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Archive for January, 2009

Un Petit Monde

Before coming to INSEAD, I don’t think I really grasped how “international” the experience would be – even for me, a non-student.

During one of the welcome ceremonies held at the school  a few weeks ago, one speaker said that, unless we move on to careers with the United Nations, we will likely never again be surrounded by such a wide range of linguistic and cultural diversity.

I rolled my eyes at the time, but now I’ve come to realize that he was probably right.

I’ve met so many students, as well as their wives, husbands and girlfriends,  from all over the world –  it’s just amazing.Even back in Arizona, I felt that I had a lot of friends from different countries, but it was nothing compared to being here.

People from everywhere watching Obama last week

People from everywhere watching Obama last week

True, I’m hanging out with a mostly-American group of other partners. But even among the Americans, there’s great diversity of cultures, including plain ol’ Midwesterners like me, to people with Puerto Rican and Indian heritage, Catholics and Muslims and Hindus, teachers and lawyers and accountants. And I’m also becoming friends with  women from other countires, too, such as Chile, Colombia, India and Brazil.

The school’s Web site doesn’t have exact information about where its students come from – although I believe they told us the students represent more than 34 countries this year. But it does have some information about the languages students speak. When it comes to “native” languages, 18 percent of students speak English, 13 percent speak French, 6 percent speak German, 7 percent speak Hindi, 5 percent speak Spanish and more than half of the student poulation speak a different language!

This past weekend, I was sitting on a bus headed for a party at a chateau. It was crowded, so D. and I had to sit apart, and as I sat there taking it all in, I realized I was surrounded by multiple languages all at once.

I heard conversations in Portuguese, Mandarin and German all around me. Earlier that day, I’d walked down the halls and heard Hindi or Urdu, Arabic, and other European languages that I couldn’t quite identify.

At the party, I spoke with people from the U.S., Australia, Pakistan, India, Brazil, France, Taiwan, Germany, Nigeria, Lebanon… you get the idea.

It’s especially interesting when you can talk about politics with people, too. The other night I had a great conversation about Barack Obama with a man from India. And it’s also interesting to see news going on someplace in the world on CNN, and then immediately think of several people you just met from that country. It puts things into a different perspective, and it allows me to hear some different worldviews about what’s going on, instead of hearing about things from the American (and Indian) perspectives to which I’m so accustomed.

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Friendly Postman

Our courtyard, in the snow...

Our courtyard, in the snow...

I don’t have a lot to write today. I just wanted to let you all know about something that happened.

Today, around noon, I was sitting at my kitchen table, eating leftovers of vegetable korma for lunch. And then, I heard the whistling.

Whistling, and then, as it neared my door, I also heard paper sliding down a box.

It was my postman, delivering a letter. He was whistling, as he went along his route. Really whistling.

How French is that? Can you imagine?

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A hiking trail in the Forest of Fontainebleau

A hiking trail in the Forest of Fontainebleau

My new town’s in the New York Times!

A few days ago, one of our friends pointed out that he’d seen an article about Fontainebleau in the Time’s Travel Section. Apparently, the villages southwest of Paris don’t warrant a full “36 Hours in…” segment, but, hey, at least we got a “day trip,” article. Good enough.

“A swath of woodlands three times the size of Manhattan (65 square miles versus 23 square miles) the forest of Fontainebleau, with its mysterious rock formations and gorges, has for at least eight centuries held a special place in French culture and history,”  the author wrote, before continuing to write about the city, the town of Barbizon, the Chateau de Fontainebleau and even giving a shout-out to INSEAD.

Here’s the photo from the New York Times, and you can read the story here:

Photo from NY Times of the Chateau

Photo from NY Times of the Chateau

We wondered a bit about the article – it seems rather suspicious that the author chose to write about the most obvious tourist attraction… and then the most obvious restaurant directly across the street from that tourist attraction…  Then again, it was freezing cold the last few weeks, you can’t blame the guy for not wanting to walk all around town.

By the way, last week, our French teacher told us some interesting facts about Fontainebleau. For example, that no one seems to know exactly where the name came from. It’s a combination of several words: Fontaine (fountain), Belle (beautiful) and Eau (water). So, fountain-of-beautiful-water.

There’s even a painting inside the chateau of this mythical fountain. I guess there’s a lot of folklore about where the fountain might have been, etc. But then there’s also the fact that it was apparently on land owned by someone with a name that sounded like Fontaine, so, that could be where the word came from, too. Très intéressant, non?

 

 

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I had planned to write something witty and insightful today.

But my plans were derailed by the fact that I can’t sit down with a nice big cup of coffee and write. Why? Because they don’t exist in France.

It’s starting to annoy me.

In my days working as a journalist, I had, as I believe most professional writers do, certain writing rituals. One of those was that I had to have a large cup of hot coffee, with milk and sugar, sitting next to my computer. This is why I spent approximately half of my income on lattes at Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

But now, I’m in the land of teeny-tiny expressos. Don’t get me wrong – they’re good. But they last for about 3 minutes. You can’t carry them around with you in paper cups. You have to take them sitting at a cafe.

It seems like such a shame, too, because there are so many lovely pastries here just begging to be eaten, shared with a nice BIG cup of steaming coffee.

But, alas, I can’t find any. So I’m sitting here at D’s school, with half an almond croissant.. and nothing to drink it with. We didn’t have time to make coffee this morning, and no one does ‘coffee take out.’

Sigh.

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An ad from our local supermarche

An ad from our local supermarche

 

Each week,  D. and I receive a mailbox full of weekly advertisements from the local grocery stores. I decided I could use them as a way to learn French, so I pulled them out the other day and began paging through them.

 

 

When I got to the meat ads, I paused. Something looked different…what was it?

Ah, yes.

Instead of the photos I would expect to see in the U.S. – photos of lovingly cooked chicken breasts sitting on a platter, or of steaks fired up on the grill, or of hamburger meat sizzling on a stovetop – there were huge hunks of raw meat.

Page after page showed close-ups of raw meat – rubbery raw chicken with its pimply skin, enormous chunks of beef and pork, full of fat, and even raw kidneys. All sat there on the page, surrounding a much smaller photo of “Alain,” the friendly neighborhood butcher.

The show it as if it’s appetizing, these raw cuts of dead animals.

It’s like they’re not even trying to portray them as anything other than dead animals. Don’t the French want to think they’re eating food, I asked, and not raw flesh?

Then came my answer: Maybe not.

I couldn’t help but think of the book I read over Christmas, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by journalism Michael Pollan. My friend, Jaime, suggested I read it, and she was right, it was a great book. Essentially, the book is about how the author traces back several different meals (from a McDonald’s burger to an organic chicken) to show how the food is produced and what it says about the way we view food.

Large chunks of meat

Large chunks of meat

One of his many interesting points is that, when it comes to meat, at least, Americans would rather pretend that the meat they eat wasn’t ever alive. Everything about our food, from the way it is packaged, chopped and marketed, is designed to make us NEVER think about where our food came from (which is pretty convenient, when you actually read about the way our food is produced… stockyards coated in feet of manure, which hold thousands upon thousands of animals that can barely move, stuffed with hormones and food products they were never meant to eat, then slaughtered inhumanly and chopped up in ready-to-eat meals that we can buy in Styrofoam trays in our delis).

 

Maybe the French don’t view it this way. Maybe they take the approach the author of this book advocates, in recognizing their food is an animal, honoring the fact that this animal gave its life for your meal, and cooking the meat in a way that they can really enjoy it, to make up for that sacrifice.

 

 

The French won’t even import our beef and chicken, my French teacher told me today, because we pump it so full of hormones. They don’t do that here, she claims.

I don’t know a lot about this, to be fair. I’m not French, and I don’t eat meat. All I know is that, in America, with our ideas about food and meat, these marketing circulars would never fly.

Even the chicken gets raw photos

Even the chicken gets raw photos

 

 

 

 

 

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 I had an embarrassing moment the other day, in our village’s farmer’s market.

The market is small, but quite nice, with a large produce vendor, a butcher operating out of a truck, a fish seller, a stand selling sausage and rotisserie chickens, and two cheese sellers.

One woman was giving out samples from her cheese stand. Unable to resist, D. and I wandered over and received two small slices of the most delicious white and holey cheese. It was sharp and not-too-smelly and had an odd brownish-molding rind. The sign said “Tomme de Brebis.” I assumed this meant the village, or farm, it came from.

The following is a transcript of my conversation with the fromager, translated from French to English so you can read exactly how stupid I sounded. Keep in mind, I have NO IDEA what “Tomme de Brebis,” means, even though it is clearly printed on a sign right next to this cheese I just ate.

Me: Yum! One small piece of the “Wheel of Sheep’s cheese,” please.

Fromager: All right. This size ok?

Me: Yes. Thank you. Please, this cheese, what…is of cow?

Fromager: No, it is ‘A Wheel of Sheep’s Cheese’.

Me: Yes, the Wheel of Sheep’s Cheese. Is it from cow?

Fromager: No! Brebis!

Me: (Thinking Brebis is a small, idyllic village located somewhere near Normandy, perhaps, where wildflowers and cottages of stone dot the landscape) Um… What animal?

Fromager: (Pointing at her sweater) No! Sheep! Sheep! It’s Sheep! Like this, wool! Where wool comes from!

Me: (Recognizing the word for “wool” from the numerous multilingual washing instruction tags I’ve read)  Ooooohhhhh…. I think she’s saying it’s sheep’s cheese, D! Thatexplains why it reminded me of a pecorino!

Yep. Oops. Only when translated into all English does the true ridiculousness of what I’m saying come across. And only when I arrived home and pulled out my dictionary, did I discover that  means “ewe.”

 The worst part is, as embarrassed as I am by my lack of French skills, I’m already trying to figure out how to ask her next Saturday, “Can I have the same sheep cheese you gave us last weekend? You know, the one made of sheep’s milk?”

 

 

 

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So, here it is – the best inauguration day of my life, and, unfortunately, I’m an ocean away from my homeland.

It’s a little sad being so removed from it all.

Eight years ago, I was also out of the country during the inauguration – of G.W. I was studying abroad in Argentina and I remember sharing the relief that I was out of the country during that time with another American, as we sat eating McDonalds French fries in a shopping mall.

At that point, I was embarrassed to be from America. Not because of the country’s legacy or its people, but because it’s people had elected Bush.

When they cast their ballots for him again, it only got worse.

Now, everything’s different. I’m really proud to be an American today, and when I tell people from different countries that I’m celebrating Obama’s rise to power, they cheer with me.

If I were home, I know I’d be at a party, eagerly watching for Obama’s speech. Here in France, the timing is actually better for that, though – the ceremony starts at 6 p.m.  While I’m sad to be away from it all, some Americans here at the school are making a little home-away-from-home celebration by watching the festivities on the big TV in the school’s café. We’ll order a drink and toast our new president, as we watch what is certain to be an inspirational and historic speech.

Everytime I watch Obama speak, he inspires me, and I hope he does that for others, both Americans and others. On the BBC last night, I watched a segment about a young man from slums in Kenya who wears an Obama shirt and said he draws inspiration from him. He runs a local nonprofit group to help children in the slum and aspires to do even more.

I hope there are thousands more like him, who draw equal inspiration to give of themselves, even just a little bit, to others.

During the lead-up to the inauguration, I keep remembering an article I read in Newsweek back in November. It was about France and the country’s clear joy at Obama’s victory. You can read it here. 

I have to say that I’ve noticed that sentiment during my few weeks here, and not even just from the French. Two weeks ago, D. and I were sightseeing and we offered to take a photo of a British family on vacation. As soon as they found out I was American, they started talking about Obama and the tough road ahead of him, and how they believed he was up to the challenge.

I think so too, and I’m proud to, as an American, be a part of his promised American Renewal – even if I’m living several time zones away.

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