2002

FRANCE

WALKING DOWN THE STREET in New York, I saw a woman whom I thought looked French. I thought that was just me, having French on the brain, but then I saw the tattoo on her calf that said Paris. Time for me to go to Paris, I thought. So I did. For a month. Or two.

Paris was fun but cold. Saw a great show there and met with a number of friends. Paris is really a dirty city, and the food isn’t very good in general, but if you try there are some excellent places to hang out. I stayed with my friend Cory at the Place Republique, right next to a fantastic gym. I bought a parka that is meant for expeditions and summiting. I thought it would be good for Paris but it turns out to be much too hot for anything over 20 degrees Farenheit. Paris weather has been in the 30s with a lot of humidity — perhaps something like Boston.

I’ve been at Club Med since last Friday. It’s at Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe. I met my friend John in Geneva last week. As I’ve explained before, the people in Geneva think you are there to accomplish two things: 1) to buy a nice watch in the $500 – $1000 price range, and 2) to buy a nice watch in the $5,000 – $500,000 price range. I met a very cool watchmaker who’d just opened his new store and spent 2 hours with me talking and teaching me about watches. I was in heaven.

We rented a car and drove through Annecy and Albertville, then climbed up and up to get here. We passed a bunch of people putting chains on their tires, and we thought: “They’re either dumber than we are, or smarter.” A few hundred meters later, we learned that they were smarter. We put chains on in a blizzard on the side of the road. We were helped by a man who pointed out that we would do better to put the chains on the front wheels, as Peugeot hasn’t made a rear-wheel drive car in about 15 years.

Club med is a good choice for three guys who want to meet for a ski week and party on New Year’s Eve. There were 20 centimeters of new snow the next morning. Everyone went up in the ski school to meet each other and get started. I took my time. In the afternoon I took a few runs by myself. My ankle still hurts quite a bit, and I’m still walking with a limp. But, as I had suspected, I can ski much better than I can walk. It hurts to have my ankle in a boot, but once I get used to the pain I am able to ski almost normally. I don’t “limp” because the boot acts as a brace. So I passed the test. On Monday I skied all day, from 9am to 4pm. In the morning, it was -15 degrees celcius when we got going, which in Farenheit is “butt cold.” Val Thorens is above the tree line in the glacier-cut alpes, not far from Mont Blanc. The slopes aren’t very steep but the mountains rise almost vertically above the resort. Once the sun came over the peaks, around 11am, it warmed up and we had a good time. I found that I could ski hard and enjoy it, as long as I didn’t mind the feeling of a small german shepherd biting my ankle. We had a nice French lunch in the sun, even though it was really too cold to do so. By the end of the day I was ready to take the boots off and relax.

We had a great New Year’s Eve party. The Club Med people went all out and served a huge feast, lots of champagne, fancy food, chocolates, desserts, you name it we ate it (not me — I had pasta and potatoes as usual). They put on a very fun show that night and we all celebrated by going outside and watching fireworks in what was probably -15 celcius weather.

The Euro came out yesterday. My friend John went out at 3am to get some of the first Euros out of an ATM. Seems they wanted a “safe” design that wouldn’t offend anyone and tried to show the history of Europe. Yuck. The dollar is still the ugliest currency in the world, but the Euro wins the prize for the currency designed by the biggest committee. Of course, there are long lines now at the ATMS and they run out early each day. The coins, which go up to 2 Euros, are quite nice. They’re all shiny and new, and everyone has them now. They have marks from their country of origin, much as our American quarters show the states. You can’t really spend Francs any more — you hand over your Francs, get the equivalent Euros, then pay with those. The Francs are then pulled from circulation. It won’t be long before you don’t see Francs any more. There was even a funeral service for the Deutschmark in Germany.

It’s all going quite well. We need another snow storm, but we’re getting to know all the Italians, Dutch, French, Russians, Australians, and assorted others who have come to Club Med for the week. There are a handful of Americans, mostly from the East coast. By now we know many of the names and there are fierce backgammon games that go past midnight.

Dancing in France

So here I am in Paris, looking for someplace to swing dance. I went to the Slow Club the other night, on Rue de Rivoli. Now I know how the club got its name. Everyone in their 40s or 50s, which is ancient for a 42-year-old like me. Where are all the dance kids? Probably in a smoky club doing X and bumping to the loudest backbeat possible. I think if the dancers here were allowed to smoke on the dance floor or between sets on the machines at the gym, about 80% of them would do it.

I went to a lindy/Hollywood-style party last night out at Place D’Italie. An italian woman who teaches in NYC taught lindy basic, in a combination of French, English, and Italian. She was okay, but her partner was better. She got 5 minutes and halfway into a sequence before I asked if she’d maybe show us the whole thing once so we could see where she was going. Oh yeah, she said. The french just had an impossible time trying to learn Lindy moves, but they enjoyed trying. Good for me — too many women and not enough men in the classes here, so I was busy.

I took a salsa class today at my local gym, and the class was packed, mostly with nice-looking women in their 20s — a good sign. It was a beginner class, and most beginners in the class got almost nothing out of it. Why is it all the good dancers think they have a natural teaching gift? In my experience, fewer than 10% of dance teachers have even the first clue about teaching (probably goes for most other things I’ve studied as well, including skydiving). Many teachers want to keep the pace up so as to maintain the interest of their better students. They move on as soon as a few people get it. They don’t realize that half the people don’t have partners, many people can’t see the teacher, and the slow learners just get worse as the hour goes on. By the end of the hour, the teacher has taught a complicated set of moves to a few people who probably knew it anyway. No one else has had time to catch up. Rare are the teachers who focus on the basics and urge the sharper students to do it to perfection while encouraging the middle of the pack to get it down and build a solid platform for later learning. They think the class (or they) will get bored if they don’t teach something “interesting” and as a result after class most students hang on the walls because they don’t have a clue where to start. They’re no better of than when they came in The Euros have changed hands, but the students haven’t learned to.

The thing that bothers me most is that so many teachers have such a remote idea of what’s actually going on during their classes. In most cases, the women are all backleading the men through the moves; this makes the men worse and upsets those who can actually lead. But the women don’t understand that they can’t become better dancers by being better leaders — they just pull harder. Nowdays, I don’t even start with an asian woman over 30 — I just smile and make like I have an infectious disease so she moves on to the next guy. I’m sorry to generalize, but I feel like they are going to send me to the chiropractor before the evening is over. Among non-asians, you can tell by the way they are dressed. They are wearing professional dance shoes in a beginner class. Or gold. If they are wearing gold, chances of spraining a wrist go up exponentially according to the coverage. Or you can tell by the way they come at you, like both of you should really be wearing helmets and mouthguards.

Teachers don’t bother to explain that if the lead isn’t there they have to be patient and encourage the lead, rather than take over. One woman today was leading so heavily I offered to switch places with her so she could lead and I could follow. She told me I wasn’t leading so she had to. I’ve been dancing for 15 years. She’s probably been backleading for 20. I’m completely outgunned. I feel like Al Gore going up against the entire Republican party. This is so common that it makes taking dance lessons as much fun as driving home with someone who’s had too much to drink and insists on driving.

Everyone is busy trying to mimic the teacher — you find yourself dancing with women whose necks are twisted like Linda Blair’s so they can watch the teacher rather than their partner for what their feet are supposed to do next. How many thumbs do I have to peel off the back of my hand, only to have them snap right back into the Vulcan death grip? And do you know why? It’s because most of the men haven’t a clue what to do with their hands once they are outside their pockets. Most men in this kind of social situation feel like deer frozen in the headlights — everything they have to work with turns to jelly (yes, I mean EVERYTHING). Walking into a dance class is like getting on a boat — you need to get your confidence up before you can navigate. This is natural. Men who have a bad experience (let’s be glad at least they don’t throw up over the rails onto the mirrors!) tend not to come back. It’s the teacher’s job to show them the mechanics, put some backbone into them, and — yes, it can be done, Virginia — still manage to make the class fun and interesting.

In all these situations, the issue isn’t the students. It’s unaware teachers. In the absence of good teaching, students revert to their own survival skills, which just happen not to work very well in a designated-partner situation where two people have to cooperate to accomplish anything. Teachers are responsible. Teachers reinforce bad habits by focusing on the sequence and not the learning. Unfortunately, a sequence poorly learned is NEVER retained, so it’s all an exercise in having to come back next time for more bad lessons.

It’s too bad you can’t get seriously injured dancing. Maybe then the teachers would realize the value of understanding where students are and what they need to become better dancers.

The Bonsai and the Chameleon

TWO DAYS AGO it was bright and sunny and felt like winter might have cracked and spilled over into spring. But today it’s cold and gray and wet. A normal January day in Paris. I’m staying in the Place Republique, at the top of the 3rd Arrondissement, about a 20-minute walk from here to the river. In Paris, you have to know your Arrondissements, because that’s how everyone knows where anything is. For example, the sales started a week ago, so everyone is shopping. My favorite shoe store was having a sale. Usually, I go to their store near the Place Vendome, in the 2nd Arrondissement. But that’s where they had the clothing sale, and for shoes I had to go to their store in the 8th. The dreaded 8th.I hate the 8th Arrondissement. I can easily spend a month in Paris and never set foot in the 8th. It’s where the Champs Elysees and the Arche de Triomphe sit patiently among the throngs of waddling tourists wearing Hard Rock Café sweatshirts and eating Gauffres — these sickeningly sweet waffles with cream oozing out from all sides. It’s the Fisherman’s Wharf of Paris. Yuck. But I have to go there because that’s where they have the narrow shoes.

Very few stores in Paris sell narrow shoes. In New York, I normally get shoes at Faragammo, who makes B and C widths. They make them, but they don’t sell them in Paris, at least not on the Rue de Foubourg St Honore in the 2nd. Europeans have wide feet, shaped like bricks – D and E widths. Americans have less wide feet, C and D widths. The only place you can get a B width is at a few stores in the 1st that cater to tourists. So I go, and the shoes are unbelievable and they’re all on sale, so I try on every pair they have that fit. And the two salesmen in the store say what most salespeople say to me: That monsieur’s french is very good. They always say that in a tourist store, because they’re used to Americans who speak no french at all. In a retail environment, my french is quite workable. I may ask for help with a few words, but there’s no question of having to revert to english. In normal conversation, however, I can’t hold up my end because when the subject changes I’m lost. Also, French people aren’t that good at slowing down, and normal-speed french is too fast for me. So they usually speak english with me if they can. My goal is to walk into a store someday and have them not say ANYTHING about how good my french is, but instead just converse normally without it being an issue at all. That’s how I’ll know my french is pretty good.

At the gym

The gym I joined is great. Thank god they don’t allow smoking in the building, or I swear the French would sit on the machines and puff away. I’ve been taking some salsa classes, which require a good pair of new shoes, and which have way too many women for the few men that manage to show up. Unfortunately, the women are used to dancing with men who can’t dance, so they usually lead me, rather than the other way round. I haven’t been injured but it’s much more fun when only one person is leading.

I’ve decided to stick around for another month. Not because of the chameleons, but because I am interested in the idea of buying a flat here. The chameleons arrived two weeks ago, from Morocco, in Sophie’s pocket. She just picked them up in the market in a small box like you’d get Chinese food in, put them in her pocket on the plane ride home from Marrakech, and took them out after clearing customs. She got them because of the bonsai tree. Sophie is Cory’s girlfriend. She’s going to a French state school for diplomats and has just been transferred to Brussels for the “practical experience” portion of her education. She’s working with the EU – very cool. Soon we will all have Euros (in two weeks, most of the French Francs have been sucked out of pockets, drawers, handbags, and mattresses, and replaced by these nondescript bills that are so politically correct you can’t even play Liar’s Poker with them).

So before going off to Brussels for six months, she went to Morocco with her family, and Cory asked her to bring back a chameleon for the bonsai tree. Cory is my friend in Paris. We met online about seven years ago, when the Internet was still up-and-coming and we were both building web sites. His multimedia company produced the CD ROM of The Little Prince and many other exciting titles that actually still sell in France (The interactive CD-ROM market in the US is mostly gone, having been killed by the Internet, but in France it’s alive and well). And his current company produced Amazon.com’s number-one current bestselling e-book, a treatise by Noam Chomsky on the 9/11 disaster. What? You haven’t read an e-book yet? Well, you’d better get over to Amazon.com and check them out. So I often stay with Cory in Paris and he stays with me in San Francisco.

The Bonsai and the Chameleon

I gave them the bonsai tree as a present, and they love it. It’s 25 years old, and it’s shooting new leaves out all over the place. In about four more weeks, Cory and Sophie have to take it back to the Japanese guy to get their first lesson in pruning. Cory used to have a chameleon who lived in a potted plant once, and so he thought it would be a good idea to ask Sophie to bring one back, since you can get them easily in Morocco. So she brought them back. Their names are “The Big Guy” and “The Little Guy” — we’re afraid to give them real names until they eat, which they haven’t. And that’s the problem. They haven’t eaten in almost two weeks.

Chameleons live alone, at the tops of trees and bushes, where they eat live insects by snagging them with their long, coiled, projectile tongues. They turn whatever color their surroundings are, but they get dark spots if they’re upset or uncomfortable. They live happily in a little tree without running off. And they only eat live food, which is why we have a teeming terrarium full of worms and crickets. The worms are doing amazingly well. At the rate they’re doubling, there should soon be more worms here than there are atoms in the known universe. But the chameleons won’t eat them. They have to be live, so we lasso them with string and hang them like wiggling sausages from the branches of the bonsai tree, where the big guy happily resides. The little guy has his own potted plant, because they really don’t like to be near each other. They turn bad colors when they are in the same tree. But even though the worms are wriggling and even though we put them into the terrariums full of crickets, these polychromatic lizards won’t eat. I spend a good portion of my day wrangling worms with tweezers and thread, trying to hang something appetizing in front of the chameleons. The worms, hanging in various states of exhaustion, remind me of scenes from Pulp Fiction. I wish we could just get into a feeding routine that works, because I’m tired of throwing away the dead worms and re-rigging new ones. And that’s why we can’t name the chameleons, because we don’t know how long they’ll last without eating. They love taking showers and being warm and moist. But if they won’t zap a cricket or a worm, I’m afraid the bonsai tree will have to live its next 25 years alone.

And now the sad part. The big guy just wasn’t eating and he wasn’t going to make it. I could see that. So i put him in a small cardboard box, took him to the botanical garden, and dropped him off. To die. I couldn’t kill him myself, and I’m sure he died within days. Even though it was more cruel, somehow it was the only thing I could manage to do. I got online and got advice from a number of people who helped me learn to feed the little guy, and the big breakthrough was getting him to drink water. Once we could do that, his appetite came back. He started zapping crickets and munching them happily. After Cory came back, the little guy did even better, so they named him Rufous.

Looking for a Pied-a-Terre

So I’m babysitting the bonsai and the chameleons, and I’m looking for an apartment here in Paris. I decided I’d look into buying a 2-bedroom place that I can rent to American tourists who come to Paris looking for something a little bigger than a $400/night hotel room. As it turns out, the market for such places is excellent – there’s plenty of demand, even at $350/night if you have a really nice place. So I’m looking for a really nice place in a really good location, and I’m learning that they’re really expensive (images of Homer Simpson saying his favorite word come to mind). I found one place right on the river that needs a complete renovation, and I’m doing the math to see if I might be able to make it work. If you know me you can imagine that I’ve already created a four-page spreadsheet to model the business down to the last detail. In fact, as usual, I’m quite proud of my spreadsheet and all its features (I’ll be happy to email a copy to anyone interested). If I could make as much money creating beautiful spreadsheets as I could renting apartments, I’d be in great shape. But you can’t sleep in a spreadsheet, and I can’t keep the line at the bottom from turning red, so I still have more work to do. Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of my time with brokers and bankers, getting free french lessons because they don’t speak English. I realized there’s no need to pay for French lessons if you can just run around having semi-legitimate excuses to deal with French people all day. Plus, I get to see some amazing apartments that I can’t afford.

All in all, it’s been a great way to spend the last two weeks and probably the next four as well. In all of this — lassoing worms and calculating repair expenses and tax schedules, going to the gym, trying to find decent vegetarian food, and trying to get my ankle back in shape, I’m pretty busy. With any luck, we’ll be looking for names for the chameleons pretty soon, and the worms won’t take over the apartment.