Category Archives: WTF

tax the lack of vegetables

July 26, 2017

It was around day three that the bread fatigue set in, but there wasn’t a cure in sight—and wouldn’t be until I’d crossed the border back to France, a request for a salade verte and some haricots verts  and anything with “vert” in it filed in advance.

Our first night in Barcelona, we went to the beach. At L’escamarla, at the Port Olimpic, just a stone’s throw from the surf, we shared a seafood paella dotted with the occasional pea. We ordered an undressed salad of iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, and a plate of oil-bathed pimientos de padron studded with flakes of salt. We didn’t finish the peppers. At the time, we didn’t know they were the last green thing we’d see for days.

With limited time in Barcelona and a lot to accomplish, our days revolved around a strict sightseeing regimen. This wasn’t a vacation of long lunches and lazy naps in the sun—we were here to get it done, and we weren’t above the inauthentic expediency of an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts in a pinch. Food stops were less researched and more impromptu—with some advance planning, I’m very willing to concede that our experiences might have been different—but we had things to do. We traipsed from the luminous nave of the Sagrada Familia to the bony rooftop of La Pedrera, peering at the organic shapes of the stairwells and the patterns of the parquet flooring as our audio-guide instructed us to, and, in between visits, we ate at times that were odd: breakfast at noon, lunch at three, wine starting basically then and continuing into the wee hours.

But tapas are everywhere and they are an anytime food. They can be small as a snack or substantial as a meal, and when we sat down at the bar at El Nacional—a fern- and light-filled modernist space with a collection of associated eateries all under one soaring glass roof—we were ready to order up an array. Pan con tomate—that Catalan essential of grilled bread rubbed with tomato and garlic—and a plate of parchment-thin Iberian ham were set before us, along with a glass of vino rosado for me and a  20 cl jar (caña-sized) of fizzy Estrella beer for Jill. They had pintxos, too, which on paper sounded like they might actually contain vegetables (I saw a word that I knew meant eggplant on the description of one), but which were, in actuality, open-faced toasts, topped with things like an unctuous cream of potatoes and cod. Potato toast. It was good, adorned with a tiny purple comma of octopus tentacle. But the starch factor was real.

At El Tiet Taver in Barcelona’s Eixample district, a pretty but insubstantial flower crown of microgreens topped the crackly skin of suckling pork and I pulled the grassy threads onto my plate like they were sprouts of pure gold, relishing the light crunch of uncooked plants between my teeth after the béchamel-filled fried croquetas, delighting in the essential surge of chlorophyll that I was sure I could feel in my blood. Later, on the outdoor terrace at El Viti Taberna in El Born, a swoosh of nutty romesco sauce was a bed for charred octopus, its red pigment evidence of the existence of peppers on a table that otherwise bore no traces of ingredients that had come from the ground.

As we made our way beyond Barcelona and through Andalusia, spending our days in lush courtyard gardens and under the shade of leafy orange trees, my desperation for fruits and vegetables grew. I devoured the briny olives that were delivered alongside our vino blanco at the cafes where we stopped to rest, refuel, and hop on free Wi-Fi—after a while, even their salt-preserved flesh seemed fresh and raw. Once, I saw “ensaladilla” listed on a menu and looked to Lauren, eager and excited. She shook her head. “That’s Russian salad,” she said. “It’s potatoes.”

I knew that the vegetables were somewhere. Every once in a while they’d appear—a bit of garnish curled over a piece of fish here, a tousled dry side salad tossed next to a tortilla con gambas there. Surely, they must just have been hiding in dishes I didn’t know to order. In Sevilla (at, admittedly, a restaurant that even at first glance we could tell would maybe not be offering up the most authentic cuisine), I attempted the pollo Sevillano, a dish of braised chicken on top of an herb-flecked stew. I dug into the vegetables buried at the bottom of the bowl, savoring the soft carrots and wondering at the white, rectangular pieces—were they some sort of chard stem, perhaps?—before I realized that they were French fries. I had literally been served French fry soup, and that was when I decided to give up.

Later, we would find a French-inflected restaurant called Tata Pila where I would order the most beautiful bowl of lightly steamed white asparagus, draped in tendrils of greenery and plated meticulously with perfume-ripe strawberries and inky globules of roe. At Bar Alfalfa, for our last lunch in Sevilla, we would sit in air-conditioned splendor as we shared plates of crisp griddled eggplant and—praise be—a spinach salad. It is, as they say, when you stop looking for love that you find it.

I should say that I am not, by and large, a picky eater. I have no qualms about white bread or gluten, I will always help you share the side of fries, and, while I flirt with vegetarianism once a year or so, ultimately I am all too happy to try anything from land or sea. But at home, with my kitchen, my familiar restaurants, and my grocery store and market, I can balance the intake, and I can moderate. It is unlikely that I would have a hand-sized loaf of bread slathered with tomato for breakfast, and then a sandwich of ham and tomato for lunch, and then a dinner of pork and roasted tomatoes with a piece of bread on the side. I definitely would not be likely to replicate that eating pattern for multiple days on end, my food-group intake boiled down to just flour, tomato, and cured pig. But we wanted to eat Spanish food while in Spain, and this was the Spanish food that we found, and in time we accepted that it was what it was. As difficult a country as Spain must be to navigate, restaurant-wise, for a vegetarian or vegan, or even someone who, like me, just feels best when their sustenance is mostly plants, I couldn’t help but think of the self-imposed constraints of paleo dieters, or those macrobiotic adherents who steer clear of nightshades (a category into which potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes all fall). How frustrating it would be, I thought, to be limited even beyond the limitations of the menu, and so I was grateful for my lack of food allergies and for my lack of belief in nutritional claims not supported by science.

Robert, who can flick a fan open with such flamenco flair you wouldn’t be surprised to hear he moonlights as a dancer in one of those touristy tavernas, explained it thusly: “Spain is very poor. We keep the tomatoes. Everything else, we send out to other countries that pay more for them. So we have no vegetables.” Whether or not that statement was true, he’d also later coin the instant idiom, “Not meat, not sweet: it’s a vegetable!” which generously allowed us to group everything from fried, aioli-drizzled patatas bravas to wine (why not) under the header of healthful verdure.

In Granada, I drank gazpacho out of a pint glass, thrilled to have something refreshing—and (caveat: tomato) vegetable-based—in hand. “It’s so creamy,” I noted to Lauren. “Yeah,” she nodded, “they thicken it with bread in the south.”

On Paris Syndrome and Transportation Woes

February 8, 2013

I’d like to address a serious misconception about Paris. Specifically, I’d like to talk about people who associate the words “sophisticated” and “elegant” with Paris. I’d like to concede that in a small, tiny, geographic cluster, there is a certain density of Christian Louboutin heels and Chanel No. 5 fumes and small dogs in Louis Vuitton carrying cases. And then I’d like to put forth the hypothesis that the elegance factor drops exponentially with every concentric circle with a ten food radius expanding out from this misleadingly refined epicenter of Paris. And I’d like to suggest that by the time this hypothetical perimeter has passed the Place Vendôme, descended into the metro, or reached, say, my neighborhood,  it has passed some boundary and warped into an alternate Parisian universe that is actually the opposite of what people think Paris is like. A while ago there were a bunch of articles published about something they were calling “Paris Syndrome,” which was happening to tourists who arrived in Paris only to develop such an acute case of cognitive dissonance due to the total dissimilarity between their expectations of what Paris was like and what Paris is actually like that they had panic attacks, were hospitalized, had to leave the country immediately in a state of severe distress. The only cure for Paris syndrome? Leave Paris. Contact your cable provider and have all commercials for Mademoiselle by Dior blocked. Never go back to Paris again.

In the spirit of grinning and bearing it, here’s a list of things that have happened to me on my way to or from work in the past several weeks:

1. The scene: a crowded metro, jostling elbows, your face too close to my face. The culprit? A sixty year old man. His crime? Watching porn on his Android, thankfully with headphones in, unfortunately, with the screen in my face.

2. A fascist brawl on the metro. There was spitting.

3. Another brawl with an old, fascist French man. This time there was punching, and a hysterical adolescent boy trying to do the right thing and restrain them, until he, too, was punched in the face.

4. The time: 7:45 am. The setting: the not-so-sanitary RER A. The culprit: a 60 year old woman. The crime: eating an entire bag of hot dog buns in fifteen minutes.

5. Woman on the bus, wearing only underwear and a cowboy hat.

6. Woman at the bus stop, ferret on a leash.

7. Vomit. A lot of vomit.

8. Poop. A surprising quantity of poop.

9. An elderly gentleman testing every single ringtone on his cell phone, before landing on Moonlight Sonata.

10. A man on the bus refusing to answer his cell phone because “it’s my wife.” Also refused to silence, and had selected a Celine Dion tune (an entire 1:30 of it) as the ringtone for his wife. She called approximately 8 times.

11. A man on the metro, carefully combing his beard.

12. A woman on the RER, discreetly tweezing hairs off her chin.

13. An incredibly obese individual (French Women Don’t Get Fat  was a marketing ploy) on the bus eating not one but two entire cakes between Pigalle and Barbès.

There are always body odors. There is always a wealth of other aromas, such as alcohol, and kebab, for example. There are always crowds, and as a general rule people are incapable of A. keeping to their right, and B. letting people off of the train before throwing their entire body weight into a mass of people shoving their way on. The trains are always stopped, or late, or cancelled, or inexplicably delayed just long enough to make me miss the next train. There are often McDonald’s French fries everywhere. There is an absurd number of strollers blocking aisles and people who pretend to be sleeping in the fold-down seats and who remain seated when the train is clearly too overcrowded for that nonsense.You are always dirty, always sweating, always trying not to be trampled, run over, or trapped in a mass of irritated people.You are always trying just to get to where you’re going without snapping and starting a spitting brawl or eating an entire bag of hot dog buns for solace.

And yet every once in a while, you’ll see a woman prance down the stairs of the metro in her four-inch heels, with her Chloë shopping bag swinging behind her, her lipstick perfect, her hair not flattened to her head with other peoples’ sweat, the sweet perfume of Chanel No. 5 trailing behind her in lieu of the more standard eau-de-métro-funk, and you’ll think, “What city does she live in?”

I think I have Paris Syndrome.

Oh, OUI, docteur!

July 11, 2012

While I haven’t been sharing the stories, my interactions with the French administration have been continuing as I’ve been going through the process to change my visa status from ‘student’ to ‘worker’ and get the card that says I can live here more. The thing is, this whole process was a lot less entertaining than the initial one, because there are only so many times you can take a day off work and stand in line for two hours at the police station just to be told ‘you’re missing the original dated from within the last three months of the official translated copy of this certificate with the color authorization from blah blah blah blah’ before you very much stop laughing and very much start contemplating homicide. Anyhow, after a handful of experiences along these lines and some serious internal dialogue about anger management, ten months of paperwork and visits and re-paperwork finally culminated in this: my convocation to the Office of Immigration for my medical visit. This medical visit is the final step. It means your file has been processed and your carte de séjour is sitting there waiting for you. You just need to prove that you don’t have tuberculosis or bad vision and you’re clear.

Now, I did this visit in 2010, when I entered the country as a student. Basically they check your eyes by having you read a row of small letters on a poster (though I know for a fact they don’t even listen to what you say because I started reading them in English and the nurse filling out my form said, ‘très bien.’) Then they check I guess your eyes again, or your literacy, by having you read a few lines out of a book. And then things get a little weird when they lock you in a tiny cabin with two doors and tell you to get naked from the waist up for an X-ray. I don’t understand this, because I’m pretty sure the Transportation Security Administration has x-rays that are able to tell whether or not a fully clothed woman is menstruating, but apparently French x-rays can’t see through fabric and this partial nudity in a public facility is just something you need to accept. You take off your clothes and stand there awkwardly for a very long time until they open one of the doors and invite you in for an x-ray. Following this, you re-enter the waiting area (clothed now) until the doctor is ready to see you, check your x-rays, and sign off on your health and eligibility to live in France.

And this is where things got weird. The doctor called me in, or tried to, but both my first and last name are tricky pronunciation tasks for francophones. Once I understood he was speaking to me, I stood up. He asked if he’d pronounced my name right. I said no. And then he said, ‘Well, it’s too complicated to pronounce. Wouldn’t you rather marry me and take my name?’

This is the sort of macho, condescending thing I’ve gotten used to hearing in France, where gender roles feel almost more dramatically in-your-face than in the first season of Mad Men. It’s annoying, it’s forward, they think it’s charming, and I just am not quite quick enough in French to respond how I’d like to. So I smile in a way that I hope says ‘not a chance in hell’ but is probably more ‘ok yeah cool when,’ because things go downhill from there.

The X-ray goes up on the wall. The doctor’s professional opinion? “You are as beautiful on the inside as out.”

Let’s pause a moment and recognize that this is really a very weird thing for an internist to say. It’s just… really weird. We’re literally looking at a picture of my internal organs. This expression is sweet and cheesy when an old person who uses this kind of expression is talking about someone’s intangible qualities, but he actually said my lungs were as beautiful as my face.  I wasn’t going to say, “Thank you,” and he had already made me uncomfortable so I’m pretty sure I said “good” and hoped we were done now. We weren’t done now. He then leaned forward until he was kind of close to my face and said, as if in wonder, “What are these eyes? What do you think are, a cat?”

I said, “No, I don’t think I’m a cat.”

Then he worked for an inordinately long time to listen to my heartbeat or my breathing or whatever it was he was trying to assess by holding a stethoscope to my chest. Evidently my discomfort was palpable, because he then asked, “What is it? Are you afraid of doctors?”

Fact: Guys, if you have to ask a girl if she is scared of you, YOU ARE BEING TOO SCARY. And if you are a doctor, you should make extra efforts NOT TO BE A CREEP.

Anyway, I got the signature, I got the certificate, and at LONG LAST and after ten months of employment, I am legally entitled to work in France.

And for future reference, Docteur J. Tretout at the Office Française de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration on Rue de la Roquette in Paris is a huge weirdo with a lung fetish.

C’est GRAVE cette grève

November 1, 2010

Manifestation Posters in Paris

Well, France is en grève and it is making things interesting. The national strike has been going on since last Tuesday now, and it means that transportation is un petit peu difficile. Of course, I decided that mid-strike would be the ideal time to get out of town and take the train to Dijon to spend the weekend with Hazel and crew on the Roma.

On Thursday afternoon, I went to the SNCF boutique to get my train ticket. There were four people in front of me, and three people working. Guichet C was only for people who had made appointments to buy tickets. Guichet A was functioning, if slowly. And Guichet B was inexplicably fermé with it’s fonctionnaire busily doing things like reorganizing envelopes and ignoring the customers. After forty-five minutes of waiting, my number was called. I asked if I could please buy a ticket to Dijon.

C’est pas possible,” he responded, a phrase that I’m become fairly familiar with here.

Evidently, due to the strikes, SNCF did not yet know which trains would be running the following day, and when. But, he explained, even though he couldn’t help me, I could look online that evening because the schedules for the following day are posted at 5. I looked at the clock. 5:15. D’accord.

At the SNCF boutique

So later that night I hopped on and sure enough the schedule for the next day was posted. No TGV’s, it said, but the TER (regional train) was running leaving from Paris Gare de Bercy at 7:20 a.m. Three hours on the train, I could finish my reading for school and be in Dijon by 10:15 to meet Hazel and go to the market. Perfect. Purchased.

I woke up at 5 a.m. and was on the metro by 6:15, making my way to Bercy. It was still dark out, and freezing; the sunny week had ended with a serious cold snap. I went to the little kiosk, found my reservation, and printed my ticket. Then I looked at the screen to see where which platform my train would be leaving from. No train on the screen. Looked at my phone. 6:55. Then I noticed a little sign.

Due to the national strikes, TGV Number 95053 from Paris to Dijon will be leaving on time from Gare de Lyon.

I read it again. Gare de Lyon. I went to the guichet.

“Hello, excuse me. I’d just like to confirm. I’m on the train that leaves in twenty minutes for Dijon. Am I understanding correctly that it is now leaving from a different train station?”


So I grabbed my ticket and my bags, made a mad dash back to the metro, got to Gare de Lyon, sat down on my train at 7:19 and we were off.

Something is not Right: Mad Metro Dash

After a few minutes, they made an announcement. I heard something about passengers going to Dijon, but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. Half an hour later, after our first stop, they made the announcement again. That time I made out something about passengers to Dijon and a bus. I felt confused, and suddenly very unsure of myself.

I asked for clarification.

The man I spoke to explained to me that the next stop, at Laroche-Migennes, was the final stop. In response to my blank stare he smiled and said, “Bonne chance.”

Bonne chance indeed. The train stopped at Laroche-Migennes at 8:15. Later, in recounting this story to Hazel and Phillipe, I would have Laroche-Migennes described to me as “dodgy,” “sketchy,” “scary,” and “the armpit of the Burgundy railway system.” I disembarked and asked one of the SNCF employees on the platform where I went to catch the bus to Dijon.

“Oh, it’s very simple, you just cross the parking lot and you will see the buses at the far end.”

Seemed straightforward enough. I walked under the tracks and crossed the parking lot and, lo and behold, there really was a bus there. Only upon closer examination, it turned out that bus was headed in the direction of Lyon. Come to find out that my bus, the one destination Dijon, wouldn’t be arriving until 10:45. Approximately two and a half hours from then. I looked around. Foggy. Freezing. Nothing open in town. I looked back at the station. One bench. Freezing. Twenty people waiting. But at least they had a coffee machine.

So I dutifully waited for my bus, cold and exhausted, rode it three hours to Dijon, and then met Hazel at the train station, arriving at last on board the Fandango roughly eight hours after I had left home.

All that to find out that, around the time I was enduring my second hour of Burgundy bus riding, Daniel back in Paris had decided at the last minute to hop on a train that day, too. So without a ticket, he went to the train station, got on board a TGV, had a beer in the restaurant cart, never had to pay, and was in Dijon in less than an hour and a half.

Maybe you just have to be French to understand how it works.

Anyway, after a really lovely weekend on the Roma, it was time to head back to reality. Specifically to my 5:00 Monday evening class in which I had a 20 minute presentation due. The train ticket I had originally purchased had me leaving Dijon at 1:59 and arriving in Paris at 3:30, with plenty of time to go home, drop my bags off, and get across town to class. Sunday afternoon, I got an e-mail from SNCF.

“In order to let you know ahead of time,” it stated formally, “and to minimize the inevitable problems related to your voyage, we wish to inform you that due to planned strikes, rail traffic shall be perturbed on October 18th.”

Email from SNCF

Mais bien sûr.

It went on to state, however, that I could board any train between Dijon and Paris either that day or the next. So I was hopeful. Even if my train was cancelled, there had to be at LEAST one train running. After all, the official announcement was that one out of every two TGV were running normally, and with six or seven trains a day headed to the capital, that should be no problem, right?

Sunday night, I went on the SNCF website to find out what trains were running. Website down. Went back a little later. Website down. Called the phone number. All operators busy, call back later. Called the phone number. All operators busy, call back later.
SNCF website fail: info en temps reel?

So we decided my best option would be to get up as early as possible, go straight to the little train station in St. Jean de Losne, get on the little commuter train to Dijon and find out in person how and when I was going to get back to Paris to go to my class and do my presentation.

At 7:00, I woke up and we went to the train station. It was vacant, with a little sign hanging on the door. It was foggy. And silent. I almost expected a tumbleweed to roll across the tracks, and a vulture to be circling up above. We approached the station warily. The sign on the door was a schedule, a list of all the trains running that day from St Jean to Dijon. The list was long. Unfortunately, they had highlighted all of the trains that were actually running despite the strike. And I had missed the last one by a good hour.

We circled around to the back of the station, where through closed blinds of a locked door we could see a dim light. We knocked.

An irritated looking man in an SNCF uniform answered. We asked politely if there were any more trains that day going to Dijon. He pointed to the sign on the door as if we were idiots.

“Non. C’est indiqué la.

We asked politely if there would be any other form of public transit connecting St Jean to Dijon that day.

“Oui,” he replied shortly. “The bus.”

And how, we inquired, might one go about finding out the bus schedule?

“I don’t know the bus schedule,” he answered, before closing the door again.

I felt a slight panic. The website wasn’t working. The phone system was too busy. Even the actual employees in person at the train station weren’t able to tell me how to get back to Paris. Should I just start walking? Was there a bike? Driving wasn’t a choice; I had no car, I don’t know how to drive a manual even if I had managed to negotiate borrowing one, and, to top it all off, there was a gas shortage due to the strikes and not a single gas station in town was open.

So we did the only logical thing and went back to the Roma for a nap in front of the stove followed by champagne lunch. At 2:00, Jean Luc was headed to Dijon anyway, so he drove Hazel and me into town and dropped me at the station. If I was lucky, there was a 4:00 train that normally ran from Lausanne in Switzerland to Paris with a stop in Dijon, and rumor had it that the international trains would be running as usual. So, with a useless TGV ticket in hand, I huddled on the platform with what seemed like a thousand other people all trying to get to Paris.

When the train pulled up to the platform, it was a mad traffic jam of people all trying to squeeze on, sit down, and fit themselves and their luggage into any available space. I pushed and shoved with the best of them, and miraculously managed to find a little corner in the hallway where I could sit on my suitcase, read over my notes for my presentation, and know that, late though I was for class, I was at least headed in the right direction.

So just over an hour late, flustered but in the right city, I made it to class, we gave our presentation, and thus ended my formal schooling in transit strikes in France.

Speaking of teaching English…

October 11, 2010

I got a sneak peek at some of the teaching material we’ll be expected to use with our English classes. Not totally sure I feel comfortable using this particular page for, well, anything.

This one, however, seems SRSLY useful si on va A2DA les SMS.

Education Nationale de France: c’est une blague?

October 9, 2010

So, part of my program here in Paris (in addition to the classes and workload that I’ve been buried under… excuse the total lack of posts) is working as an English teaching assistant in a French lycée, or high school. As one might imagine, the process of becoming employed by a French governmental entity, especially the largest (and thus most bureaucratic), is not especially straightforward. Last summer, I received my school assignment: Lycée Jean-Lurçat in Paris’ 13th arrondissement. After that, it was radio silence until I arrived.

Fortunately, NYU has a teacher who is helping to coordinate all of our teaching assistantships. Unfortunately, that doesn’t even begin to make it less complicated.

As of last week, some people in my program had actually already started teaching. Most people had at least had meetings at their school. Some knew what their schedule was going to look like. I, however, was still completely clueless. Last Friday we had a ‘journée d’accueil’ where we were officially welcomed and given a long list of tasks and paperwork to complete in order to do things like get French social security numbers, be reimbursed for transportation, and, not least of all, get paid. Then on Wednesday, we had a ‘journée de formation,’ which in theory was a training day but in actuality was a chance for me to take a much needed nap in a comfortable chair in an auditorium while listening to French people try to explain how one might use a comic strip in an English class.


This very helpful journée de formation took place right at the very moment that I was originally supposed to go visit my school for the first time and meet the teacher I’d be working with. But alas the training was OBLIGATOIRE and so I rescheduled my rendez-vous at the school for Friday morning at 10:30.

Friday morning arrives. At this point, I am the ONLY student in my program who has not started teaching, much less not even visited their school or met their teacher. I’d been unable to reach the English teacher by e-mail (who checks e-mail?) and so the NYU coordinator had gotten me in touch with the proviseur, or principal.

I arrived at my school promptly at 10:30. It appeared to be some sort of break time. All of the students were outside talking and smoking. They were all taller than me, even the girls. And they all looked significantly older than me. I was officially intimidated. I went inside. Not immediately clear where an office or reception area might be. I wandered. No labels on the doors. I wandered back in the direction of the front door and noticed a little room with a man in it.


“S’il vous plait, monsieur, excusez-moi… je suis le nouvel assistant d’anglais et j’ai un rendez-vous avec Mme Mathieu a 10h30 .”

Excuse me, sir, I’m the new English assistant and I have a meeting with Madame Mathieu at 10:30.

“Vous avez un rendez-vous avec Mme Mathieu?”

You have a meeting with Madame Mathieu?

“…. Oui.”


“A quelle heure?”

…. At what time?

“…. 10h30.”

“Ok, attendez, je vais la chercher.”

Ok, hold on, I’ll look for her.

He leaves his little room and turns to speak to the woman right next to me, who evidently did not hear this exchange.

“Your appointment is here.”

“I have an appointment?”


I introduce myself. She seems flustered and confused. “Oh, we planned this for now? It’s really not ideal that you’re here in the middle of the recreation (break).”

I think back to her e-mail. “Come at 10h30, during the recreation.”

Blog 3

Blank stare.

“Ok, venez, je vais chercher Mme Husser, je vous emmene dans la salle des profs.”

Follow me, I’m going to find Mme Husser, I’ll take you to the professor’s break room.

I picture her leaving me in the professors break room, with a room full of French people wondering who I am and staring me down. I follow timidly.

We walk into the salle des profs and she heads toward a group of three woman in the corner.

“Ah, voila, Mme Husser, I have here your English teaching assistant.”

As I step forward, smiling, to introduce myself, the woman responds.

“I am not Mme Husser. And I do not speak English.”


Now I’m really concerned. The principal doesn’t even know what my professor looks like. How are we supposed to find her? Was this meeting not planned? Does she exist? What is going on?

We spend another five minutes trying to track her down. We look at her class schedule. It’s not immediately evident whether or not she is even at school today. It still remains unclear to me whether or not she is real.

Eventually, the principal has me write down my phone number and then asks me to please call her next week to see if she has managed to find Mme Husser by then.

And so I left. And we’ll try again next week.

Welcome to working in France.

Visa Wars: Episode One

July 29, 2010

Right when I thought the saga of the visa was about to come to a successful close, fate in the form of my passport threw a wrench in the spokes and sent me spiraling into a highly unusual (seriously) state of hyperventilation, stress, and swearing at inanimate objects. Last Friday at 11:30 a.m. was my visa appointment at the French Consulate in San Francisco. Last Thursday at 2:55 was my flight to San Francisco to go to my visa appointment at 11:30 on Friday morning. Last Thursday at approximately 11:00 a.m., I neatly packed all of my paperwork into my bag and double-checked that I had my passport.


I didn’t have my passport. At first, I was completely calm. “It was just sitting right here on my bed, it must have just fallen somewhere,” the stable side of my brain reasoned. But thirty minutes later, having stripped the sheets off my bed, army crawled through the entire house, scoured the backyard and even checked inside every single box in the freezer, my hope was waning and my stress was mounting.


I called everyone who might be anywhere that may have possibly seen my passport and at one point even enlisted the help of the three contractors remodeling Haylen’s bathroom in the hunt for a small, black passport case. No avail. At this point, I realized I hadn’t packed, hadn’t showered, was thirty minutes away from needing to leave for the airport, and was one hundred percent convinced that I was going to have to skip my flight, get a new passport emergency issued to me, and run and/or hitch-hike down the 5 to my appointment. I was in tears, my room was in shambles, my parents were on a hunt for my birth certificate and poor Dave was clicking patiently through the auto attendant’s menu at the Seattle Passport Agency trying to find out what my options were while I continued to crawl, dig, tear, and throw things in my quest.


At this point, I was literally seeing red and could not have made a reasonable decision if my life depended on it. I had somehow gone from “Oh, I’ll find it and figure it out,” and made the irrational leap to, “If I don’t find this in the next two minutes everything I have done in preparation for France will be in vain and I will not be able to go and I won’t get my Masters and I’ll never get a job teaching French!!!@*^!”


Thankfully, someone was still in capable-of-problem-solving-mode, and Dave suggested I call the Consulate to see if maybe, juuuust maybe, the French would grant me my visa without a passport.
And you know what? The French really came through on this one. Let me come, flipped through my Encyclopedia Brittanica of application papers, smiled and said merci and I was on my way. All that remains is to send them a passport, which I’m not ready to assume will go smoothly just yet.


We enjoyed the rest of our San Francisco weekend, and then came the next adventure: acquiring my new passport. If French bureaucrats are the masters of unnecessary paperwork requirements, US government agencies are the masters of the interminable waiting room, the robot operated phone system, and the strange ability to employ an astonishing percentage of seriously incompetent employees.

Yesterday, after spending some time on the website (confusing) and figuring out what exactly I needed (confusing), I called the Seattle Passport Agency (confusing). Ah, the auto-attendant. I was on the phone for THIRTY ONE MINUTES with a robot. I’m pretty sure it went something like this:

“For English, press two. You have reached the Seattle Passport Agency, located at 915 Second Ave. Our hours of operation are blah blah blah…. These are the services we provide: blah blah blah… “


“… Now we will give you a ten minute explanation of what the Seattle Passport Agency does [as if the name wasn’t sort of a give away?] with no way to skip to options or speak to an operator…”


“If you need a passport for travel within the next two weeks, or for a visa, press two.”

Me:(pressing two) Yay! We’re getting to the end!


Then came the appointment scheduling, which went something like this: “For the next available appointment, press one.”


“The next available appointment at the Seattle Passport agency, located at 915 2nd Ave in the Federal Building in Seattle, WA, is Wednesday, July 28th, at 9:00 a.m. If you would like to accept this appointment, press one. For the next available appointment, press two.”

I’m thinking I’ll go by on my lunch break.


“The next available appointment at the Seattle Passport agency, located at 915 2nd Ave in the Federal Building in Seattle, WA, is Wednesday, July 28th, at 9:15 a.m. If you would like to accept this appointment, press one. For the next available appointment, press two.”


Keep in mind, now, that this robot speaks particularly slowly. And so for every single 15 minute increment of time between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., I had to listen to her recite the same two minute sentence.


Which is why I made my appointment for 11, instead of noon. Because I literally could not be on the phone anymore.
I shouldn’t really have bothered with a specific appointment time, though, since once you pass through security at the Federal Building, pass the security guards on the 9th floor outside the passport office (where, FYI, they make you throw away your coffee because “there is no coffee allowed on this floor”) and enter the agency office itself, it is an absolute cluster of understaffed waiting room misery. It felt like some form of purgatory, like being trapped in the foyer between the DOL and Jury Duty.

I checked in, got my number, sat down. A0041. Surprisingly, getting all the way to A0040 took less than the hour that they had predicted it would take to actually be seen. It was A0040 that really did me in.

The girl in front of me stood up when they called her number. Shaved head, gauged earrings, a sweatshirt with a red star on it. Then her whole family stood up with her, and they walked to the window.


Man behind window: “Can I see your driver’s license, birth certificate, and passport application please?”

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “Well, I might have to have my family help me explain this one, but…

And then she launched into one of the most absurd stories I have ever heard. Apparently she has lived her whole life in West Seattle. But she was not born in a hospital. She was born at home, and the mid-wife whose responsibility it was to file for a birth certificate never did so. Seemingly, her parents never noticed, because she was home-schooled until she went to community college and so never, apparently, had need of a birth certificate. The passport man did a complete electronic file search, and said that he could not even find any record of her existence until she was close to ten years old, because she never had any interaction at all with any sort of state-sponsored organization before that point. In lieu of legitimate documents to support her identity, her family was there as her phone-a-friend-fallback, and they each spoke up in turn.

Brother of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “I was actually there for the birth, and witnessed it, in our house. I can say so on oath or whatever.”

(concerns about a young boy watching his mother give birth at home?)

Mother of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “I have an article that I wrote about this… I mean it was never published, but I sent it out to be published, but I didn’t bring it. But I could.”

Father of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “We also have this journal we kept through my wife’s pregnancy, detailing everything through the birth.”

Aunt: “I also have this birth announcement I made to send out to our friends, back when she was born.”

(all very legitimate sounding)

The man behind the counter looked unconvinced, and graciously said he did not need to read the pregnancy journal.

When I left, they were still sitting in the waiting room, attempting to scrap together evidence that this girl had, once upon a time, been a baby that was born in this country.

And so for all of my visa-related angst, I could at least say that someone in that room was worse off than I was.

Joyeux Anniversaire, USA.

July 8, 2010

Paperwork aside, I really love France. But that doesn’t mean I like it better than America. In America, we have the fourth of July, which is all about patriotism: drinking cheap beer, BBQ-ing, being outside, and blowing things up. In my circle of friends (and relatives), the preferred methodology for the latter involves dangerous amounts of fireworks designed to be relatively safe for children and lots of packing tape.


Last fourth of July, I was in France, and so I missed out on these star-spangled festivities. This year, however, we did it right, and by ‘did it right’ I mean this:


And several of these:


[Suburban I.E.D: the sparkler bomb

And inevitably, when you combine copious amounts of champagne and sparklers, someone is bound to get hurt. Surprisingly, Dave didn’t injure himself blowing the sparkler bombs up, but rather just while lighting a couple to spin around with and, like, write his name in the sky.


Several badly singed fingers later, we were on the phone with medical authorities (that would be our friend Tim who is in med school) and Dave had his hand permanently dunked in a bowl of ice water.


Fun continued in spite of Dave’s new status as burn victim, and I went to sleep shortly thereafter. I should have had some more water before going to bed, because apparently I went thirsty.
Evidently, around four in the morning, Dave got up to go to the bathroom and left the light on. This pulled me just enough out of my deep slumber to recognize that I was thirsty. I ignored the large bottle of water next to me, and apparently dragged myself to the other side of the bed.


Fortunately Dave came back before I finished the deed, but not in time to stop me from DRINKING HIS FINGER WATER, holding the bowl up to my face like I was slurping the milk after finishing my Cinnamon Toast Crunch.



So Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Here’s to being American, and to accidentally doing really gross things in your sleep.

Update: Craigslist Still Odd

June 28, 2010


The artwork depicts someone under the use of laudanum, an opium-related drug […] popular amongst […] prostitutes. The artwork suggests a strong feeling of peace and romance that we found typical for the overall atmosphere of this environment.

Wow, sold. I do love the romance and peace of that prostitute-on-laudanum vibe.