B Minor Mass in Notre Dame by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris

You see the posters all over major European cities, especially during tourist season: classical music concerts in famous local churches.  "Tonight, 8 PM, in the Church of Our Lady: Mozarts Eine kleine Nachtmusik ("A Little Night Music")."  Or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or perhaps Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.  It’s always a well-beloved classical chestnut, recognizable to all.  The performers are usually an ensemble you’ve never heard of, like the "Glorious Classical Strings," or the "Soloists of Rome," or something similar.

I don’t want to be too snobbish here: there’s nothing wrong with performing classical music in glorious churches for the benefit of tourists.  I’ve been to a few of these concerts myself, since that might be the only thing going when you hit the city.  But the performers tend to be either students supplementing their income, or rather bedraggled-looking adults.  The problem is that they have to play the same pieces — popular, recognizable classical hits — 3-4 times a week, with no real variation in the program.  How much verve and sizzle can you bring to your 3,467th performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?

So I was a little suspicious when I saw a listing for a performance of Bach’s "Mass in B," in the Church of Notre Dame, by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.  My fears were dispelled when I hit the web.  The ensemble is a permanent small orchestra with a website and a music director I’ve heard of; in fact I’ve got recordings by him.  Further, a performance of the the Mass in B Minor is not something you can just casually throw together; you need a small orchestra, vocal soloists, and a double-choir, and the Mass lasts almost two full hours. 

Notre Dame was completely full for this concert; I showed up about 20 minutes before the concert, and got one of the last seats.  The last light of the day slowly faded from the stained-glass as an old man with long white hair and a silver crucifix pinned to his left lapel approached the microphone.  I assume he was a priest.  He gave a brief disquisition on the glories of the B Minor Mass, making liberal use of the word glorieuse, spiriturelle, and profondeur.  Then the small orchestra took the stage.  Behind them the chorus (the Maitrise de Notre Dame) stood in four rows, clad in royal-blue robes.

As soon as the music started, my fears were dispelled.  The chorus showed its mastery with a measured, dignified opening Kyrie, and the vocal soloists were all first-rate (with the exception of one slightly wobbly soprano).  The conductor, John Nelson, kept everything humming along with crisp, sprung rhythms, and the strings played without vibrato.  What most impressed me most was the orchestra itself.  The B Minor Mass has numerous tricky solo parts for bassoon, double-bass, violin, and flute.  When these arias came, individual orchestra members stood up to form a more intimate, chamber-like feel, and delivered expert, nuanced performances.  The bassoonist and double-bass player were especially lively and vivid.  At the end of the concert, after the majestic Dona Nobis Pacem that closes the Mass (accompanied by the Organ), the reverberations took at least five full seconds to die away. 

This was the best performance of the B Minor Mass I’ve ever seen.  You don’t have to take my word for it; there was a camer team there filming the entire performance for a broadcast on Arte, and it will be released as a DVD as well.  I was impressed enough that I’ll consider buying some recordings by the Ensemble Orchestral, if you’d like to as well, look here.  Next time you’re in Paris, think about taking in a concert by the EOP.

Black Tuesday and the Communists

That’s what they were calling it on Monday — the planned nationwide protests scheduled for Tuesday, March 28th.  Inter-city transport in Paris was pretty heavily affected, but not the metro.  I was able to move all around Paris yesterday without problems, although the trains were running somewhat more slowly.  I decided not to visit any of the manifestations, because there had been some unsavory elements (casseurs, or violent demonstrators) hanging around the previous ones, stealing peoples’ bags.  This time, demonstrations went off without serious incidents.  The mainstream, peaceful protesters (very quietly) collaborated with the police to nip the casseurs in the bud.   

According to today’s papers, the organizers claim up to 3 millions protesters, and even the police put the figure at more than a million all over France, making this one of the biggest protests in French history.  It’s impossible to tell how the government will react.  Publicly, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin continues to insist that he’s willing to adjust the law, but not to withdraw it outright, which is what the protesters and unions demand.  They’ve scheduled another day of protest for April 4 if the law hasn’t been withdrawn by then.

Here’s a reasonably balanced wrap-up of some of the international press coverage, courtesy of the Washington Post:

[The protestors] are living in a fantasy land, says [conservative American] columnist Steven Pearlstein. "Rather than supporting the reforms that might generate more jobs and more income," he says the protesters "have bought into the nostalgic fantasy of a France that once was, but can never be again."

In the French media, the discussion is less disdainful, more anguished. The new law enabling employers to fire workers less than 26 years old without cause during the first years of employment has plenty of supporters, especially among the right of center news sites like Le Figaro (in French).

At leftist news sites like the Liberation (in French), observers acknowledge that France needs to reform its social model but cannot figure out how to do so.

But even those commentators who favor the new law (known by its French acronym CPE) are less dismissive of the student strikers and more critical of the government than U.S. counterparts. The BBC’s translation of opinion from French commentators found widespread criticism of the government of Dominique Villepin for implementing the law in a high-handed way.

Here’s a blog written in English by French-speakers, on a website called lib.com (for "libertarian communist" (!)), which provides detailed coverage and links from a perspective sympathetic to the students.

I met with a French friend of mine yesterday, a very smart fellow who’s sympathetic to the students.  He had a lot of interesting things to say about how the Left views the issues.

The most visible institution of the French left is surely the Parti Communiste Français (or PCF).  It’s not violent or subversive.  They participate in elections, and even have a website.  Their share of the vote fluctuates wildly, averaging around 10-15% (much lower recently).  They’re not all grumpy, pissed-off radicals; in fact there’s a PCF storefront near my hotel, where friendly people hand out literature and pamphlets and explain their ideas.  In his wonderful 1982 book The French, the English historian Theodore Zeldin devotes an entire chapter, and more, to the PCF.  Coming from a country that has no ideological left-wing political parties, I’ve always found the question of how hard-left parties operate in parliamentary democracies interesting. 

According to Zeldin, The PCF draws its support not only from traditional French distrust of capitalism, but from its effectiveness in building an alternative social world for those excluded from France’s hierarchical, incestuous "official" status networks.  You joined the PCF not necessarily because you were a convinced revolutionary, but because you come from a working-class family and feel intimidated or condescended to by your boss, or because you’re a recent immigrant, and feel outcast.  The PCF was one of the only social institutions in France that worked hard to be open and welcoming to all regardless of class.  It also took care of its members, organizing strikes to protect their jobs, schooling them in Marxist theory and other, more practical subjects, building community centers and even running Communist-only vacation resorts.  Come for the solidarity and inclusion, stay for the ideology and organizing!

The Communists also tried to overcome the suspicion attached to their political label by being good public servants when elected.  Communist mayors mingled with the common people, cooperated with other political actors, avoided petty corruption, and worked hard to make local government work for the people.  The PCF has participated in French governing coalitions before, and has handled serious portfolios such as transportation. 

This is not intended as a hymn of praise to the PCF — there are many unsavory chapters in its history (such as its welcoming of the Hitler-Stalin pact).  It’s intended to help to explain why sensible people might vote Communist, a choice that probably seems absurd or inexplicable to people coming from countries without any mainstream Communist parties. 

The PCF, along with France’s unions, which are very close to the PCF, is, naturally a main organizing force behind the demonstrations.  To someone on the left of the left of the French political spectrum, the demonstrations are a welcome sign of political activity among young French people.  The French "left of the left" has a pretty clear approach to globalization.  The first order of business is to work against the idea that globalization is "inevitable."  This idea is regarded by the left as part of a classic propaganda campaign — an attempt to convince people that there are simply no other options but to hastily dismantle social-welfare protections before Chinese competition crushes us. 

Of course, smart people on the left realize that France cannot hold out against the forces of internation competition forever.  They want to hold out as long as possible, however.  According to my friend, the short-run task is to fight the dismantling of the social state, and insulate the French social model as long as possible.  While that’s happening, the left needs to work on developing a workable compromise model that will enable the survival of as much of the social welfare state as possible when the walls of protection against world economic forces begin crumbling.  Right now, the best ideas on the table are a Scandinavian compromise, in which the need for workers to change jobs is recognized, but the state moderates the blow by (1) making social welfare benefits portable from job to job; and (2) restructuring assistance programs to focus not just on paying benefits to the unemployed, but helping workers train and transition as old fields of employment disappear and new ones open.

So that’s my spur-of-the moment analysis of how the left sees the situation.  Before you start commenting, please remember that I’m not personally endorsing all of these arguments; I’m just trying to give readers a fair picture of them.  I personally still find the exclusively negative tone of the demonstrations a little discouraging.  The left has made it very clear that they’re against the dreaded bogeyman of "liberalism," but when they begin talking about what they’re for, we often get a lot of woolly rhetoric about "solidarity," and precious few specific suggestions that bring the debate forward.  But perhaps that will change at some point.

In the meantime, that’s enough politics for now.  In my remaining days in Paris, it’s going to be all flamboyant Gothic cathedrals, stained-glass windows, and music.  I’ll report on that as time permits.

Paris is, Let’s Hope, Not Burning

Tomorrow will see a massive disruption here in Paris, and all over France.  135 demonstrations are planned, 5 million government employees will strike, and many professionals and other workers in the private sector.  400 extra police officers have been ordered to Paris to try to ensure security.  It will surely be the largest mass action in France since 1995, when almost a week of demonstrations were staged against a government social-security law.

The fuss is about something called the CPE, as I explained a bit earlier.  Long story short: Currently, in France, when a company hires a new worker, there’s a short probationary period.  After the probationary period, the worked has an automatic right to an unlimited-duration labor contract.  When this phase sets in, the worker can only be fired for cause, and after a lengthy administrative process.  The right-of-center coalition in the French parliament passed a law changing these rules for workers under 26.  Under the new law, there is a two-year probationary period for these young workers during which they can be fired at any time.  Further, at the end of that period, the company can simply elect not to extend the contract, and they are out of a job. 

De Villepin claims the law will reduce youth unemployment, currently at a disastrous 23%, by introducing much-needed flexibility into the labor market for younger workers. Most college students, as well as students in the top tier of French high schools, strongly oppose the law, and it’s not hard to see why.  Importantly, they also have the support of France’s hard-left labor unions, and a large number of white-collar employees.  The white-collar employees, who entered the work force under the older, more generous regime, sympathize with the young people trying to break into a labor market in which there’s high unemployment.  It all adds up to a perfect storm: 65-70% disapproval of the law, and a major, nation-paralyzing mobilization scheduled for tomorrow.

I try not to comment about the internal politics of other countries, since I usually don’t have enough information to say anything intelligent.  This is an exception, though, since this issue has been inescapable in France.  I have patiently followed all sides of the debate, and have also been enlightened by my French teacher, who has explained a lot of background to us.

As I think about it, I cannot escape a feeling of depression.  There’s nobody to root for, and no noble principle at stake.  The back-story is an intense and growing fear of international competition.  French workers now enjoy a thorough welfare state, and most regular employees also have a 35-hour work week.  They know their privileged status can’t go on forever.  The bogeyman that’s going to steal it from them is defined as "liberalism," which in European parlance means a political philosophy favoring limited government regulation, market competition, and flexibility.  Any reform which seems headed in this direction immediately activates the powerful background fear of "liberalism" (harder work, less job security).  Slowly but surely, as the rhetorical trope of "liberalism" is invoked, the reform becomes more and more unpopular, until it reaches between 60%-70% unpopularity — enough to permit massive mobilization.

I’m not here to scold those "spoiled Frenchmen."  I understand many of their reservations.  They have something magical.  After all, I moved to Europe partly because I enjoy the stability and reasonable work-life accommodation of the European social model.  But the question is no longer whether France has to change but how.  The anti-liberalism forces, however have no convincing argument that the present system — which has produced anemic growth and catastrophic unemployment — is sustainable.  Second, even if they do admit this, few have any workable, practical reform proposals.  The Communists, of course, have proposals, but I said "workable" and "practical." Most of the anti-CPE people just repeat the same tired attacks on the patronat (the "bosses") and make empty speeches featuring liberal use of the words "social" and "solidarity."

So I find these demonstrations are understandable, but not inspiring.  They’re driven mostly by fear.  Please note, I am not a big fan of the CPE law.  Most observers who understand the barest outlines of economic theory recognize that the French labor market needs to be made more flexible, but the CPE law probably violates European law (because of age discrimination) and singles out one particular interest group (the young) for disadvantage, which is very dumb political strategy.

The atmosphere surrounding the strike is also ugly.  We all know that the French love a good strike.  But what can you say about a polity in which the public stages a massive, crippling strike against a law duly passed by a government they — at least theoretically — elected?  Bitter ideological divisions further reduce the remnants of trust in France’s governing institutions or elite.  The foreigner is immediately struck by how much thinly-veiled contempt, and cynicism there is on all sides of the argument.  French economist Jacques Marseille, last weekend declared French society unreformable, and predicted that the current crisis would almost certainly lead to a rupture, or profound — and possibly violent — political upheaval.  Rupture, he declared, is "synonomous with [French] history."  Imagine reading that with your Sunday morning coffee.

The final element in the mix is the casseurs, roughly translatable as violent hooligans or rowdies.  They’re generally alienated youth from the suburbs — often the same ones who were burning cars last November.  They have been coming into Paris and hanging around on the edges of the demonstrations.  Sometimes they attack journalists, sometimes they attack the largely white, middle-class protesters, and after the main demonstrations disperse, they begin small-scale riots.  They are not representative of the movement as a whole, but their isolated acts of random violence dominate foreign press coverage.  Their presence highlights yet more uncomfortable questions which French political leaders don’t seem to have answers to.

So tomorrow I will try to fight my way into Paris, meet a friend of mine, and watch a demonstration or two.  But I can’t think of myself as a disinterested tourist, because France means too much to me.  I will be hoping that the newspapers have exaggerated the depth of the crisis, as they are prone to do.  I will be hoping that the nation that gave us such inestimable treasures as Charles Trenet, Gabriel Fauré, the Church of St.

The Museum of Old Montmartre

The Museum of Old Montmartre is a fine little museum housed in a large complex of buildings on the Rue Cortot.  The house that forms the core of the complex was built in the mid-17th century an actor and playwright.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the house on the Rue Cortot was extensively sub-divided, and its tiny rooms became preferred lodging for artists in Montmartre, a hill near what is now the northern perimeter of Paris proper.  Back then, Montmartre was still rural.  Chickens squawked in the streets, urchins scampered around looking for odd jobs, and plumbing was nonexistent.  Artists moved into in Montmartre’s shabby, muddy streets to escape Paris’ high rents.  Dancing establishments and interestingly questionable bars soon followed, and the sleazy, enchanting Montmartre that we see in Toulouse-Lautrec’s sketches was born. 

This museum is another charming, idiosyncratic Paris museum.  It’s cramped and crammed.  There are no audioguides or interactive touchscreens.  The core of the museum’s permanent collection is devoted to the people who lived in one of the house’s many rooms at one time or another in the late 19th and early 20th century.  These residents comprise a cross-section of artists both world-famous (Raoul Dufy, Maurice Utrillo; very tangentially Auguste Renoir) and less so (Emile Bernard, Francisque Poulbot).  Many of the paintings and sketches from these lesser lights crackle with vitality and wit, and you’ll wonder why you don’t know their names.  One room is dedicated to the indescribably voluptuous Suzanne Valadon, a longtime resident of the house.  She started her career as a model, continued it as an object of devotion (from, among others, the world’s oddest man, French composer Erik Satie), and finished it as an accomplished painter.

Other parts of the museum evoke the neighborhood in general.  Several vitrines feature invitations to the various dance-halls and theatres, every one is a whimsical, irreverent masterpiece.  Especially cool is the invitation to the show featuring the “Hanging Man,” a hunger-artist like fellow.  His specialty was odd physical feats: standing absolutely still on top of a pedestal for a month, or locking himself in a box and not eating or drinking for three weeks.  He came to Montmartre and remained hanging from a rope for 13 straight days.  The invitation features 13 silhouettes showing his body stretching further and further downward and a tongue protruding ever farther from his mouth.  Another room features a pewter bar rescued from a famous Montmarte dive, an exhibition dedicated to André Malraux and his relationship with a modern Greek artist who lived in the house during much of the 20th century, and a film about Montmartre in general.

The funniest exhibit is a bust of the French Catholic novelist and pamphleteer Leon Bloy, surrounded with excerpts from his letters.  Bloy’s home in another part of Montmartre was condemned to make room for the Sacre-Coeur cathedral, and he was forced to move his family into the house at 12 Rue Cortot in 1906.  He hated it: the concierge insulted his family as “those Jesuits” behind his back, atheist dress-shop employees who lived on the other side of the courtyard mocked his daughters when they practiced singing their confirmation hymns, and the rooms stank and crawled with vermin.  Bloy finally gathered the means to leave, and bid farewell to the house “pledged to the Devil.”

Anyone can love the Museum of Old Montmartre, but it’s even better for people who can read French, since most of the exhibits are not translated.  I left feeling a strong sense of nostalgia for a place I’d never been, and what higher praise can there be for a museum?

French Thoughts on Communism

As most of your have seen, there have been a series of ever-growing protests in France; I described the background to them in a previous post.  I will go into a little more detail in the next few days, since there’s really no escaping this story in France these days. 

But first, an interesting opinion survey I read two days ago in L’Humanité, the far-left French newspaper closely allied with the French Communist Party (PCF).  The PCF commissioned a study on French attitudes toward the Party itself, toward Communism in general, and to the need for profound social transformation in France.

The results were published on page 8 under the title "Our public opinion poll: Capitalism isn’t living up to its promises."  The results? 

  • 37% of the French had either a "very good" or "mainly good" opinion of the PCF; 46% had a very/mainly bad opinion of it. 
  • 54% believed that "communism is an idea which belongs to the past and has no current relevance," 39% believed that it "still has a future" as long as it "re-thinks its principles."
  • The statistic I found the most intriguin concerned capitalism.  45% of those polled believed that capitalism should either be "radically transformed" or "profoundly reformed."  A further 45% believed it should be "improved in certain aspects."

Keep this in mind as you read the following, from the Washington Post:

"France is divorced from the modern world of the 21st century," said Nicolas Baverez, author of a top-selling book, "New World, Old France." It describes a country so fearful of letting go of outmoded traditions — including a hugely expensive cradle-to-grave welfare system — that it is being shut out of the global marketplace. "We’re at a very dangerous turning point," he said.

Ipsos, a French polling institute, recently asked 500 people between the ages of 20 and 25 the question: "What does globalization mean to you?"

Forty-eight percent of those surveyed responded, "Fear."

Fear of what?

Just about everything, according to Christophe Lambert, author of another examination of contemporary France, "The Fearful Society." The country, he writes, is paralyzed by "fear of the future, fear of losing, fear of others, fear of taking a risk, fear of solitude, fear of growing old."

There is a certain tendency to gloat over European failure and frustration in the American press, so I would take the above with a grain of salt.  The two French authors quoted do not represent the whole French political spectrum.  But the leven of bitterness and fear in the public debate in France is unmistakable.  I don’t plan to spend too much time blogging about this, but I probably will anyway — especially since a general strike on the 28th of March looks set to bring the whole country crashing to a halt…

Tiny Museum and Tiny Record Shop Day

Yesterday it was cold and rainy, so time to visit a few museums in the "New Athens" section of Montmartre.

The first was the Musée de la Vie Romantique, housed in the former home of 19-century painter Ary Scheffer.  The house was also in the hands of relatives of George Sand, so contains much Sand and Chopin-related bric-a-brac (including Sand’s jewelry and her surprisingly good watercolors).  Navigating the creaky wooden floors, you see Sand’s reconstructed salon, decorated by many portraits of the somewhat long-faced, droopy-eyed Sand, as well as portraits of various July Monarchy notables by Sheffer.

The temporary exhibition documented Picasso’s relationship with the Belgian-born engraver Piero Crommelynck, printed many of Picasso’s late engravings and etchings.  Crommelynck was a friend of Picasso’s; he and his family generally visited Picasso from 5 until 8 or 9 in the evening, during which time there was a lot of badinage, but the mood was “pointed” and there were “passionate exchanges.”  The etchings featured in the exhibition were a jocular, quasi-pornographic series Raphael and his model, La Fornarina.  Apparently Raphael was discovered, err, diddling her, and Picasso has great fun imagining the sort of pretzel-like combination they could have been discovered in.  Judging by the number of them on display, I would say these works, from 1969-1970, belong to Picasso’s "Sphincter Phase."

Then it was off to the Musée Gustave Moreau, in the Rue de Rochefoucauld.  The Museum is located in the Moreau family townhome.  Shortly before his death in 1898, Moreau converted the home into a suitable museum, hung all his works and sketches just so, and bequeathed it to the French State, which opened the museum in 1903.  The two top rooms both of them large and high-ceilinged, contained almost 300 Moreau paintings in various states of completion, plus thousands of sketches arranged in cabinets.  Moreau, considered a precursor of the symbolists, uses a wild combinations of techniques to embody equally diverse allusions.  Byzantine icons in front of imaginary Indian landscapes, for instance.  Plus plenty of griffons, unicorns, Persian poets, and the like.  Apparently he’s big in Japan, since lots of signs were translated into Japanese.  It all makes for a lovely museum visit, although I was pleasantly baffled by some of the more exotic canvases, and by Moreau’s textual descriptions, which are heavy on catalogues of capitalized emotion-words.  ("The rose of Love grows out of the swamp of Anguish," etc.).

This part of Montmartre is full of hip, tiny record shops, and when I saw record, I mean good old fasioned round black vinyl.  The center of these stores is almost completely occupied by stacks of wooden boxes filled with LPs stacked haphazardly on trestles, plastic delivery crates, or whatever else is on hand.  You move around the perimeter, reaching into the sea of plastic LP cases, or turn to the wall display cases.   This is where the CDs those soulless metallic imitations of the LP, rest in orderly shelves. 

My favorite discovery was Black Cherry Blues, located at 15 rue Chaptal, just across from the Museum de la Vie Romantique.  The store contains a mind-breaking collection of funk, soul, jazz, country, western swing, and any other sort of music made by the downtrodden of the U.S., including a healthy selection of LPs from the brothers at Black Jazz Records.  The library features books in the following genres: Policier [detective], science-fiction, fantastique, Musique(s). The owners, two aging, bearded Paris hipsters, kicked me out (apologetically and nicely) for their lunch hour, but not before I’d secured title to some skiffle, Isaac Hayes, and Auguste de Breton’s Du Rififi chez les Femmes, which should help me catch up on my early-50s French slang.

French Words of the Week

There comes a time in life when you finally settle down into a stable relationship.  The relationship can take many forms: it might be a marriage, might be shacking up.  The point is, you’ve stopped looking, and you’re ready to work on building a life à deux. The French call this stabilisation sentimentale.  According to some French government study, it happens to French men when they’re 36 years old, and French women when they’re 29.

A concussion is a commotion cérébrale (F).

And now, the pièce de résistance.  What the American military calls an "Improvised Explosive Device," or a homemade bomb, is called, in French, a bombe artisanale.  Add your own cynical jokes in the comments…

Jerry Lewis: Living God

We English speakers enjoy taking the piss out of the French for their love of Jerry Lewis.  Do they really love him so much? 

Or, I should say, do they really love Him so much?  From an ad in Tuesday’s Libération (Libé for short), about an interview they will publish tomorrow:

The weapon of mass hilarity [pun untranslatable]: A conversation with living god Jerry Lewis, who is publishing his memoirs and who evokes his maximum-burlesque career in nine images.

Emphasis added.

Social Combat chez La Poste

I visited a French post office yesterday to send off a letter to Germany.  Since it was a real letter, not a postcard, I figured I’d better get in line and talk to a human.  The line had about 15 people in it, and it took me about 40 minutes to finally go through it.  40 minutes well-spent, observing the social microcosm of the post office. 

Counter service at the French postal service is defined by four facts:

  1. Every potential transaction is governed by a complex web of precise rules (the simple stuff, after all, you can do yourself, or at a computer terminal);
  2. Because most citizens have never dedicated a few days to reading and memorizing these rules, most of then enter the post office without knowing what they have to do to successfully carry the transaction through;
  3. Although the employees know more about the rules than the customers, there are still large gaps in their knowledge;
  4. Unless you are a friend or family member of the employee (and, in Germany, even if you are a friend or family member), you will probably be expected to comply with every single rule.

The primary objective of the person behind the counter is to ensure that the rules governing the particular transaction are applied correctly.  If that objective is consistent with the citizen achieving his goal, the clerk will be happy to help. 

If that objective is not consistent with the citizen achieving his goal — or if the clerk doesn’t like the citizen for some reason — then the citizen will not achieve his goal.  The notion that the "customer is always right," or the idea that postal clerks should bend rules to serve their customers, is foreign to European bureacracies.

Thus, the citizen should approach a complicated postal task not as an efficient, impersonal transaction, but as an opportunity to engage in a complex game.  Whether you will win the game (by getting your package sent), is by no means clear.

anPhase One: the Ascertainment of the Infraction.  The postal clerk eyes your hand-packed package, or your crudely-filled-out customs form, with a mixture of pity and suspicion.  Then comes Phase Two: Explanation of the Rules.  With the assistance of charts, graphs, and brochures, the postal clerk explains what you did wrong.  Phase Three — and this is where it gets sensitive — Negotiation Concerning the Level of Compliance.  Perhaps you did not bring the proper receipts with you, or perhaps you do not see the point of paying 10 Euros for a special, postal-service ‘approved’ shipping box, when the one you used is perfectly adequate. 

While I waited in line, I saw many Phase 3s taking place.  The postal clerks — all attractive, self-possessed, heavily unionized women in their mid-40s — shook their heads, shrugged, or pointed at text in a brochure and read it slowly aloud, to emphasize the binding nature of the regulation.  The clients slammed their fists gently on the table, threw their hands up in the air in exasperation, or pointed at their watches. 

Two customers asked for the manager.  He was a plump, olive-skinned man in his early 40s, with brush-cut black hair, dressed in a matching ensemble of dark-brown suit, tie, and silk shirt.  (Uniforms are not required).  He raised his black rectilinear glasses, examined the offending package or form, and supported his clerk.  At this point, the customers had lost, and knew it. She picked up their package or letter and stalked proudly out of the post office, loudly muttering about how insupportable it all was.

One phase 2 — the Explanation of the Rules — lasted the entire 40 minutes I waited in line.  A giant, hulking retired factory worker and his tiny, bent mother received an in-depth seminar in postal compliance from one of the clerks.  Apparently, the postal-service-approved envelopes and boxes are stored not directly under the counter, but in the back of some massive warehouse.  The clerk disappeared and return five full minutes later with some green box.  The worker and mother would look at it for 20 or 30 seconds, turn it around carefully, and finally and shake their heads, sending the clerk back on another mention to retrieve a larger one.  These long absences were, of course, interspersed with 10-minute lectures on the intricacies of French package-shipping regulations.

Finally I arrived at my counter.  Turns out my letter was perfectly routine, and I could have posted it myself with one 55-cent stamp.  But where’s the fun in that?

10000th Hit Coming Up

I just noticed that German Joys is close to getting its 100,000th hit.  I don’t know exactly how Typepad measures hits (apparently there are several different ways, all of which are controversial).  But, in any event, I’m grateful for them. 

I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, and I’m grateful for the comments and feedback.  I see blogging a little bit like bartering.  You don’t do it for money, but rather for the immaterial rewards.  The first, of course, is ego gratification.  However, through this blog, I’ve gotten to know plenty of interesting new people, and learned about bands, websites, books to read, and various pieces of cultural trivia.  I will hope to continue the blog as my schedule permits, and hope you’ll continue to check in from time to time.

The Miraculous Casio EW-G3000

I don’t often plug consumer products on this blog, but let me make an exception for the Casio EW-G3000 (G).  It is a perfect synthesis of form and function.

Most portable electronic dictionaries are pretty grim affairs; you might get a basic vocabulary and a few verb tables, but that’s about it.  The Casio contains the entire texts of some great dictionaries: the Langenscheidt’s German dictionary, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, and the English-German and German-English dictionaries from both of these publishers.  Plus thesauri for both languages.  Plus German-French and French-German dictionaries. 

It’s worth mentioning again that all of these dictionaries are contained whole, without major cuts.  That means you type in a phrase, and get not just the most common meaning of the term in another language, but every alternate meaning, and often dozens of examples and idiomatic expressions. 

And that, as the ad-men say, is just the beginning — there are also travel phrasebooks, dictionaries of idioms, a calculator, and dozens of other functions.  Switching between dictionaries is easy; you can type in a word, and, while the phrase remains on the screen, effortlessly see every piece of information the dictionary has to offer about that phrase with just a few simple clicks.  For instance, you can type in a German word, and find its English or French equivalent by pressing just one more button each time.  Another button takes you straight to the full German-only dictionary entry, so you can deepen your research.  Or, you can search for every instance of the word in every dictionary in the device.

This gadget also looks beautiful.  The keyboard is simple and elegant.  The outside is discreet brushed aluminum, with pads on the bottom to keep it from sliding on smooth surfaces.  Folded-up, the the Casio is sleek; no more than 1 centimeter wide.  Smaller than a small paperback book, thus easy to slip into a backpack or briefcase.  It unfolds to reveal a large, clear, 10-centimeter LCD screen.  There’s no backlight, which is a minor drawback, but this also means that the 2 AAA batteries last for years.

The GW-3000 is expensive.  But , just as the advertisement says, it replaces half a shelf of big, bulky dictionaries.  A thing of beauty for the mobile multilinguist. 

Hats off to you, Casio.  You can send the money to my Paypal account…