Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Grammar Thugs

Only in Paris do strange men feel entitled to correct your grammar while simultaneously accosting you in the middle of the sidewalk.

In the wee hours of last Saturday morning, I was traipsing through the streets of the Marais looking for that rare Parisian luxury—an empty cab. This is a recurring, if futile, exercise in my life here.

Suddenly I felt another familiar recurrence coming on. Ah yes, drunk guys. Two of them approached me and kind of hugged me and asked me where I was from. I said New York because it's an easy answer, it intimidates French people, and I also couldn’t remember where I was actually from. After some nonsensical banter, I decided to extricate myself from this little exchange by saying “je m’en va,” after which I immediately realized I had used the incorrect form of the verb Aller. It was careless; I will admit. The drunk guys burst out laughing.

“Je m’en vais! I meant to say je m’en vais!” I promised meekly.

Wait a minute.

How did this turn from an attack by two sleazy guys into a lesson in verb conjugation? How had the formidable French language once again reduced me to a humble apologizer?

How French: drunken aggressors stop, mid-harassment, to hold the harassee grammatically accountable.

And the adventure continues.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cult of Quality

Mediocrity is for idiots and Americans. It is not for the French.

The other day I was walking up my street when a particularly agitated French woman came charging out of a little cheese shop. She was PISSED. When I got close enough to hear what she was griping about, she uttered the phrase:

"C'était tout à fait médiocre." It was completely mediocre.

She was talking about the cheese, or maybe the entire shop. Whatever it was, it had greatly offended her, and she uttered the word "mediocre" as if it were the most vitriolic insult she could possibly conjure up. Mediocrity—the ultimate shame.

This incident is indicative of a larger theme that pervades French culture, particularly when it comes to food. In the United States, bigger is better at all levels of society, ranging from who has the biggest T-bone to who has the fastest private jet.

Conversely, France is a country that values quality and moderation over quantity and excess. If it's not good, vendors do not sell it, people do not buy it, one does not eat it… or wear it… or tolerate it.

I have drawn a little chart to help illustrate relative tolerance levels:

Notice the difference in the size of the "Acceptable" zones on these spectra. Notice the American “Go For It!” attitude, in comparison with the French commitment to “Only If It’s Worth It.”
Maybe that's why French people are so svelte. The quest for excellence breeds thinness. They would rather starve with dignity than survive on canned cheese.

Of course, this is not true across the board. Crappy products are available and in-demand in all economies of the world. But in general, French people are more discerning. Now that I’m in Paris, I try to be too. Although sometimes I still get an urge to shove my face into a vat of peanut-butter. Artisanal peanut-butter, obviously.

Monday, December 1, 2008


I think this merits a little post.

Apparently I ruffled some feathers with my blog post about wolves in Paris! I'm relieved to know the "literal police" are on patrol, and this is what they have to say:

"False alarm.

1) This appears to be an Alaskan Malamute - not a wolf.

2) Another reason I know it's not a wolf: No one could casually walk a normal wolf (even a "tame" wolf) around big-city streets on a leash. A wolf is an extremely wary and timid animal, and it would soon panic at the noise, traffic and crowds of a city street.

I worked with wolves for some years."

"yes ma'am this is not a wolf i may be just a kid but i have studied wolves you 8 years.
its face is small and if you look closly you can see the difference in the size face.

go to this link and see.
please i mean no harm don't be upset.
thank you"

Good news all around!
First of all, I have random readers?
Second of all, I'm safe from wolves!
Third, people are so wonderfully crazy!


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