Friday, December 11, 2015


‘I don’t even know why we’re here,’ he said as we meandered through the tourist office filled with brochures of the city’s cafés and little else.

My friend Thomas and I are in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic. We’re just not sure why. I’m a ringer on this trip. A last-minute substitute for a friend of Thomas’ who couldn’t make it. A sort of unemployed have-suitcase-will-travel friend.

The problem is, the friend I’m replacing is the one who planned the trip, deciding that a day or two in Brno was just the thing after two days in Prague. We feel there must have been a good reason that she chose Brno as a stopping point rather than some of the historic villages that could break up the five hour bus ride between Prague and Vienna. Or was our fate determined by nothing more than a convenient bus schedule and the limits of the human bladder?

We already enjoyed our two days in Prague—Charles Bridge, the architecture, the beer, the Christmas markets, the goulash, the beer. We were eager to see what life outside the capital city was like. But perhaps we should have come in the summer…

Brno is nice enough. It’s a charming little city with a castle, a monastery and, of course, a Christmas market. It’s just not apparent what it has-- apart from beer that is cheaper than water (and I’m not suggesting that’s not important)—that Prague doesn’t. It felt like a scavenger hunt—what did she want to see here? One thing is for certain, she didn’t decide on Brno based on the Lonely Planet entry--‘Brno’s attractions are not easily apparent after Prague.’ And we can be sure it wasn’t because of the natural history museum. The Trip Advisor entry might read something like, ‘Do you hate crowds but love dusty fossils? Are you annoyed by museum exhibits that might try to engage you or explain things in English? Then the Brno Natural History Museum is for you!’
Br-why bother?

We had most of the day to visit Brno before our bus left at 5PM. We had lunch with our Couchsurfer host, a young Czech guy eager to meet travelers and share stories. Afterward we meandered along the castle walls, poked around in the Christmas market, warmed up in the Cathedral, and had a drink in the museum café. Overall it was a nice, relaxing day.

Br-why not?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My Thesis is Making me Ugly

My thesis is making me ugly. I’m particularly concerned about this because I was no great shakes to begin with. But now my eyes are red with bags under them. My skin has a pale color that is not so common at the end of summer in the South of France.

No, sorry, I wasn’t flirting with you. I just seem to have developed an uncontrollable twitch in my left eye. I’m sure it’s nothing.

All this would be fine, since I learned long ago that if you’re not beautiful you better be interesting. But my conversation skills seem to have taken a turn for the worse as well. Unless you’d like to hear about how tired I am. No, I didn’t think you did.

I’ve never given birth, but I’m beginning to think there are some similarities to writing a thesis and being pregnant. First, the closer you get to the due date, the more uncomfortable you become and the harder it is to sleep. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to induce the labor of your coauthors, so the discomfort could go on for months. Second, I think I’ve been eating for two lately. This baby craves chocolate! Third, while some people believe in the more natural method, believe me, if I had some pain killers I would take them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work. It’s time to puuuush!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Smiles, Horizontal and Otherwise

I’ve been in a lot of different French classes lately. Part of the goal of these classes is to learn about French culture, but since they are about as culturally diverse as a United Colors of Benetton ad, I find them very useful for developing stereotypes about foreign cultures. Now, before you accuse me of being closed-minded, let me remind you of my thoughts on stereotypesthey show we know at least something about a culture. And they’re lots of fun.

These classes are filled with quirky foreigners, me included. In one class we had to debate human cloning. I was assigned the ‘con’ side, along with a Colombian woman who had got all of her information about human cloning from a Will Smith movie. Which apparently she thought was a documentary. On the ‘pro’ side was a guy from Kazakhstan who thought human cloning was a great idea. In fact we should create a human clone army. Also they could go to work for us and do our laundry.

Another telling exercise was an activity about giving complements. It turns out this is very cultural. If our office’s peer-review system is any indication, the French are not so good at giving compliments. In fact everything in France is a bit understated. When my sister and I were on a group tour in China, we stepped out of the van to a breathtaking view of the sun setting on rice terraces as far as the eye could see. ‘Pas mal,’ proclaimed the French woman.

Maybe that’s why the women-women relationships are so different here. In the US we give little compliments all the time, especially among women. ‘Cute shoes.’ ‘I like your hair like that.’ ‘Your boobs look great in that dress.’ Nothing big. Nothing direct. This (and appletinis) is the social lubrication for female friendships in the US.

The assignment was to get to know your partner and then pay him or her a compliment in front of the class. The Vietnamese guy paid is partner a lovely, but utterly incomprehensible compliment. ‘Your face is like a Rodin sculpture…’

The British woman got off to a good start, but got tripped up by vocabulary. ‘Your smile is virulent…’ she told her partner. She was trying to say contagious, but well, French is harder than it seems sometimes.

My partner was an exuberant Italian guy. ‘I will say that your brain is the sexiest part of your body,’ he told me. ‘Um, that’s a bit familiar. Perhaps you could tone it down a little.’ I said that mostly because my French vocabulary doesn’t include the phrase ‘Dude, that’s sort of creepy.’ Not to mention bold, considering the biggest stereotype of Americans is that we’re all packing heat. His second attempt, which he said in front of the whole class, was worse. ‘You have a vertical smile that would make Lazarus rise from the dead.’ The teacher was confused. ‘But smiles are horizontal.’

‘Yeah, the smile on your face is horizontal…’ It took a second, but he got the reaction he was looking for. Ten minutes later the North African guy giggled. ‘Vertical smile! I get it!’ 

Friday, April 17, 2015

One egg isn’t un oeuf

Listen, France, we’ve got to talk. You know I’m a big fan. The wine, the sun, the architecture, the way you’re nestled just so between Spain and Germany like a cheesy little buffer between lusty bullfighters and exacting engineers—you’ve really got a good thing going here. But frankly, I’m worried about you. It’s your breakfast. Didn’t your mother tell you it’s the most important meal of the day? A croissant and a thimblefull of coffee does not a breakfast make. More like a 10:00 snack, if you ask me. How about a bowl of oatmeal? Some eggs, maybe? A little protein to tide you over until your late lunch? I’m not saying French breakfasts aren’t good. I’m just saying there’s not enough of it.

And while we’re on the subject, what have you got against plates? You use plates for every other meal, why not breakfast? You know, the crumbs really do get everywhere.

Thanks, France. I’m glad we had this little talk, I feel much better. While we’re clearing the air, can we talk about the light switches on the outside of the bathrooms? I mean, what the hell?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

I'm Workin' Here

Back in the US when I wanted to go out dancing I would hop in my car and drive there. It’s a little more complicated here in France, as I found out last night. After trying to beg a ride off a few people from my salsa class I finally devised a complicated plan with someone wherein I would take the tram to the outskirts of town, walk down the beltline at 10:00 at night and wait for her at the bus stop in front of the grocery store. Ignoring all of the signals that said maybe I should just stay home, I agreed. A girl’s gotta dance, right?

I arrived at the bus stop about 10 minutes before the scheduled pick-up. There was another woman there, which was a little strange since I was pretty sure the buses didn’t run that late. But maybe this was a common place to catch a ride. At least I didn’t have to wait alone. The night was a little chilly and she was patently underdressed. I could imagine that her miniscule shorts weren’t giving her much protection against the metal bus stop bench.

I gave her a friendly nod and settled in to wait for my ride. She looked perplexed. After a few minutes she asked me what I was doing there. “Just waiting for someone.”

“Look, I’m workin’ here.” She said it in French and again in English when she heard my accent. She didn’t say it in the typical delicate, questioning French accent. This girl sounded like she was from the Bronx. “I’m wuurkin.” She asked me if I would kindly wait 50 meters down the road. Apparently I was scaring away business. Or perhaps she thought I was moving in on her territory. I know there was in insult in there somewhere, I’m just not sure what it was.

So I moved down the road, which gave me a chance to observe the situation. If I was ever nostalgic for my neighborhood in Yonkers I could come here to feel at home. Once you get out of the historic downtown with the turn-of-the-century architecture, Montpellier could be anywhere in the world. The six lane beltline, the 24 hour McDonalds, the mega-supermarket, the hookers with the Bronx accents.
I looked back at my friend. I’ll give her one thing, she had excellent posture. She sat perched on that bench and smiled at all of the delivery men that honked as they drove by. Another hooker came over and joined her. I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t ask her to stand 50 meters away.

At that point my phone rang. The person that was supposed to pick me up had sent someone else. He was waiting at the other side of the parking lot. I found him and hopped in the car. I fumbled in French for the words. “I was waiting at the bus stop but a hooker chased me away!” “Ah ouais, there are a lot along this highway.”

And so I was left pondering one of the imponderables of France. A land where the scientists refuse to speak English but the prostitutes get their point across quite clearly. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Everything is Sexier in France

I don't know what they're selling here, but I want some. Doggy
dating service?
If one more person tells me I need to get a French boyfriend so that I learn the language faster, I think I’ll scream. Someone told me a while ago that I should get a French boyfriend because he could teach me stuff like “ooh là là, je t’aime.” I’m all in favor of ooh là là, je t’aime, but if the goal is facilitating collaborations at work, ooh là là, je t’aime isn’t going to cut it. Then again, it’s France, maybe it would. No, if I get a French boyfriend it will be for completely impractical reasons.

Just like French cars, French men come in a svelte, more compact package than their American counterparts. I am intrigued by that, and apparently a guy that can comfortably fit into my jeans is not a deal breaker for me. But it’s more than the package; there seems to be something fundamentally different about French men that I’m still trying to work out. Take the following example-- I was in a dance class when a woman in her early 60s suddenly began to cry. Take a second to imagine how this scene would play out in the US: the women would be the ones to comfort her and the men would fidget uncomfortably, right? Well, I don’t even know what the women did because the men were just about falling over each other trying to be the one who got to comfort her. In the end the teacher, the alpha-male in the group, was the one that pushed the other guys out of the way, put his arm around her, whisked her away, and brought her back five minutes later, smiling.
Even the citrus wear fancy stockings.

So what’s a corn-fed Wisconsin girl like me to do when confronted with this curious new species? Like any good sociologist, I’ve been observing the subjects in their native habitat-- the bendy ones in my yoga class, the tense ones at the salsa club, my neighbor who goes jogging sans chemise, if you know what I mean. So far the results are inconclusive, but I’m not one to give up easily. I love how they line to wash their hands after a dance class like a herd of OCD raccoons, the way they order a “’otdog", the way they sign off texts with “kisses!!” and non-ironically wear orange pants. I can’t say why, but I think it’s adorable.

But to understand French men is to understand flirting, and for that further investigation is needed. Of course you hear stories about how the French flirt shamelessly at work, unlike the American un-sexy, flirt-with-me-and-I’ll-sue-you work environment. Still, the first time a French man flirted with me in a meeting I was taken by surprise. I felt like an anthropologist, observing a foreign tribe. I wanted to write in my notebook, “The natives are displaying the ritualistic behavior described in the literature!!”

But honestly, I don’t know if I’m up to it. I feel like Meg Ryan in French Kiss. “Happy, smile! Sad, frown! Use the corresponding facial expression for the corresponding emotion!” This is going to take some work. I wonder if Fulbright would sponsor a post-doc in the flirting habits of the French?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Traveler You Love to Hate

One gets the distinct impression that the Chongqing Airport is making it up as they go along. I arrived characteristically early for my flight—about 3 hours early. I went through security and sat down at Gate A1. I got concerned that boarding hadn’t started yet, and I waited for the announcement on the screen to change from Mandarin to English. Gate change. I grabbed my stuff and sprinted down to A20. There was an announcement in Mandarin, but no follow-up in English, so I asked the gate agent. “Your flight to Kunming is delayed 40 minutes.” Not good news-- I had a connection in Kunming and for some reason my baggage wasn’t checked all the way through. I would have to wait for my baggage, get my boarding pass, recheck my bag, go through security and Immigration, all in an hour and 20 minutes. If I missed the flight I’d be stuck in Kunming another day. I just wanted to go home.
 I browsed the shops for another 40 minutes, but I had spent my last Yuan that morning. Shopping is not much fun when you can’t buy anything. Forty minutes later another message came up on the screen. “We apologize for the inconvenience. This flight will leave from Gate A1.” This time I didn’t hurry. By the time we finally boarded we were an hour late.  I’m never going to make it!
As I got off the plane, a young woman in a trench coat and a China Southern Airlines nametag grabbed my arm and said “come with me.” She had a sign with what I assumed was my flight number, but no name. I looked around—I was the only Westerner on the flight. It wasn’t like she could really confuse me with anyone else, so I went with her. “Please hurry,” she kept saying to me as she clopped along in her chunky high heels and short, quick steps.
We got to the baggage claim area, but instead of getting my bag and going to the ticketing desk, she opened an unmarked door, and there was a private ticketing desk with one gate agent and no line! “You have three minutes,” the gate agent told me. Three minutes to what? Three minutes to take off? Three minutes to boarding? She printed my boarding pass but she wouldn’t give it to me. “We need to wait for your luggage.” Forget the luggage, you can send it to me. I don’t want to miss my flight!! “We can deliver your baggage to Charles De Gaulle in three days.” Three days is fine, it’s just full of dirty laundry. But I don’t live in Paris. “No, I live in Montpellier. You’ll have to send it to me there.” Not possible, she informed me. “Whaddya mean, not possible? Airlines lose luggage all the time. And then they deliver it.” She called her supervisor. He confirmed her story. I explained that it would take me 8 hours on the train and €100 to go to CDG to pick up my bag. The supervisor called his supervisor. Nope. Not possible. Meanwhile, waaay more than three minutes had passed. It was about 1 AM. Staying overnight in the airport was starting to look like a very real possibility.
“How big is your bag?” the gate agent asked me. It’s a big backpack. Big, like the kind Canadians wear when they go to Amsterdam to smoke pot for six months. “I suggest you carry it on.” Now, I consider myself a seasoned traveler. I’m one visa away from the crowning achievement of the well-traveled—needing to have extra pages added to my passport. I have the TSA-approved luggage locks and a set of 100 ml bottles and the corresponding 1 quart bag that I can take through security. I harbor a secret resentment to people who try to carry-on oversized luggage in an attempt to avoid checking it in. I knew my backpack was not carry-on size. What’s more, I already had a carry –on, plus a Chinese rice farmer’s hat that I had been schlepping around for two weeks and was really regretting buying.
But in the end I became the object of my own resentment. I put my giant backpack on my back, my smaller backpack on my front, grabbed my farmer hat and started running.  The original gate agent led me through the bowels of the airport until we got to Immigration, where she left me. “Please hurry,” she said one last time.  I went through Immigration and then on to security. Of course, since I hadn’t planned to carry on the bag, there were a few things in it that shouldn’t have been there. They confiscated the jackknife that I used to cut up mangoes and avocados in my hotel rooms in Costa Rica and made me feel like a savvy traveler.
I grabbed my stuff and ran. I knew I missed my flight. I got to the gate, gasping for breath and sweating from the weight of my two backpacks. “Don’t worry, we held the flight for you.” That would have been nice to know twenty minutes ago. I went through the gate to the bus that was waiting for me, full of passengers. I got on with my ridiculously large carry-ons. “Yes,” I thought, “I am the reason you have all been standing on the bus for a half an hour and why your flight is leaving late.” Wait, were those hate rays coming out of their eyes? I boarded the plane and made it to my seat, bumping my backpack against heads and elbows. By some miracle there was an open bin. I settled in my seat. An announcement came over the speaker. “Hi folks, this is your captain speaking. We’ve got a few technical problems here. The mechanic tells me it’s going to be another hour or so…”

Eventually we made it to Charles de Gaulle. Two hours late, but only 30 minutes of that was my fault. I ran to the airport train station with five minutes to spare. I rested my backpack on the back of a bench and breathed a sigh of relief. I was actually going to make it home today. I looked at the date on the departures board. February 23. “But wait, why does my ticket say February 24th…?”