No Hugging, Please, We’re French

It has become the hug cringed at around the world. The Lebanese news site Naharnet has a nice summation of what went, uh, wrong:

….The towering John Kerry was meters from Hollande, striding fast, when he first opened his arms.

In turn, the French leader stretched out his, clasping Kerry’s hands. Kerry pulled him into a brief hug to his right, at which time Hollande appeared to go back in for “la bise”. [The kisses to cheeks.]

Kerry caught up, accepted the kiss on his right cheek, before they clasped hands again, awkwardly placing their arms around each other as they walked side by side up the stairs into the Elysee Palace.

Half-hug, half-bise, it was a moving clash of cultures….

It’s a surprise Kerry didn’t realize Hollande would be baffled. But the Secretary of State had signaled beforehand that he was going to go all “American” in terms of sympathy and give Paris “a hug.” Yet the French president obviously didn’t get what Kerry meant, or didn’t think it would be demonstrated, umm, “literally,” and so was clearly unprepared for an American-style, “Come here, pal.”

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My feeling is former president (2007-2012) Nicolas Sarkozy, who reputedly has a solid sense of “Americanisms,” might have handled it better.

One can imagine the fun media and bloggers around the world might be having now had Ségolène Royal been standing there as president instead. Then again I don’t believe that had she been that Kerry would have tried to hug her that way. Kerry was doing an “American guy thing” with Hollande – and Hollande didn’t understand it.

Younger French of both sexes – especially those who’ve been to the U.S. for any substantive length of time beyond a vacation – are more attuned to Americans’ “curious” behaviors. But middle-aged and older French men on meeting even in emotional circumstances, such as offering condolences, as a rule don’t open by hugging each other like that. French men don’t do American-style “bromance.”

Compared to Americans, the French on the whole are simply far less into demonstrative displays of physical closeness between acquaintances, even friends. But they are not alone in that. Other Europeans, including the British (of course), are similar.

Still, it was a lighthearted moment after a week and a half of at times incredible ugliness and sadness. We all needed it. It provided a badly needed chuckle.

A Danish close friend of ours, and her English husband of two years, are coming for a stay-over visit with us tonight.

We’ve known her for ages. I get kisses to both cheeks, and she lets me hug her. She even hugs me back.

However, if I ever moved to hug him, he’d probably think I’d lost my mind. Or I was going all “American” on him. A firm handshake between us men is all that’s needed. ;-)

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Brief Explanation (For Americans): Why Europe Has Anti-Hate Speech Laws

In the wake of the massive “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris following the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, we are inevitably seeing some U.S.-based media now questioning France’s commitment to free speech. Why? Because France has anti-hate speech laws. One example:

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Some background, and context, clearly appears to be necessary here.

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Always Be “Cautious” Worldwide

In the wake of the terror in Paris, unsurprisingly the U.S. State Department has issued a “Worldwide Caution” for U.S. citizens:

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Naturally it is very difficult to “watch everything.” But you aren’t being urged to hide under a bed and stay home and away from every pub. The gist of a “caution” like this is to remind us to be extra-mindful at certain locations, and be particularly alert to what’s going on around us, wherever we are.

Of course “caution” in daily life can’t prevent one simply from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On July 7, 2005, when we lived in north London, I happened to drive to work that day. I also regularly took the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line – which was attacked by a suicide bomber that morning.

But as we know being at home in the U.S. is hardly a guarantee of safety either. Consider, for example, the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. That to me seems the closest comparison to what Paris has endured for the last several days.

I’ve been to the U.S. Embassy in London several times over the years. Once you get past the heavy U.S. military security, you’re “inside the United States” in a way. That reality makes it, and other U.S. embassies and consulates, “magnets” for protests and even possible violence.

Looking South from Upper Brook Street at the new security pavillions and entrance area. [Photo on U.S. Embassy, London web page.]
Looking South from Upper Brook Street at the new security pavillions and entrance area. [Photo on U.S. Embassy, London web page.]
Occasionally, there are “anti-U.S.” demonstrations in the vicinity – although never too close; British authorities don’t permit that. But they can be near enough that you could “blunder” into something by accident – which is also the sort of thing a “caution” like this wants you to be aware of as a visitor. Especially when you are around anything “American,” open your eyes a bit wider, be cognizant of what’s happening around you, and don’t, for example, wander into the midst of some “anti-American” demonstration because you’re snapping photos of buildings.

The Embassy is apparently due to relocate from its current location at historic Grosvenor Square to a larger building that’s also more “secure.” In Britain. Shows the world we live in now, and probably will for the forseeable future.

A last thought here: Vive la France !

Email To A Younger Self

Dear Rob,

How are things back in 1995? Heh, heh, who am I kidding? I know….

It’s January 2015 now. I’m the older you. I thought I’d write to you and give you a heads up as to how things will go over the next couple of decades.

That girl from France? Nuh, uh. No, you won’t be marrying her. I know she says she loves you, but she also has submerged “worries” you don’t know about yet, but believe me you soon will.

In the longer run, it’ll be fine. Yes, for a while you’ll be sure the world has come to an end, but most everyone thinks that at a time like that. You’ll pick yourself up and brush yourself off. You’ll do college teaching for a few years too, but will fall out of love with that; but, once again, don’t worry.

In a couple of years, you’ll meet another – better – woman, and you’ll end up married and living in England with her. As hard as that is for you to believe. Oh, and she’ll be on at you now and then good-humo(u)redly about that long ago “babe” from across the Channel.

Now, this is very serious, and maybe I shouldn’t mention it, but I feel I have to. Something horrific will happen to the World Trade Center in September 2001. You’ll be in London at the time, in your office at the university where you will then work. Your father will be retired by then, safe at home, and no longer working in lower Manhattan. I won’t discuss the terrible details here. Let’s just move along and stick with you personally.

In years to come, you’ll meet masses of great people you have no clue about in 1995. Several you will come to adore. Sadly you will lose one far before her time, but the idea you might have gone through life without ever having known her…. well, after you meet her you’ll soon find yourself unable to imagine never having known her.

Inevitably, you’ll get a bit grayer, but, hey, you will still have most of your hair. Not bad. You haven’t fallen apart just yet.

Eventually – as tough as this is also to believe – you’ll end up writing novels. Yes, I know you scoff at fiction and love history, but you’ll meld the two. You’ll even base characters on some of the very people you know now (including, of course, Uncle _____, as well as, uh, Mademoiselle…. oh, you know her name), and several who will leave us forever by 2015 (including that woman friend you will make in a few years).

You’ll sort of immortalize them. That’s writing “history” in a way too, isn’t it? Sure it is.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks

Oh, and you love that Compaq Presario. You’re probably wondering on what PC I’m writing you this from twenty years down the road? Well, things have moved on a bit technologically.

America Online? Don’t ask. And I’m not writing this on a PC anyway. It’s called an iPad. And it uses wifi. Oh, and your future novels will be read on a Kindle, as well as printed by Amazon.

Sorry, sorry, I forgot. You have no idea what I’m talking about with those. Never mind. You’ll find out.

By the way, when you leave your final university job a bit over a decade from now, your boss in England will tell you that she’s sure you’re going to do something “really big” eventually.

Well, currently, you’re still working on that. ;-)

All The Best,
The Much Older You. :-)

A House In Ukraine

I was wrong in my post the other day. “Melvin” didn’t go to Ukraine. I’d thought he had, but his ex-wife rang Mrs. Nello late Saturday and said he hadn’t gone after all.

And it looks like he won’t be going there again. After about 8 years of involvement and visiting for only short periods, it seems “Oksana” is suddenly not keen on him moving there for a semi-permanent stay.

The end of another routine, long distance romance? We hope it’s just that. But it looks much worse.

He had indeed just paid for a house there – and the house is evidently in her name ONLY. I won’t say how much money went towards it, but according to his ex-wife it was A HELLUVA LOT. One never knows, but right now it’s hard to believe he’ll see any of that money again.

Why in only her name? My initial reaction was to shake my head in disbelief. I said to Mrs. Nello that this “Oksana” is probably a “pro”: she knows how to “handle” foreign “suitors.”

If what has happened has indeed happened, it makes sense. Naturally she didn’t want “Melvin” moving there. It would have hampered her “business” if other men were also handing her money and visiting her occasionally.

Free Stock Photo: Female hands typing on a laptop keyboard
Free Stock Photo: Female hands typing on a laptop keyboard

You usually read about stuff like this in the Daily Mail, but never would imagine it could happen to someone you know. He did all of this with his eyes open. If it has gone as it seems to, he’s probably pretty embarrassed about it too.

It’s sad. I can’t comprehend what on earth he was thinking? He’s not a “stupid” man.

You may wonder why his ex-wife cares? That many another woman would revel in an ex-husband’s romantic misfortunes? Especially something like this?

Not in this case. They aren’t on bad terms. Yes, their marriage ended (he ended it), but she has since re-married happily. “Melvin” and her new husband even get along well.

It sounds a bit like a sitcom, I know.

In any case, we hope we just misunderstand. Yet I’m trying to think of another plausible explanation, and I can’t. One wonders how many men actually fall for this sort of thing?

Time for another cup of coffee. Hope you’re having a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Sorry, But You Don’t Have A “Right” To Relocate Wherever You Want

Forgive a long post, but this is a complicated, emotional issue just about everywhere in the world, and can’t be addressed glibly. If you aren’t interested, click away. But please do come back another day! :-)

In the last decade of the 19th century, Italian ancestors of mine emigrated to the United States. (One was evidently about age 9, and unaccompanied by a parent.) On cramped, uncomfortable ships they traveled for weeks – from Sicily to Naples, then to Marseille, and eventually they reached New York’s Ellis Island, where admittance to the U.S. was not a certainty. They were granted entry. None ever returned to Italy. They had left behind brothers, sisters, and parents whom they never saw again.

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Nursing Help

My Dad’s due to be discharged from the hospital today. The recuperation, and learning to live with his implant, begins. He has no choice: he’ll have it the rest of his life. (Thank you for reading, commenting, and your “likes” over the months when I’ve written about this. It has made me feel good. :-) )

Even in the midst of worry, and change, some humor can be found. Yesterday, in the labyrinthine (although hardly huge) hospital, after we saw my father rolled by post-surgery on his way to recovery, my mother grabbed the attention of a nurse. She asked the woman – who was a bit younger than me – for directions to the cafeteria.

We had just spoken with the surgeon and he suggested we wait in the cafe for an hour or so until my father was taken to his room and we could see him. All enthusiasm – the staff at this hospital must have taken a customer service course, everyone is so helpful and pleasant – the nurse smiled at us and replied, “I’ll walk you part of the way.”

I thanked her and praised the hospital. I also said if you’ve not been in it much, the layout was confusing. I ended up walking next to her as she directed us down the hallway.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a nurse.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a nurse.

“I love your accent,” she suddenly said to me almost too enthusiastically. “Where are you from?”

Surprised, I remember joking, “Not Pennsylvania.”

Over the years, living in Britain, my accent has changed a bit. I know that. But I’m not usually conscious of it.

Thinking of my Dad, and focusing on where we were headed, my mind was somewhere else. I honestly don’t really remember much of what else she was saying to me. I was strolling alongside her conversing politely about nothing.

We finally reached an elevator. The cafeteria was just downstairs, she said; and when we came back up, she also explained and pointed out, my father would be a floor above us. She asked me again if I understood, and I said I did. When the elevator doors opened, I thanked her again, said goodbye for about the third time, and with my mother and sister, I stepped inside it.

After seeing my Dad an hour or so later, we left the hospital to do a few errands before returning to see him again in the late afternoon. At a supermarket, while my mother and sister shopped for some bits, I walked to a next door liquor store to buy a Christmas present my father had asked me to get on his behalf. He wanted a bottle of Polish vodka for a Polish man who snowplows, mows the lawn, and regularly does odd jobs around their house. The man has practically become a family friend, and I’m glad: he is a huge help to them.

I left the booze (in its American brown paper – “He’s got booze! He’s got booze!” – obvious bag) in the car, walked back into the supermarket and found my mother and sister already at the check-out. They must have been talking in my absence, because the very first words out of my mother’s mouth to me were: “That nurse was flirting with you. They’ll be none of that, thank you! Had she kept it up, I woulda smacked her!”

The woman cashier’s facial expression was priceless. The entire line must’ve heard too. My mother, you also understand, still sounds unmistakably Queens, New York.

At the time, I had kinda thought the nurse was indeed too expressive and arguably excessively friendly. I also hadn’t thought my mother had noticed that; but obviously, uh, Mother had. That has never happened to me before in a hospital – ever.

Have a good Tuesday, wherever you are in the world….

November 11, 1918

At 11 AM, Britain falls silent for two minutes to remember Armistice Day. That tradition began after World War I, which ended on November 11, 1918. In the U.S., November 11 is now observed as Veterans Day.

Screen capture of the American Battle Monuments Commission's WWI page.
Screen capture of the American Battle Monuments Commission’s WWI page.

As Americans, we tend to remember World War II more than our role in World War I. The reasons why are varied, of course. On each 11th of November, though, while we honor all veterans, let us offer perhaps an extra nod to the end of the horrific First World War.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world….

And You Ask Where Novelists Find Material?

Here’s a UK TV listing for a showing of The Longest Day. I screen grabbed it back on Saturday. Why? Because it made me chuckle:

Screen capture of The Longest Day listing on Sky, on Saturday afternoon.
Screen capture of The Longest Day listing on More 4 on Saturday afternoon.

You gotta love it. The British do “subtle” like almost no one else. Notice that the British cast – despite John Wayne’s photo – get first national mention. And also note which country gets last mention…. after even…. the Germans.

I love stumbling on stuff such as that. We all seem hard wired to have a bit of a dig at each other. A couple of decades of encountering the likes of that has helped provide me with material in two novels so far. ;-)

Happy Monday [grumble, grumble], wherever you are in the world. :-)

English Town

A Sunday aside: Here’s “English Town” from “North,” by Matchbox Twenty:

We saw the group perform here in London, at Wembley Arena, in September, 2003. I remember the show was supposed to have taken place earlier in the year – back in late March. However, they canceled that performance at the last minute and rescheduled it due to the assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having (we were told) made it seem inappropiate.

By September, as we know now, that conflict had by then begun to shift into another, much uglier phase. I still recall singer Rob Thomas opening the show telling the audience that we would all try to forget what was going on “outside” for a while. It was clear to everyone in the arena what he was talking about.

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Years pass. The leaders change, and the enemies change. And the wars change.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this….