Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Travel Math

Now that I've been riding a bike through the countrysides of Poitou-Charentes for nearly five months, new roads and towns are getting harder to come by. I've covered some of the smoother, more scenic routes dozens of times. In order to expand the limits of my cycling universe, exploring more routes and towns farther from Poitiers, I've decided to combine the two most convenient forms of travel here, bikes and trains.

Instead of biking in loops, always ending up back home, I've decided to try riding one way and taking the train back. The weather has been improving and I'm in much better shape than when I got here, making longer rides much more enjoyable. In addition, I can eat lunch and spend an hour or two exploring a city before hopping on the train back to Poitiers with my bike.

First destination: Niort.
Niort is around 80km from Poitiers, and is almost the same size. Biking there takes about 3-3.5 hours. Since Rebecca's students don't have class this week (because of Carnaval? Or Ash Wednesday? We're not really sure) she decided to take the train to Niort so we could have lunch together and explore on foot.

First step: Wake up early. Normally, I ride in the afternoon, but to make it to Niort in time for lunch, I'd have to leave by 9:30am. The trains stop running before I would be able to finish dinner, so I have to stick with lunch.

Wake up Jefe!

I got to Niort a bit before Rebecca's train was scheduled to come in, so I rode around a little to familiarize myself with some of the parts of town. Then I went to the train station...

...where I met Rebecca and got to change into real clothes (which Rebecca had kindly brought for me).

We found a nice place for lunch. Actually, we were looking in the window of a random place and then a customer came out to smoke his post-lunch clope, and he pretty much forced us to go in.

We sat down to recount our adventures of the morning. Rebecca *just barely* made it to the train on time thanks to the self-service ticket kiosks and their convenient option to "buy a ticket for a train that is departing immediately." Jefe found a really nice route from Poitiers to Niort with lots of smooth roads, nice scenery and not much traffic.

The part between Mothe St. Heray and Chavagné is especially nice, with views down into the neighboring valley.

Rebecca ordered une salade de thon, and Jefe had the plat du jour: roast chicken with spanish rice. We had just about finished up when...

--ok, now I have to recount an exchange I had with the waiter at lunch. It's embarrassing for me, but I feel that it bears an important lesson about French café culture--

...after the meal (in french)

Waiter: Vous êtes terminés? C'était bien? Vous voulez un dessert?
All done? How was it? Would you like some dessert?

Me: Non, merci, euh... {il donne un coup d'oeil a Rebecca} un dessert, peut-être?
No thanks, uh...{glancing at Rebecca} how about a dessert?

For some reason, I thought he had asked if I wanted the bill (l'addition). Perhaps it was my fatigued state, I'm not sure. Besides the obvious humor in rejecting and then asking for the same thing in a single sentence, Rebecca reminded me of two things one must understand about French waiters: (1) they will never offer the bill, and will wait until you ask for it (unless you're just getting coffee or drinks, or if you're in Paris & are perceived by the waitstaff as incompetent to do such things properly) and (2) they will always offer dessert. How I could have mis-heard and failed to take into account these two cardinal rules of the café, I will never know.

Giggling, we wandered through the streets of Niort, stopped by the Donjon, and island hopped in the middle of the Sèvre Niortaise River. We also saw this interesting alternative to standard bollards.

Serpent guarding the pedestrians from the evil cars

When it came time to leave, we got tickets for a local (TER) train to Poitiers. I packed my bike up for the train ride and covered it with a fitted bedsheet that Rebecca got that morning just for this purpose.

So much easier than taking it fully apart!

Everything worked out great. I got to try out some new roads, and we both got to explore a new place. This leads me to my new Theory of Travel Math:

more sweet math, for all you nerdfighters

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Attack of the 50-foot Wicker...thing

It must be Carnivale...

Apologies for the poor quality of the video. 
We'll do better next time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

On the Untranslatable (L'intraduisible)

In America, this gesture might translate roughly to "I don't know";
in France, it means "c'est normale!"

There exist some words in French for which there are no exact English translations. This is apart from idiomatic expressions like Quel dommage or Grâce au ciel. There are, of course, plenty of loan phrases, such as laissez faire, la pièce de la resistance, or noblesse oblige, which we use in English; but these often do not have the same connotation in the context of a French conversation.

No, the "untranslatable" is something different altogether.

The existence of untranslatable words points to conceptual areas that exist in French but not in English. Perhaps one of the most representative examples of the untranslatable are the french words normale and normalement. Many dictionaries will tell you that normale means "normal," and online translation engines will turn c'est normal into "it's normal" and normalement into "normally" or "usually." I find these translations misleading, but I've been struggling to find a way to convey the appropriate nuance.

Here is a typical conversation in which normalement would appear:

A: Est-ce que vous pouvez m'aider? Je n'ai pas bien compris la dernière annonce. Ils ont dit que le train departra ou pas?
Can I ask you a question? I didn't quite hear that last announcement. Did they say that the train is leaving or not?

B: Normalement on part dans vingt minutes, mais on ne sait jamais.
We should be leaving in twenty minutes, but you never can tell!

As you can see, in the above conversation, the term normalement has the sense of "theoretically" or "ideally". But this is also not a perfect translation, as it would not make sense to translate the phrase c'est normale into "it's theoretical." Below is a conversation that hinges on the nuance of c'est normale:

A: Je suis desolé, mais mon vélo est bloqué par votre voiture. Est-ce que vous pouvez avancer juste un petit peu?
I'm sorry, but your car is blocking my bike. Could you move forward just a little bit?

B: Bof, je veux bien mais il faut attendre cet camion.
Well, I'd like to, but we'll have to wait for that truck.

A: Ah oui, c'est normale.
That's how it goes.

In a corollary to the Wharf Hypothesis, I would like to argue that the words normalement and normale evoke a sensibility that doesn't exist in other cultures. Maybe we could call it "French resignation"; what's normal in France is not necessarily normal anywhere else.

When you start to think about it, I think you'll notice that we (meaning English-speakers) have adopted many French terms and phrases in order to express feelings of regret and resignation. In American politics, we use the phrase laissez-faire to describe the kind of government that shrugs its shoulders (see photo at top) and consents to let its people do whatever the hell they want. And if an English-speaker says c'est la vie, he or she is communicating the inevitability of an inconvenient situation. What c'est la vie actually means is c'est comme la vie française; the implication is that inconvenient situations are French in nature, which many French people would confirm.

What are some other examples of these kinds of untranslatables?

c'est normale
(nerdy math joke)

It occurs to me that I should reread Doug Hofstadter's Le ton beau de marot, which is all about the art of translation. I've also been thinking a lot about translation in movie titles and subtitles. There's a movie that came out a while ago in the US called Religulous; the word "religulous" is a mash-up of the words "religious" and "ridiculous," which evokes the movie makers' beliefs about faith. You can imagine that this would be difficult to translate into another language. However, the French translation is rather impressive: "Religolo," a mash-up of the words "religieux" (meaning religious) and "rigolo" (meaning funny or odd).

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

I sewed curtains and painted a picture of a goat instead of doing real work

Patricia Highsmith once said, "My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people."

Although I am inclined to agree, I have mixed feelings about self-sequestration.  It's not that I'm afraid of being a cliché (such as the antisocial jerk or the solipsist in the ivory tower).  I think the problem is that, left to my own devices, I tend to be imaginative, but unproductive.  At least not productive in tangible ways.  

For instance, I might sit for hours, just reading through old seminar papers (or even worse, my bachelor's thesis). I might read reviews of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's album, marveling at how famous my old Brooklyn friends are getting.  I might decide I need to watch all of the brotherhood2.0 videos, trying to understand the way fame happens gradually, memetically, and how it changes people.  I might walk around the shops of Poitiers, not buying anything, just listening in on French people's conversations.  I might follow Jefe around random galleries, helping him collect interesting flyers and free postcards.

I found this painting on a flyer in an architecture gallery
the woman looks uncannily like my mother

For me, productivity has always been unpredictable.  My dad once put it perfectly when he said, "for someone so ambitious, I find it interesting that when there's something you really don't want to do, you put all of your energy into finding ways not to do it."

I suppose this is a circuitous way of fessing up. 

I've found it difficult to be consistently productive since we moved to France.     Of course, I've really thrown myself into the teaching and the students, but in terms of "my work" (I gagged when I wrote that)...not so much.

It's been ages since I've even singly-authored one of these posts.  Sorry.

BUT, around the beginning of January, this sluggishness started weighing on me.  Maybe it's the timing (and I certainly wasn't the only one) but I suddenly had a burst of energy.  A big one. Basically, in the last two months, I've drafted two dissertation chapters, sketched out a journal article, outlined two conference proposals, created two new special topics courses, applied for two jobs, and written a fellowship application.  Oh, and started training for a 10k (March 22).

The question now is how to maintain my momentum.  Any suggestions?  What do you do to keep yourselves productive?  How do you keep from oscillating between frenzy and stupor?  Or is maintenance a myth?  I'd really like to hear your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Urban Planning: Bringing Poitiers into the 21st century

Poitiers + Suburbs (pop. 127,489+students)

Like many American cities, Poitiers is fighting to keep its central business district from being overtaken by outlying mega-stores. There have been a handful of articles in the local press about ways to draw more people into centre ville, including more parking, adding a tram line, changing traffic flow,... The discussion has culminated in the screening of some major French urban planning firms in hopes of revitalizing the Plateau (as the center is called here because, well, it's on a plateau).

Topographical map of centre ville and surrounding area

In riding my bike around, it's easy to see how frustrating driving (and parking) a car here can be. There are only a handful of (4) two-way streets in centre ville. You end up zig-zagging through a series of narrow one-ways while circumventing the pedestrian areas to get to your destination. And since some of these streets are so narrow they don't even have sidewalks, you still end up having to dodge pedestrians.

See if you can find the 4 two-way streets (click to enlarge)

Believe it or not, it's not much faster on a bike. Apart from the obvious hills separating the flat center from the rest of Poitiers, the one-way streets are so narrow, I usually opt for the long route instead of going against traffic and getting squeezed into parked cars or the curb. While some people cycle on the pedestrian streets, this is something I usually avoid. Pedestrians are even more unpredictable than drivers (and much more fragile). If they pass a shop and something catches their eye, they may wander into your path without warning. I'm not yet sufficiently confident in my French to berate someone for their unpredictable walking.

Now that you have some kind of picture of how things move around here, what to do about it? Oh, and don't forget about the few dozen historical sites, some of which date back to Roman times, that need to be preserved. Clearly, this is a problem requiring some thought.

Perhaps the problem could be solved by shifting the idea of what "normal" is for people who live here and making a few tweaks to the transportation system at the same time.

The bus system is extensive and frequent in Poitiers and the associated suburbs. But the buses stop at 9pm. Dinner and a movie on the Plateau? Better drive. Going out to see live music with your friends at the Pince Oreille? Who is the designated driver? Want to hang out in Parc Blossac on a summer night?...

Well, you get the picture. The municipality wants people to come to the center to shop and then go home by 9 pm, but shopping for things like clothes, food, umbrellas, and BD's is only one facet of "quality of life."

It's no secret that the French love their leisure time. There has been strong opposition to a law that would allow more businesses to open on Sundays, and the current law also requires all businesses except bars, restaurants, and tabacs to be closed by 10pm every day of the week. But having some (limited) number of buses run until late night/early morning would greatly expand people's entertainment options. Maybe more people would stop by the Deitrich for the Friday the 13th Triple Feature, or get their fix of punk rock/heavy metal at the Café du Clain.

This also relates to the problem of teen alcohol consumption that was mentioned earlier in our Vin Chaud post. Normally, the drinking age is 16 in France, but the mayor of Poitiers has raised it to 18 because of fights and destruction of property. Since these kids can't drive (they start driving between ages 18-21), and they can't take a bus to alternative forms of entertainment, what else are they supposed to do? The situation has essentially created a bored, isolated population in a metropolitian area.

One thing to consider are the solutions that other cities have come up with to increase the number of cyclists. Besides low-cost bike rentals, tax incentives, bike lanes and bike parking (all things Poitiers already has but could use more of), there is one thing that is often overlooked. This is the ability to take your bike with you on public transportation. Many municipalities in the U.S. equip the front of their city buses with collapsible bike racks or allow bikes on the subway.

Let's say your home or destination is not close to a bus route...riding to the bus stop and then throwing your bike onto the front and hopping in would be a great alternative to taking a car for the entire journey. Even if you live close by, but you are just beginning to bike or (as is common here) the weather takes a turn for the worse, using a combination of bike and bus is the perfect solution.

It would be especially appropriate here with the combination of the hills that form a uncyclable barrier (for normal people) around centre ville, and the relative cyclability within centre ville.

Before you hire a big-shot urban planning firm to plant a few trees and add some roundabouts to improve traffic flow, the addition of bike carriers to the buses seems like an easy, low-cost win-win solution. In fact, given the large student population, much of whom live on the periphery of Poitiers, being able to take your bike on the bus may prove to be a little too popular.

A lot of people waiting for the bus at the University

Overcrowded bike parking at the School of Engineering
notice that Jefe's bike (not pictured) is keeping a safe distance

In Conclusion
Poitiers has so far failed to demolish lots of buildings to make concessions to the automobile in the form of wide fast-moving boulevards like post-war Berlin. We look at this as a unique opportunity to leapfrog many cities by taking the medieval infrastructure of centre ville and tweaking it into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly area. Adding buses (with bike carriers) that run later at night would make it easier to get to, and around, centre ville for a lot of people, something even the protest-prone French might like.

Instead of continuing to make excuses as to why driving here isn't easier, maybe the mayor should admit that maybe this isn't the best place live if you own a car, and that this is a good thing. Given the increasing interest in sustainability and alternative methods of transportation, this could become a strong selling point for the city.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

TGV: The Train to Awesometown

A funny thing happened when we started telling people that we were going to be living in France for a year.
"Really?! Can I come visit?"
"Oh, and can I bring my [boyfriend/girlfriend/mom/gerbil]?"
"I am so totally coming to visit you in France! I am so excited!"

So here we are, now halfway through the year abroad. Guess how many people have come to visit.
No, even less.


Either this is proof of that whole "out of sight, out of mind" thing (though that seems unlikely if you are reading our blog), or it's an economic issue.

To those of you for whom our absence has made your heart grow fonder, but whose wallets are waning, we'd like to emphasize that overseas travel is often much cheaper than you'd think. And with our help, much easier, too.

We still believe there are a few of you out there who may brave the unfavorable exchange rate and unpredictable airlines to come visit us in Poitiers. To you we offer you this guide to navigating Charles de Gaulle Airport and the associated TGV station.

Bathrooms in the airport terminals are free, but are 50 cents at the train station.

Assuming you want to leave Charles de Gaulle Airport (aka Roissy) and you are not Leon Logothetis (who would hitchhike to his destination) or Daddy Warbucks (sorry, I couldn't think of a real person who is still rich) you have a few options.

1. You could take the Air France Shuttle Bus to one of the train stations in Paris.
2. You could take the RER train to Gare du Nord in Paris
3. or you can take a TGV home, like the 60 million non-parisien French folks who come through Roissy.

As we mentioned previously, the ease of transferring between methods of travel is a breeze in France compared to most airports in the U.S. Of the airports we've been to, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is perhaps the only European airport that makes the transfer easier. You can catch a train to Paris directly from the Schiphol Airport any day of the week, and the train station is directly underneath the entrance hall; pretty cool.

If you decide to take the TGV from the airport in Paris, it's best (i.e. gloriously cheap) to book ahead of time. If you live in the U.S. you can use and look for tickets departing from Paris CDG Airport (or ask us, and maybe we'll even do it for you). If you live in Europe (or just know someone who does), you can use and look for trains departing from Aeroport CDG 2 TGV. RailEurope is either as, or more expensive than

If you use RailEurope, they will mail your tickets to you. If you use the voyages-sncf site, you can pick up your tickets at the ticket counter; remember to bring the reference number and the credit card used to make the reservation. Bonus: if you have a European smart credit card with a chip you can pick up (or exchange/get a refund for) your tickets from one of the automated kiosks.

Standing at the station, ticket in hand, you look down and see this:

Note the train number. When you get to the train station, look at the giant board with all of the departure times. Your train's track (voie) number will show up on that board 15-20 minutes before the scheduled departure. Once you know your voie, head to your platform. Very Important! Don't forget to validate (composter) your ticket at one of the yellow boxes before boarding. Some tickets are exchangeable/refundable even after scheduled departure, and validating them ensures you can't get a refund later for a ticket you actually used.

Stick your ticket in to validate (barcode end first):

Once you find your platform, you have to find out where to stand. The train cars will be divided by numbers. The platform is divided by letters. Look at the electronic map listing the composition des trains, determine which car (voiture) you are on, and find the closest corresponding platform letter.

Standing at F on the platform:

Train with cars numbered and letters underneath showing where each car will stop on the platform.

This is where you should be standing so you don't have to run across the platform when the train arrives. You only have around 3-5 minutes to board once the train arrives, don't start daydreaming about cured sausage, goat cheese, and paperwork.

Once on board, when you find your seat, you will be whisked to your destination in quiet and comfort (cell phones are allowed only in the baggage area between cars, thank goodness).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Subtitles are for the weak

Pretty much every time we visit a new city, the ensuing blog post mentions the movie theaters we found and the films we saw therein. We enjoy the quirks of old movie theaters with bathrooms behind the screen, converted stages, adjoining cafes, sofas instead of seats, and the often strange movies they screen. And when the local movie theater (Dietrich and TAP) are showing movies we've seen, we'll rent movies. Indeed, one of the things we miss most about Champaign-Urbana is That's Rentertainment, possibly the greatest DVD rental location on the face of the earth, or perhaps just the best one we've ever seen.

That's Rentertainment in Champaign, Illinois

Their DVD selection rivals even Netflix. Their library of foreign films is truly astounding (to complement the University of Illinois' large international student (5,700)/faculty population). They have more movies from Germany than most stores have in their entire foreign film section. Besides movies from Africa, every country in (eastern and western) Europe, China, Russia, Korea, Japan, Thailand, and South America (I'm probably still missing a few),...

That's RentertainmentThat's a bunch of movies.

...they also have PAL DVDs. In case you are unfamiliar with PAL, it is a DVD encoding format that is mostly unplayable by DVD players sold in the U.S. (of course we nerdily purchased a DVD player that plays both PAL and U.S. formats. And brought it with us to France. Ahem.)

Why would That's Rentertainment carry DVDs that only a handful of people in Champaign have the equipment to play? It's because many of the DVDs are not available in the U.S. in a non-PAL format, and some of them are really good. Like Black Cat, White Cat or Ebertfest selection L.627.

So imagine the frustration when we got to Poitiers and found that: 1. the DVDs available for rental are mostly American films, 2. For the most part, DVD's of French films lack subtitles (even French subtitles for the hearing impaired! So much for that fraternite, egalite, blahblah thing).

For example...this (below) is the DVD for La Haine, a black and white film released in 1995, which won numerous awards in France and Europe. It has sound in French, Spanish (mono), Italian and German, with subtitles in French, English, Portuguese, Hungarian, and Dutch. However, I haven't found a single other French movie with any sound or subtitles besides French and English.  Believe me, I wish they were all like this. 

What you are more likely to find are DVDs like this one:
De Battre mon coeur s'est arrete (The beat that my heart skipped), which also won numerous awards in France and Europe. So why is there only one audio track (in "V.F." which means French) and no subtitles?

For a background on the technical aspects of subtitling, you can read this comprehensive article. It mentions the space and time limitations of subtitling. People can only read so fast, and the subtitle must be gone by the time the next character speaks. Since French is a wordy language, they have to condense dialogue a lot while still conveying the important information, like the emotions, jokes, irony, and plot points.

Apparently this is just too much to ask for.

And so, while the French bemoan their struggling movie industry, they still don't choose to subtitle their films in English for release on DVD. Even if it meant that 6 times as many people could understand them (in Europe alone). They don't even bother to add French subtitles so that deaf and hard-of-hearing French folks can watch them, not to mention the foreigners (i.e. us) who can understand written French, but have trouble with the colloquial/slang French spoken in most movies (Coluche was a NIGHTMARE, and pretty much anything with a comedian in it is nearly impossible to understand).

Leaving aside the complications of distributing a movie in the U.S., I assure you that there are enough Swiss, Germans, Spanish, Dutch, etc. who understand English well enough to make subtitling a French movie in English cost-effective. The cost of subtitling a movie is around 1-2%  of the total cost of production.

(YES, TWO #@%$^* PERCENT!!!)

You know what? Maybe I'm way off base, maybe not enough people would rent the DVD to offset the cost of subtitling a movie in English. But even then, they could think of French movies that foreigners can understand as advertising for France tourism. Advertising that the target audience in PAYING FOR! Or perhaps it is part of the plan to drive down the number of tourists. This in addition to rectal sausage. Oh yeah, and massive, frequent transit strikes.

"What time tomorrow does the first train not leave?"
"It depends on where you would like to not go, Sir"

We rented the French-Canadian movie C.R.A.Z.Y. (which also won lots of awards) because the box said it had French subtitles. Well, turns out it only has French subtitles for the French-Canadian dialogue, and not for the French language narration. The pronunciation and syntax (and especially the profanity) of Quebecois is sufficiently different from the French spoken in France that French-Canadian movies are often subtitled in French for release in France. Apparently the narration in this movie is not difficult enough to understand to require subtitles. So, what did we learn? The French don't give a shit about the deaf and hard of hearing. Apparently, the entire French film audience is people people who are fluent in French,  younger than 60, and who have no hearing problems.