceptions of course) that the TSA official in the US would have used the opportunity to belittle me, to threaten me, to taunt me and make me feel either stupid or semi-criminal or both at the same time, taking the condescending parental directive tone that now seems to be what passes for “service” in transportation and other official agencies. Post offices, airports, train stations.

So he reminded me, ever so pleasantly that, no, these could not go. Even in Europe, I found out from him on the second pass through, as of November last year there’s a 100ml restriction on flights (7 years after 9/11!) and I had to go back out with my bottles and all, and figure out what to do with the wine.

As I now have to figure out how to get on this plane, as people have started boarding the plane...

Sitting here above the clouds, caught a few glimpses of the Alps before clouds moved underneath us. We’re in a German-speaking zone again, and the sharp jawlines, curt smiles, tall stature and sand-blond hair of the stewardess passing by remind me of where we’re going, that, yes, this is Lufthansa. As I needed a reminder, here came the sandwiches in their little half-baggies. I’ll save it for later, as there’s no telling what might be in the McUnited happy meal in several hours. And up ahead I had seen a bottle of wine being passed to someone sitting down. I’m going to order that too. Wine at 11:30 in the morning? Why not. Because I can. And I looked at her when she came by and asked (I think) what I wanted to drink and I said “vin blanc”. No response. White wine, please. And she pulled out a bottle. Glinting red color through the green glass as it sat on top of the tray and she arranged some other stuff. The man next to me, in shirt working on his PC, noticed, turned to me and asked, “Did you order white wine?” yes, white wine. And we cleared it up with the stewardess, who smiled back, mouth closed. Poured a cup and passed it over with the napkin.

And then came the rest of the bottle, assuaging my momentary concern. Was I only going to get the little cupful? I’m used to this, it’s par for the course where I come from. But there’s something fulfilling, a bizarre psychological reality like going to a buffet and knowing, just knowing that you can eat all you want to, that feels so satiated at having the ‘whole’ bottle. All 10 ounces or whatever it is. This is the strategy of Cheeseboard pizza in Berkeley also. If you can give people a smaller piece but then cut a little sliver “extra” and put it on top, well then, your customers will really think they have something special. Makes me think that a better strategy for coping with rising gas prices in the States is for the government and the oil companies to get together and just redefine the gallon. Make it something like 2.5 liters instead of what it is now. So you’ll only have to pay $1.65 for a gallon of gas. Kind of like they’ve already done with ice cream. Isn’t a redefinition of the systems of measurement in order?

“Would you like some water with your wine?”

Sure that’d be great. Is that how people drink it usually? Not to get dehydrated? I remember in Vienna drinking water with coffee. And then...

“Would you care for anything else?”

Hmm...should I have a coke with my wine and water? Or does food count here too? It wouldn’t be a bad idea to stash away another sandwich for the trans-atlantic flight. But I pocketed my miserly grad student instincts and said that’d be enough.

Cut back to the airport where I was walking the wrong way out the security exit, setting off the alarms as I walked with my camera-packed bags (but did I forget my cell phone charger and computer power cord? Shit, gotta check, I’m getting nervous). What was I going to do? Drink the wine? Not an option. I asked at the counter if I could get my bag that I’d already checked back and reshuffle the luggage, but it was too late, they informed me. Great. Give the wine away? Leave it there in the Lyon airport? That’s when the sense that that was indeed a ‘non-place’ hit me so hard. What worse crime than to leave 2 bottles of personally selected, memory-rich bottles of wine (even if I couldn’t appreciate their names and regions and years) in a place like an airport, left to who knows what fate? To get thrown away? Disposed of? Brought home by someone who I would no doubt be friends with if I got to know but, as part of the non-place of the airport, might as well be a drone?

Absolutely not an option. I go to the Lufthansa service desk and ask them if there’s any packaging material I can buy. No. Wander around some more. Tired. Sleepy. My eyes are red from not sleeping that much the last few nights. Great way to start an international flight, I think. Go back to the original counter and I talk to a guy there and he mentions that they have a few boxes, would this work? He shows me and I greedily accept it from him. There is hope.

“And do you have any packing tape?”

I’m normally not assertive, I think. Don’t normally press for what I want or even know how to define it all that well. I watch pushy people in line, or interacting with others, or pushing their research agendas, and I say pushy probably because I lack the confidence and self-assertion at times myself. They’re just doing what they need to do to ‘get the job done’. Well this is me this time and it’s OK. He gives me the packing tape and I’m off, off with the stack of newspapers I had taken this morning (sorry French students!) that were soon to be repurposed as packing material for these bottles of wine...


And 20 minutes the two bottles were encased in the box, suspended in a sea of crumpled newspaper and airport guides, and sandwiched between my Chez Nous textbook on the bottom and Mitchell’s Me++ on the top. Sitting under me in the cargo bay as I write this message. One of them, I’m not sure which, I plan to share with mom and dad, tonight if I have enough energy.

France, France, France is something that we share, somehow, now. As my mom had visited first and loved it but the rest of the family, myself included, had never picked up on her interest in France. Fields of sunflowers and cosmopolitan scenes and ancient churches and guided bus tours and hotel rooms and battling the occasional migraine headache that could sabotage one’s experience of a whole region of the country or, God forbid, the entire experience of Switzerland on the whirlwind bus tour, her sister in crime and love Marj and the fields of sunflowers, sunflowers that now and still live in the side yard of the house, lining the fence, visible through the window of my room at home in Livermore. There was France looking in at me as I slept. And Paris, wherein lies the entire world, it’s true, like Rick was telling me last night as we walked back from Christine’s.

The world in a city, imagine that. It’ll be a lot easier to imagine once I charge this computer. Thanks, wine, for the enhanced sentimentality as we descend into the clouds...

1pm. Frankfurt Airport.
There didn’t end up being an outlet here. Sitting in the pre-holding pen with other passengers going to SF, like animals in a zoo. I’ve lost my momentum. The sky’s gloomy, and after a bus ride from the plane across a mile of airport tarmac, a maze of terminals...tired.

2:40pm? I think? In seat 49C at cruising altitude now, probably over England but already very far out of Europe. The insane, inane politics of overbooking and last-minute seat assignment by the monkeys at United Airlines have left many of us on this plane shaking our heads, irritated, tired of being shuffled around, told to show passports repeatedly, ignored...seems to be a standard business practice now.

Thinking back several hours now to when I started writing this post, after just having got on the airport bus, I think of the difficulty finding the stop at Grange Blanche and how ‘being’ on that bus is different from being on this plane. The frustration I feel with U.S. airlines has a history, a discursive ocean surrounds it, and I have the words to ‘language’ it; wandering around the roundabout with all its different bus stops, at Grange Blanche, unable to find a plan or map or layout of bus numbers, destinations, and position on the plaza, my lack of language overlapped with a lack of familiarity with where I was, the ability to ‘place’ myself at Grange Blanche. What do French speakers call the assemblage of covered benches that line the concrete island inside the roundabout on the ground level and the bus stops on the adjoining streets? Is this one place or several? I was searching frantically for the bus stop on the roundabout, looking for a master plan, and assumed that the airport bus would arrive at one of the stops there. After walking back and forth a few times, though, saw the airport waiting at one of the intersecting streets.

Great. There’s no way I can get over there in time. But at least I know where it is so I start dragging my suitcase over that way. I get to the stop 2 minutes after the bus left and since Samira reminded me that the buses come every 20 mins., I thought I’d use this ‘occasion’ to grab a – my last, that is – pain au chocolat and a coffee. So I walk further down the street and cross to get to a boulangerie on the other side.

This is where I meet the couple, probably in their early 60s, well-dressed, fashionable bags, woman with a fur-looking coat and the man with a leather hat and neatly trimmed white beard. He asks me, in French (the exact words escape me now),

“Is this where to get the airport bus?”

And I say, “Jen e sais pas mais je pense que on va venir pour la ba,” pointing back across the street at the bus stop I had just come from. Or that’s close to what I said. He acknowledged, they both looked confused still though, and as I walked away with my suitcase realizing I’m gonna have to take care of my coffee business at McDo’s since this boulangerie is a restaurant, I’m struck that I actually communicated in a chance public interaction. I had deliberately avoided several of these before, kept walking, listening to my invisible ipod, hoped I wouldn’t be accountable for my Frenchless body walking the street...

Across the street again. Into McDonald’s. Order a coffee. “Long” size. No sugar.

I’m getting this. I find the right coins, pay, and with coffee in hand turn around to reach for my suitcase. There, outside, the next airport bus is already ready to pull away. Shit. As I walk toward the exit it pulls forward and through the intersection and by the time I get to the bus stop it’s long gone. Shit. 2 hours before the flight.

Well, this should be OK, I guess. I notice the fire hydrant – is it a fire hydrant? – and the shadow it casts.

And when I look away from the camera after taking the shot, there they are. The couple have found the bus stop, and are looking around, anxious to see that they’ve found the right place.

I walk up to them and say something in greeting and the man responds.

Silence for a moment, and then he asks me,

“¿Habla usted español?”

I’m struck for a second by this change of the linguistic tide, wondering for an instant if we had both ‘succeeded’ at talking in French the first time across the street because we were both operating at our linguistic wits’ end? So to speak? Or not to speak?

He smiles. My mouth recovers, starts to move, happy that a bit of the haze had lifted, “Sí, hablo un poco de español...” And he expressed his and his wife’s frustration at not knowing where to go. And we remarked about how hard it was to find this place without signs. And what do you know, in just three more minutes, here came another bus, and we were off to the airport.

From one non-place to the next, starting on computer and now scrawling this out with my 4-color pen on a wrinkled yellow lined pad of paper, 1 hour out of Frankfurt (as the sign in my post going the other way says), I wonder if the ‘non’ of these places doesn’t fade a bit, like the haze that lifts as soundstreams become language, as stories are inscribed into them.

But now I’m just wondering if that wine is okay.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


C'est mon meilleur pote à Lyon:

I was told that the city-run rent-a-bikes in Paris actually were started here in Lyon. For 1 euro you can get a weeklong card that allows you to check out a bike for 30 minutes to get around town, as many times as you want to in a day. I've probably done this 15 times so far, though it stinks that my residence is way up a big hill from the downtown area...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

the voices of others

toujours... en fete...
...d'accord, d'accord. mon mot de passe c'est...
anglais, pas anglais
choisir ... qu'est-ce que vous voulez boire?
oh la la ça c'est
quoi? endroit? VeloV, autres...
Je vais, en fete, d'accord, la rouge s'il vous plait.
mon ami mon copain
tu est jolie!
et tu?
non, toi.
on dit "toi"
ah toi.
je sais... l'euro. Cent? pas cent. centime. c'est centime
quai, quai, quai, quai, quai...
...mon frère as... je pense que.
j'ai vu, as tu eté?
arrête c'est 'stop'. ha ha ha ha ha.
~ c'est absolutament necessaire. a t il
enregistrer, dossier. nous allons nouzallon
et le fromage! doctorant. combien de temps?
tirez, poussez, tirez, poussez, ouf!!
oui, way, oui, way, oueeeeee
demande a carole que elle...
plus que.... longtemps.
Combien de temps?
Il y a longtemps que
t'aime? what?
de vrai?
oui, c'est vrai. c'est toujours vrai.
a oui?
bonne chance, bonne nuit, bonjour?
ne? ね?
je suis....
en français?
en français?


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

caméléon cornu

That's right, a horned chameleon.


In Lyon?

No, in Maui where mom and dad are on vacation. Thanks for the guest picture of the day, dad!

Monday, March 17, 2008

La ville des lumières

On dit que Lyon est connu pour La Fête des Lumières. I won't be here for that festival of lights, but was struck by a few of the more plain lights I saw on the walk home tonight. Had others but alas didn't have a tripod so this is all that turned out...

La marché où ce soir j'ai acheté mon pasta!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Les fresques de Lyon

Est-ce que tu as vu les fresques de Lyon? J'ai les vu (ay caramba ma grammaire!!) iyer avec une famille de Lyon très simpa. Vous poules voir des fresques et autres peintures ici en le site "CITÉCRÉATION".

Un quai de Lyon

"La Fresque des Lyonnais"

C'est bon, n'est pas? Nous pouvons étudier les noms des personnes très connus en France et en Lyon

La famille de Romain

hmm...Qui est?

Il y a un mot que exprime un sens similiare à "fooling the eye" that I learned yesterday then soon forgot. Any help out there? :)

Caroline et Romain. Cool!

Attention! Pigeons!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Non-place about Frankfurt

I’m not sure how much Marc Augé had in mind discourses of advertising when he wrote in 1995 about the “non-places” of airport lobbies, train stations, and other generic spaces of transit, "Frequentation of non-places today provides an experience - without real historical precedent - of solitary individuality with non-human mediation (all it takes is a notice or a screen) between the individual and the public authority" (p. 117).

But there it is. My napkin and my snack box on this United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt inviting me (imploring me?) to enjoy my mini-meal and thanking me for choosing to fly with them. The monitors on the screens that dot the back of chairs and are installed so thoughtfully in front of us on the bulkheads move seamlessly, soundlessly (Were they giving away headphones on this flight? Or did they cost $5?) between mainstream U.S. television programming, important corporate partners, and the UAL maps showing our red line of progress across Greenland, over Iceland, and down towards the continent. And, of course, even at 35,000 feet above the earth, we can rest assured to know that we’re never far away from Starbucks: the familiar circular green logo greets me on the United (?) coffee cup, replete with a warning no doubt the outcome of the McDonalds coffee spill lawsuits: CAUTION: CONTENTS MAY BE HOT! This last remnant of language from the “public authorities” Augé mentions, written in the United font on a Starbucks cup, seems to suggest that even this authority may have passed from the hands of the government to the corporations that now hold our best international travel experiences and coffee-drinking safety at heart.

Wait, did someone say “international”? Yeah, right, this is an international flight. The couple sitting next to me—an Irish woman and a Scottish man and their lovely 21 month-old daughter—seemed real enough, and she had actually stayed in Lyon (where I’m going, I think) through a homestay exchange with a French university student several years ago. “It’s beautiful,” she tells me, “and the food is great.” I am enthused and pull out my French textbook, Chez Nous, to Chapitre 4. We are greeted by the title of “Métro, boulot, dodo”: this emblematic descriptor of the French workday and a photo of a crowd of commuters boarding the metro, itself a non-place par excellance, stares back at us. Sitting in row 32, she going home and I going away, we somehow seem very far away from the chapter subtitle, “La routine de la journéethe daily routine.

Later, after descending on a cool (at least that’s what the pilot told me—the only ‘real’ air I’ve touched is the weak cross-draft in the tunnel leading to the gate) and overcast (below the cloud cover, that is) morning, I struggle to see what around me might be German, or at very least, different from the airport I left from 12 hours ago. Where might one look to find something of a ‘real place’ in a location that is so prototypically non?

Or is the very task of capturing something of the ‘place’ in a photo, taken while jetlagged, transient, waiting for a connecting flight, conscious of the ‘security risks’ of pointing a digital SLR in an airport (in the clime I come from, at least), and familiar only with the contours but almost none of the meanings of the German language and rhythms of life, false from the very start?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

cette semaine 의 compo

아 피곤하다! 한국어를 공부하는 게 더 편한 거 같아휴...

Here's my composition that I turned in (late) in my French class yesterday. It's a letter to a foreign exchange student who might be staying at 'our' house (a topic that may deserve more attention later). Any corrections? Comments? Suggestions? Merci! :)

Chèr ~~~,

Comment allez-vous ?

Ici à California il fait n’est pas très froid.

Dans ma famille il y a quatre personnes : mon père, ma mère, mon frère et moi. Mes parents habitent à Livermore, près de Berkeley et San Francisco. Mon père s’appelle Mike. Il n’est pas trè grand (ses fils sont plus grand). Il est sportif et il aime faire du vélo. Mon père est très intelligent mais il est assez pessimiste. Ma mère s’appelle Judy. Elle n’est pas pessimiste ; est très optimiste. C’est un couple intéressant ! Ma mère est brune et élégante. Elle est gentile et généreuse aussi.

Mon frère s’appelle Jeff. Il ne habite pas avec mes parents. Il habite à Davis, près de Sacramento, avec sa femme Sandra et sa fille, Maya. Jeff est mince et beau. Il est discipliné, sérieux, et énergique.

Tout les personnes dans ma famille aiment faire du sport. Jeff et Sandra aiment faire de la natation, et je fais du vélo tous les jours. Mes parents aiment faire la cuisine ensemble. Nous avons beaucoup des activités, mais le week-end, nous aimons ne pas faire grand-chose!
Et vous, qu’est que vous aimez faire? Aimez-vous les sports? Est-ce que vous faites de la musique? Qu’est-ce que vous faites normalement le week-end? Et la chose plus importante: Qu’est-ce que vous aimez manger? :)