When Social Media Turns Ugly

If you are reading this, you may be on social media yourself too – with a blog, a Twitter account, Instagram, etc. Recently, some “guy” I’d never encountered before evidently took umbrage with my voicing my opinion on too many U.S. study abroad students’ immature behaviors. Regular visitors here also know I attribute those primarily to overzealous parenting coupled with inexperience with legal alcohol; but apparently “he” thought attacking me on Twitter personally would get a reaction.

Free Stock Photo: Bright colored computer mice.
Free Stock Photo: Bright colored computer mice.

I yawned: I’ve seen much worse. When you put yourself out there publicly in even the smallest way, you have to expect criticisms and even degrees of nastiness. We all know it comes with the territory.

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Americans Make The Movies (And At Times, We’re Really Sorry)

I’ve spent much of the last 25 years often as the (only) American in the room – be it with family, friends, or workplace colleagues. As you know if you visit here regularly, I’ve now also spent several years writing novels in which I’ve created characters sourced from some of my (especially early) “travel” and “expat” experiences. They are full of types of people I’ve encountered, and even cherished, and what I’ve seen here in Europe.

I can’t begin to list the nationalities I’ve met in just London: nearly every European country; Africans from Egypt and Morocco all the way to South Africa; Afro-Caribbeans; Middle Easterners; Indians; Chinese; other Asians; Canadians; Australians; New Zealanders; Brazilians; even a few other South Americans. And all the religions: not only Christians of course, but Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. It feels like a far more “diverse” city than even New York.

I will always remember a Pakistani student, right after 9/11. He offered me personal condolences. He flat out called the attackers “terrorists”: no qualifications, no hesitation.

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In Our Chalet

Insofar as writing for the third volume is concerned, this ski holiday has been nearly a disaster. This week, I’ve gotten barely a couple of pages done: honestly less than one decent regular day’s work. However, we’re also having a great time – and, in a sense, I’m getting LOTS of new material I can use once home in England and comfortably at my desk.

The chalet owner is a Belgian, well-spoken in English, and reminds us of something of a cross between a pleasant Gerard Depardieu and my (mischievous glint in the eye) novelist uncle. As you don’t know my uncle, that comparison’s incomplete, but naturally I’ll explain more. ;-)

At breakfast, the owner confirms dinner is acceptable each night. (If anyone objects, the chef will do something else for them.) This morning, as her similarly aged English half was sitting at their table, he asked the 30ish, Scottish, female half who was at the bar getting coffee for herself, “Are you okay with the menu for tonight?” She approved quietly. He followed up by asking playfully, “And your lover? Does he approve it too?”

Her husband at their table next to us turned around to me, embarrassed, smiling, shaking his head. Seeing her expression as she walked back to their table, my wife told me afterwards that her face was bright red as she too embarrassingly grinned.

I'm taking pics of food now. A dessert. [Photo by me, 2015.]
I’m taking pics of food now. A dessert. [Photo by me, 2015.]
The owner has told me he used to own an art gallery in Belgium. In the last decade, he has redone what had been a shabby, old chalet. His booming, friendly voice can easily be heard singing or laughing during the day. (We even heard him outside while we were taking a walk our first day.) When I asked him if his chef was French, he joked, “French? No! He’s Belgian too.”

Evenings, they’re assisted by a Polish woman in her early twenties. She speaks French very well (at first we thought she was French until she told us her background), and English passably. The owner clearly relies heavily on her, but she also admits, though, to being a bit accident-prone. “I’ve broken so many wine glasses,” she once laughed to us from behind the bar.

Yes, welcome to France.

The church in the center of La Clusaz. Note the distant skiers on the slope to the left of the steeple, and the gondolas to the right. [Photo by me, 2015.]
The church in the center of La Clusaz. Note the distant skiers on the slope to the left of the steeple, and the gondolas to the right. [Photo by me, 2015.]
The chalet has 14 rooms. The guests so far have been mostly French. But there have been of course some other English-speakers besides ourselves and that English/Scottish couple.

Another, older, Scottish woman, unfortunately took quite a tumble skiing her first day and badly damaged a knee. That ended her skiing week. The other night (her last night), just before dinner, the owner concocted her a drink on the house.

“It’s terrible, she fall on her first day,” he remarked seriously to us. He then winked as he strolled off carrying the sympathetic, surprise glass to her table. “I try to make her feel a bit better.”

Hope you’ve been having a good Thursday, wherever you are. :-)

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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The Outsiders

The New York Times, being the New York Times:

Britain’s New Immigrants, From Romania and Bulgaria, Face Hostilities

I write “being the New York Times” because the piece chatters, but ultimately leads nowhere. It tells us nothing essentially new about the migration issue itself. Nor does it offer any suggestion of a way to diminish those “hostilities.”

In that article, Britain really could be any country; and Romanians and Bulgarians could be any newcomers arriving in any country. As Britain does (as every country does), Romania and Bulgaria have their borders…. and settlement laws and frontier guards empowered to decide who may enter. And most of those populaces would likely not be pleased about masses of British incomers deciding to cross “their line” and set up homes within their geographical area either.

Even though I have “permission,” I have always been self-conscious of the fact that in my working in Britain a native might not have a job. A Danish friend, married to an Englishman, and living in the U.K., has said similarly that she often reminds herself she is not British. Yet her brother-in-law is also British and married to her sister, and he is living and working now in Denmark.

Twenty-first century borders are far more formal than they have ever been, but human communities have always enforced boundaries. Whether it was an Ancient Greek “city-state” of a thousand souls setting itself apart from another similarly sized one just across a mountain, or today’s high-tech nation-state frontiers relying on biometric passports, we create them for a variety of reasons too complex and varied to begin to explore here. And, lest we forget, even within our modern countries there are uncountable gradations of “borders”: from province/ state, to county, to city, and so on, down through school catchment area all the way to, say, residents’-only street parking.

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We humans have always been an “excluding” species. Because they are not “from, or of, here,” outsiders have always faced “hostilities” simply because they are outsiders. There is no reason to believe that will ever change.

“Batman in Paris?”

We got back yesterday from a visit to my parents. While there, the other night we all watched The Dark Knight Rises, starring Christian Bale. And, to be honest, we’re all still trying to recover from that theatrical experience.

I know many think it is a terrific film, but I must admit we’re not four of them. In my humble opinion, even Marion Cotillard couldn’t save what was essentially three hours of (as my father wickedly described it) Rocky (struggling with his own motivation, and having to face Clubber Lang) crossed with Les Misérables. “Jean ValBatman,” as he put it. He joked that at one point he had been waiting for a crowd to break into “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

We couldn’t help but agree. Moments after he had said that, as the film was concluding, a character quoted from A Tale of Two Cities. Given my father’s just shared appraisal, we all looked at each other and none of us could suppress a chuckle.

*****SPOILER: If you plan to see The Dark Knight Rises, skip these next 2 paragraphs.*****
As British men make excellent heavies in Hollywood films, similarly French actors do often seem to portray baddies or badly damaged types. As with the British, maybe it’s the accent?

The moment you see Marion Cotillard on screen, and regardless of how sweet she appears initially, you just know she will turn out to be huge trouble and perhaps even evil incarnate. And, ultimately, she is. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, you also know will end up being a “goodie.” (And, coincidentally, Anne Hathaway was also in the recent Les Misérables film too of course.)
*****SPOILER END*****

Marion Cotillard’s appearance caused me also to recall Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Then I remembered his two other “European travelogue” recent efforts: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and To Rome With Love. Which led me next to thinking on how Barcelona was probably (for me) the best of the three, and Rome the worst.

Thus how my mind, uh, “functions.” Midnight’s primary shortcoming (in my opinion) was its American leading man. However, if Wales-born Christian Bale had played the American it likely would have made it an even better film.

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Here’s an idea: if the “Batman” franchise is starting to run short of new storylines, they could next try, say, The Dark Knight in Paris? :-)

The World’s Most Photographed Places

The Global Post tells us:

While an American city (New York) takes the top spot, Europe dominates the world when it comes to being photographable. Eight out of the top 10 cities are located on the continent.

However, notice that none of the top ten on either the world or the Europe lists are…. London.

View from the London Eye. [Old photo, by me, 2004.]
View from the London Eye. [Old photo, by me, 2004.]
Paris is #4 in the world. It’s #3 in Europe, behind Rome and Barcelona.

A Paris view. [Very old photo, by me, 1994. Look vaguely familiar? It's on the back cover of Passports.]
A Paris view. [Very old photo, by me, 1994. Look vaguely familiar? It’s on the back cover of Passports.]
Recently I noted the “dispute” between London and Paris as to which city is the most visited in the world. London reportedly had more visitors than Paris in 2012. In response, Parisian officialdom responded there were “reasons” for London’s perhaps surpassing Paris that year (such as “Greater London” covering a much larger geographic area than “Greater Paris,” and the Olympics, and the birth of the royal baby, etc.).

That global photography ranking comes from Sightsmap:

….it uses Google Map’s Panaramio platform, Wikipedia and FourSquare to determine what everyone is taking photos of these days.

Something is not quite, right, though. Think about it. London is massively visited…. by masses of tourists who don’t take masses of photos?

Who knows? Regardless, wait until London mayor Boris Johnson finds out.

An Italian soldier stands guard outside the Colosseum. [Photo by me, 2005.]
An Italian soldier stands guard outside the Colosseum. [Photo by me, 2005.]

As we finish here, a Rome photo was required. ;-)

“About Me”

I have put up a proper “About Me” page.

For some reason, I had neglected to do so before now, but I don’t really know why.

Regardless, that oversight has been rectified at last….

Escaping An Extended Childhood

The other day it was reported American Amanda Knox (who had been convicted in Italy of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia in November 2007, had seen that conviction overturned in 2011, and then saw that overturning itself overturned in March 2013) had sent an email from the U.S. – via her Italian lawyers – to the appeals court in Florence. That court is expected to rule in January on the original conviction. In the email, Knox maintains her innocence, and again asserts she was mistreated by Italian authorities.

Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]
Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]

The specifics of the case, and her claims, are not the concern here. Rather, given Knox’s email, suddenly I flashed back once again to an NPR piece from March 2008, a scant five months after the murder. It addressed the issue of U.S. students in Florence, and may be worth revisiting here briefly:

Every year, tens of thousands of young Americans decide to take a year and study abroad. But in places such as Florence, Italy, reports of widespread binge drinking and rowdy behavior are increasingly causing concern….

….Many of the Americans have never traveled outside their home states before. And some turn the entire school semester into one long spring break….

What is evident about Knox is not how unique she was in Italy, but that prior to the murder it seems she was unremarkable there. As with others, she appears to have viewed her sojourn mostly as a get away from home lark. Similarly, her lifestyle seems to have been, one might say, fueled by finding herself able to enjoy alcohol legally and frequent bars and clubs for the first time…. at age 20.

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