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A small tragedy at the park

The other day I was reading a book in the park when I noticed a middle-aged man sitting on the bench in front of me. His head was in his hands, his growing boldspot exposed to the passerby’s. His dress was shabby enough to evoke pity, but just not enough to assume the worst. He was under nourished, badly dressed and unshaven. And that is when they arrived, his two screaming boys. Both perfectly clean with carefully combed hair, one waving a pirate’s sword and the other with a wood-and-plastic bow and arrow. They came running passed with a little girl, also armed with a plastic sword.

As they stormed past, the exhausted father watched them with one eye, noticing that the little group ran up the stairs to the upper level of the park, followed by the girls parents. I presumed that he found that comforting to know that his boys were being watched by a parent as his head sunk back into his hands. I read on.

A few minutes later, the girl’s mother appears back downstairs and a deeper truth is revealed about the poor fellow. She tells him that they are leaving, and that his boys are still on the upper level. The father looks at her with his weary eyes and thanks her, followed by the words “they’re used to it”, to avoid being thought of as a slouching father. The girls’s mother gives a half smile and walks off. As soon as she is out of sight, he puts himself back into position.

A small fifteen minutes later, the boys entice the father to playing football on a small patch of green grass. Reluctantly he had dragged himself over there to join his enthusiastic boys, and as the game progressed, he starting getting a taste for it. The ball was being kicked from Indian to Pirate to Father who ran as fast as he could with the little feet of the boys chasing him on his heels. The father’s face lit up in enjoyment. But just as he kicked the ball to his little Indian we heard a whistle blow. The Parks Department: No football on the grass!

“Huh?” the poor fellow retorted, “we can’t play football on the grass?”

And then, of course, the inevitable shake of the head with authority. The man guided his little ones off the grass and into the playground area, dragging his heart behind him. Back to his bench. And there you have the whole truth of tragedy. When you are feeling down, you can not just be let down any further, it does not work like that. No, you need a small lifting of the spirits to be able to be properly pushed down lower. Life. It’s the small things.

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A rose by any other name

It is almost impossible not to judge a translation on a sign when you see one. You look at the English, then back at the French, then back at the English. If German or Italian is there too, and you have the time, you compare those too. Often you will notice that it is not the same – the sense may be different, the implications could be different, but most often of all, the politiness level is rarely the same: French signs tend to assume you are an 18th century aristocrat taking the metro, while the English version assumes that you have a vocabulary of 20 words. And of course, sometimes, it is exactly the same.

But rarely do you really feel like one language “wins” by really nailing it, unless, that is, it is a name. If you didn’t already look at the accompanying picture, then this would be a good time to do so. Indeed. I propose that from now on, we only speak of  the Forest Eagle Owl in French. Le Grand-Duc du Népal, at your service.

(Picture taken in the Ménagerie, Paris V)

Staring at the rich

Last night, I had the pleasure of watching the Korean film The Housemaid (2010) by Im Sang-Soo. In the film, a young girl is hired into the home of a wealthy and powerful family. Besides the fact that the house is somewhat creepy (to add flair to the film, no doubt), what is remarkable is how the high ranking family is presented. It is not at all obvious how to present an upper class family, because on the one hand they are just people and on the other you want them to look (and be?) superior. Let us see what they did here to show that superiority.

The woman is a stunningly beautiful and ruthless lady Macbeth and her husband plays piano as a concert pianist, has the manners and charm of a diplomate, the taste in food and wine of an enologist, the immaculate sense of dress of a top designer and has the trained body of an athlete all while having a demanding and time-consuming career. Now everyone understands that the point of this is to create a difference between the common girl and the high ranking family, but they clearly went overboard with it. Of course, in film or literature they often do, for the effect, but let us look at the underlying thought.

The thought behind such a presentation must be that people who are so high up on the social ladder can only possibly be there by devious means, so they must be corrupt in one way or another. Secondly, with an unlimited budget, people can become sophisticated in all fields (athletics, music, food and wine, etc). I think we can assume that the latter is an artistic trick to differentiate the characters. To become an expert in wine, sports or music one must dedicate years of study into the field. Money helps buy good teachers and free up time for study, but it remains limited – we can not do “everything”. But what about the former?

Power corrupts, they are powerful hence they must be corrupt. This fallacy is at the heart of the image people have of those above them, perhaps to mask jealousy. The image is reinforced by the press, as the sole times we hear details about the lives of those above us are when they are caught up in a scandal of sorts. When they out themselves voluntarily, it is to show themselves in a good light, so doing something they are good at or showing flattering pictures of themselves. If they would be wholly exposed, the illusion would be gone. That is why, in the movie, we follow the new maid as she discovers the family, to have the external eye. And then, by overdoing it on the particularities of the family and their lack of moral scruples, the audience, who we can safely assume are al the lesser to them, can find satisfaction in the thought that they at least have more moral integrity. I am feeling very happy. You?

What is so great about free Wifi anyway?

When I hear that the hotel, library or the café I am going to has a free unlimited wifi, a tingling sensation goes through me. Oooooh. Free Wifi! However silly that may sound, it is surprising that a technology which is so immensely popular can still bring about a feeling. But why?

You would think that we got used to it now. The first laptops with Wifi (iBooks) came into existence more than a decade ago now. Wifi had spread like wildfire, mostly as a means to connect to the internet, appearing in libraries, stations, cafés and hotels. With time, more and more people started setting up wireless networks at home too, to connect to the internet but also to connect printers or sending movies to TV sets. It is everywhere!

But only a few weeks ago, when Steve Jobs presented Apple’s project for new offices in Cupertino to the City Council, an excited council member asked if they could get free wifi in exchange for their approval. They did not get it, the company considering it the job of the city to install free wifi if they wanted it, but it is humorous that the request pops up. Why does it still get people’s heart racing? People who want their emails and Google Maps on the go generally have smart-phones, which work just find without Wifi. Offices and homes with computers generally already have their own Wifi networks. So what good is wifi elsewhere really?

I do not think it is what it actually does is that important anymore. Wifi has become a feeling, just like climate control. Just the idea that I could open up my laptop and send an email, or look something up in wikipedia, or book a flight for our holiday makes me feel happy. It is the accessibility of the outside world right then and there. Of course the mobile phone can do a lot, and we are very impressed, but It is not the same thing. What makes Wifi so special, is that we are used to computers being on desks with a spaghetti of cables hanging out the back and with wifi we are receiving an email or a Facebook message right then and there, lying in the grass if we feel like it. It is still amazing.

Of course this should all have become a mobile thing, and it is, but it is the snags which keeps the shine on wifi. The mobile phone still has a stigma to it that we might get ripped off (because we crossed a border somewhere) or that it won’t work (too far out of town, there is no reception in the carpark, on that metro-line, or you are with Bouygues…). Wifi does not have that stigma (despite not being parachute solid), when it works it just works. Like the perfect temperature, it is all around us, and we can feel at home. Even if we do not use it.

Academic Progression

Every once in a while some graffiti lingers around in my head, waiting for a place to be archived. Perhaps it needs to be integrated into my worldview, or perhaps just discarded, or perhaps neither of the two, but classified amongst the other funny tidbits I have come across. And then there was this little piece of academic (semi-)obscenity, written casually but clearly on a wall in the academic Latin Quarter. Yes. Funny at first sight and perhaps even a little insightful…

It is a play on words with Descartes‘ famous maxim –Cogito ergo sum– only a few streets away from his Parisian address. Descartes had come to the discovery of this maxim after a profound philosophical doubt. “I think, therefore I am”, or “I am a being which receives impressions”, which had become the cornerstone on which the rest of his worldview was to be based. And with that, Descartes became the father of modern philosophy.

Fast forward a few hundred years and everyone knows both him and his maxim. But the time of grand philosophical structures has passed. Mocking a basis for a structure of knowledge and affirming ones own existence through a very personal experience is what this quote does. Coïto ergo sum. I have sex, therefore I am. No grand truth, but the subjective experience of living; the full charm of Existentialism. If this was the same young man who used to clamour “Freedom is for Animals”, I think we can safely assume he is back in business, and feeling a whole lot better.

Temptation in a box

Every once in a while you see a situation which just can not end well. Whatever direction the unfolding chain of events takes you in your head, it always seems to go badly. Or worse. And it had come around again. This time, all it took was a simple cardboard invitation by the phone in the hotel room: Playstation available. Now any rational person will argue that you can just ignore it, just as you can change the TV channel from indecent material, but I feel that that fails to take into account the full scope of human psychology. A playstation. Here. Hum. That looks like a cloud drifting our way, it’s not such great weather out there you know…

Of course not everyone would be confronted with this problem. If you are in the hotel on business, all your thought process has to do is balance the re-reading of tomorrow’s presentation with a quick spin of Gran Turismo. Professional as you are, you quickly realise that you will be fine with few hours less of sleep. But that delicate balance does not work to well if you are there with your significant other. After all, even just the fact that you are in a hotel already suggests that you are out of your usual routine, that it is a moment of togetherness. You could even say that it is the stuff of the adventure of the relationship. And that, somehow, does not translated well into understanding the attraction of Grand Theft Auto. This is one of those cultural barriers, where what you want and what you feel you ought to do painfully conflicts.

Perhaps someday our culture will have changed. Children may learn to see that romantic getaways can involve participants having bags under the eyes at breakfast due to a heavy night of Need for Speed. And businessmen or visiting lecturers can open the morning meeting with the suggestion to postpone as they could not get around to revising their notes the night before due to a Call of Duty at the hotel. What a great society we would have become (erhm) if that came about, but we are not there yet.

What actually saves the day at the hotel is the fact that you have to go down to the lobby to get your Nintendo or Playstation. That could be just enough of a level of effort to protect the romantic harmony of travellers and perhaps even the quality of business meetings in town. But then, you can not help but wonder, why should you offer it at all if it only taunts the hotel guests? I think there is at least one possible answer here. Besides holidaying people and business travel, there is one other group of people stay in hotels and who would be thrilled to find the console: those unfortunate souls who just got booted out of their houses by their spouses. Well, they do exist. And for irony’s sake, let us hope that it was not for playing Tomb Raider

Or just push it down the stairs

Besides the missed chance of having the fellow pushing the armoire up the metro stairs, look at what the storage company is telling us :

“You love it. Your wife hates it. We stock it.”

Is that still arguing in their favour? Imagine if you are the unfortunate character in that sitcom. Before your marriage, she put up with your bench-press, your playstation and your antique armoire in the living-room. But since contracts have been signed and noble metal rings have been exchanged, her true feelings have surfaced. She does not like the armoire, and in fact, she had never liked it. So the armoire has to go. Being the peace-loving type of husband that you are, you call up your friends and work your way down five flights of stairs with granny’s armoire. But once you are down on the boulevard puffing away, what do you do? Is storage really the solution?

Every month as those 100 euros of storage rent leave your account, you will be reminded that she does not like your grandmother’s armoire. Every month, you have 100 euros less, which could have been time to yourself every day, with a coffee and Le Monde before work. But no. She does not like your armoire. Or it could have been a bouquet of flowers for her, every week. But no, she did not like the armoire. And that would go on indefinitely? This advice is a recipe for divorce, as, after all, you are already preparing for your new life after she’s gone. This is not a good idea. Do yourself, and your marriage, a favour and give the armoire to your sister in the south or sell it online. Or just push it down the stairs like the fellow in the Ad – you will be a happier person. And so will your wife. The timing for a counter Ad from le bon coin or ebay would be in order:

“You love it. Your wife hates it. We’ll sell it.”