“Natalie” Meet “Stéphane”

English Natalie and French Stéphane have been mentioned here just once before, and then only while discussing someone else. I’d not included them in my characters’ summaries. They deserve further explanation.

“Stéphane” is a cobbling together of views I’ve heard out of a variety of Frenchmen over the years. One example:

As Natalie focused on Isabelle briefly, Stéphane observed, smiling, “You know, James, a friend of mine works in a big medical research place. You know the language the Germans and Japanese and French and Americans and others speak at work? English! In Paris!” He laughed.

He owes his looks mostly to a one man I’d met a couple of times in Paris. His confident, friendly, outgoing demeanor, and excellent English, come largely from that real man as well. Here’s another bit from an exchange with James:

“My parents used to bring us on holidays to France,” Natalie explained. “Isabelle probably told you I met Stéphane in London. I thought, ‘Oh, not bad for a Frenchman!’”

Stéphane kidded Natalie in turn. “And I thought you were attractive for an English girl!”

“Natalie” comes to us primarily owing to inspiration provided by an English undergrad I knew while working in a Long Island college in the 1990s. Stick thin, thin blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and seemingly always smiling, she greatly enjoyed studying in the U.S. She knew she was exaggerating about England, yet joked to me once in her rather Sloaney accent, “Oh, it’s always raining, and everyone always has a cold.”

She was also a Francophile. And she spoke French well; but she voiced frustration French people she knew were always on at her to speak with them in English because they wanted to work on their own English with a native English speaker. I get that point in too, when Natalie greets Isabelle and Virginie at Isabelle’s fourth floor apartment door:

“That’s some walk up,” Natalie replied, breathing heavily. “May we speak French? I always need the practice.”

“I was hoping we could speak English,” Virginie answered in English. “I need the practice. Isa does too!”

I once asked her, “Why are you here in New York and not Paris?”

She replied, “My father’s company sent him here. Ah, but if they’d sent him to Paris?” [A broad grin and mischievous wink followed.]

A certain “class” of the English tend not raise their voice during an argument, or when angered; instead they become cooler and cooler. She fit that stereotype. Here’s one sample of how I portrayed and fictionalized that aspect of the character: Natalie quietly complains to Isabelle about her cousin Maddie’s American roommate’s appalling behavior during summer school in Italy:

“She managed to get a part-time job in a club,” Natalie continued. “Maddie says she’s sure the girl’s got no work visa, so it must be an illegal cash job. She comes home with losers and smokes cannabis with them too. Bible-waving Americans think Europeans have no morals? A load of old tosh.”

Fictionalizing an Anglo-French couple having met in London and now living in Paris was aided by my encounters with several French in Britain. One person in particular unwittingly helped: a Frenchwoman in an Anglo-French marriage. “Simone” and I worked together in London for over five years.

Flags of France (l) and England.

Flags of France (l) and England.

We had lunch a few times only the two of us. (It was normally a small mob.) I always hate talking shop over lunches. So when provided with any one-on-one opportunity, I usually sought to get her to share a bit about her life in France.

In turn, she’d sit in the pub with her glass of red wine (seriously; but never mind about that), and angle instead to talk with me mostly about England and us foreigners living in the country. She once observed wryly, “I came to London to get a Ph.D. I ended up with an English husband, and no Ph.D.”

Unsurprisingly the U.S. normally also came up. She had visited America – Florida – only once, and had never been to New York. Nevertheless, she knew a great deal about the country, and was intensely interested in it. Maybe that was why hearing details about my life back in New York was also of interest to her?

Take a wild guess. Which of us regularly prevailed when it came to the choice of pub lunch conversational topics? Hint: it sure as heck wasn’t me.

In writing these novels, I’ve come to feel the entire concept of “fiction” could itself be termed “fictional.” F. Scott FitzgeraldErnest HemingwayHow many others? Locales may be altered, names are changed, individuals blended together, facts rearranged and repositioned so they best suit a narrative, but novelists certainly derive characters and plots from their own real life experiences.

I readily admit, I have. ;-)

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See related:
Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Russians
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

Plane Courtesy

Back on Friday, we were on British Airways, which we almost always fly internationally (save for Ryanair). This flight was on a 777; that’s what BA uses to Newark (although they are supposed to be using Dreamliners too, I believe). I still don’t like that aircraft; but I will admit this one was a better cabin experience than many previous 777 flights. image The flight (in comparison to, uh, others) was relatively uneventful. One exception was finding ourselves upgraded to premium economy. The other was, less happily, discovering ourselves sitting behind a late twenties/ early thirties, American couple.

Yes, we all have our off moments. Still, this was all too much to have possibly been a mere series of coincidences. Please pardon me as I get this off my chest. ;-)

The male half of the couple was seemingly one of those people who “things just happen to.” Somehow he dislodged/ broke the plastic cover enveloping the outer leg of his aisle seat. Using his laptop, he almost sent a drink flying as well. The cabin service director at one point also announced that an iPhone had been found in a lavatory. Guess whose it was?

Sitting in front of me, his companion apparently inhabited her own, shall we say, “plane of reality.” She proceeded to recline her seat (in premium seats recline pretty far) for nearly the whole flight, including during meals. Yeh, why have perhaps an ounce of consideration for the person behind her? Indeed, did she even notice there was someone behind her?

More ridiculous, mid-flight, to reach her seat after having used the lavatory, of course he didn’t stand up and let her pass; she decided to climb over him. Naturally in grabbing the back of her seat to seek extra balance for this gymnastics move, she managed to shake and push back her already reclined seat even farther – so much so that it clipped and nearly knocked over an open bottle of water I had on my tray. I’d think nothing of behavior like that from an eight year old. But from an adult?

Twice her pillow also slid back to us after she’d gradually pushed it brainlessly between their seats. Once is an accident. After the second time, instead of shoving it back again between their seats, I just left it on the floor. She displayed no obvious interest, or concern, about it having vanished.

After landing, as we stood waiting to disembark, I glimpsed the dim-looking and self-absorbed expression on her face: it reminded me a little too much of a certain study abroad U.S. student who has been seen a great deal since late 2007. It all clicked. Suddenly, everything that had gone on before made more sense. ;-)

We’d met up in London a little more than a week earlier with an Alaska college friend of mine and his wife during their first visit to the British capital. Over lunch, he noted that he thought the people-watching is absolutely amazing. His wife (whom we did not know before then, and now do) agreed enthusiastically, and added that she couldn’t get over the incredible variety of shoes seen on the women. At that, my wife grinned and concurred with her wholeheartedly.

We may wish we could get to know some of those people we all “watch.” Then there are others we actually do encounter whom we really wish would keep their distance. And the more distantly, the damn better. :-)

On Lexington

We met up Friday with a college friend of mine from my time at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. (Don’t ask.) He and his wife had been touring Ireland, and were finishing their vacation with a week in London. Via Facebook, we had arranged to get together.

I’d last seen him in person twenty years ago. Yes, two decades. But he hasn’t changed… well, save for a few gray hairs, but we all end up with those. We had never met his wife. (We had been invited to their 2003 wedding, but could not get there.) It was great to grab the chance to do some catching up while we had a lunch at Mildreds:

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I wouldn’t normally note a restaurant here, but this one is worth a mention. It was full for lunch, and had a buzz; yet you could also carry on a conversation without yelling. The staff we encountered were friendly too.

I wanted a Stella Artois (that’s my favorite), but since they didn’t have that, I settled for a Budweiser – brewed in the Czech Republic. My wife had a glass of red wine, of course.

Oh, and the restaurant is vegetarian. I don’t mind eating vegetarian now and then. But I don’t think I could eat vegetarian all the time.

It’s my friend’s wife who is pescatarian. My friend joked – when his wife was away from the table briefly – that he is a meat eater. But he’s learned to eat lots of non-meat.

There are plenty of places to stop for a meal between Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus. But this one will more than do if you ever find yourself looking for somewhere tasty (as long as you are happy not to have meat), and reasonably priced.

Thus ends this, uh, “Trip Advisor” blog entry. :-)

Oh, and my wife told him about my book. A bit of a slip. Now he wants to read it.

I had no choice but to let him in on it. I also warned him that if he tells my parents, I swear I’ll unfriend him on Facebook. ;-)

Accents

Yesterday’s post was pretty serious. And maybe too heavy – even bordering on depressing. How about something lighter? :-)

A few years ago, I shared an office when I was working in a London college. Once I answered a colleague’s phone when she’d been away from her desk. On the other end was a woman she knew (but I didn’t) from another part of the university.

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I chatted with the caller briefly, took a message (we always did that for each other), and thought nothing of it. When my colleague returned, I told her, and she proceeded to return the call. Perfectly routine.

After they’d exchanged greetings, from the other side of the room I heard several “uh, huhs” out of my officemate. I glanced at her. Grinning while speaking, she looked back at me as she remarked, “Oh, yes, he’s American.” There was a pause from her end of the conversation, followed by a renewed smile my way. She added, “Yes, he is. Sorry.”

When my officemate got off the phone moments later, she said, “She asked who was that who answered the phone? I told her, and she said she thought you had the sexiest accent and asked if you are married. I told her you are.”

I replied, jokingly, and hyper-exaggerating my American accent in the deepest – and handsomest – verbal tones I could summon up, “Why, yes, I’ve been told before I have a sexy accent.”

We had a good laugh. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to make your day, does it? Happy Thursday! ;-)

A Small Tribute

While walking our dog a few days ago, I had a “brainstorm”: in the sequel, in London (some of it is taking place in Britain), I would give our deceased friend Kam a literary cameo. I don’t know yet if it will make the final book, but here’s part of the early draft (click to enlarge), and I hope you enjoy it:

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A few points. In that scene, I’ve fictionalized a reasonably well-known club where we had hung out with her a couple of times. My choosing to place her there was owing to the fact we met Kam frequently after work at clubs, pubs, or restaurants.

Rob and Helen are also real people. And guess who? Like certain über-famous directors “walking on” in their own films, I thought I’d slot myself in as myself: Kam always called me Rob, and my wife’s name is actually Helen.

What fiction allows us, eh? A couple of other bits. Early in our real marriage, we did live in Godmanchester. (I even met the former prime minister, John Major, in person once, when he was still the area’s MP. Ah, another life goal fulfilled. ;-) ) Kam was also almost 27 in late 1995 (although the time frame is fictional in this sense: we were not yet married in 1995). I thought I would also drop in a small “inside joke” about Kam resembling Valérie – which of course she does, given fictional Valérie is partly based on very real life Kam.

If I go with this, Kam will become the only outright real person portrayed in a speaking role in the books so far. It’s just something: words and memories are all we have left. Tomorrow (May 2), she will have been gone three months. May she rest in peace.

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Thanks for stopping by. Hope you’re having a good Thursday….

North London Flowers

Morning today, in north London:

Bluebells, Trent Country Park. [Photo by me, April 16, 2014.]

Bluebells, Trent Country Park. [Photo by me, April 16, 2014.]

A gorgeous day. Sunny English spring days always feel just a bit more “springlike” than elsewhere. I don’t know why that is.

But, I admit, I’m a bit biased. :-)

Piccadilly Line

Made it. Flew from JFK to Heathrow last night. And it’s a beautiful afternoon here in London.

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We were tired – as anyone is from that flight. At Heathrow, our flight’s luggage ended up on a reclaim carousel mixed up with the bags from a flight just in from Toulouse. Who knows why? Suddenly, there were French teenagers all around us. (It was a school trip to Britain.) Yes, welcome to London!

The long Tube journey from Terminal 5 to the house was amusing at one point. A mum with two very young kids – a boy and girl – ended up sitting across from us on the train. They had been sightseeing in central London.

After a time, she and my wife and I had a laugh over how her kids were all energy when they had first boarded. However, after a couple of stops the movement of the train and the warmth of the carriage gradually began to relax them – the boy especially. Eventually, he was on the verge of falling asleep.

His mum was trying to keep him awake by promising him ice cream. They got to their station just as his eyes were closing and he was fading out. She poked him gently yet again and told him, “Come on! Ice cream, ice cream!” She told us goodbye, and after she led her kids off the train, as the doors shut, her little girl looked back and waved goodbye to us from the platform.

It’s nice to be back.

And that’s also my “100th post.” :-)

American Study Abroad Students … And Alcohol

Back on Saturday, CNN reported on the death of a American college junior in Rome:

A U.S. student who went missing while studying abroad in Italy was found dead inside a railroad tunnel in central Rome, police there said Saturday.

Investigators are looking into the death of John Durkin, an economics major from Rye Beach, New Hampshire. The 21-year-old attended Bates College, but was one of six students from the Maine school taking part in a study abroad program in Rome through Trinity College in Connecticut, his school said. Both colleges are working with Italian authorities….

….He’s been in Rome for a little more than a month as part of a semester-long program, according to Tom Durkin, a family spokesman.

Two days ago, he went to a bar with a group of friends and never returned, according to the spokesman, who said he left the bar alone….

We do not know exactly what happened there yet, of course, so we should not jump to conclusions. That said, whenever we hear of such tragedies, I wince. I find I cannot but think on the incredible disservice we are doing in essentially infantilizing 18-20 year old American adults when it comes to banning them from access to legal alcohol.

Yes, we are told that young man was 21 – so had reached the “21 year old” age to drink legally in the U.S. However, that would have meant he was encountering alcohol legally for the first time in Rome three years later than young Europeans around him in that bar. Even if he had drunk legally at home briefly before venturing to Europe, the legal social alcohol scene (including how to consume sensibly, with whom to engage in a bar, when to stop, etc.) would still have been very new to him; and on top of that, he finds himself ignorant of local European social signals.

Obsessed as we appear to be in the U.S. with “protecting our kids,” are we honestly preparing study abroads for “18 year old” alcohol legality outside of the U.S.? Do we not realize that American 18-20 year olds in England, France, Italy, and elsewhere, find themselves mixing with young Europeans who are familiar with legal alcohol and adult behaviors surrounding it? In compelling American 18-20 year olds at home into drinking as an “underground activity,” when they find suddenly they can consume booze “above ground” legally in places like Italy are those young Americans mature enough to handle it?

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It seems not, and it is no joke. When I worked in a London university, I noticed that when it came to alcohol American study abroad undergraduates often behaved like kids let loose in a candy store without parental supervision. Effectively, we force an extended childhood on them at home, but we don’t appear to want to reflect on the dangerous ramifications of that for when they “leave the nest” and fly off to study abroad.

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. ;-)

“Quite A Send Off”

I’d like to thank all of you who read the previous post about our friend Kam, and liked it.

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We heard yesterday evening post-funeral from her younger sister, in London. She wrote they had given Kam “quite a send off” (her exact words). She also noted she didn’t know half of the people among the horde who turned up.

She also wrote that three doves were released. I smiled at that, considering the flock of birds’ artwork I had chosen for that post purely by chance.

And life now goes on for all the rest of us, of course….