Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Why won't the French speak English??" Americans should understand.

Emotions in Nice, France.

i think it is a well known reputation of the French that they refuse to speak English, even though they can, just out of spite. In fact, there's a joke that's well traveled among those of us working in European tourism that, though the French are maybe not meant to be the main butt of it, depicts this reputation well:

If you go to Germany and ask someone, "Do you speak English?," they will say, "Yes," and then they will speak to you in English.
If you go to France and ask someone, "Do you speak English?," they will say, "No," and then they will speak to you in English
If you go to Italy and ask someone, "Do you speak English?," they will say, "Yes, yes, no problem," but they will not understand a word you are saying.

And my experience is that all three parts are actually accurate, to some extent at least.

But my work brings me to France quite often and i have found there is more to this French resistance than first meets the ear.

For the most part, in the major touristy areas where i work most often (Paris and the French Riviera), most service providers speak English well enough to make both vacation and working there comfortable. As in most European countries, i find though that some people, and some groups of people (namely private bus drivers), often don't speak any English at all. And that is fine and somewhat understandable. But then this happened:

Arriving to a Paris hotel with a group of Americans, i found the Reception staff was able to tell me all the information i needed (room numbers, how to put the little key-card into the slot to keep the electricity working, bar hours, etc.) and answer all of my questions (time of dinner and breakfast, where ATMs are, etc.). Then, to have some chat, i asked one of the guys working there something like, "How's the season been going this year?" He asked me to repeat myself and i did. Then he said, "I'm sorry, I don't speak English."

At first i thought, "Oh my god, this proves it! i know he DOES speak English, but he is refusing to!!!"

Then, on calmer reflection, i realized the legitimate possibility that what i'd heard from so far may be all the English he knows. Someone who interests themselves in basic competency at their job would, i think, learn how to say the always-used-phrases of their job in the most-common language of their clients.

This brought to mind both the joke here above and the angry thoughts that accompany the reputation that the French can speak English but refuse to. And then, from way back in my college days came the following memory:
Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister of France.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Former Prime Minister of France Michel Rocard was speaking at my alma mater, The American University, in Washington, D.C. He was there to speak about the importance of limiting the availability of small arms in the world. The crowd was mostly Ambassadors and professors. At a certain point in his speech he made a long pause, and we watched as he thumbed through his several pages of notes. Then, eyes down on his notes, he said, "Some people say the French are arrogant....." and then he kept going through his papers without looking up for a beat. Then he made a big smile and, head down, turned his eyes up towards up, and the crowd erupted with laughter.

It was a great deadpan delivery of a truth that was hilarious to hear purely because of who it was coming from. And now in my mind it was reflecting on that Paris reception worker - he was too arrogant to speak a language poorly, as many of us would be, and so said, "I don't speak English," fully believing it.

He was, and they are, i realized, embarrassed to not speak English better. And so they avoid that legitimately uncomfortable situation by saying, "I'm sorry, I don't speak English."

This was later confirmed in Nice at another hotel when when of my teen aged, American clients went to reception and said, in TV-induced valley girl speed-read accent, "Can I have another towel because they room doesn't have enough and we want more." Now, i thought it would have been reasonable for even a pre-internet age adult from her own country to not be able to understand that verbal explosion. The French receptionist blushed hard and shook her head. So the American repeated herself and the receptionist, red as a granny apple said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand." And i heard and understood real embarrassment in her voice as she spoke. And i began to understand:

This nice little French receptionist had been studying English, and had in fact reached professional competence in that language, just as the one in Paris had. And now this sitcom-like American girl was asking her a question she didn't understand at all, and she was embarrassed.

So i blame the French reputation for refusing to speak English on a bad combination of gaining professional competence (unlike the Italians) without the Germanic-language ease of the Germans, plus their own particular brand of high-self-expectations or arrogance.

And then i realized this is more understandable to us Americans than we probably realized.

i was recently looking through my Facebook wall when i found this:

American flag and French flag together, Normandy, France.

My friend Devon, who is quite a world traveller and actually speaks passable French, was venting about Spanish in way resembling the French attitude! And i found out it's not just him with this very same thought, there's a little Facebook group complaining about having to push 1.  And plenty of other bloggers and writers have made the same complaint.

And that's when i realize: The French are just like us (Americans), except that they actually tend to learn some other languages when they work with foreigners. :-)

All photos by author unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Italian View on America and Death Penalty: Translation of Jovanotti's book "Il Grande Boh!"

Jovanotti flashing peace sign! Photo from
Wikimedia Commons.
As an American living in Italy, people (friends, family, travel clients, etc., especially Americans, of course) often ask me what Italian people think of America. It is a complicated question to answer because, just as the USA has many contradictions, so do Italians' feelings about the USA.

Generally speaking, Italians love America. i mean, they walk around with hard-ons for most things American. But then of course there are strong feelings against American political policies, especially on things like war, espionage and capital punishment.

Here, in a book by Lorenzo Cherubini, the Italian rock star and traveller who performs under the name Jovanotti, i have found one of the best representations of this mix of feelings. Much of his style and career celebrate Americana, both directly and indirectly. But in this section, titled "The Horror," of his 1998 book, "Il Grande Boh!" he talks about following one piece of Americana that disgusts him - the death penalty.

i could not find any English language-translation of this passage, or any other part of the book, on the internet. So i have taken the liberty of translating it for you, my dear English-speaking audience. None of the content is mine, it all belongs to Jovanotti, i have tried simply to bring it to light in English-language. Here it is:

" 'The Horror'  February 4, 1998.  
"Il Grande Boh!", book by Jovanotti.
As if New Year's, following the countdown of the TV that brings on midnight, at midnight exactly, in a prison in Texas, mythical land of cowboys and Indians, of cactus and desert, a woman will be executed by means of lethal injection. Live on TV the voice of a journalist over the phone, when midnight arrives and the face of the clock changes the date, tells us that the injection has happened and it sounds like he can see the needle that enters into the arm with the surgical sterility of a hospital procedure, everything clean, everything silent, like they want to give an air of civility to the most barbarous of actions. No, the machete is much better actually, stoning is better, decapitating with a hatchet is better, the amputated head rolling into a basket among screams of a ferocious piazza/people that this precision silences, much better to cut the body to pieces and feed them to the dogs, and to those that applaud the death penalty, or to them themselves, to them themselves is best. While through the needle the poison mixes with the blood of that woman, I was meditating on the horror, the horror that Kurtz spoke of at the end of Apocolypse Now, the horror that traces the continuous line of all human history and that reveals its most terrible face when it is accompanied by the law, the speeches of the powerful, the electoral campaigns, the blue suits and white shirts, the desks decorated with ironed flags that have never seen the wind. 
Reading "Il Grande Boh!," a fascinating book by Jovanotti
One thing is for sure, the death penalty is what renders man the most worthless of creation, I am ashamed of being human when these laws are applied in any part of the world, and in particular when they are applied in the United States I feel a great pain and I feel hatred towards rock, towards Fonzie, towards Coca-Cola, towards Robert de Niro, towards Mickey Mouse, towards Indiana Jones, towards Star Wars and all the American things I have in my veins. Even in my veins I have a bit of poison that tonight entered into the veins of that woman that was killed. I feel like vomiting, America is disgusting to me, with its fucking prairies and its empty skyscrapers, its cursed films and its bloody dollars, it's doll women and its eroticism without sensuality. Many countries have the death penalty but only the United States does it with such cruelty, with such complacency, with a sterilized needle that enters the body. And then the United States makes a big impression on us because, willingly or not, you grow up thinking that they are a model of organization to be imitated, with their beautiful and moving Declaration of Independence. There the death penalty is applied in a scientific manner, with the minimum possible pain. And that sterility, that absence of microbes that show the absolute horror of what is happening, as if canceling the context, as if death were isolated and its face rendered visible. It is the death that arrives with its scythe but a sterilized scythe that leaves no sign and leaves no drop of blood, it's a death without noise, without anger, without screaming, a death accompanied only by a signature on a sheet of paper, it is death elected to represent a nation, a whole nation that becomes homicide nation, that believes to be God and instead puts horror on the scene, and that discredits all humankind in front of the Universe."                (from pp. 104-105, Il Grande Boh!, by Jovanotti, ISBN 978-88-07-88036-0. Translated from the Italian by PaxRyan.)
This testimony of this artist, of this man, that even as an Italian he has America and American stuff in his blood, is powerful.  i think it is a fascinating point, all the more so made by a foreigner though still just as valid, that it is precisely the greatness and powerful influence of America that give it greater responsibility. And that when it fails in that responsibility by leading by depraved, backwards and/or inhumane example, we all suffer for it that much more.

i also agree with him that hiding barbarity in any way, whether it be by making it sterile or by not translating texts that criticize it, helps no one and hurts us all. i believe that with awareness we can fix any inhumanity - even the American death penalty.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Who ARE these Fakirs?? Rome's Mysterious Street Performers!

Street performers with Colosseum in background. Via Fori Imperiali, Rome, Italy.

How do those fakirs do that??
 These guys just started showing up in Rome this spring. Now they're all over town all of a sudden! i encountered three sets of them in one walk from the via Fori Imperiali entrance of the Roman Forum to Piazza Venezia the other day!!
My clients while i am doing tours ask me lots of questions about them.

"Is that real??"
"How does he DO that??"
"Who are those guys??"

And, are they Muslim Fakirs or Hindu Baba / Sadhus??

"Well, they do appear to be meditating," i tell them. "Meditation can make us really powerful, i know that."

Though this never has anything to do with anything i've been hired to tell them about, they tend to want more explanation than that.

So: Since they are wearing that saffron-orange color and sit in meditation postures indicates that they are either Hindu Babas or Muslim Fakirs. 

Hindu Baba doing yoga in Rishikesh, India. Photo by my friend Kathryn.
These are basically the same thing - ascetic, mystical branches of each of those faiths that emphasizes meditation and often performs mysterious, impressive, or miraculous feats.

They sure look like the Babas i often saw and met in India, as in this photo from Rishikesh.

Hindu Babas / Sadhus in their church/home, Haridwar, India
In Haridwar also i met a group of priests dressed just like these street performers in Rome, but they were Hindu sadhu babas!

When i searched i found very few pictures of Muslim Fakirs. i guess they're camera shy. But of the very few i could find, i did not find any dressed in these distinctive saffron robes. So i think these guys in Rome are representing themselves as Babas / Sadhus 
(whether or not they happen to be Bangladeshi Muslim men ;-) ) 

But the question remains: How do they DO that??

Before. (Babas setting up in Rome)

Well, personally i believe in magic, so i wouldn't be bothered to find an explanation generally. But i have of course figured it out.

i'm not going to tell you though. They're good performers, trying to make they're living, their magic's their magic ;-) Sorry.

After! Voila, ecco Babas!!
But i will give you two hints. First check out how they set themselves up - they appear, voila!, suddenly, with the help of an assistant, from under that black cloth.

Second, in this final pic, check out the slope of the bottom guy's shoulders.

That's it, those are my hints. And remember, magic is as good an explenation as any!! :-)

Hari om;-)

All photos by author unless otherwise stated.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Catholic Torture: Carcassone's Inspiring History

Drawing of woman being
tortured on "Judas Cradle."
 Image by
Carcassone, France. Photo by France This Way Castles
 On a recent tour of southern France, i brought a student group to Carcassone, the castle town said to have inspired Sleeping Beauty, and where Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves was filmed.   

Judas Cradle torture device, in
The Museum of Torture, Carcassone, France
When i do tours like this, i am supposed to give commentary and introductions on the various sites i bring clients too. Writing this material is my responsibility, but the agency often gives suggestions for content. For Carcassone, they recommended that i explain the Albigensian Crusade, as this town was one of the main sites of this tragedy. Also this, i think, will inspire another, more detailed blogpost soon. What you need to know for now though, is that the Albigensian Crusade was a Holy War declared by the Pope against the Albigensians (later called the Cathars) and that then paved the way for The Holy Inquisition. That is, it is a story of the Pope mustering military might and employing shocking torture devices against fellow Christians, for the purpose of avoiding what he saw as subversive philosophies among that rival sect. 
Confession Chair/ Interrogation Chair,
Museum of Torture, Carcassone, France

 The pictures and pieces were truly disturbing as they make clear the profound and vast amount of depraved thought that went into creating physical pain on other human beings, specifically other Christians. The Judas Cradle was meant to puncture the victim's anus, vagina or scrotum, as the interrogator (a Catholic monk commissioned either by the Pope or someone under the Pope's hierarchy) would then adjust the pressure by attaching weights to the hands and feet of the victim. 

The Confession Chair, used during Crusader and Inquisition interrogations against the heretical Cathar Christians, was covered in iron spikes to torture the victim during their questioning. 

The Iron Maiden would close around this wrong-believing Christian and slowly drain their blood.

The Wheel was designed just as a place to hold the victim, while the priest systematically broke each bone in their body, and then left them there hanging, waiting for their not-soon-enough death.

The Iron Maiden,
Torture Museum,
Carcassone, France
Drawing of The Wheel,
Torture Museum,
Carcassone, France

Lethal torture device, Torture Museum,
Carcassone, France

And this device was designed to simply hold the victim immobile until cramps and lack of blood flow drove them crazy until death. 

And as the French re-taught with the guillotine during their revolution, once you start using torture and violence, you can expect it to both continue and to start consuming victims entirely unrelated to their original purpose. 

Drawings of various forms of Scold's Bridles,
Torture Museum, Carcassone, France

In southern France, Papal (and other) powers employed devices such as the Scold's Bridle, a steal mask in various forms forced over the face and mouth of women for the crime of talking too much, especially in church or in the presence of a man.

The Saw was used to literally saw people in half for the crime of homosexuality.

One form of Scold's Bridle,
Torture Museum,
Carcassone, France

While gathering the group to leave Carcassone, several students who had visited The Torture Museum were discussing its truly stomach-turning quality. A 14year old girl among them, that had not gone to this museum, asked if it could really be as bad as Al Qaeda torture devices used today. In fact, some quick research revealed to me that the American military has made discoveries indicating Al Qaeda may employ torture devices such as blowtorching the skin, removal of eyes, meat cleavers, whips and others. 

Drawing of The Saw,
Torture Museum,
Carcassone, France
At the time i didn't say much in response, as these kids were on vacation, not at school. But part of the reason for this blog is to keep things in perspective. We could compare this girl's fear of Al Qaeda tortures militarily to what goes on in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. But the far more relevant comparison for me is to remember that there's nobody torturing today that's doing much that wasn't done by the Pope (literally all of those Al Qaeda examples were employed by Papal forces in southern France 700years ago, to the best of their technological ability at that time) a very long time ago. Everything comes from somewhere, and i encourage us all to hesitate before casting the first stone.

"Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it," so i've heard, and this one chapter i sure hope we can avoid coming back round to. 

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Female Popes: Avignon Papal Palaces special exhibition "Le Papesses"

In June i was working as a Tour Accompanier (a major part of how i make my living) on a trip that included a visit to the Palais de Papes, the Papal Palaces in Avignon, France. This is where the Popes lived during The Avignon Exile, having abandoned Rome for most of the 14th century.

"We Are All Flesh (Istanbul)", Belinda de Bruckyere, 2011-2012
The Palaces themselves proved impressive in size, but stripped of any riches by the post-French Revolution forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. But in their halls we found this amazing exhibition of modern art titled, Les Papesses, (The Female Popes)!

The first piece you encounter on the visit route was this one, seemingly a deformed Mr. Potato Head doll made out of horse bodies. It was a pretty good shocker. One of the teachers of the group, from the Art Department of their school, came running back from that room to tell me to look forward to what was coming next. She was right to be excited, i thought, this was sure to be more exciting than any Papal museum on its own!:-)

"Chemise de Nuit" ("Night Shirt") by Jana Sterbak
The title, the curator explained in on-site information placards, was taken from the legend of Pope Joan. Though i'm thinking i will add another blogpost just on this legend soon, here is the short version:

During the 9th Century the Pope was crossing the Tiber River in Rome during a parade....when she gave birth. The crowd was horrified, stoned the Pope to death and tossed the wretched, female body into the river. So the curator brought together 4 female artists with provocative art and dubbed them The Female Popes. 

The information panels on-site also referenced medieval theater customs. 
From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.

"The collected works of these high priestesses have been chosen have been chosen to reconstruct Avignon's medieval history, the time when early theatre portrayed mystery plays, so that fear of the devil could be exorcised, and the celebrated prophecies of Nostradamus expressed," 

writes Mezil, the curator.

i could easily see how these works invoked mystery plays - because i had no idea what some of these pieces were, what they represented or why. But i enjoyed it and found it very thought provoking.

From "Le Papesse" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.
From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.
In fact, except for just a couple of pieces, i failed to either find out or to record the name and artist of the specific pieces, as you will see from most of the remaining captions. But they are all from those four female artists, seen here as priestesses of the highest level: Camille Claudel, Louise Borgeois, Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak, Belinda de Bruckyere.

The exhibit went on through many rooms of the Palaces, and really made it much more interesting. Otherwise it is just a series of empty halls. When i later asked my American, mostly-student group what they had thought of the exhibit, most of them responded with questions of their own: "What WAS that?" "Why was THAT there?"
From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.
  And at least three students, independently of each other, told me that they didn't like the exhibit because it had made them uncomfortable. 

From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.
i am no expert on modern art or its purposes, but i told them i suspected this made the exhibit and its pieces a success - it seemed fairly clear that the artists, the curator, and whoever's idea it was to put this in the Papal Palaces had all meant to be provocative, to provoke thought and feeling. A few kids thought it was disturbing, a few, like me, thought it was cool and exciting. ::Check:: - the artists got us, i think, mission accomplished?
From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.
From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.

The exhibit did give the palaces a bit of spooky or eerie quality, to be sure, especially this piece, of ghostly night gowns and strait jackets.

And one piece that thrilled me more than any of the others was a sculpture of an enormous spider. In any other context, it would have been meaningless to me. But here in the palaces where seven Popes lived, it seemed clear to me that this was a reference to the Queen Spider, holder of the Holy Document of Vatican Law. 

From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.
If you don't already know the reference, you should really check out the classic South Park episode, Red Hot Catholic Love. i did not find out exactly when the sculpture was made (if anyone out there has that info, or any of the names, dates or artists of these other pieces, i would love to hear from you!), but the South Park episode is from 2002. So, though i don't know which came first, i am very confident that these two pieces must have influenced each other (either that or maybe they just both portray a profound and hidden truth. i mean, can these two sources combined really be less reliable than the world's best-selling living author, Dan Brown?? ;-) )

"Pomodoro or Pomme d'or - Tomate" by Jana Sterbak, 2013.
This piece by Jana Sterbak is fascinating in its title. "Pomodoro" in Italian means tomato, but "Pomme d'or" in French, i'm pretty sure, means "Golden Apple."

From "Le Papesses" ("The Female Popes"), temporary exhibit
at Palais de Papes, the Palaces of the Popes, in Avignon, France.

The exhibit, opened on the 9th of June, will continue till November 11, 2013. If you're going to be in this region of France, this exhibit is a wonderfully refreshing attraction among the castles and churches we usually tourist-shuffle through. And it sure brings to life an otherwise stripped-bare site of former Papal splendor.

All photos by the author.
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