facebook and a long line of Radiohead

I hang up my keys and turn on the light. I put down my phone, take off my shoes and socks, and put on my slippers. Put on slippers and music, slow enough to match the cursor blink. The sound of a guitar drops my apartment onto the stage of a blues hall.

The town is quiet but for the seldom passing car or distant motorbike. The bus idles outside for a few minutes every hour; my apartment sits at the middle school at the terminus of line 2.

The last bus of the night just left, and the sun is setting. I am without a car, and it is too cold to ride my bike. There is nothing around for kilometers but houses, canals, and fields.

I’ll be in here until morning.

In my room, sunlight, pinching at the horizon, the smoothest dissolution of day into night’s scrape of ink; windows, picturing the silent tops of the village, a view that stripes the sky with telephone lines. In the kitchen, a pear, with scarred skin surrounding a soft bath of grainy latticed juice; a knife, burs chastened by the lippy whistle of a porcelain plate. By my favorite chair, a candle, torchlight’s primate call misread into a confused domestic flame; wax, writhing away and inward, and withering, vaguely recalling a dream of itself. Beer, decapsulated and boiling up, a miniature beerfall flowing into the grip of a glass; a baguette, charming a warm network of clouds into a golden starch-plated universe; cheese, the crumbly white macroscope built of a microbe’s food and waste.

I sit down in front of my laptop. It is almost six years old, a relic of the time before I had been to college. A series of well known gestures and keyboard taps bring me to facebook. Like so many millions of people across the world, facebook is my first stop on the internet. A robot, I follow my protocol of assessment for notable online social events: has anybody written me any messages, posted something on my wall, added me as a “Friend,” or tagged me in a photo he or she has uploaded?

Then, I reluctantly scroll through the News Feed.

Most of the time, the facebook News Feed is the most vapid, shallow, wasteful compendium of user-generated data on the internet. It is populated by information about people I barely know. I have accumulated many, many facebook “friends,” most of whom are acquaintances who never blossomed into actual friends. We met years ago, her friend maybe a friend of my friend, and we hastily looked each other up the same day and added each other to our friendlists. We stalked each others’ pictures, assessed our relationship statuses, maybe exchanged a message or two, a wall post, a hopeful summary of time spent, then we lost interest and never heard from each other again. To me, these are shadow friends, vestiges of a divergent set of decisions and social efforts, relics of a different life that could have been but definitely is not.

And yet they continue to publish, to post photos, to write status updates meant to be read by their real friends. And my News Feed collects them for my viewing pleasure.

I have no idea who “Leon” is, but he is my “friend,” and he recently wrote this status update:

“Feel like the whole world is against me… dont know if I can make it to tomorrow…”

His real friends dutifully responded with demonstrations of support and love; I took advantage of my position of relative anonymity and gave him some real talk, writing, “Have you tried alcohol?”

Another “friend” named “Lauren” wrote:

“To whomever (I know who you are) is starting rumors about me:
I’m glad you find me important enough that you can’t get my name out of your mouth. Now please focus your attention on getting your own pathetic life in order so I don’t have to publicly embarrass you… Because let’s be real, I will.”

Six of Lauren’s real friends “liked” this post; four of them posted you-go-girl!-type comments (one fondly called her a “rediculous human being”). Mysteriously, even a full day later, the rumor-starter had not yet posted an apology… so I did. “I’m sorry I lied to your parents’ friends about how you hooked up with your cousin at Julie’s wedding. Please don’t publicly embarrass me by telling my friends I like to eat pencil erasers.”

So I wade through the status updates of my “friends” to read about the things that happen in my real friends’ lives… or at least those things that happen that are worthy of a facebook status update.

Then, looking at all this activity surrounding my virtual social profile, I begin to wonder.

Should I update my facebook status?

“I am sitting in my apartment.” Super lame.

“I just ate a pear.” Almost funny, but boring.

“My life only exists to make more status updates.” Sounds too much like my friend Leon.

Not often enough, I fight the urge to transcribe my life into the ultimately soulless medium of facebook status updates. Sometimes, I contemplate an indefinite abjuration of facebook… but I never go through with it. Even as I continue to use facebook, I always remember to hate it. The primary object of my hatred is how the useful and fulfilling aspects of facebook always seem to get drowned out by noise and distraction that can be nothing but harmful to the mind. As a fraction of time spent on facebook, finding and keeping in touch with real friends is tiny, while wasting time is huge. Time is most prominently wasted when status updates contain links to online articles, YouTube videos, or other miscellaneous websites. Admittedly, a few of these links point to genuinely challenging or beautiful material. But most of them are trash. The other day, I spent three minutes watching a dachshund take a bath. Cute, but I’m pretty sure I won’t remember that by the end of the week. Pretty sure a dachshund taking a bath will not be incorporated into the body of “useful things I learned on the internet.”

And these minutes add up, add up, add up, and the circuits that drive me endlessly back to facebook are reinforced, reinforced, reinforced. Sad and true how weak, how powerless I am.

This is an evening at home, like any other, and like any other day I am on facebook. But today something good happens: I find a link which brings me to treasure.

Radiohead releases new album, The King of Limbs.

My Radiohead story begins during spring break in 2003, when I was a sophomore in high school. I was on vacation in New York, and I bought Kid A, Radiohead’s fourth album, at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. Back at school, I took advantage of my study hall period to listen to the entire CD on my Sony Walkman. At this point in my life, I was a fanatic of classic rock and alternative rock and pop rock: anything that had really great power chords or guitar solos. Kid A was something much different: Thom Yorke’s voice, the unrecognizable instrumentation, the time signatures, the electronics, the rhythm… they were ethereal sounds. In an imagined music video, there would be no people smiling and dancing around, but instead colors shifting in environments much bigger than a stage, the visual language of emotions and studied grandeur. The sound was huge in a way I could not have previously conceived, and it affected me differently than other music ever had.

Everything In Its Right Place

Later that week, I listened to OK Computer, Radiohead’s second and probably best album. One song in particular, called “Paranoid Android,” captivated me and remains to this day one of my favorite songs (it seems like every Radiohead album has that one song that really gets to me).

Paranoid Android

In 2007, when I was a sophomore in college, In Rainbows was released for download on Radiohead’s website: fans could name their price. Using the same laptop I use to type this sentence, I named $5 and downloaded the album; on his laptop, my roommate Raiden named $0. On a cold October morning, I listened to the album on my iPod, beginning when I left my dorm room, during the walk up Science Hill, and ending about halfway through a chemistry lecture. For months, Raiden and I excitedly blasted the album and shared remixes of our favorite songs in our common room. The following summer, we went to Lollapalooza in Chicago and saw Radiohead live. I nearly melted when they played “Nude.”

Nude

These are flashbulb memories for me. I’m old enough now that I have fully investigated the back-catalogs of my favorite artists. I know all their songs. When I was first getting into music, with the help of Napster and Gnutella and Direct Connect and Kazaa and Limewire, the material for every artist I loved seemed inexhaustible, seemed vast enough to take years to digest. Well, now I have.

So now I wait for new releases, and when they come, it is a big deal. It is memorable. These are days when a part of my life is modified somehow, to the positive or the negative. For instance, my concept of Weezer, the rock band, has been steadily diminished and softened over the last five albums or so. Today I listen to none of their discography except for their first two albums, which I will always love. But so far, Radiohead has failed to displease me with any of their music. It is one reason why they are a truly great band: my concept of them is expanded every time I hear something new.

I click the link to Radiohead’s new album, happily navigating away from facebook. I pay seven euros to download the album. Then I transfer the music to my iPod and close my laptop.

I go to the kitchen to slice another pear. I sit back down in my favorite chair, beside a candle and a glass of beer. My feet are restless with excitement inside my slippers. I gaze out the window at the day night sky, and I press play.

This is not a night like any other. As I sit and listen to The King of Limbs, I am at the end of my Radiohead story. I am standing on a long red line, and at the other end I am a 16 year old kid, fitting Kid A into the grip of my Sony Walkman. And as far away as it is, this moment runs flawlessly before my eyes. The moment is endowed with the then-unknown import of an eight-year-long thread, a vision that is very simple but very rich.

The sixth song on the album, Codex, is beautiful, soft and evocative. It is now a prominent point on ever-stretching line.

Codex

My imagined music video features the props that populate my apartment tonight. I see a knife, a pear, a piece of cheese and bread. I see a glass of beer and a French sunset. I see my Sony Walkman, my old iPod, and a ticket to Lollapalooza.

The telephone lines twitter the frequencies of piano chords into the sky, the sun slips off the hilltop away into the lake, a distant motorbike sounds its sustained horn-like call, and there is no one around.

Sleight of hand
Jump off the end
Into a clear lake
No one around

Just dragonflies
Fantasize
No one gets hurt
You’ve done nothing wrong

Slide your hand
Jump off the end
The water’s clear and innocent
The water’s clear and innocent

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(reverse) culture shocks, through beer

For an American in France, culture shock does not exist.

Culture shock refers to the jarring discomfort and isolation that can result from living in a culture that is different from one’s home culture. Now that I have spent multiple months in France on two separate occasions, I am prepared to state that French culture is not different enough from American culture for culture shock to set in. I acknowledge that there exist vast differences in language, history, and broad sensibilities between the cultures of America and France, but these differences tend not to surface unless one engages in a challenging philosophical debate.

My life here, even as a student, never involves much heavy intellectual lifting. All I really talk about with French people is snow, and about stupid things our students say, and about how the Spanish teacher just got a new couch and maybe I can have her old futon that turns into a bed. Our conversations never seem to wander to juicy subjects like existentialism, illegal immigration, or marital infidelity.

So coming to France hardly provides that admirable shock of a place that is truly strange. Maybe if I decided to live in Egypt for a year, or Malaysia, or India, I would see some novelty, some previously unimaginable truth, something to make me reflect, something to make me self conscious. I don’t even know what I would see. Maybe I would see an old man, with no arms, on a motorcycle, and his beard is long enough that he uses it to tow a cart full of exotic purple fruit. Can you imagine?

But here in France, the differences are few, mild, and often amusing. It can be hard to name them. French music and pop culture is often nothing more than adorable mimicry of American music and pop culture. French people don’t really understand pointless optimism the way Americans do. And the French are inexplicably obsessed with things like rugby, handball, and “chewing gum.”

When the little differences annoy me and the symptoms of culture shock become apparent, my remedy is the recitation of one truth: my time in France is very brief. It’s stupid to cry about missing American food. Why? Because just a few months from now, minutes after arriving at Oakland Airport, I’ll be sitting cross-legged on the floor at In-N-Out, violently consuming a 10×10 Hamburger and washing down a few orders of Animal-Style Fries with two or three Cosmopolitan Milkshakes. I am quite certain that one day I will make up for lost time.

Shake Shack: the last burger, until one day...

One of the main things I thought I would miss about America was the beer. Like many young Americans my age, I love beer. Beer, far from mere beverage, can be a bringer of comfort, pleasure, and reverie. The way it cools your mouth, warms your head, tickles your throat… feelings that are reliable delights, like dragging the palm of your hand across the warm fur of a good dog, or walking barefoot through grass.

In late September, I drank my last American beer: an Oktoberfest-style craft brew. Chris, John, and I were sitting in their tiny Manhattan apartment, playing Halo Reach. At the time, it felt normal, but now it sticks in my mind as a farewell to my American summer of cold beer, fresh hop acids, and chewy malt: the familiar tastes of privilege taken for granted.

Beer was braided into some of my best memories:

-Sharing Schneider’s Edel-Weisse, Damnation Golden, Old Speckled Hen, and Ayinger Celebrator with Dave and Luke. We played pool in Dave’s garage, listened to music, and raised our eyebrows at the sweetness.

Dave's sunset table

–Discovering Yankee Pier happy hour, happily drinking Stone IPA for a dollar on Mt. Diablo Blvd, Lafayette’s main artery.

-Coalescing with the Art and Wine Festival crowd into a miniature high school reunion, Prohibition Ale in hand. Miranda’s dad played the bass in a band and a man gave me three beer tickets.

-Lamenting the Ghana-US game over a Back In Black IPA at 21st Amendment in San Francisco.

-Shamelessly enjoying Hamm’s at the Round-Up Saloon while playing shuffleboard and listening to my brother’s karaoke.

-Sitting before the fire pit with an Alaskan Amber in Natalie’s backyard in Seattle.

-Finding Gordon and Kevin on the Pacific Crest trail near Shasta, I presented them with a growler each of Sierra Nevada Stout and Torpedo IPA: their reward for over a thousand miles hiked. When we found our campsite under an overpass, we chilled the IPA in the Sacramento River and drank it under a full moon.

After sleeping under the bridge, Kevin, Gordon, and I anticipate our Sierra Nevada Stout.

-Brewing a strong ale with my dad in June. He praised it, in his way, all summer long. I presented my brew to my good friends and never really knew or cared whether their admiration was genuine.

-Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the beer is terrible. Luke, Molly and I made a baseball team as unstoppable as the 1998 Braves, which was good, but better was watching Andy, Mickey, and Dave drink untold volumes of a strange mixture of Natural and Milwaukee’s Best Light.

(from left) Edgar Renteria, Brian Wilson, and Tim Lincecum

And finally, at my summer’s end, I descended to the bodega beneath Chris and John’s apartment and bought Magic Hat’s surprisingly delicious Oktoberfest offering. It was the first of the variety I had found in stores in 2010. Finally, there, as the humid city heat pressed into the apartment, as John yelled nonsensical commands to unknown Halo teammates, as Chris bobbed his head left and right to mimic his warrior avatar’s leftstick movements, I tasted a change in the seasons, the wind blowing in a different direction with a different play on the skin. A presentiment, I feared, of good-beer scarcity, that dreaded segment of my culture shock.

Then I came to France, and a fair amount of discomfort ensued.

On the afternoon of September 30, I fell asleep at the Gare de L’Est in Paris and missed my train to Verdun by two minutes. I could see it pulling away, unstoppable. When I finally arrived in Verdun, at 10:30 at night, I found myself utterly alone in the train station parking lot. Literally nobody in sight. Had to ask a security guard to find me a phonebook and a phone. Called my contact, who got out of bed and picked me up. She dropped me off at my apartment, and I slept poorly on the mattress of a stiff bed, using coats as a blanket and t-shirts as a pillow.

The next day, after observing a couple of classes at school, I found myself stumbling through E. LeClerc, a Wal-Mart-like store near the train station. I was looking for a mattress pad, sheets, and a pillow, all in hopes of making my second night more restful. I turned a corner and found myself face to face with the beer section.

Standing in the beer section at LeClerc felt like looking at stacks of mulch and dirt at Home Depot. The beer was sparsely scattered on plywood shelves fit into tall, forbidding metal frames. None of the beer was refrigerated, and none of it looked particularly appetizing. The cheap beer, all of which I had learned to avoid from my semester in Paris, was shrink-wrapped in 20- and 36 packs. The expensive beer was presented in dusty, individual 10-oz bottles, each of which cost at least two euros. Welcome to France.

I placed my bedding, pasta, and a bottle of Belgian beer on the ten-items-or-less counter and gave a fifty-euro note to the cashier. I was dimly aware, but not at all concerned, that my purchases transparently foretold my plans for the night. I’m just gonna eat this pasta, drink this beer, and pass out. Through to the discount land of sleep on my new drap housse, drap plat and oreiller moelleux.

The next day was Friday, and after school, I decided to learn exactly what Verdun had to offer me. There’s not much going on here: 30,000 people, a bunch of cows, a couple of good patisseries, several World War One battlefields… and one truly awesome beer bar: L’Estaminet.

Although I miss American beer, this void in my soul has been filled by L’Estaminet. A beer bar has saved me from culture shock.

On the afternoon of October 1, I got off the bus in central Verdun, carrying a book and nothing else under a warmish sun. I found L’Estaminet easily and sat down outside. I ordered an amber ale: l’ambrée. It was delicious. So I decided to come back later that night.

L’estaminet is Belgian French for “the bar.” Verdun’s L’Estaminet occupies a small space on a tiny street near the river, and its stained glass windows and signage (“Bierstube,” “Bitburger”) indicate that the establishment follows the Northern French/Belgian/German tradition. On one of the signs, there is a cartoon of the proprietor, Alain, holding a tray of beer. He is a bespectacled man with an enormous gray mustache.

Alain aka Le Loup Blanc

L’Estaminet’s interior is dim, and its stone walls are covered with vintage beer signs, murals, and pictures of cartoon pigs. Everywhere, cartoon pigs. Pigs drinking, pigs saying different things. There is even a moving clock behind the bar that depicts a male pig happily, perpetually humping a female pig. I asked Alain if he had a pig obsession; he told me the pig décor comes from the chansons cochonnes, which are old, dirty French drinking songs. One night a year they have a pig-song singing night. Jean-Jacques, the old man with the booming voice who came to our Thanksgiving celebration, once brought a pig on a leash to a pig-song night; the pig became Alain’s pet.

The famous pig clock.

Above the actual bar hang many, many witches (no idea why), and behind the bar can be found a wall stocked with beautiful glassware, and fine whiskeys and other liquors, most of which are unrecognizable to the young American college graduate.

All the beers on tap are amazing. They are Bitburger (light German lager), Chimay rouge, Lindeman’s Framboise (raspberry beer that I never order), Kwak (a beautifully colored honey-tasting beer), Duchesse de Bourgogne (sour Flemish red ale), Mc Chouffe, Guinness, and five “Estam” beers brewed by Alain in the back of the bar. The Estam beers are le curé (Belgian style), le froment (white style), la blonde, l’ambrée, and the Mac’Estam (black beer). Alain’s beers are all phenomenal. Really, really good. The rest of the menu is huge and amazing: you can order hundreds of different types of world-class beer, and bière flambée (you set it on fire), and that’s not to mention fine whiskeys and, of course, grog.

Sur pression

It’s not just about the beer, though: L’Estaminet is my chosen place of competitive greatness. Near the end of the bar hangs a dartboard. When I first saw this dartboard, I thought about how much I liked the bar, and about how much free time I would have over the seven following months. Then, I noticed a cherished element of the bar’s décor: an oar—hanging from the ceiling above the dartboard—signed by the French Olympic rowing team, who are apparently based in Verdun. Inspired by images of perseverance, mental fortitude, and extreme physical exertion, I decided to dedicate myself to the sport of darts. For the past few months I have maintained a rigorous training schedule, and although I have made no noticeable progress, my indefatigable commitment has earned the respect of my fellow L’Estaminet regulars.

What I dream about

Another important part of the bar’s atmosphere is the music. Alain loves blues. The soundtrack at L’Estaminet is reliably one of soulful voices, slow tempos, and guitars that snarl and weep. The blues always oozes from the speakers, lowers barriers to conversation, imbues one’s every action with a dose of cool. And one night a month, Alain invites a different band to set up next to the brew kettle and perform.

Lorenzo Sanchez, January 13

Enfin, bref. L’Estaminet. One of the many reasons I feel lucky to have been randomly assigned to Verdun. The beer culture shock I feared has been averted.

Alain surveys his "cathédrale"

But alas, I am sure this story will end on a blue note called reverse culture shock.

On the other side of the ocean awaits reverse culture shock, which is way worse than regular culture shock. The problem with reverse culture shock (RCS, if you’re into initialisms) is that it accompanies a relatively permanent change in cultures.

I suffered a pretty severe case of RCS in 2009, when I returned to California after a semester in Paris. After six months in France, I spent a sublime week watching SportsCenter, seeing friends and family, and eating untold quantities of burrito.

Then, all of a sudden, a certain well established network of neurons in my brain told me it was about time to eat a nice Nutella-banana crêpe. In Paris, this craving drove me to go to the crêpe stand across from the Luxembourg Gardens, where the silent, sneering man with bad teeth would sell me a Nutella-banana crêpe for 3.50 euros—an outrageously good deal. Then I would cross the avenue and sit in one of the wonderful chairs, frown at tourists and Parisians alike, watch children steer sailboats across a fountain, look at the Senate building, and eat my crêpe.

Back at home in California, I had limited access to such an experience. The satisfaction of my crêpe craving was postponed indefinitely. My foreign familiar, all of it, had been removed from my life, and it was now thousands of miles, thousands of dollars away. I missed my host family, my host family’s cat, my tiny room with a view over the rooftops of the seventeenth arrondissement, my daily bus rides past the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. I was suffering withdrawal from the beauty of the city and the language, the food and the history: my delights and needs were on the opposite side of the planet. But it was all so tantalizingly fresh in my memory, so easily accessible in loving photographs that nobody liked to look at as much as I did. Alone, I regarded my beautiful recent past across an unbreakable plane.

May 17, 2009, 12:00:01

Days after the crêpe incident, I went to Vancouver and enjoyed a good summer of non-culture-shock that screened me from the worst of my RCS symptoms. It was during this summer, though, that I decided to apply for a one-year post-graduation job in France. Like buying a puppy even though you know you will outlive it.

And what about the beer? What about my favorite beer at L’Estaminet? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the Mac’Estam. La Noire. The schwarzbier, the black lager. True to its genre, it is very dark. Its aroma is an exquisite blend of nuttiness and breadiness. Its taste is a symphony of burnt malts and bittersweet chocolate and light coffee, with hints of fig and banana, and a background of balancing hop spice. A studied taste of the Mac’Estam is a ten-second journey. Every twenty-five centiliters of the stuff is a wrinkled silk tapestry, a closed-eyed plunge into a rabbit hole, followed by an umbilical rebound past fleeting visions of justice and righteousness. If that makes any sense.

In every thread of life there is uncertainty about ends and beginnings. Who knows how long I will hold this job, know this person, own this sofa. The fall from a chapter of life is softened by the possibility of an epilogue or a belated sequel. But coming home from abroad is a firm end. Coming home is crossing a plane through which one can glimpse a would-be present but cannot continue it.

I look forward to my return to America, even though I know there will be some RCS. To speed me to a constructive recovery I will periodically review a few useful truths.
-America is my home.
-It is unrealistic to forecast a return to France for at least five years.
-Besides, it will be good to renounce the self-indulgent lightness of my French life for a while.
-I must never stop progressing.
-But it is OK to look at pictures from time to time.
-And I must always keep the taste of foreign beer in my mind.

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What it’s like being a real person

“What’s it like being a real person?”

Recent college graduates hear this all the time, especially if they choose not to go directly to grad school. It is an ironic sort of question that diminishes the importance of being a student. Student life is an easy one, where the food is made for you and your dorm room is part of the tuition your parents pay. Student life is a series of parties and pizza places punctuated by papers and mid-terms. Student life is wonderful and ever changing. And the afterward, our “real life,” is a daunting land of shadow, a sea in which to plumb the lessons of emerging adulthood.

A week or two after you graduate, the lurching metamorphosis from college student to “real person” begins. When the euphoria of accomplishment and self-importance wears off, we feel anxious because we should be doing something productive… right? When is the next test? What’s the next assignment, the next stage? This is inevitable: college conditions us to fear the unbearable lightness of downtime. But when you’re a “real person,” you are the one who must decide the wide-open of the near future.

That is why we work. After knowing twenty years of school, we fledgling “real people” find a world in which homework and grades are conspicuously absent, a world in which jobs and expenses abound. By working during the week, by making moves and doing business and earning paper, we buy groceries and train tickets and underwear. We eat these groceries to make energy to do work to get more intangible funds deposited in our bank accounts to buy more groceries. The “real life” life cycle!

Being a “real person” means finally contributing to The System after a life of receiving from it. I do it by teaching French children to speak English. And damn, it can feel productive. I feel integral, depended upon, nutrient-rich. I’m like a citric acid cycle spinning off reduced molecules and metabolic intermediates, executing anapleurotic reactions, ever turning, but my NADH is vocabulary, my oxaloacetate is grammar, my carbon dioxide is confusion.

“Real life” is good but hard. Although I teach only twelve hours a week, the job can be pretty difficult. My students’ very low level of English is not problematic: it is their age. My students are between 13 and 15 years old, an age which compels them to explore the far reaches of misbehavior. The difficulty of my job thus springs not from the fact that my students rarely understand me or that they can’t string together simple sentences, but rather from their principled disrespect for authority and their very short attention spans.

This means that in order to maintain order, to keep my students engaged, and to make sure they have some idea of what I’m talking about, I must resort to a bizarre mix of energetic miming, recurring dances and jokes, sporadic disciplining, and an unacceptable amount of spoken French. Sometimes I worry about hidden cameras, because if my boss were to see some of my lessons, she would have to conclude that she had employed some kind of unpredictable, bilingual clown who didn’t make it to orientation.

Even though I rarely feel like my students benefit from my presence, I actually really like my job. I can’t really fault my students for their poor behavior because I see in them reflections of my teenage self in my vague recollections of actually being a student.

My old French teachers are memorable first for the not-unexpected language-teacher deviation from “regular” teachers. My French teachers’ styles of dress and interaction bore that tinge of foreignness, and their teaching styles and peculiarities seemed a little more absurd than those of science and history teachers, sometimes to an endearing extent, sometimes not.

I also remember that although I was generally a good student, I often got in trouble in French class. My methods were diverse and, looking back, quite interesting. I could derail a lesson by imitating for thirty or more seconds the frozen expressions of French over-actors from a dated budget French textbook. One day I realized that blasting my Walkman through my headphones yielded music audible to everyone in the classroom except for my teacher: this revelation frequently compelled me to host impromptu, trebly concerts. Whether it was my attitude toward my teachers or a reaction to being bad at a subject, misbehavior was acceptable to me in French class.

The strongest memories, however, are the many flashbulb memories of my teachers’ manifestations of anger toward me, which I experienced with denial and indignation. He’s so lame, he’s so dumb, he’s so unfair. Now, the tables have turned, and I am becoming the kind of uncool, grumpy authority figure I once defied.

     Last week, Madame Doisnel gave me half her class, and directed me to an empty classroom across the hall.      I invited my fifteen students, whom I already knew fairly well, to sit down.
     I threw a transparency of a political cartoon up on the overhead projector. I covered up most of the cartoon, trying to construct a narrative by asking questions and gradually revealing more details. The diptych cartoon compared dumb-looking cows branded by a cowboy and dumb-looking teenagers wearing brand-name t-shirts. The goal was to teach the nuanced meaning of the word brand, and, time-permitting, to provoke deep thoughts about consumer culture.
     At first, the lesson was going pretty well.
     “And how would you describe this cow?” I asked patiently.
     “He is stupide,” said a voice.
     “Good! He is stoo-pid. Repeat after me: That cow looks stoo-pid!
     About three students half-heartedly botched the accent. Stoo-peed. Four or five students pointed outside at the falling snow. Statistically speaking, my lesson was less interesting than snowfall.
     As I turned to write our new sentence on the blackboard, somebody spoke a strangely familiar phrase.
     “Fuck you.”
     I stopped writing and turned around.  A crossroads: asking who said that would yield blank, silent faces, since the solidarity among troublemaking French students is second only to that of their parents’ labor unions. On the other hand, explaining the injurious and shocking nature of the phrase would only foment additional inquiries about gray areas and gradients. Should I say “screw you” instead, next time? Is “fuck” worse than “shit?” (These are, in fact, extremely important distinctions for true English fluency, but unfortunately “fuck” and “shit” and its colorful conjugations needn’t enter one’s lexicon until one already knows how to say things like But of course or Where is the train station? or I hate this class.)
     So I issued a solemn prohibition of the use of such phrases in class. Then, a bluff:
     “If I hear something like that one more time, we’re taking a pop quiz. For a grade.”
     I don’t know whether it was a quavering voice, or a forehead twitch, or the hasty addition of for a grade, or the fact I’d brought no bag and only two transparencies to class, but my students correctly characterized my threat as empty.
     After I finished writing That cow looks stupid! on the blackboard, I returned to the overhead projector to the unveil the next part of the cartoon: a mark (a brand!) on the stupid cow’s haunch.
     “That cow looks like Ophélie,” one student remarked in French, referring to a girl in the front row.
     “It’s got the mark of a whore,” said another.
     I chose to focus on the first half of this sentence. “Good! It has a mark!”
     At this point, I noticed that a girl seemed to be crawling around on the floor in the back row of the class. Clearly an offense. However, I realized that the wording of my threat contained no mention of floor-crawling.
     “What are you doing?” I asked in French, silencing the room with one of my very-stern interrogatory tones.
     “I’m looking for my pen,” she said innocently, smiling, as if this would clear everything up.
     “Why are you on the floor?”
     “My pen fell on the floor.”
     “What you are doing is very distracting. Stay in your seat.”
     “But what about my pen?”
     Every student has what’s called a trousse, which is French for “a small zippered bag, full of pens of all kinds.” The way in which these trousses are thrown, traded, and stolen during class is reminiscent of the transactions of a prison economy complete with hierarchies and honor codes.
     “Just use one of the many other pens in your trousse, or borrow a pen” I said helpfully. “Sit down.”
     The student slowly returned to her chair. I returned to my lesson.
     “So, Jean-Marc said that the cow has a mark! Why does the cow have a mark?”
     Silence. A girl in the front row was diligently tearing an eraser into tiny pieces.
     “Who puts the mark on the cow?” A pause. “Who puts the mark on the cow?”
     “Coboy,” said a voice, as if responding to roll call.
     “Good, Valentin! Cow-boy! A cowww-booy marks the cow.
     I turned to the girl who was disassembling her eraser.
     “Julia, can you repeat what Valentin just said?”
     Julia looked at me as if she didn’t like something about my face.
     “Coboy.”
     “Good! Cow-boy! Now, who can make a sentence with the verb ‘to mark’ and the word ‘cow-boy’?”
     Miraculously, a student raised his hand.
     “Yes, Hugo?”
     “The coboy mark the co.”
     “Good! The cow-boy­ marks the cow. Ophélie! Repeat that.”
     “The coboy mark the co.”
     “Good! Can we say cooowww? Tous ensemble! Coooowww.”
     This time, my nasal call prompted a strong, equally nasal response.
     “Excellent, now let’s look at another word…”
     Arriving quickly at the crux of the lesson, I turned to write to brand on the board. It was then that I heard the exclamation over my shoulder, emphatic and soft, deliberate and private.
     “Suck my cuck.”

     “I’ve had it!” he screamed, blinking.
     I quickly silenced my Walkman and turned away from my friend Luke.
     Below his baldness, the lateral ridges measured even intervals down his forehead; and below his forehead sat a pair of bushy straight eyebrows, and below his eyebrows and behind two pieces of glass could be found his eyes. As he turned his head, his gaze swiveled from its peculiar lecturing target high up on the back wall; they beamed through the bottom of his spectacles; down his nose; toward my desk.
     The classroom was the smoke in a field after the first volley. My hands, mouth, eyes opened skyward in incredulous prayer.
     He strode to his desk, scribbled upon and tore from a notebook a pink slip of paper, bearing my name. An angry X specified “Principal.”
     “You are to bring this to the office. You are to speak with the principal. You are to remain in the office for the remainder of the period.”
     Like an athlete incurring a foul, I felt my head shaking and a smile formatting the corners of my mouth.
     “I was just asking what you just said,” I complained.
     “I’ve had enough,” he reiterated.
     I rose.
     “Bring your backpack with you.”
     My head hot with shame, my argument suffering fairness, my backpack heavy with textbooks, I obeyed. I carried myself with the slump of injustice. I felt the other students on my side, imagined commiseration in the halls later. I never considered the benefit my absence bestowed on the act of learning. I never considered my teacher’s relief, or remorse.

     I turned and looked at the class; they quietly awaited a verdict.
     I shook my head, genuinely disappointed but not surprised.
     “That’s enough,” I said quietly. “Everyone pack up, we’re going back to Madame Doisnel’s classroom.”
     Outrage! The ultimate unfairness! It was a policy flip-flop. I had said there would be a quiz, not a return to the main room. The main room, where their teacher would surely scold them all, get to the bottom of the problem, ban future visits with the American assistant.
     Their appeals to the tyrant’s decision were met with obstinate head-shaking. The tyrant turned off the overhead projector and collected his transparencies. He stood by the door and waited. He endured his students as they passed into the hall.

That was my last class for the day. I left the school and began to walk through the snow back to my apartment. Another day of work done. Another batch of knowledge scattered into the room, projected into the air to fall like leaves into little baskets. My contribution to the system.

So what’s it like to be a “real person?” To be honest, it doesn’t feel different at all. One thing you might notice when you walk home through the snow is that you feel old. Not, like, old old, but older. Uncool and grumpy in the eyes of a high school student. But their opinion doesn’t really matter: they’re not even real people.

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November dreams of turkey, gravy, and stuffing

Shorter days and colder temperatures have triggered in me much thinking about food.

For most animals, food is just something that needs to happen. I envy the simple intensity of my dog Cali’s desire for food. When I ask if she wants dinner, she responds silently and feverishly. All she needs to express her raw drive to eat is drooling and full-body wagging. She is burdened by neither the ability nor the will to describe hunger or eating.

Need bacon.

When Cali eats a steak, she doesn’t assess whether it’s properly seasoned; whether the cow had been humanely raised and slaughtered; whether she could maybe ask about the recipe and cook the same dish herself in order to impress a certain significant other dog; whether said significant other dog is in fact a vegetarian; whether the dish is just good or truly exceptional, and whether this distinction should entail a change in her typically miserly tipping policy. She savors nothing and sips no wine. Unconcerned with taste, the tongue is a muscular shovel.

But we humans use food for so much more than sustenance.

I am fascinated by some of the crazy shit people do to eat. Bear Grylls, the host of the Discovery Channel television show Man vs. Wild, has drunk fresh-squeezed elephant dung and eaten raw dead zebra leg, and that’s just in one episode. In Japan, you can pay hundreds of dollars to eat fugu, the pufferfish sushi whose neurotoxin either imparts a pleasant numbness to the lips and tongue, or else causes paralysis and death. One time, I ate a peanut butter M&M that I found between the cushions of my couch.

If my dog did any of this, she wouldn’t think twice about it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Bear Grylls saw a different man in the mirror after his trip to Africa. And eating pufferfish probably gives you infinite social currency. And I think that peanut butter M&M changed my life.

Whereas most animals have their go-to staple foods, we’ll eat anything. We hubristically assert our utter domination of every other species on the planet. If you’re dangerous, nice try, but we’ll find a way to ingest you. If you taste terrible, guess what, we’ll eat you anyway. Damn right, we’re at the top of the food chain.

I think other species, if they had bigger brains, would describe our “appetizing” food preparations as profoundly disturbing. Whenever I go to a French market and see the rotisserie chicken stand, I imagine the horror a sentient chicken might experience upon viewing such a macabre ballet of his twirling, steaming, dripping cousins. Or a lobster (I always think of Sebastian, from the Little Mermaid, evading the culinary overtures of the hilarious French chef) viewing a seafood restaurant commercial, with the slow-motion slicing of claws, and the sensuous dunking of lobster innards in tubs of butter.

Delicious or frightening?

In addition to the exercise of our mastery of the earth, I think part of our food obsession derives from the animal preference for the familiar and rewarding. When I dream about my favorite traditions and comforts, I taste the associated cuisine. Football season and hot wings; Halloween and candy; California and quesadillas; New Haven and pizza; Thanksgiving and turkey, gravy, and stuffing. When I eat my coveted number two with avocado from Gourmet Heaven, my leptin/insulin/serotonin levels spike, and the hormones flip switches in happy pathways, and my brain stamps a smiley face on the experience, impresses in memory the binary judgment that what just happened is something that should probably happen again. So it happens again next week when I gullibly pull the same levers, blithely follow the same superimposed schedules. If I engage in my gluttony with friends and give it a name, it becomes a tradition. “Who’s down for some Early Morning Sandwich?”

The inverse process is also true: bad food experiences make for indelible memories. During my fifth-grade field trip to an indoor roller-blading arena called Golden Skate, I sustained a bloody nose, a stained t-shirt, and crushing humiliation in front of a girl I liked. The only lasting effect of that experience, as far as I can tell, is a lifelong enmity toward Barq’s Root Beer. I am also afraid of licorice and tequila due to unrelated experiences.

(Guy de Maupassant wrote about the conflation of food and experience. In “Boule de Suif,” Cornudet drinks beer and dreams of revolution:

Quand il buvait, sa grande barbe, qui avait gardé la nuance de son breuvage aimé, semblait tressaillir de tendresse; ses yeux louchaient pour ne point perdre de vue de sa chope, et il avait l’air de remplir l’unique fonction pour laquelle il était né. On eût dit qu’il établissait en son esprit un rapprochement et comme un affinité entre les deux grandes passions qui occupaient toute sa vie: le Pale-Ale et la Révolution; et assurément il ne pouvait déguster l’un sans songer à l’autre.)

This is the kind of stuff I think about when I’m sitting in my huge apartment, alone and a 40-minute walk from anybody I know. I think a lot about food. That’s why I was excited for Thanksgiving this year. All seven of us Americans were excited. We decided to hold a Thanksgiving feast. It’s a lot of food, and the turkey’s not in season in France, and cranberries don’t exist here, and neither does pumpkin purée, but Thanksgiving is a higher order instinct: it’s just something that needs to happen.

We invited about fifteen French people to complement the eight English-language assistants. The celebration would go down in my apartment, which lacked tables, chairs, and the stuff with which you cook, serve, and eat food.

The turkey was the first, biggest concern. Luckily, my man Jean-Jacques hooked us up. He’s an old dude with a booming voice, a great moustache, and a penchant for beer. Brenna met him at L’Estaminet months ago, and he volunteered his services as a former turkey distributor. He sold us an 8-kilo turkey at a heavily discounted rate.

I was in charge of cooking the turkey and making the gravy. Jean-Jacques showed up at my apartment on Wednesday afternoon, carrying the bird in a printer paper box. There wasn’t enough room for the turkey in the fridge, but I wanted to keep it cool, so I left it in the hallway next to the front door of the apartments. I wrote a cautionary note for the other inhabitants of the building: “please don’t touch, turkey inside.”

"Ne touchez pas, S.V.P., dinde dedans"

I formulated my schedule of turkey preparation based on a synthesis of food blog recipes and advice from friends and family. I went to the store to purchase the ingredients for the brine which I would use to marinate the bird: salt, sugar, vegetables to make broth, and spices.

Boil all brine ingredients except water, cool and refrigerate. Early on the day of cooking or the night before cooking, combine brine with water in a 5-gallon bucket. Add turkey, breast side down. Weight the bird down if necessary to keep submerged.

Reuben and I cooked up the brine and sloshed it into the turkey bowl. I had borrowed the turkey bowl—our substitute for a 5-gallon bucket—from the cafeteria at my middle school. However, even the biggest bowl they had to offer could not hope to contain this turkey. In the printer paper box, the turkey had looked sad and out of place, but when we transferred it to the turkey bowl, it looked magnificent. It was definitely not necessary to “weight the bird down.” I was so impressed by this turkey that I decided to name it “Le Duc” (pronounced le Duke). For the rest of the preparation of this turkey I said things like “whoa, Duc!” and “let’s do this, Duc” and “Le Duc abides.”

Reuben with brine and turkey bowl.

Refrigerate for 8-16 hours…

So here was Le Duc sitting in a shallow salt bath, but his bowl wouldn’t fit in the fridge. And it wasn’t cold enough in the hallway. So I decided to place Le Duc outside, behind my apartment, on the grass, where he could marinate under the stars on the eve of his roasting. I wrapped the turkey bowl extremely well with plastic wrap and trash bags to ensure that no animals could investigate Le Duc during his slumber. In retrospect, these precautions were probably unneeded, because I don’t think any living thing would ever consider feeding from this bowl.

Mmmmm.

… turning halfway through.

Turning halfway through? Wow. Due to logistic constraints, I had to marinate Le Duc overnight, so I deemed the halfway-through flip completely ridiculous and out of the question. But when I asked Reuben, he regarded me gravely and said that forgoing the halfway-through flip would invite a host of undesirable results. I know better than to disregard Reuben’s cooking advice, so I set my alarm for 3:45 and prepared my coat and boots.

When I awoke, I jumped out of bed to execute the flip. It was snowing lightly outside. I stumbled around my apartment building. Tore through the trashbags. My hands already freezing. Removed the plastic wrap. Gripped Le Duc’s thighs and turned him over. Dumbly regretted splashing some brine on my pants. I stood and watched snowflakes drift over my shoulder into the bowl, vaguely aware of living a very bizarre moment. Then, there in the darkness, fingers numb, I set about covering Le Duc in cheap Monoprix plastic wrap. This process, like Antarctic origami, was very demanding. Three or four minutes later, when I was satisfied with the job, or too cold, I went back inside to warmth and sleep.

I awoke on Thursday morning to my first ever white Thanksgiving. The sun shone into my apartment. I had asked my teachers to give me the day off work, affecting a tone of sacredness while articulating my request. They happily obliged, clearly responding to the foreignness of the whole situation, the cute American-ness of it. So I had a wide-open holiday ahead of me.

My apartment building, seen from my classroom

Remove turkey from brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard brine. Place the bird on roasting rack inside a roasting pan and pat dry with paper towels.

After downing my requisite two cups of coffee, which I need to drink in order to distinguish forms, I went to fetch Le Duc. I dumped his brine in the sink, not without a touch of sentimentality. I rinsed him inside and out with cold water, turning him delicately in his turkey bowl, imagining myself bathing an infant. Then into Le Duc’s cavity I dumped some microwaved apples, onion, cinnamon, and water, along with some rosemary and sage.

Place the bird on roasting rack inside a roasting pan and pat dry with paper towels. With butcher’s twine, tie legs together, tuck wings underneath the bird and coat skin liberally with canola oil. Roast turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. Lower heat, blah, blah, blah…

My kitchen is only modestly better equipped than was Tom Hanks’ kitchen in the movie Cast Away. The moment I received Le Duc at the front door of my apartment, I knew he wouldn’t fit in my tiny oven. Luckily, when I had asked for a turkey bowl at the cafeteria, the wonderful women who work there offered to cook the bird in their huge oven! And I didn’t even have to drop any hints! Didn’t even have to speak reverentially about tradition! Didn’t even have to wistfully mention my family while adopting a soulful faraway American look and conjuring tears to my eyes! (Don’t judge: this all sounds very manipulative, but when facing poverty and language barriers in France, it qualifies as resourceful.) So the huge pressure of not setting Le Duc on fire was lifted.

I returned to the cafeteria that afternoon to find Le Duc more beautiful than I could have ever imagined him. He defined golden brown. I thanked Marie-Noelle and the rest of the Collège St-Exupéry cantine crew and proudly carried Le Duc back to my apartment. I bestowed him to a borrowed silver platter and set about making some gravy.

El Ducerino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing

Reuben marveled at Le Duc, then made some delicious apple sauce; after finishing my gravy, I busied myself borrowing tables and chairs from St-Exupéry. I went to the store and bought cheap paper towels, paper plates, and plastic cups and utensils. I made candles out of wine and beer bottles. Then I made a pumpkin pie, using ingredients Natalie sent to me all the way from the United States.

I think it is appropriate to note that in the spirit of an American holiday, and being American men, Reuben and I began drinking beer at noon.

By six o’ clock, the place looked pretty good. Around seven, the other assistants arrived: Craig with his stuffing, Christine with her cranberry sauce and salad, Kristie with her green beans, Lauren with her mashed potatoes, Elizabeth with her pies. Amory came all the way from Metz. Everyone looked phenomenal. Our kitchen has never been so busy or beautiful.

Camille returned from work with a case of wine. Our French guests began to show up around 7:30. They were coworkers at our primary, middle, and high schools; they were acquaintances from the city of Verdun, met around town, at the market, at the pool. They came bearing gifts and a wonderful openness and good humor. Two of our guests, Sébastien and Laeticia, brought their three-year-old and month-old daughters, Maelie and Anaé, which was delightful.

We drank Leffe and Koenigsbeer, bottles of wine from Alsace and Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon. When Reuben carved up Le Duc, I couldn’t bring myself to watch. When it was time to eat, we set the food on a table and served ourselves. I stumbled through a Thanksgiving blessing, in French. Unfortunately, the first sentence of my blessing was something like, “In 1620, the pilgrims left Great Britain because of religious persecution.” The blessing concluded with a tenuous link between the thankfulness the pilgrims felt for Squanto’s corn-planting lessons and the thankfulness us assistants felt for our French friends’ picking us up at train stations and patiently listening to our questions and telling us where we can find some canned beans and not just the dry beans that are so hard to cook with. Next time I think I’ll just say, “Thank you God, let’s eat.”

Then, everybody named something they were thankful for. I mentioned chocolate, coffee, and beer (…and family!), drawing some cursory laughter (enough for an ironic mental fist-pump). Jean-Jacques took the opportunity to speak at length about turkeys, holidays, and Americans, which was amusing and, because he sounds like a French James Earl Jones, quite impressive. Sébastien probably stole the show when, as he held his daughter, he thanked his wife for giving him two beautiful children; the hearts of every girl at the table subsequently melted, and Reuben and I exchanged teary, hopeful glances.

My third helping

Then we ate, and ate again. Then we ate some pie, served with freshly-made, forearm-burning chantilly. The residue of a feast was everywhere: destroyed pies, empty bottles, broken plates, and Le Duc’s thoroughly demolished carcass.

When our guests left, it was just me, Reuben, and Camille again. Two Americans and a Frenchman, each completely full of food. Tradition completed: we were sated physically and psychologically.

Another Thanksgiving in the bank. Oh, the crazy shit we do to eat.

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