Monday, February 26, 2007

Pomp and Circumstance

It all began several Sundays ago, while we were enjoying a quiet, sun-filled afternoon at home. Suddenly, a veritable avalanche of popping and booming sounds came pouring in the half-opened patio window. We poked our heads out to investigate. Student protest? Workers strike? We settled on building demolition, since a large cloud of dust appeared to be emanating from a nearby locale. But on Sunday? Then we heard drumming noises. This was simply too much for our curiosity; we scrambled for our shoes and headed down to check out the commotion. You never know what surprises Paris might hold for you.

As you might well know, the Chinese just finished celebrating the New Year. Joyeuse Fete! Living in the Asian quarter of Paris, this explosion of colours, dragons, dance, rhythm, and overall merriment hit a little closer to home than usual...right past our front door, in fact. Standing on the sidelines, I chatted with fellow residents about the event while Karl ran around with the camera and dodged exploding firecrackers. It is the Year of the Pig, and our landlady seemed greatly disappointed that they didn't march a bunch of porkers down our street. Apparently, last year's "Year of the Dog" festivities included a parade of Actual Dogs. Well, live dogs are undoubtedly more easy to come by in Paris than live pigs (judging from the amount of doggie poo one must sidestep on a daily basis), so it must have been a budget issue. Or, considering the traditional status of a pig on such occasions, perhaps too disturbing: "look honey, at the cute little piggies...that's what mummy's got at home in the oven." I guess last week's sortie of Charlotte's Web in French theaters was just a little too close for comfort.

About a week later, we found ourselves gawking at another sort of paegentry. This time, rows of mincing skeletons marched past enrobed in Paris' latest and greatest, as we attended our first défilé. Karl has made a lot of new friends in the music world, which is always connected with many other worlds. As it happens, a guitarist he knows works in the fashion industry, so we thought "why not", let's check out this most traditional of Parisian pastimes. Flashy, breathtaking, fast, and strange. The thing I find most amusing is that some of these shows are called "pret-a-porter", which literally means "ready-to-wear". Really. What percentage of the population do you think is really ready to wear the majority of what comes through that little door in back?

(Still, for those of you keeping track, I'm sorry to say it looks like BIG shoulder pads are coming on down the line again. Really, I'm truly sorry.)

Surprisingly, the show did not take place on a stark runway, but a stunningly beautiful Belle-epoque room with imaginative lighting and a fabulous string quintet playing James Bond-esque lines of music. Yes, a frivolous way to fritter away an afternoon - but if you like people-watching, it doesn't get much better than this. A writer could people an entire novel with half-an-hour of observations from the waiting line in the lobby alone. (Hmm. There's a thought.)

Though we weave and wander through a true Vanity Fair with all of its worldly pomp, circumstances of true beauty still glimmer from time to time. The ring of gold in the swine's snout is still a ring of gold. That is, we believe that the Lord God created this crazy world -with all of its rhythm, color, dragons, pigs, snaps, pops, and booms. With all of its strains of music, curves of beauty, lights, and girls who let a genuine smile slip out and shine from time to time. How is a christian to be "in this world and not of it?" Perhaps part of the picture is zooming in on these redeemable reflections of God's creation - in a world largely dominated by indiscretion. It takes a sharp eye, a tender heart, and wisdom - may He cultivate these in all of us.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Artichoke Love

There is an old French saying that one who falls in love easily (and often) is a coeur d'artichaut. An artichoke heart. Now, being a great lover of this vegetable, I have often wondered what this could possibly mean. Anyone who has painstakingly trimmed, steamed and peeled apart the suckers knows that this is hardly a facile operation. Seriously. You could spend a half an hour alone just removing the hairy choke. And the prickly armor? Hardly a come on. Perhaps it is the exceptional tenderness of the fruit underneath all of this rigamorale that led to this curious expression.

Google had other thoughts.

It seems as if this charming yet confusing appellation comes from the proverb: "coeur d'artichaut, une feuille pour tout le monde". That is, "an artichoke heart, a leaf for everyone." For example, the girl who falls head-over-spiky-heels in love with every boy in the office. And on her street. And, and, and. And just when you thought she had completely given her heart away bit by increasingly tender bit, she turns over a leaf, so to speak. Ad infinitum. Perhaps you think I have painted a very pathetic picture. But I think not. I mean, artichokes may not be infinite, but what about the capacity of the human heart to love?

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell" (The Four Loves).

At least our office girl is on the right track. At least she is a somewhat vulnerable being, albeit a little misguided. I like to think that maybe all she needs is a zesty lemon vinaigrette to temper her over-eager adoration. A little wisdom with her youthful artlessness.

These and other thoughts wove in and out of my mind as I made my way home from the market on Sunday, triumphantly struggling under the burden of exactly 3 euros in fresh produce. So, what can you get for this paltry pocket change? Well, it depends on when you arrive. The early bird does not necessarily get the worm here, and procrastination seems to pay off in larger dividends. The trick is to wander down at 1:3o or even 2 in the afternoon - most of the sellers have rolled up their carpets, but a few desperate fellows hang about till the last minute, hoarsely begging people to come and help them finir la table. Translation: I've been up sine 3 this morning setting up my stand, get this stuff outta my sight, everything's a euro per case. Now that's what I call a deal. Now, what on earth am I going to do with a dozen or more artichokes?

Well, peel them. Bit by bit. Till I get to that delectable little...say it with me now...

coeur d'artichaut.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hello, hello.

I dreamt last night that we suddenly happened upon a really good deal for a enormous apartment in Paris, if we were able to wriggle out of our lease at comparatively humble digs here in the 13eme. I suppose an extra room or two might have come in handy this past week, as we had our first guests swing through town, Christa and Tim Thaler. As it turns out, though, the little place fit four just fine. So those of you who have plans to sleep in our living room, go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief.

It was good to have an excuse to fall in love with Paris all over again. There are some things that you might not go out of your way to experience if you're hunkered down in a city for a while. The Tour Eiffel, for one - we hadn't been to the top yet. However, this week we found ourselves holding our breath as the elevator hoisted our wondering eyes some 300 meters into a windy Valentine's evening. How 18,038 pieces of metal held together by 2,500,000 rivets became a symbol recognized the world over is beyond me, but it holds an undeniable sway over anyone remotely prone to sentiment. Particularly on February 14th. "Geez, everyone's making out," one of our guests remarked. Welcome to Paris.

In all, the week was a delightful blur of homemade crepes, stories from home, Valentine's Day treats, waltzing into museums for free or almost free (in this case, the French penchant to go on strike worked in our favor), stinky cheese and baguettes, hot chocolate on the Place des Vosges, sneaking picnics in before the rainfall in hidden gardens, marketing through the narrow streets, sashaying down the Champs-Elysees, and other frivolities. When it came down to it, we decided to forgo the absinthe for a nice bottle of red wine and a full-fledged poultry dinner. Tough choice, though.

While bidding our farewells at the train station on Friday morning, it was truly as if no time had passed at all. As if we picked them up at the station, walked around for half an hour, and then returned them to the platform. Hello, hello. I don't know why you say goodbye. I say hello.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Open your Mouth Say "Ahhhh..."


-Good. Okay now do the same thing, but bring your lips together into an "o" shape.


-Two vowels in one sound....what do we call that?


-Right! How 'bout three vowel sounds together?

-Er...(indistinct murmurs, seats shifting).

-A triphthong. Everyone say fire with your best British accent.

-(embarrassed silence, save one bright-eyed, brave soul piping up with "Fi-ah?").

-Okay, everyone. How about: the roof, the roof, the roof is on...



Teaching phonetics has have become my latest lot in life. Apparently, they've been a little short on professors to teach the lectures, so they've called on a couple of us to step up to the plate, handed us a pile papers, and patted us on the back with a hearty "I'm sure you'll do fine." It can be dry at times, but more often than not, the raw practicality of the discipline keeps me (and a considerable percentage of my students) engrossed. This is no useless knowledge; the rules and regulations of my native language are immediately applicable to my student's lips, lungs, tongue, and teeth. Brains are engaged at some point along the line, and pretty soon you have a bunch of French people that can remember to how to pronounce "shout" with "ow", not "oo".

Shoot. If only the path from knowledge to practice was always so short.

Karl and I have always tried to make a point of remaining lifelong lovers of learning. But we have remarkably diverse styles. I admire him for being able to educate himself for immediate, direct purposes. Learn the jazz charts down pat for the upcoming show. Read a magazine and learn how to put up drywall. Watch an online video and understand how to properly program the organ module. Look up a website to find useful French phrases before going to the Parisian music stores. The efficiency of this type of learning is astounding to me. No messing around with facts and figures for their own sake, just intensely practical. Hands-on, in every sense of the word.

I, on the other hand, tend to love knowledge for its own sake a little too often. Open my brain, fill it 'till my cup runneth over, and I'll sort out the jumble of thoughts afterwards. Sounds like a plan of sorts, maybe, but this process takes time. It's like cleaning out a large purse or the fridge every month or so - you've got to dump everything out, decide what's worth holding onto, what to throw away, and put the keepers back in an semi-orderly manner. By the time I work through this "spring cleaning of the mind", I've lost an opportunity or two to put some things into practice. Case-in-point: a recent re-evaluation of my academic goals set me back a good three weeks or so from actually going to the library and studying. (Uh, yeah. That's my idea of practicality...reading more. My wallet is stuffed with a collection of at least 5 different library cards, and I haven't even made it to the national library yet. Groan.)

Good thing I'm married to Karl. If it wasn't for him, I'd probably still be sitting cross-legged on the floor in a muddle of thoughts, trying desperately to organize them according to the Dewey Decimal system or something.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Things are Looking Up

Why is it so unusual to look up in our society? I mean, in a perfectly literal sense. Nobody really cranes their neck skywards, unless it's a bird, a plane, or....Superman! The rare heaven-gazer is quickly written off as mad - unless he is a child, in which case a few years of peaceful cloud-watching are grudgingly allowed. As soon as he achieves "grown-up" status, however, all bets are off. He so much as takes in a gorgeous sunset, and he's hauled off to the asylum.

Not quite two months ago, Karl and I were strolling home from my workplace, when a scruffy-looking figure approached us. Expecting the usual request for a few centimes, I quietly prepared myself to give the same regretful mantra I have to dole out to about 4 out of 5 people per day here in Paris: silver and gold have I none. To our great surprise, he asked us hurriedly if we had a camera. (Abbey's indignant interior voice: "What? Do I look like a tourist to you, or what?") He looked crestfallen as we responded in the negative. C'est dommage, he said. Too bad you don't, because there is a certain rare way that the light is going down over the Seine right now that creates a beautiful image. He insisted we head towards the river at once, with all of the verve and vigour of an aesthetic proselyte - GO, now! Be baptized in its glorious light. This singular man was determined to bring us to beauty.

(But away with him to the madhouse! He's got holes in his pants.)

These days, there are no more tawny leaves clinging to the chestnut trees, nor variegated oranges, greens, and browns to hide the sky. When we venture out to a jardin or a parc, we see (and hear) the bare branches clapping into the naked sky. That is, when we look up. For myself, this is usually when I'm running a very...boring stretch of a path for the umpteenth time. Seeing some sky (even a grey one) brings a little relief to my eyes that are tired of looking at the earth. It reminds me of the Harry Connick song, With imagination (I'll get there):

"When weary is your world
Go and spin another
When weary is your world
There's heaven to discover."

Ah, idealism from top to bottom in one, delicious stanza. And boy, do I eat it up. But there is an element of very real (and realistic realism, for all you realists out there). That is, this world - as full of savory Seine sunsets as it is - can become quite wearying. Full of difficulty, tribulation, boredom, pain. It is not enough to keep your chin up - even we seemingly tireless optimists peter out after a while. But it is looking up to the One whose beauty is always fresh and satisfying that keeps us running strong. Like the Psalmist wrote:

My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD;
In the morning I will direct it to You,
And I will look up. (Psalm 5:3)