27 December 2006

Voyage en Écosse

Back from Scotland (and Normandy as well) with this message to report:

Every stereotype that you hold about the Scottish is true.

Seriously, it's pretty much just as you would have imagined it. If you have ever heard Sean Connery speak, seen the movie Braveheart, or even Fat Bastard from Austin Powers, you have a pretty good idea of what Scotland is like. I'll break it down into a few key points.

1. There are sheep everywhere.
The same way that you may see cattle herds next to the highway when driving through the rural United States, you see herds of sheep everywhere in Scotland. And not just a few sheep picking at the grass next to a barn, but thousands of sheep spread out over green hills.

2. They eat haggis.
I didn't eat haggis, but I saw it not only on restaurant menus but in cans at the supermarket as well. Who doesn't want to come home after a long day's work, pull out the can opener, and microwave some sheep offal packed into the same sheep's stomach. It helps to keep the chill of those cold, Scottish nights out.

3. They don't speak English.
Not only is it not English, but they are proud to say that it isn't English. Even the most exaggerated accents of some of the more outrageous, fictional Scottish characters (again, Fat Bastard comes to mind) can capture just how thick the accent is. At times I was really at a loss for what a person was telling me. It's not just a matter of accent though, either, as there is a whole set of specific vocabulary as well. Suffice it to say that I question the wisdom of taking a group of French high school students to Scotland so that they can improve their English.

4. They wear kilts.
Not everyday when they are out and about, but for formal occasions most people have kilts. Furthermore, it is an extremely expensive thing to buy, with the full price sometimes running upwards of $2,000. The best kilts are completely hand made, to the point that the seams are hand stitched without the aid of a sewing machine.

In all seriousness though, I had a really good time in Scotland. The students were generally well behaved, the worst we had to deal with were a people being late to a rendezvous on occasion. The landscape was at times breathtakingly beautiful. The color palette was something of super-saturated greens, blackish-browns, and cool gray skies. It was great to get out of the crowded smogginess of Paris for a few days into some clean air and impressive landscapes.

Highlights for me included the trip to the whiskey distillery (I can't stand the taste of the drink, rather, I am always curious to know the way things are made), walking through the ancient streets of Edinburgh, and looking out onto the placid, steely gray of the one loch we visited. In all it was a great trip though I am happy to be back with Esther and now Pete in Paris.

As always, follow this link to some pictures of my adventure:

23 December 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles...

Please excuse the deficit of posts here recently, I was in Scotland last week with my students and am now leaving with Esther for Normandy. Many posts and many more pictures to come!

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and a Pleasant Eid ul-Adha to all! (Zac: Do Yoists have a winter festival of sorts? If so, have a good one!)

13 December 2006

Pete's Coming!

Kurt was feeling a little homesick but couldn't rationalize going home for Christmas. "It was too far, it was expensive, I have the opportunity to travel a bit in Europe, I would be coming back from a week in Scotland and then heading right back out the door, etc..." Esther was able to solve this problem when she proposed, "Maybe if you can't go home to see your family, perhaps someone from your family can come here. Like Pete, for example." Kurt said, "Brilliant!" just like the guys in the Guinness commercial. Kurt called Pete and the parents and by the time that he woke up the next morning to find an email announcing Pete's travel plans, leaving just after Christmas and returning about a week after New Year's. "Wonderful!" Kurt thought.

Then Kurt got to thinking what would be fun things for the two brothers to do while in Paris and wherever else they might go. The list stands as follows:

  • Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, etc...
  • Eat ridiculous quantities of baked goods including, but not limited to; croissants, pain au chocolat, chausson aux pommes, tartelette de framboise, and pain au raisin.
  • Laugh at small things including, but not limited to; people, cars, and the bench seats in the Metro.
  • Look at the dead fish at the weekly market. There is weird stuff that I've never seen before.
Certainly this list is not exhaustive and, in fact, I am hoping that the "power or the internet" can help it to expand. If you have some good ideas, please leave them as a comment to this post.

09 December 2006

The Trials and Pimpulations of Teaching

I'm finding that nothing creates such an appreciation for teachers as being a teacher yourself. As a student, the teacher is just a figure, a concept made real that serves as a repository for whatever feelings you may have toward adults, authority, knowledge, etc... If you want to rebel, this is the perfect person to rebel against. If you are intellectually curious, this is the ideal person to whom you can pose your most challenging questions. Perhaps because of the subject I teach and the inherent communication barrier between myself and my students I haven't had too many difficult questions. Until this exchange following a class on Thursday...

"What does 'pimpass' mean?"

"I'm sorry, what does what mean?"

"'Pimpass,' what does it mean?"

With understanding came laughter. This didn't seem to offer much explanation to the student. "What? Is it funny?" she asked. "No, no, it's not funny," I said, trying to think about how I could explain it. "Well, to begin with, it's an adjective, a positive adjective, it means that something is cool. Like 'awesome' or 'great.' But not really... Do you know what a pimp is?"

As soon as I asked this question I realized that I had just opened up a much bigger can of worms than I wanted to. Of course the response came, "No."

So I began, "Well, you remember when we studied the song by NaS, 'I Can'? Remember when I explained what is a 'ho' as in 'ganstas and hoes'? Remember, it was a prostitute, right? Prostituée in French. Well, the pimp is the guy who takes the money from the prostitutes. He is a bad man but he has a lot of money. So when something is 'pimp' it means that it's cool. And, well, 'ass,' you know what that is right? Right, that. So you have the two words, you put them together and you have 'pimpass.' Do you understand?"

Obviously there was little hope for their understanding. When they looked at me more confused than before I quickly realized that I wasn't going to be able to explain this one too easily. I just repeated that it was an adjective, it meant that something was good or cool and wished them a good day.

Who thought teaching would be this hard?

Note: After some internet research and from what I overheard from the girls asking the question, they had heard a song by Damian Marley (son of Bob) which they thought was called "Pimpass Paradise." In fact, I've found that it is actually "Pimpa's Paradise." So, rather than an adjective, it is a possessive noun. This means that even my most basic explanation will only leave them more confused in the context of the song.

To quote Brandt, "That's marvelous."

29 November 2006

Kurt: Cultural Learnings of France for Make Benefit...

One of the great things about taking a language class in a foreign country is that you are in a class with a bunch of other foreigners. In my class, for example, there are people from Peru, Argentina, Canada, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Ethiopia, Albania, as well as one girl who insists that she is from Yugoslavia. I'm not sure if she's just been out of the country since before 2003 or so and hasn't realized that "Yugoslavia" doesn't exist anymore, if she is ultra-nationalist and misses the old union, of if she thinks that "Yugoslavia" will ring more bells than Serbia or Montenegro. In any event, there are a bunch of countries represented and it can lead to some interesting circumstances when we socialize.

Take, for example, the party at the house of the Turkish guy from my phonetics lab. He and his wife, a French woman, are living in a nice little one bedroom on the south side of Paris and decided to have a little get-together Saturday night. It was really nice, the host took the time to hand draw a flag for each country that was represented (USA, Germany, Poland, South Korea, China, Japan, Columbia, Spain, etc...) With all of these countries represented there were some interesting cultural interactions to observe:

1) The deep hesitation of the German guy and girl when being served sushi prepared by the Japanese guy. "Est-ce que c'est cru?" they asked. "Is it raw?" Of course the answer was "Oui." and they politely took a bite and washed it down with French beer. Rather than asking what they thought of the sushi I thought it would be more interesting to ask what they thought of the French beer. I don't think that our novice levels of French were enough to convey what they were feeling, but reading their faces I'm pretty sure that I saw a good amount of disdain.

2) The wife of the host, I suppose that would make here the "hostess", brought around a bottle of liquor in a bag and had everyone taste a bit and guess what it was made of. It was not too strong, maybe 40 proof, and had a really mild, clean flavor. Guesses around the circle ranged from apple to pear to rice. It turned out that it was a rice liquor brought by the Chinese guy, but that didn't quite prepare us for the surprise when she pulled the bottle from the bag. It was curled up in the bottle, but I estimated that if you pulled it out and straightened it it would be about 8 inches long, with the tail. It was some sort of lizard, pickled in the rice liquor, and carefully eviscerated such that all of the flavor of its innards could properly merry with the alcohol. At the realization of what they had just drank, jaws hit the floor and eyes swelled to near saucer size. Needless to say, it added some serious excitement to the party.

3) At one point Esther was talking to a Polish guy and girl, I was sitting next to her and the German guy and girl were on the other side of the circle. Esther told the Poles that her grandparents had been from Poland. Now, it's important to know that Esther has a lingering antipathy toward Poland given the public's compliance with the Nazis in their efforts to round up all of Jews and the direct consequences that that had on her family. So, when Esther answered affirmatively to the question of if she had been to Poland and the girl's immediately following question was whether she had been to Auschwitz, as if it was a theme park, didn't set the conversation of on the right foot. The conversation continued and they learned that the girl was from the same area of Warsaw as Esther's grandmother. The Poles then asked Esther if she spoke any Polish, she said no and they asked why. When she responded that her grandfather had spoken only Yiddish there was a silent understanding and the Poles stopped the conversation.

So, that's life here in Paris. It's great to be able to live in a time of relative peace or, at least, in an area apart from the present conflicts of the world, where I can meet people from different cultures at a soirée rather on the battlefield. It certainly impressed upon me a certain graditude, for me, an American, to sit in a cirlce with Germans, Poles, a Japanese guy, a French Jew; the grandchildren of a catastrophic war sitting in peace, sipping lizard liquor.

Of course, cross-cultural interactions aren't always warm feelings about the present state of the world. I am reminded of an awkward moment when I came in late to a conversation among some other students in my phonetics lab. One was asking another what the weather was like in his home country this time of year. He said warm, around 20 degrees Celsius. I was curious, so I asked where he was from. When the answer came "Iraq," with a knowing smile, I was at a complete loss of what to say. It's not as if I can appropriately apologize for myself, my country, or its actions. I can't say, "I'm so sorry for what's happening, how is your family?" What do I do if the answer comes back, "Half dead." So, I mumbled "Bien." and turned away. Though we're more than sixty years past the last world war, we're still not completely in the light yet.

26 November 2006

The Linux Attempt Pt. III

It works! In fact, this is being written on the old NEC PowerMate, running Ubuntu 6.10, known as "Edgy Eft". The ultimate solution was to buy a 256MB module of PC133, though, due to limitations of the motherboard, only 128MB is recognized at it is running at the speed of PC100. Given that it is impossible to find 128MB modules of PC100 SDRAM, I would say that we are lucky to have anything that works.

But it works! That's what counts. In fact, it works much better and much more reliably than the old, corrupted version of Windows ever worked. So I can check one thing off of my To Do list ("Successfully install Linux on a computer") and move onto bigger and better things.

More importantly for those of you reading this blog, I can get back to writing about interesting, non-technical subjects. So, more to come shortly, I have to do some homework before I go to my French class.


16 November 2006

The Linux Attempt Pt. II

[Caution: Technical post follows, ignore if not interested!]

Well, it turns out the old NEC PowerMate has only 96MB of RAM and that's short of the 128 required to run the Live CD and Installer for Ubuntu. Also, it takes old PC100 RAM which is kind of hard to find. Esther and I went to the "Silicon Valley" of Paris, the street with all of the computer hardware sellers and found a 256MB module of PC100 for 35 euros. It was more expensive than I was hoping, but given how few systems run PC100, it makes sense that it is more expensive per MB. Anyway, got home, snapped it in and ran the MemTest86 that comes with the Ubuntu CD and it started generating all sorts of errors.

So, it's possible that the stick of memory itself is faulty (it was stored loose in a drawer for who knows how long) or that the system can't properly deal with a single module of more than 64 or 128MB. The solution will most likely be taking the whole computer into the store and having them try out a few different memory modules of different sizes and see if it works.

Once the RAM gets sorted out, everything should go relatively smoothly (probably not now that I've said that) though Ubuntu will take up 3GB of our 5GB HDD. Oh well, .odt files typically aren't that big.

14 November 2006

The Linux Attempt

When we moved into the apartment, Esther's dad found an old computer at work that was going to be discarded. We took it to our house, plugged it in and it has kind of worked. It can't connect to the internet, it is mind-bogglingly slow, it randomly crashes, and Windows Explorer doesn't seem to be properly functioning. That said, the hardware seems to be in good condition, it's just the operating system (Windows 2000) that doesn't seem to be doing anything productive.

Thus, it is time for an experiment. Will I be able to put Linux on the computer? Will it work? Will it be stable? As I told Esther, I am 95% sure that it will work better than before, 3% worried that it will be about the same, and 2% afraid that it will be even worse.

I've burned the latest release of the Ubuntu distribution (6.10) onto a CD, rearranged the BIOS to make system bootable from CD-ROM and now I'm waiting for the installer to begin. Let's hope this works...

Esther has a job!

A few months of applying, worrying, and stressing are officially over! Esther has a job!

It's a managerial position with a non-profit, social services organization. She will be in charge of expanding the operations of the group both financially and geographically and will have a team of two working for her. From what Esther has described, it sounds like a good organization. Too often, non-profits either focus on research without action or action without research, leading to unimpressive results. This group is different in that they do everything. Once the researchers (sociologists, psychologists, criminologists, etc...) come up with a good idea, it is immediately enacted in the field. Rather than letting good ideas go to waste (or acting without thought) this organization tries to close both ends of the loop.

Furthermore, rather than trying to address criminal tendencies in youth once they have already been expressed (e.g. a 15 year-old boy is caught spraying graffiti on a wall) they look for parameters that are known to lead to criminality and work with kids between the ages of 6 and 12. This is controversial because it implies that an individual is predestined to a life of crime. Of course this isn't the case, but when you look at 50 different parameters (as this organization does) you can often see trends based on geography, family structure, etc... that make a child a likely candidate. This group then takes the child and puts him/her through an intensive 2-year program, coordinated with the school, family, and police, in the hopes of preventing the child from becoming a criminal in the future. Because the program is so intensive and the organization has only existed for a few years, it takes a narrow and deep approach to juvenile criminality. Rather than meeting with a few hundred kids once a week for a few months, the organization is deeply involved in the lives of a few children every day for two years.

In any event, it sounds like a good opportunity for Esther. It has a fancy title that she can put on her resume, the salary is right, and it seems like it is a good organization working for a good cause. Needless to say, we are both very pleased.

12 November 2006

Our House!

Well, I know that everyone has been waiting for a long time for these but I didn't feel that we had the house properly arranged until now. We had a house warming party last night and that motivated us to get everything arranged and decorated. So, the first are pictures of our empty and clean house and then with a bunch of people there, having a good time.

If notice continuity mistakes in films, you might notice some in the first set of pictures. Some were taken just before the party (at night) and others were taken this afternoon, after cleaning. Hope that doesn't bother you too much.

02 November 2006

A Trip to the Marché aux Puces

marché : market
puces : fleas

I've been to a number of "exotic" places in the world, but there was something about being at the marché aux puces that made me feel more like Indiana Jones than ever before. This, the Parisian flea market which is open only Friday, Saturday and Sunday, gives you the feeling that you could find absolutely anything that you wanted. 18th century coffee table? No problem! Fake Dolce & Gabana belt? Right this way, sir!

The whole place is about a dozen square blocks altogether (3 in one direction, 4 in the other). The perimeter is full of cheap, fashionable clothes, Caribbean guys selling incense and bongs, and roving packs of high school students trying to look tough and buying just about everything that they see. Among all of this I was able to find a used corduroy jacket for only 17 euros. I can now look like a proper French 20-something.

All of this popular culture on the exterior is just a distraction to what you can find in the dusty and convoluted folds of the interior. Think of it as the mold-rind of a round of Camembert; it is the most pungent and apparent to the casual observer, but it obscures the subtlety of the soft interior. Turning off of the crowded exterior streets an entirely different world opens up before you. It is alley after alley of little stalls, each about 15 feet by 15 feet, most only one story tall. Each stall is operated by a different seller who specializes in one sort of antiquity or knick-knack. It's here that you can find a globe from the 17th century, an Art Deco lamp, or an 18th century arm chair. Each stall is constructed to look like a properly arranged (though very crowded) room. There are generally tables, chairs, lamps, etc... all of the same period. If you want an entire Art Deco ensemble for your living room, this is the place to find it.

Furniture sellers make up the majority of the stalls, but there are specialists in other fields as well. One of the more interesting shops was called The Curious Colonialist. The walls were adorned with Native American head dresses and tomahawks, Amazonian alligators, and various statues of presumably African origin. When Yona, my shopping partner, and I walked in, the gentlemen became rather nervous as it was clear they were finalizing the sale of a circa-1850's Winchester rifle. Given the strict laws regarding firearms in France and their reaction to our presence, there was a certain air of extra-legality. This feeling was one that permeated much of the market. It seemed that no matter what you wanted to by, you could find it there, so long as you don't ask too many questions about how the seller came into possession of it. The question and response seems to be, "Is it legal to buy Egyptian antiquities like this? At this price, who cares!"

Of course, there are plenty of other collectibles for sale, from comic books, to miniature cars, to antique cameras. Whatever you prefer to collect, you can undoubtedly add to it with a trip to the marché aux puces. For me it meant a corduroy jacket, for others it might be the monkey skull displayed on wall next to the stuffed and mounted flamingo.

30 October 2006

If you read the New York Times online...

... you might like this, the New York Times Reader. It's a stand-alone program that downloads the entire paper and then presents it on your screen in a way that is a very convincing facsimile of the print version. I've found it to work very well, even though it is in a very early beta release. Using the Times Reader instead of your web browser, the text is much easier to read and there is much less scrolling involved. Needless to say, I like it a lot. It makes one of my favorite hobbies, reading the Times, much easier and more comfortable. It is rather bandwidth and processor intensive, though my laptop has no trouble running it. Here are the system requirements:

  • Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista
  • 1Ghz processor
  • Minimum: 384 MB RAM
  • Recommended: 500 MB RAM
Bottom line, if you read the Times online frequently, this may be a useful application to check out.

More Pictures over at PicasaWeb

Click on these links or the "Kurt's Picture Page" link on the left to view the entire albums.

27 October 2006

One Sick Monkey

This picture illustrates my state of being last Sunday. I was one sick monkey. I had what French people call la grippe and what normal people call the flu. It all started with a really sore throat in the morning, general fatigue throughout the day and finally a splitting headache and high fever at night. I wouldn't have gotten any sleep at all had Esther not walked back to her parents house in the middle of the night to get some paracetamol for me. That brought my fever down and got rid of the headache enough so that I could sleep. That was good because I had to teach a class the following morning at 8am. It wasn't very much fun, but I was able to do it. The sore throat persisted for a few days and my nose is still running a bit, but I'm 95% healthy now. Needless to say, it wasn't a lot of fun and I hope that there aren't too many other Parisian flus that I have to get immunized to the hard way.

I suppose that was the big news for the week. I've been taking the time to organize some photos and post them over on my PicasaWeb page. Here are some from the Paris Auto Show:

More to come soon.

20 October 2006

Observations on France, Vol. 1

Having been in France for a month and a half I can faithfully declare that I am fully qualified to publish my wholly accurate and immensely insightful observations on said country in no less prestigious a volume than my very own blog. So without even a hint of further ado, my observations on France and the supporting evidence:

1. Some stereotypes are true.
French people eat a lot of baguettes. It's really the only type of bread that they eat on a regular basis. Also, they are bought at the corner bakery which has a line out the door, onto the sidewalk during lunch and dinner time.

The French Government regulates a lot of things. For example, the price and composition of the above-mentioned baguettes. The price is set at 0,85 euros (when writing numbers, the French invert the use of commas and decimals [1.507,24 = 1,507.24]) and there is set recipe. This isn't to say that there is only one type of bread in France, you can pay more for something else, but the price of the standard-issue baguette is set.

French people drive really small cars. After having been here for only a few weeks my sense of scale is all screwed up. I see an Audi A6 and I think it's an A8. I see a Volkswagen Golf and I think it's a minivan. It's really crazy. If you're curious, click here to see the most popular car in Paris, the Renault Twingo.

2. Some stereotypes are not true.
Not everybody walks to the market, buys fresh bread at a quaint bakery and gets their meat from the local butcher. In fact, outside of Paris, life in the suburbs is a lot like life in the US. Case in point, Auchan. It is a grocery store, but it is larger than anything I have ever seen in the US. It's big, like Costco big, but all groceries, no tires, no refrigerators, no caskets. Actually, I didn't take the escalator to the second floor so maybe they had caskets up there. But I digress, the place is huge and has everything at reasonable prices. It's just outside of Paris (nothing of the sort exists inside the city) but accessable by the metro.

The French Government is not always painfully inefficient. I had to have a medical exam to get my residency permit and I was expecting the process to take about an hour. When I arrived at the office 5 minutes before my appointment and saw six people still waiting ahead of me I adjusted the estimate to about 2.5 hours. Lo and behold it turns out that they have a pretty sophisticated system to evaluate the health of new immigrants. We were all processed through at roughly the same time, assembly line-style. We all went to get quick eye exams with one doctor, then off to the chest x-ray, then the medical history and gland examination (roughly like a shoulder massage). 35 minutes later I was walking out the door with three sheets of paper with official stamps (very important in this land) and my provisional work permit. Needless to say, I was surprised.

Since I observe things every day, expect more documented observations in the near future.

18 October 2006

Time flies when you're ridiculously busy...

Oops. So it's been nearly two weeks since I last posted. Needless to say, I haven't spent that time at the opera. Rather, Esther and I have been mega-super-ultra busy getting our new house in order. The good news is that we are almost there. Our new curtains are hanging in front of our windows, dividing the main room from the bedroom, and covering our closet. Given the number of locations in our room where we're using curtains, it was a bit difficult to pick it all out at IKEA, but the result is worth the hours spent there. I'm really pleased with how well everything goes together, despite the fact that they're all different colors and textures. Everything seems to fit where it is.

We also got a new couch, well, it's new to us. We bought it from a lady on the other side of Paris who only bought it 4 months ago. She is selling it because she is moving into a new place with a roommate after her house was broken into. The thieves kicked in the door (it was still only partly repaired when we go the couch) and started putting all of her stuff in a gym bag when they must have been scared off by someone as they left the bag on the couch (our couch now) and made off with her wallet. She was pretty shaken up, she said that she hadn't slept in the 5 days since then. The good news is that she gave us a really good deal on the couch and the rug that goes with it. Here's hoping that the thieves don't come looking for the couch they missed...

Outside of the house, both literally and figuratively, I'm now fully into my work and school schedule. Work at the high school is going really well. I'm finding that I like the job quite a bit. The students seem to like me pretty much by default. I'm much closer to their age than the real teachers, I'm American (which is generally a positive, or at least interesting, thing in their eyes), and, most importantly, I don't give them any assignments or homework. All that's expected of them in my class is that they behave and they use whatever English skills they have. All in all it is pretty easy for them and pretty easy for me.

My classes are also getting off to a good start. I feel that I was placed into the right level; I'm learning a lot but I'm not lost in the material. The professor is a very nice, very intelligent lady and the other students are generally people like me, people out of college and working. It's pretty fun although, since it is at the end of the day, it is pretty easy for my attention to wane towards the end of two hours. Also, I will have some pretty long days in the near future, getting on the Metro just before 7am and not getting back until almost 9pm, mais c'est la vie.

I'll post more interesting observations and whatnot soon. Until then, here is a picture of myself showing my attempts at integration:

07 October 2006

A Muehmel at the Opera? Quelle Horreur!

It's true, I went to the opera. Not a serious, fat-lady singing opera at this rather grandiose bulding, but a comic opera at this somewhat less grandiose building. I don't exactly remember what it was called, something about a happy widow. Let it suffice to say that I didn't really understand what was happening. It started with a bunch of artwork being paraded out on stage. Then a giant hand (maybe 12 feet long) was rolled out and remained on stage for the rest of the first act. People sat on it like a couch, in fact they called it a couch. All I could think was, "That's not a couch, that's a giant hand...." but I don't think that was the point. There was a really rich lady and a bunch of guys who wanted to marry her. There was also a portrait of some general or admiral or genrimal on the wall whose eyes blinked when peopled saluted it. I thought that was kind of funny. I also thought it was funny when the fat hairy guy ripped open his shirt. Other than those few parts, however, I was pretty much lost. I don't know why the guy with all of the prostitutes hanging out with him didn't want to marry the rich lady. I don't know why the bellhop was always drunk and I REALLY don't know why Santa Claus showed up. By the time the Picasso paintings came out and started dancing I was about ready to leave. Thankfully, that is just what we did, at intermission.

So it was not quite a big success, but I guess that's a comedic opera in a foreign language for you. Anyway, the seat was way to small for my long legs and they were impacted against the wall in front of me the entire time (we had front row in the second mezzanine, good seats!). I think that Esther's dad got the tickets for free because he is a share holder in Le Monde. Something like that, so at least we didn't lose anything on this brief excursion into the land of the cultured. I just can't promise how soon I will return.

05 October 2006

And you thought Comcast was bad...

The only way that I am able to post this now is courtesy of some unsecured wireless network from which I can get a 'Low' or 'Very Low' signal (thank you Apple Network 9a9027). We are supposed to be connecting through our own conncection, provided by a French ISP named Free. They have a really good deal that for 29.90 euros per month you get a high speed ADSL connection, unlimited telephone calls throughout Europe and North America, and a few television channels. Almost too good to be true!

Esther signed a contract with them in early September to connect with the line here. In mid-September the France Telecom telephone landline was disconnected since we were planning on having the Free line available to us. Here it is early October and they have yet to connect our line.

Another interesting quirk about France is that most phone numbers for companies are the equivalient of 900 numbers in the US. If you want to order something from a cataloge you pay 15 cents/minute. Similarly, if you want to call customer service because they didn't connect your line like they were supposed to, you pay 34 cents/minute. That is, if you are calling from a landline. Calling from a cellphone results in a whole different set of charges.

So imagine that you are trying to connect your brand new internet/telephone/TV service and you encounter a problem. Since you have disconnected your old telephone you have to use a cell phone. What happens? You spend over 6 euros for a call that lasts less than 7 minutes where the only information you get is, "Try it again tomorrow, you may or may not get a confirmation email when we have connected your line."

I guess in France the saying, "The customer is king" is accurate, but being a king in France hasn't always been the most comfortable position.

03 October 2006

Preparing Chez Nous

[To briefly wrap up that cliff-hanger that I left all of you with in my last post, Rosh Hashana went off without a hitch. It was actually quite easy for me and my, um, limited language abilities and turned out to be an all together pleasant evening. Dinner was the standard Rosh Hashana fare of apples dipped in honey, olives, pickles, fish balls with a side of fish jelly, and matzo ball soup. My vegetarian eating habits proved to be an asset for the first time in France as it allowed me an excuse to politely pass on the fish balls and jelly though Esther enjoyed both in full.]

The past weeks have been very busy and a bit stressful, mainly because of everything required to get our studio prepared for us to move in (something which we have recently done). First we had to wait for the major work in the kitchen and bathroom to be finished by the contractors, Monsieur Milo and Monsier Kovosovic, two Serbian guys, about 50-55 years old, working outside the prying eyes of the French government. It was hard not to combine their two names into Milosovic, something which they may not have appreciated.

As they drew closer to the end of their work and were using the main room less to store their tools and materials, I began my work of painting the entire place. First, of course, Esther and I had to pick colors which was relatively easy, though not free of mistakes. For the main room we wanted something very light so we went with a color that is nearly white, but has a very slight brown tint to it. Trim in that room is a beige-like color (I think it is called 'Sourdough'). The bedroom area (since there is no seperate room, just a little "cove" off of the main room, got a nice golden color called, appropriately, 'Gold Buff' and white trim. The entry way, since it is such a small space anyway and unlikely to have any exciting decorations in it, we decided to go with a light, bright yellowish-orange. It's called 'Japanese Koi' but would more accurately be named 'Kraft Cheese and Macaroni (It's the Cheesiest!).' Or maybe 'Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers.' Basically, it's the color of any fake cheese product from the US. Both Esther and I like it a lot and everyone who walks in has their own reaction. Nothing worse than being boring, right?

So, for a little more than a week I went to the studio every day and painted all day long, all of the walls and the ceilings. It went generally well and the results are quite good. The quality of the paint didn't quite match that of the Behr that I'm used to in the US and, thus, some areas required up to three or four coats to get adequate coverage but in the end it's done. I'm happy not to have to go back to Batkor (the French approximation of Home Depot, where some days they are just out of masking tape) so regularly since it is invariably a 2.5 hour excursion no matter what.

After having finished painting we had a team of guys come in and refinish the floor completely. They did a really amazing job. The wood floor was in terrible shape with deep gouges, water stains, scratches, dirt, dust, and a bit of mold. They must have sanded off quite a bit because all of that is gone. Esther and I decided to go with the high-gloss finish which looks very good, but still shows some brush strokes and drips of the finish. While waiting for the smell of acetone to diminish enough that we could be in the house without our eyes watering and lungs burning we went to Ikea and picked out a bed and some other small things which we needed. These got delivered on Sunday night and we were able to spend our first night in the studio that night.

Which is not to say that the process is finished. We are currently having an electrician install more power outlets since there were originally about 5, old, ungrounded ones in the whole house (kitchen and bath included). We still need to get curtains (Ikea here we come!) and to repair some things in the one big closet. Eventually we will get a compact washing machine, a new couch, and a whole bunch of other little things. I estimate by the end of this weekend it should start to feel more like a house. Once we make the repairs in the closet we can unpack and arrange our things which will go a long way in making things more comfortable here. It doesn't quite feel like home, but I'm sure it will soon.

Once things are more settled I will take a bunch of pictures and maybe string them together into a little movie-tour of the house. Stay tuned, but it might be a few weeks yet.

22 September 2006

Two Weeks in Paris

I've been here for two weeks now and, as my posting frequency would indicate, I've been pretty busy. The first week was focused on slowly recovering from the jet lag and then beginning to work my way through the French bureaucracy in order for my stay here to be official. For as bad as this endeavor could be, it's progressing with relative ease. The most important, and difficult, thing that I need to get is my carte de sejour or residency permit. It makes my stay official, gives me access to health care, etc... It's very important that I get it, but it requires about a dozen other documents and a couple of appointments before the prefecture (government office) will give it to me. I have most of the documents, the only one that gives me reason to worry is one that I sign at my employer (the high school) saying that I exist and that I have accepted my post. I went to the high school, twice in fact, in order to get this signed, but they cannot (or won't) do it until my contract starts on the first of October. My meeting at the prefecture is on Sept. 25. The high school wrote a letter saying that I will sign this thing on the first of October, but no one has ever known the French government to be too flexible in matters of papers and signatures.

I should begin work soon, within the first week of October. I'm excited to get going though my experiences at the school so far have been a bit exasperating. Last week, Esther called for me to ask when I should come by. The guy on the phone, the assistant principal, said that I should come the next day at 1:30 as all of the English teachers will be meeting. The next day I left about an hour earlier than I thought I might need, I got on the Metro, then the RER (the commuter train to the suburbs) and about 45 minutes later I was in Noisy-le-Grand, the suburb where I will work. I had a map telling me where Avenue Montaigne was but it didn't tell me that there were two Avenue Montaigne's and my school was on the other one. After about 45 minutes of wandering and practicing my French on strangers ("Savez-vous ou est Lyceé Evariste Galois?") I found the school.

Turns out that the English teachers weren't meeting that day. Oops. Also turns out that the one teacher in charge of overseeing my work also wasn't there. Double-oops. So I met some people; other English teachers, the principal and a bunch of sectretaries, and, in general, understood about 20% of what was said to me. I did gather that that I was supposed to return the next day to meet with the English teacher who will be in charge of me.

I arrived at the school, saw some people that I had met previously and they looked for the one English teacher, Madame L. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. After about an hour and a half she came into the room where I was waiting a bit red-faced. She had been grading papers and had forgotten about our meeting. Oh well, just an hour and a half sitting and staring at the same four pages of the sports section from Le Figaro. I learned how to say that one team beat another. I also learned that my teacher has only been at the school since September and thus will not be able to help me navigate the structure of the school, literally or figuratively.

Despite all of this I really like the school. It is a modern facility, built in 1993 and it seems like everyone is really interested and engaged. I haven't met any students yet, that will happen in a few weeks, but I'm excited. I don't know exactly what I will be doing but I know I will make it fun for the students. I can't imagine doing anything worse than being boring.

There has been a lot else going on, especially for the apartment Esther and I will be moving into, but I will save all of that for another post. Tomorrow night we are going to dinner for Rosh Hashana at the house of a family friend. Expect a post about that experience as I try to wade my way through two levels of foreign-ness, both the French language and French customs mixed with Jewish traditions. I have no idea what to expect other than that hilarity will ensue.

07 September 2006

Bonjour! (That means "Hello!")

Here I am, in Paris. Everything went well getting here, I had an exit row on the short flight from Detroit to Washington (which didn't make much of a difference, the Canadair CRJ-200 doesn't offer much space for anyone). The flight attendant, John, was rather humorous saying things like, "We will now be turning down the cabin lights to enhance my personal appearance" and, at the end, "Thank you for flying United, we know that you had many bankrupt airlines to choose from, thank you for choosing ours." Haha said Kurt.

On the flight from Washington to Paris I was absolutely delighted to find that I was just about the only person on the flight with no one sitting next to me. The delight lasted until a girl 4 rows up realized her television screen didn't work and demanded to be moved. Thus, I got stuck in a window seat and some chump 4 rows up was absolutely delighted to find that he was now the only person on the flight with an open seat next to him. I felt like something truly unfair had happened to me, I wanted to protest, but then I realized that I had no right to the open seat to begin with, it had just been dumb luck and that same dumb luck had now fallen onto the chump in front of me. It still felt unfair though.

Esther and her dad picked me up in the Citroen (which is, amazingly, in even worse shape than when I saw it 14 months ago) and we drove through hot, stinking, rush-hour traffic into Paris. I slept for about 4 hours, woke up, met Esther's cousin and then we all went out to see the apartment that Esther and I will be moving into in a few weeks. It seems really great, just the right size for the two of us. Later in the evening we all went out to watch the soccer game between Italy and France (a rematch of the World Cup Final in July) which France took 3-1. Paris was happy.

I slept from midnight until 4 am local time, was awake from 4 am to 8 am, and then slept again from 8 am until 1 pm, all local time. I recommend jet lag to anyone that can get their hands on some.

Well, that's been the excitement for now. Obviously it is great to see Esther again and all of that mushy stuff... Thanks for reading and I'll post again soon!

Tune in next week to read about Kurt's foibles with the French language, "That means 'Your sister is a prostitute'!?! A dirty one no less?" and other adventures from Kurtistan. Brought to you by United Airlines and Citroen.

28 July 2006

A Foggy Night in the Law Quad

Thankfully I never have to look to far for an excuse not to do something; my camera is always near by. Case in point, last night there was dense fog in the Ann Arbor area so I tried to take some interesting pictures. I wasn't too satisfied, but this one did come out (after some coaxing in Picasa). Posted by Picasa

Between "Visiting" and "Living"

This is a transitory time, in between the period where Esther and I have been "visiting" one another and the time when we will be finally just "living." I'm in Ann Arbor still, trying to make the best of my time. The idea has been that I will work on my thesis and prepare it for publication, but just as there were plenty of excuses for me to not work on it in the first place, there are similar reasons to not work on it now.

Creating this blog is a perfect example of one such excuse not to work on my thesis. I figure that it will help me stay in touch with everyone when I am in France next year but did I need to set it up now? Certainly not. Too late for second-guessing because now it most definitely does exist.