Friday, February 25, 2005

Robots In Disguise

Just so you can all stop worrying, I'm able to shave again. And take pictures. Luckily, since I had no working camera during the whole time I was unable to shave, there will be no hilarious pictures of me with patchy facial hair. My roommate Victor kindly found a transformer for me, and delivered it to me complete with a bill from his store. Amusingly, I have two outlets in my room, which is enough for some combination of computer, alarm clock, and transformer at any one time -- but never all three. I overslept this morning.

Also, I thought I might be subjected to less construction noise by moving away from Massachusetts Avenue. I was wrong. While the little street outside my window is usually eerily quiet, the past two mornings it has been occupied by a crew of workmen, a giant generator, and something that makes noises like an immense cat being stepped on. The thing goes on and on with its wailing for about a minute, then ceases, then picks it up again. I really wish I had some way to record this holy terror for you listening displeasure. Don't lose any sleep worrying about me, however, because I myself haven't lost any -- since arriving in France, I've become an absolute champion sleeper. My inability to get out of bed before 9AM truly boggles the mind. And on that note, I'm late for work.

Those things I said were "Coming Next Time" when I wrote "Last Time?" They're still "Coming Next Time."

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I should re-name this blog "Ian Is Stupid."

I was sitting around at work thinking about what I could possibly write about, and everything I could come up with was either the result of extreme misfortune or gross stupidity on my part. So, without further ado, I present to you:

Misfortune and Misadventure in Marseille, rc1
  • I can't plug my U.S. appliances in over here. They have different plugs, and the electricity comes out of the wall at 220V. So I need a transformer/adapter doohickey. They're all over in the states -- just go to Best Buy, and there's a row of "Travel" adapters. I figured I could find one with similar ease in France. But since French people don't go to the U.S., and they sure as hell don't cater to the needs of Americans visiting France, they don't sell these adapters. I already tried buying one at an overpriced home-goods store, only to find that it was a 110V to 220V transformer (the wrong way, however you write it) and didn't work anyways. And then I was stuck with a thirty-eight euro (!!!!) gift certificate, written on a piece of graph paper, to a store full of overpriced shit.
  • Since I have no transformer, I can no longer take pictures. My camera is out of batteries. I don't have the doohickey I need to put disposable batteries in it. I can also no longer shave, because I never tried to use a real razor in my life. Amusingly, however, my co-workers were very impressed by my knowledge of French curse-words when I described my situation with the razor. Ha. Now give me a fucking transformer.
  • This is good if you're a nerd. I wrote a script to compile my project. Normally, you want your script to occasionally delete all the compiled files so they can be generated again. I did that, except instead of telling it to delete all the compiled files, I accidentally set it up to delete my whole development directory -- including the build script I spent the morning writing. And it did exactly that. Funny, huh?
  • I also haven't gotten a haircut since I've been here. My hair looks like it belongs on a muppet, and I can't show anyone because my fucking camera has no batteries. The best part is that when I put enough gel in it to glue Ritchie's door shut, it looks like I belong in Dragon Ball Z.
  • Oh. Oh. Answering the damn phone. God, I hate this. One second, this needs its own couple of paragraphs.

Alright, let's go. So normally answering the phone isn't a huge problem, because there are a few other people in the office, two of whom are native French speakers and two of whom have been living here for a while. My favorite solution is to let one of them answer the phone, or, if the phone is near me, to look at it like I would a rattlesnake on my desk -- that is to say, a look that screams panic and fear. Inevitably, someone else runs over to grab the phone while giving me a funny look. But my dignity is a worthy price, because I don't have to answer the phone.

Why is it really that big of a deal? A couple of reasons. Since most of the incoming calls are orders and requests for more information by potential clients, most of the people doing the calling are trained phone-jockeys -- administrative assistants, career bureaucrats, things like that. I'm sure you've all noticed that these people speak very quickly on the phone (e.g. "Hi, you'vereachedtheofficeofDeweyCheethamandHowePAhowmayIdirectyourcall?") . They've got a schpeel that starts with some sort of identification of self and corporation, followed by a formulaic request for information. Having done this a million times, they deliver this all with the poise, precision, and blazing speed of a well-oiled machine. That's the first problem.

I've mentioned before how my French is sketchy to say the least, and I have trouble understanding accents. My second problem answering phone calls is that our telephone, as quiet and staticky as it is, is like a frightening new accent that I never have a hope of understanding. I'm sure I look like an idiot standing in the middle of the room, face scrunched up in concentration, finger in one ear and phone shoved ungloriously into the other. So I've got these people speaking very-very-very quickly at me through a puny little speaker (just imagine an auctioneer speaking to you at the McDonald's drive-through in an entirely different fucking language). In attempting to maintain a modicum of professionality, I feel like it's really gauche of me to ask, "‹Wait, Mister Customer, could you please repeat the last three sentences after the word hello, using words a pre-schooler would understand and speaking slowly?›" I mean, I don't want to give some potential customer the idea that this company is staffed by idiots, even if it is.

Instead, I've developed a sophisticated and undignified "flight" method of survival. As soon as I don't understand the point of one whole sentence, I take the next pregnant pause in the conversation (which I then assume is where the caller is waiting for me to reply, "Sure, let me go send you that fax") to quickly babble my rehearsed speech: "Sorry, I'm actually just the intern and everyone else is out of the office, can I give you my boss' number?" Then, if I don't understand what the caller says next and there's another pause, I wait for a moment to see if he says "Au revoir," and if not, I start reading off my boss' cell phone number. And then say goodbye, hang up, and go splash my face with water.

But the whole point is that I always manage to avoid going through this experience. EXCEPT FOR THE LAST TWO DAYS. I've been the only person in the office because everyone else is either out or at a meeting with a client in the north of France. That means whenever the phone rings, I'm the only one who can answer it. And I can't just not answer, because I don't want my boss to show up tomorrow and say, "Hey, Ian, why weren't you at work when we were gone?" "Oh, I was there, boss, I'm just too chicken to answer the damn phone."

So if I look like a very frazzled muppet, that's probably why.

Coming next time: My documentary entitled International Apartment Drama, or Zeta Psi: Once You Leave, You Realize They Weren't That Bad.


In more ways than one, really. I meant to update a little more frequently, and I also found out this evening that the Metro in Marseille does indeed stop running fairly early in the evening. 9PM, actually, except on weekends, as my cabby informed me on the ten-euro ride from the Metro station to my doorstep. Over here, taxis are Volvos, Mercedes, and BMWs. I've seen about ten times as many of those cars with "TAXI" signs on top than I have without. It's really weird. My cabby not only spoke perfect French without some crazy accent from another country (aside: I feel so, so bad for foreigners who try and take cabs in Boston) but he also offered me helpful tips about the city, the times public transportation was available, and landmarks -- and then gave me a business card covered in local emergency numbers (including, of course, his taxi company). Oh, and he asked me if I'd called a cab as soon as I walked up to him, and I (chagrined) said no, and prepared to walk away. But he was actually asking because he didn't want to be a dick and pick up someone else's fare. Unreal.

I feel like I'm in backwards-world. More to come, I promise.

Monday, February 07, 2005

"‹Pahk the cah at Notruh Dahm›"

Regional accents are novel, funny, identifiable, and generally just a curiosity for native speakers of any language. I have really just begun to appreciate, however, that they're an absolute fucking nightmare for non-native speakers. I mean, I can understand French pretty well. If someone isn't speaking at a break-neck pace, I can usually get the gist of what he or she is trying to say. Oh, right, and as long as they're speaking with an accent from the region of Paris.

Yeah, well, I forgot to look at a map before I came to France, and I ended up at the complete opposite end of the country. Paris is in the north-central part of France, and Marseille is nearly in the absolute south-east corner. And there's a southern accent, albeit without cowboy hats and barbeque. This accent is far more sinister, far less down-homey. Because I can't understand one single damn word of it. My roommates, relatively educated and having traveled quite a bit, speak French I can understand. Thank God. But every street vendor, baker, bus driver, subway attendant, and guy-selling-pizza-in-the-pizza-shop might as well be speaking a completely different language. I can kind of understand the numbers, so I can sort of buy food. Although this afternoon some guy tried to usher me to a seat to eat my loaf of bread, because evidently I said "No," when I should have said "Yes, I want it to go." I don't really know.

On my first day of work, I woke up and went down to the subway station to try and make my way to the office. I knew I had to take the subway all the way to the end of the line, the Ste. Marguerite stop, and then walk up rue Ste. Marguerite until I saw a hospital. Eitan had given me some kind of subway card, but I managed to leave it in Boston or something, so I just decided to go down to the station and figure it out.

Yeah, well, that was a mistake. After about fifteen minutes of trying to figure out how to buy a one-day pass when all I had were twenty-euro bills and all the ticket-dispensing machines (they all look pretty much like ATM machines) seemed to take only coins and French cash cards, I decided to go for broke and try and get a personal card that was good for a month. I waited around in the line to talk to a guy behind a window underneath a sign that said something that I thought meant "Welcome" or maybe "Eyeball," and then nervously asked how to get a personal card. He looked at me kind of funny, said a lot of things in an accent I didn't understand at all, one of which was "photo," and then said something like "good," and pointed to another corner of the station. So I went over to this machine that said "Video-phone" on it, and hit the one button in the middle of the console. All of a sudden, the machine said, "‹Wait one moment -- someone will answer you shortly.›" So I ran away from that machine, over towards what was unmistakably a photo booth. Four euros and five minutes poorer, I went back to the "Eyeball" window with my black-and-white photos.

This time, he kept saying what I had always thought was the word for "good" while pointing at a slightly different machine on the wall in the middle of all the others. It turns out that "bon" has some alternate meaning that I still haven't divined, because I left my dictionary in the States. Evidently I had to buy a blank card, and then the guy at the "Eyeball" window with the accent I couldn't decipher would put my photo and name on it. Of course, I had to ask for change first, because all I had were large bills. "‹You don't need any,&rsaquo" he said. Yeah, that one does take bills. So I bought the blank card, went back, gave him all my personal information, and then he asked for my address.

I had no idea what my address was. The city was Marseille, and the country was France. I thought the street started with a B.

I went home to find out my address. I wasn't going to spend 11 euros for photos and empty cards, and then have to buy some sort of four-ride pass for an outrageously inflated price and have the guy behind the window laugh at me as I passed through the turnstile. So I went home, looked up my address, and got to work an hour and a half later than I planned.

Tonight I was working late at the office (because I got in to work late, and despite the fact that no one else was there all day, I have a guilty conscience), when I was surprised to hear a rattling at the door and find a short, rather gnarled looking man in something resembling a uniform peering in suspiciously at me. Panic:

Him (quickly, in Marseillaise accent): "Babble-babble-babble-raaaaAAAAH!"
Me: "‹Hi! Good evening.›"
Him (more quickly): "Bab-bab-gendarmes-blah! Security!"
With this, he tugs at the identification badge on his shirt.
Me (realizing there's no other exit, dismayed): "‹I work here! I work here!›"
Him: "‹Yes, yes. Goodnight!›"

If one of my roommates orders pizza, I swear I'm going to clock the delivery guy in the face in my quest to defend the iPod in my room from burglars.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

No-Super-Bowl Sunday.

Well if that ain't a steaming pile of crap. I mean, it's the Super Bowl, not the Continental Tire Bowl. You'd think it would merit some international television coverage, but evidently they don't call it "American football" over here because they like it. And since my car transportation to Aix has to wake up at 6AM tomorrow morning to go to work, I can't even go watch the damn thing in a bar. Couldn't they just play the game earlier, and broadcast it taped in the States? That would really help us expatriate football-watchers. Sleeping through the game will probably be more enjoyable anyway, because this way Tampa Bay is most definitely going to win. In my little dreams. While the Pats are cleaning up in real life, several thousand miles away in J-ville. Ah well.

Evidently ordering pints is a novelty in France. Witness the conversation after our waiter deposits a pint of Guinness in front of me, and then two little half-pints of light beer and a bottle of Smirnoff Ice in front of my companions:

Stéphane: "‹You bought a whole pint? Of Guinness?›"
Christophe: "‹I told you, Americans love beer. It's all they drink. There's tons of beer in the United States, right?›"
Me: "‹I'm not an alcoholic, it just helps me sleep at night.›"

And let me tell you, don't try eating at a French restaurant if you have cystic fibrosis. They sure smoke like chimneys considering cigarettes are sold with immense labels (covering half the package) that say, in French, "Smoking kills," and similarly dismal things. Every restaurant looks like a sauna.

I finally got to see that television puppet show Stéphane told me about, and it's actually pretty funny. Or at least, I assume it would be funny if I was remotely familiar with any of the personages involved. It's like the Daily Show, except with puppets. It's hosted by a puppet of some famous news anchor, and I hear the impression is spot-on. There was some French actress who had some reality TV show, and evidently her life was some huge hilarious scandal. And then there was this French Prime Minister or something who came into a meeting naked, but no one noticed, which was really funny, because he'd tried to resign a couple weeks ago and no one paid attention, or even let him resign. I did recognize a couple of the puppets: Michael Jackson is impossible to miss, especially when he sings "Billy Jean," "Thriller," and "Smooth Criminal." His (shockingly true-to-life) legal defense was described as, "Sure, he gave little kids alcohol and had sex with them, but he made so many awesome songs!" And then there was Sylvester Stallone in an army uniform, professing his ignorance of the results of the Iraqi elections because he was busy invading Iran. Ha-HA! Get it? Invading Iran!

Oh, and I really need to take a picture of the bar urinals in France. There's a piddly hole in the ground, and two little platforms for your feet to the sides of the hole. You stand on the little platforms, pee in the hole, press a button, and water swirls around the base of the platforms into the hole and washes all the filth away. Two things mystified me, however: first, grown men would stand up from their tables and declare, "Je vais faire pee-pee." Literally, "I'm going to make pee-pee." Second, I saw three or four women use that restroom. There's only that hole in the ground. I don't know either. All I'm saying is that I'm not letting a woman into my room until I'm quite sure she's a she.

I want to jump at your bones!

Around 3PM on Saturday, after I'd been sitting in front of my computer waiting for people to wake up for three hours, Stéphane poked his head into my room and asked what I was doing that afternoon and evening. I, garbed in complete sleep-wear get-up in the middle of the afternoon, clearly had no other plans than to sit in front of my computer and surf the web all day. Stéphane, kind soul that he is, (and desperate to practice his English) invited me to come to Aix-en-Provence with him and a couple friends, grab dinner, and then go to a huge night club. Since that sounded marginally better than sitting on my ass, I got dressed.

Aix-en-Provence is beautiful at night, and I wish I had my camera. Since it's only twenty minutes away, I'm definitely going to go back and take pictures, so don't worry your little heads. Half our time was spent on broad, tree-lined thoroughfares (and I'm not talking about tree-lined thoroughfares like the ones we had in Boston right before the DNC -- these trees are forty-foot tall monsters), and the other half we wandered through narrow, winding, pedestrian-only streets marked by a new restaurant every fifteen feet. No shit. It's really cool. Stéphane and I met up with his friends, and then we had a couple drinks. Two notable things: in France, there's a drink called a "demi-pêche," or "half-peach," which is a fairly light beer with a bit of peach syrup in it. Sounds disgusting, tastes good. Also, the noted regional drink of Provence (and Marseille in parcitular) is "pastis," an anise-tasting liquor. It's actually just absinthe without the crazy hallucinogenic drugs. Shockingly, it was also pretty tasty. I had two.

Some parts of my stay here really remind me that many things are the same the world over. 10PM found us four guys sitting around in a bar, calling all the girls we had phone numbers for who might be in the area of Aix. Evidently the clubs in France (like some clubs in Boston and New York, especially when they're crowded) never let guys in without girls. They usually don't even let a group of guys and girls in if there are more guys than girls. Sucks for a group of four guys who want to go to a night club, and don't really know anyone in Aix. Eventually Christophe remembered that he met a couple of American girls the last time he was in Aix, dialed them up, and handed me the phone. Evidently my capacity to turn conversations into train-wrecks is not exclusive to the French language, because I managed to reveal that I went to school at MIT and have the two American girls profess to being "tired" in the same breath. I swear to god, I never learn. At dinner, we were sitting about six feet from a pair of girls (who looked to be in their early twenties) who were being relentlessly hit on by a pair of French guys who professed to be in their late twenties but really, honestly, you're too fucking bald to be less then thirty-five, dude. First of all, their dual assault of sharing their wine with the girls and teaching them how to roll cigarettes was devastatingly effective. Here, drink this, smoke this, isn't it cool how nice we are while getting you fucked up at the same time? Second, I overheard the girls speaking English in huddled conferences before attempting to string together a sequence of disagreeing, unconjugated French words at the guys sitting next to them. Feeling the need to make up for my earlier gaffe, I leaned over and said in an unmistakable native-speaker-of-English accent, "Excuse me, I couldn't help but overhear you speaking English. Where are you guys from?" Upon learning that they were from Georgia and North Carolina and studying French at some Institute for Americans Studying French or something in Aix, I decided that I was from Florida, not from Nerd-vana. They charmingly invited us to go to a bar Sunday evening at 1130PM to watch the Super Bowl. Ensued:

Christophe: "‹The what?›"
American Girl: "‹Uh, the game of American foot? Super?›"
Christophe: "‹The what?›"
Me: "‹American football. The big game is tomorrow. The Super Bowl.›"
Christophe: "‹Oh, right! I thought that was tonight. I like rugby better.›"
Me: "‹But they said they have lots of friends studying at the same school who are all going to be at this bar tomorrow night to watch the Super Bowl. Lots of American girls.›"
Christophe: "‹Hey, now I like American football!›"
American Girl (to me): "So, you speak French, or what?"
Me: "I picked it up in bars."

Speaking of which, Stéphane, my roommate who learned his English in bars while living in a Canada and in a couple of places in Asia, has been really insistent on practicing English with me. I don't mind, because it's kind of funny, and it gives me license to ask him stupid and probing questions about subtleties of French grammar. Saturday night inspired me to begin a hopefully regular feature of this blog:

FRENCH PERSON SPEAKING ENGLISH MOMENT OF THE DAY: "I want to learn more of zee English, so I can meet zee American girls in bars and pick zem up, and say I want to jump at your bones!"

We left the restaurant around midnight, and the American girls declined to come out to a club. So we forlorn four proceeded to wander around, get turned away from several clubs because of our surplus of genitalia, and settle for sitting in a bar complaining about girls until two in the morning.

It's really like I never left Boston at all, except now I don't understand what anyone is saying. But it was definitely more fun than sitting on my ass in front of my computer.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Angst-free travel-blogging.

I started keeping a journal on my computer this week. Then I spent a good several hours replicating things I had already written or wanted to write in order to tell them, via e-mail and IM, to various friends. As a time-saving mechanism, I've decided to just make the stupid thing into a blog. Now, the two or three people that care to know what I'm up to in Marseille and the thirty or so others who just have nothing to do at 2AM can all read to their heart's content, while I'm saved the burden of telling you about it. It's really a win-win.

Well, I actually do enjoy hearing from all of you. Keep writing e-mails, and answering my IMs at strange hours of the night and morning. And I'll keep putting pictures on, though I might not be able to upload pictures on the weekends -- my net connection is a little flaky. So, ah, yeah. Enjoy.

Une soirée? Please. Let's have a party.

On my second day in Marseille I met Victor, one of my roommates. Probably the second thing he said to me was, "‹So, we're planning on having a little party this weekend, do you mind?›" Since Eitan had confided in me that he spent his first several weekends friendless, bored, and alone, I was ecstatic at the thought of a party. "Of course!" I blurted back, only to remember that I needed to say it in French. So then I put little angle braces around it like this: "‹Of course!›" and he understood.

The reason for the party was that one of Alessandro's (another roommate) co-workers at the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Marseille was leaving to return to Italy in a week or two, and needed a going-away fête. Friday evening I came home from work to find Alessandro busily baking small chickens and some kind of pasta dish, having already prepared something resembling tuna salad and several bowls full of olives. I, of course, was completely confused. Where I come from, I explained, serving food at a party is something we do so the cops don't shut us down. Upon learning that I do, indeed, like Italian food, Alessandro implored me to cook some American food sometime (I think he was just being polite). Since I honestly have no idea what that would entail and am pretty sure I couldn't cook it, I asked him what he had in mind. "‹Well, what do you eat for that big American holiday, the one with all the fireworks?›" "‹Oh, my friends and I just grill frozen hamburgers and drink beer.›" He was a little disappointed, and we awkwardly stopped talking about American food.

I was also slightly confused by the lack of hard alcohol in plastic bottles, and the complete lack of beer. Alessandro told me, "‹You should run to the store to buy something to drink for yourself like coke or beer, because otherwise you'll be stuck with wine!›" I tried to convince him that I actually like wine, but we're working through some kind of ridiculously stupid and entertaining communication medium, because his French isn't all that great either. He proceeded to remind me several times to run to the store before it closed, because I wouldn't like being stuck with only wine. I gave up, went to the store, bought some huge Alsacian bottle of beer and yet another bottle of wine, and got myself locked out of our building.

Oh, as an aside, wine is stupid cheap here. I mean, you can certainly spend 15 euros on a nice bottle of wine, but you can also do what I did and buy reputable-looking stuff for 3 euros. Granted, that's like $500 or something, but since everyone here gets paid almost as much in euros as we get paid in dollars, it's cheap for them. I mean, 3 euros is cheaper than an instant dinner. Stupid cheap.

Anyways, each of the four of us also comically brought home several baguettes, leading to plenty of jokes spoken way too quickly for me to understand, lots of laughter, and a baguette that's hard as a baseball bat sitting on my desk this morning. I guess no one wanted it. Everyone also brought a couple bottles of wine, though Alessandro provided Italian wine that came in re-used two-liter water bottles. It really couldn't have possibly been sketchier unless it was in a big red gas canister. Later during the evening, during a conversation about wine which I kind of half-followed, I got a couple laughs by pantomiming reading information about the vintage from the bottle of Evian. I'm pretty sure they either thought I was honestly that dumb, or were laughing at the American trying to make a joke in French.

I'd been a little unsure what to expect from this party, because throughout the week Victor, Alessandro, and Stéphane (the third roommate) had been exchanging laughs about inviting "beaucoup de filles!" or "lots of girls." A few too many laughs. And it would really have cemented my bid for a sitcom if, come Friday night, it had turned out to be some huge gay party. Awesome. However, evidently I was just missing some jokes, or girls are funny, because there were indeed "beaucoup de filles." In fact, not a single other guy showed up at our apartment; just a shitload of women. And when Alessandro went to bed around midnight with a sick stomach, that left Victor, Stéphane, and a thrillingly mute American to entertain "les filles." I fixed the problem by breaking out the camera just in time for the rum punch to show up. If there's one thing drunk people like, it's cameras. The results found their way onto

Having an American at a party is kind of like a neat little party trick that impels all sorts of amusing conversation. For example, the French girls wanted to know what Americans thought of said French girls, in general. Before I could stammer something pleasant and flattering, Stéphane interjected: "‹Everywhere, they asked me, 'Do the girls have huge tufts of hair under their arms?' Absolutely everywhere!›" The girls then pronounced that American girls only said things like that because they were all fat, and therefore jealous. Throughout this whole train wreck of a conversation, I was unable to contradict anyone, because I don't really know the right words to do that, and certainly can't do it without taking a couple of minutes to compose a speech in my head. Stéphane also told me about puppet shows they have in France about international politics (I know, go figure) where American is represented by George W. Bush in a cowboy hat and Sylvester Stallone, who represents the run-of-the-mill American. It really makes sense that they'd pick a guy who both 1) has a speech impediment and 2) is Rambo to portray Bush's closest friend, advisor, and confidante. Actually, I'm going to stop talking about politics before I even start.

Oh, and I woke up today at noon with an immense red-wine hangover. But if that's a French party, I suppose I can live with it.