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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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Sunday, July 31, 2005

French dissing

I was amused, Friday, reading the NY Times, when I happed upon Krugman's article about French vs American productivity.

Had a little smile on my face: Hmmm, thunk I. I'm sure I wrote something danged similar just a few scant weeks back.

Was further amused, yesterday morning when, on my daily jog around some favorite blogs, I noticed Norm, over at OneGoodMove, had pinged the same piece.

Neither Krugman's piece nor mine really gives a full view of what the French sacrifice, nor do either of us go into depth about the profound ills of the French state's finances. But I like Krugman's focus on culture and choice. And he really does dig it in with the "family values" irony.

Good stuff.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Nothing gets by you, does it?

Those of you with envious perspicacity, and not a little too much time on your hands, will already have noticed that the archives of this blog (listed below, right) have, in the last 24 hours, expanded faster than, well, I'm tempted to say "faster than Tara Reid's ass," but that's tasteless and some of you are blessed with both delicate constitutions and a tangential relationship with pop culture.

So, ahem, the archives have expanded. A lot. And, apparently, fast.

How can one create archives, you ask, when the blog-thing is only a few weeks old? Well, a few of you --- and you know who you are, under your hydrating cucumber eye mask and tangelo mud face peel --- have made such affirming statements about the blog --- along the lines of, "I liked your old stuff so much! ...You know, from before the blog?" --- that I've decided to completely out-fox you. Now, the old stuff IS the blog!


Oh yes, all your favorites are there: ordering mysterious Chinese dishes, deaths of friends in mysterious circumstances, Los Angeles women whose breasts have a mysterious relationship with gravity, and the mysterious genesis of love writ lyrical, rhapsodic and grand.

These are nothing more than the letters to friends and family over the last few years --- from LA, Shanghai and Paris --- that would have been written here, had here existed.

Hope y'all are having a good weekend.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Conference at Stinky Cheese

I am not the least bit ashamed that what I'm about to write is intended to make others jealous.

Not everyone. Just all the other corporate tie-wearing types in my life.

If you spend enough time in the pay of folks who think wearing a tie is a mark of either character or sufficient submission, you end up going to plenty of meetings at places that aren't your office or theirs or your customers' or your suppliers'. This limbo world is someone else's place. It is the place you go and have a meeting when you want to have a meeting somewhere, um, else. It is the conference venue.

My favorite term for these meetings that take place somewhere else is "off-site". "We're going to have an off-site." Or, "I'm sorry, but he's not available today. He's at an off-site."

Meaning, there's something so important going on that someone decided to spend money to do it somewhere other than the meeting rooms in the absurdly expensive office space we already pay through the nose for. It *must* be special. And, oh yeah, maybe even tinged with secrecy and importance I can't tell you about.

Yet, while many off-site's are the tie-wearer's sick-weak version of a day out, there clearly are good reasons to do a lot of things away from the office: away from the air-borne viruses of monotony and group think that inhabit most office spaces. Wanna do something creative? Wanna keep people undistracted? Want good catering? Better have the meeting off-site.

The cruel joke is that most of the places that set themselves up to be venues for corporate off-sites are the worst possible places because, in order to be attractive to the tie-wearing types that hire them out, they bend over and make themselves look, for all the world, like the very places off-sites are supposed to be trying to get away from: corporate meeting rooms.

How many of my tie-wearing brethren and sistren have spent how many hours in windowless off-site conference rooms with modular tables, set with ruled pads (imprinted with the venue logo) and some cheap pen and some LCD projector that nobody knows how to work because we are, after all, off-site? How many of us have reveled, for just a few minutes, in the venue's differences from our familiar meeting rooms, just because these differences represent a break in routine? Only then to realize that getting the least bit enthusiastic about mints and bottled water and ruled pads with the venue's logo on them is really very sad and we should be celebrating the grand celestial rebirth that every waking moment represents, instead...but that we're really still very grateful for the break in our normal tie-wearing routine. Hey, this off-site is even "dress casual"! (I really, really, really hate that term. Why don't they just say "Everyone must, under pain of death, wear dockers and either a button-down oxford or a polo shirt"?)

So, imagine my wonder, like a kid in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, when my company recently started sending us to a place that is what every off-site venue should be.

I don't know how he got the idea, but this bloke in France started buying old Chateaux properties that needed some doing up, sprucing them, then marketing exclusively to the corporate types that put on "residential off-sites": the kind where you sleep away.

He tweaked the formula to completely end-run his hotel competition. He made them feel like the most extraordinary vacation destination and like your own home, at the same time. Then, he equipped them with all the technology any corporate dweeb would need. With no front desk, each property is run by a young married couple that lives there, plus a very few other staff. There's always a full bar, but no barman. Go behind the bar and pull a few beers out for you and your colleagues. Sit in the big leather chairs in the great hall of the Chateau, in front of the fire, and chat until late in the evening over your wine. You feel indulged even thought no-one is serving you. What an ubelievably brilliant service model!

Another touch: the rooms are simple and spare. No TV. No mini-bar. In other words, no reason to spend time there, and every reason to go spend time with your colleagues.

The chateaux are majestic piles with glamorous histories. The settings are beautiful. The food is fabulous. The folks that live there will do absolutely anything for you. There's always a dog running around wanting a pat. Didn't bring a swimsuit or running shoes? They've got plenty to loan you. It's like being at your rich cousin's place.

I've been to four of these places, now, always for intensive courses or conferences over several days. By the end, I don't want to leave; I want Geri to come join me.

Here are a couple of pics of the one I visited most recently: Fief des Epoisses, (Epoisses being the origin and name of one of France's famous stinky cheeses). Each of the other venues is just as remarkable, but also remarkably different from this one. But the formula and its execution are so seamless that the experience has been close to perfect each time.

So, my fellow tie-wearers, next time you're in a dress-casual off-site in some non-descript conference room, think of me at Fief des Epoisses, looking out the window at the French countryside and looking forward to dinner.

Increasingly my life, as an addict

Do yourself a favor: more of his cartoons at GapingVoid

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A bloody big ad

Perhaps the best viral ad I've ever seen.

Click on Big Ad to see for yourself.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Blogging addict

Okay, okay. So the blog is my new toy.

Today, I was chuffed that one of my favorite bloggers cross-posted to my Rove piece. Check out OneGoodMove's Tuesday morning update for my proud little moment. I tune into OneGoodMove most days. It's a bit of sanity in the blogosphere. (Liberal politics alert.)

That I would be so chuffed that Norm, over at OneGoodMove, would cross-post me, shows just how new I am to the blogosphere. No news there. I started this gig a few weeks back, and the only thing that's really surprising is how addicted to it I've become.

There are 13 million blogs in the world, according to Technorati. Yet when I e-mailed friends and family to tell them about mine, I got a surprising number of replies along the lines of "What's a blog?" Or, more frequently, "I've heard about those blog things. Must check out yours one of these days so I know what one looks like."

If you're wondering what established blogs look like, here are a few notables:

My favorite blog: Sonata for Unfinished Yelling. The last update was a year ago, but the back catalog is so rich, it's still on the top of my list.

A famous personal blog: Stephanie Klein's Greek Tragedy. She's even been featured in the New York Times. She sure can write, but I fear I don't need "Sex and the Blog-ity".

A lefty political blog: DailyKos

A righty political blog: Power Line

And, for those wondering why on earth anyone in their right mind would start blog number 13,000,001, here are more than a few ideas.

Have fun out there, in the blogosphere.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Not political, but moral

I may be the last blogger with an American passport who has not yet written about the Rove/Plame saga. Put it down to my being new to blogging. I didn't know the club rules. Allow me to correct this situation.

First, however, just in case you don't find the ins and outs of Washington DC worthy of daily obsession, let me catch you up on the skinny. The need to do this may sound absurd to some of you, but folks in France, China, Australia and elsewhere read this blog, and, believe it or not, they might not watch CNN.

1. A couple of years ago, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the name of an undercover CIA officer, Valerie Plame, was leaked to the press, blowing her cover, functionally ending her career and, theoretically, compromising national security.

2. The US Department of Justice began an investigation of the leak, because of the possiblity it was a criminal act. The investigation into the source pretty quickly pointed in the direction of the White House.

3. The White House made public statements about the "outing" to the effect that it was a serious breach, and that it was being taken, uh, seriously. The President even said he would fire anyone involved.

4. Recently, after two years of investigation, and as the Grand Jury seems on the verge of indicting someone, it has become clear that two of the White House's most senior staffers *are* involved: Karl Rove, the President's Political Director, and "Scooter" Libby, Chief of Staff for Vice President Dick Cheney. More may be implicated.

In addition to these events, there are some notable side-shows to the story. And some of them are good'uns. For example, one New York Times journalist has gone to jail for protecting her sources. A second journo, from Time magazine, came thiiiiiiiiiis close. Much is also being made of the very specific wording of the laws that may or may not have been broken by the leakers, and what exactly classifies as "under cover".

Attention is also being lavished on the CIA agent's husband. A few weeks before the leak, he published an op-ed piece in the NY Times that publically embarrassed the White House. In it, he credibly disputed President Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to procure uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons. The "outing" of his wife as a CIA operative is generally accepted to have been political pay-back. (You can read the original op-ed piece HERE.)

There are myriad details about these side-shows. Make no mistake, however. The stories about the journos and the husband -- stories on which thousands of column inches and hours of airtime have been spent -- are mere sub-plots, regardless of how intriguing.

What's not in dispute is that the identity of a covert CIA Officer was leaked directly to the press and senior members of the White House did the leaking. Only microscopically less certain is that the reason for the leak was political retribution.

Follow me for a moment back to my philosophy classes at university. This lesson about the two foundations of moral legitimacy stuck with me. First, you must adhere to a moral code that others respect, even if they do not take it as their own. For example, people may or may not, themselves, follow the Ten Commandments, but they can respect it as your code of conduct. Second, you must be consistent in your adherence to it. If you covet your neighbor's wife every now and again, your moral credibility takes a hit. That's why we blast philandering televangelists. We may or may not respect their code; what we take them down for is not following it. We call it hypocrisy.

I take a turn away from a lot of the folks with whom I sympathize, politically, in refusing to think the Bush administration is evil. It's easy to be vehemently anti-Bush. I often am. It's less easy to cut through the spin, and see where they're trying to go, and understand why. They're incredibly skillful politicians with whom I usually disagree, but peel away all the rhetoric and I think they want something quite defensible: they want America to be great.

Quite frankly, I want that, too. I have a different definition of greatness than they do, and different ideas about how to go about pursuing it. So, them and me, we have different moral codes. That leaves me to look through what they do and search for some internal consistency I can respect. There are ways of framing almost any issue so that reasonable people might respectfully disagree. Usually, behind the cynical communication tricks and crafty talking points, I find some internal consistency in administration positions, even if I think it's thin.

Sometimes not. So far, out of all the lamentable things the Bush administration has done that I think should get them thrown out on their collective ear, three make my hit parade of absolute indefensibility. The first was to make war on false pretenses, sending American troops to their deaths, and killing thousands of Iraqis. The second was to imprison people at Guantanamo Bay, indefinitely, without charge or trial, and in violation not only of the Geneva Convention but of all the notions of justice on which the United States has defined itself for more than 200 years.

The third will sound small by comparison, and in many ways it is. It is this CIA leak scandal. It has not caused thousands of sons and daughters never to return to their families. It has not imprisoned or tortured anyone. So, why is it such a big deal?

The first two, in addition to the human suffering they've caused, have robbed the US of international legitimacy in the eyes of people the world over. The third has removed this administration's moral legitimacy as the steward of American government. As someone who, deep down, is still a patriotic American, I feel ashamed, angry and betrayed.

No great fan of the CIA, I nevertheless recognize it is a bulwark of US national security. International intelligence is a necessity; that much of it must be gathered clandestinely is obvious. In warfare, for centuries, information has been more powerful than armies. Compromising the intelligence machinery of a nation is to compromise its ability to defend itself. If we did not think the CIA were indispensible, why would we have heaped so much dismay upon its failures surrounding 9/11? We *expect* it to be indispensible.

So, we should be angered when we find that our secrets have been compromised by foreign spies. When our networks have been infiltrated. When our safety has been put at risk by information going where it shouldn't.

How, then, should we feel, when we find that our secrets are being betrayed by a high official of our own government? How about betrayed? How about really fucking angry? Wouldn't we call a Chinese, North Korean or Iranian agent who passed the name of an undercover CIA agent to their governments a spy?

Everyone has known for a long time that Karl Rove is a nasty piece of work. Combined with his brilliance, his willingness to play incredibly dirty is why he's so valuable. During W's first run at the Presidency, it was Rove who quiestioned John McCain's credibility as a war hero (good practice for later, it turned out), at the same time as he spread rumours that McCain's wife was mentally unstable. W's nickname for Rove is Turdblossom, 'cause he can make any pile of nasty political shit come up roses. I am not making this up.

But being a nasty, underhanded political hatchet man is acceptable, even if reprehensible. You can make a very good living at it and get invited to the best cocktail parties. People will talk about how ruthless you are, and mean it as a kind of compliment.

Here's what's not acceptable: doing something that, if done by our enemies, we would call treason and attach a death sentence. Let's put this in perspective. If we had a spy in Berlin during World War II, and someone revealed his name to the press, what do you think would have happened? To put a finer point on it, if Franklin D Roosevelt had found out one of his staffers was leaking names of intelligence agents to the press, how long do you think it would have taken to find out who it was? And how long thereafter to fire his ass? And how long after that to throw him in jail?

So, here we are. Someone in the White House blew the cover of a CIA agent. It appears to have been done as petty political pay-back. It is clear that one of President Bush's closest, most powerful advisors, one of the most feared men in Washington, was one of the leakers who talked directly to reporters.

This is an administration that has clothed itself in national security issues, passed the Patriot Act to make sure it would know all its citizens' secrets. This is an administration that has constantly reminded us that "we are at war". It has worn American-flag lapel pins, and has accused anyone who disagrees with it of being "against our troops" or "for the terrorists".

Meanwhile, at the very top, this administration took one of "our troops" and hung her out to dry. Then lied about it. Then dragged its feet for two years. Then, when cornered, invested huge amounts of energy in a campaign to discredit every actor but itself, to split hairs of the law, and to backtrack on its own moral code.

President Bush and his press secretary are now stonewalling the press, saying they will not comment on an on-going investigation. That's a change. Not long back, before Rove's and Libby's involvement became clear, they commented plenty on the on-going investigation to call such suggestions ridiculous. Not to mention that promise to fire anyone in the White House who was involved.

I am angered by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby's actions. I have always been angered by the politics of smear, from any side. But this time, the immorality goes beyond destroying a political opponent. It is not just a betrayal of decency. It is a betrayal of America. That the Bush White House is trying to protect its moles only embraces betrayal as administration policy.

President Bush: By dragging your heals for two years and by not firing Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, today, your moral legitimacy as America's leader is shot. You are apparently more loyal to your friends than you are to your principles, to the Office of the President, and, most importantly, to the American people and our proud history. You make me feel ashamed. I have never agreed with your moral code. Now, you're showing yourself not to hold yourself even to that. To the degree that you want to make America great, you are a mortal injury to your cause. You are betraying the principles that make America's greatness possible.

* * * * * * *

One last, more lighthearted note: No one has mentioned what a victory for women's rights the Plame case is. A female CIA officer, and no-one is talking about how notable it is that she's a woman. All right! We're finally getting it, people!

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Go, Mom, Go!

And here's a shout-out to my mom, who's been boogie-boarding with her grandsons, this weekend. Not that that's unusual, mind you. She boogie-boards with them every time they come visit.

Go, Lance, Go!

Here's a pic taken just a couple of hours ago on the Champs Elysees.

The start of the last leg of the Tour de France was still hours away, and it would be hours more before the riders would arrive in Paris, but the crowds were already thickening. And the Yanks were out in force, ready to catch a flashing glimpse of Lance Armstrong. The organizers had clearly anticipated a hot day, and there were little hand fans everywhere printed with the slogan "Lance Fan". (As it turns out, the fans won't be necessary. It's a cool, drizzly day.)

The French are a little torn about Armstrong, simply because he's stolen the spotlight for so long, but most everyone is excited about the prospect of him winning one last time. They'd like a French rider to wear the yellow jersey but they know the Tour has been glamorized by Lance's stardom. It's hard not to be caught up in the excitement, and the French love the attention of having the world's premier event in any field. So, playing host to such an undeniable champion seems a role the French are happy with.

I think it's fair to say that any other rider winning, today, would make every Tour fan a little sad. Everyone has their fingers crossed against a crash.

It was fun to find this bit of promo material on the Champs, too. Yanks may be dominant among the foreigners on the Champs, but we heard plenty of Aussies, too. Geri felt right at home.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Being big fans of His Deppness, and minor fans of Tim Burton, Geri and I trucked ourselves off last night to see their new confection, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

For better or worse, we had recently seen the original, with Gene Wilder. It's one of the many DVDs that came from China to France in our shipping container when we moved. We pulled it out, recently, while my nephews, Spencer and Mitchell, were visiting. I think we enjoyed it more than they did but, then, I've loved the film for a long while. Every time I see it, I end up singing the Oompa-Loompa song for days, an annoying habit that Geri lovingly fails to quash. (Click here for all the lyrics if you, too, would like to drive your lover Wonka-ly bonkers.)

The single best thing about the original is Gene Wilder's performance. Forget all that pap he did with Richard Pryor. There are only three roles you need to see to embrace Gene Wilder as a great performer, and two of them were brought to us by Mel Brooks. The third is Willy Wonka.

That's why I would have been suspicious of any remake of Charlie. There just aren't many actors I can think of who would have a shot at equaling, much less besting, Wilder's performance. That said, the original is terribly dated: especially the art direction and special effects, not to mention some ill-conceived musical numbers that would seem more at home in Oklahoma or The Music Man. (Grandpa Joe's "I've Got a Golden Ticket" springs to mind.)

So, it was cause for anticipation when I heard that the movie was being remade with visual master Tim Burton at the helm, and, in the lead role, one of the great kooky character actors of our time: His Deppness. This was a formula that had a shot at displacing the original from my pedestal. The first two reviews of the film I read were even more encouraging.

It was not to be, however. The film is visually stunning. And His Deppness has achieved a different, sometimes mesmerizing Wonka. Yet, while things move along very well, there's a sterility about the film that stands in contrast to the gooeyness of the original, which stuck to you. The original was sugary, but that was the point: it was a candy shop.

What's missing in the update is anything to attach your emotions to. While Wilder's Wonka bordered on creepy, Depp's is detached and other-worldly. He's interesting to watch, but he doesn't connect with the children. He barely even talks to them. As a result, we miss connecting with Wonka, ourselves, and we don't get much of a sense of the children, either. They are even thinner caricatures than in the original, set up like dominoes for the delightful tragedies that knock them off, one by one.

There's also some plot revisionism that doesn't quite work. It's been too many year's since I've read the Roald Dahl novel (on which the film is based) to identify which is the more faithful film, but a couple of the plot changes weaken the new film markedly. The narrative of the original takes our nominal protagonist, Charlie, down the path of transgression and redemption. In the update, no transgression, no redemption. He's just a lucky little boy who gets the prize by default after all the other children meet their nasty ends. There's a bit of a paean to family that's supposed to tug on your heartstrings, but it doesn't quite work, because all Charlie has had to do is walk through the film innocently and wait for the end. And since the plot didn't require a transgression, it also didn't require a Slugworth, the wonderful embodiment of evil in the first film, who so effectively made Wonka look benevolent by comparison, even if he was odd.

The film is visually stunning. But, then, that's what you get when you combine Tim Burton and a big budget. The chocolate factory, from the outside, will remind you of Gotham City, and there are cute internal references to Edward Scissorhands. Still, with such a legendary imagination, and every art director in the world wanting to work with you, there are fewer visual surprises than you might expect. With a canvas as large and fantastical as the Wonka factory to play with, it's a little surprising that Burton riffed so consistently on the original art direction. There are some scenes whose sets look like mildly updated versions of the original (the Wonka-vision room, for example). Even the fantastical chocolate mixing room, in which everything is edible, is quite faithful to the original.

The minor quibbles of the reviewers I read before seeing the movie seemed unimportant to me. They made much of the new film providing Wonka with an unnecessary backstory: a "how did he get that way" explanation in flash-backs. It may be unnecessary, but it's also not distracting. A backstory I did find both distracting and cheap centered on Wonka's discovery of the Oompa-Loompas.

...of whom a great deal more is made in the new film. The Oompa-Loompas are the Greek chorus of the chocolate factory in both films. And if you think I'm being high-falootin', check it out. If you know the function of the chorus in Greek drama, and if you've seen either Wonka film, you know I ain't makin' this up. But because they're a Greek chorus, you have to be able to understand what they're saying. And in the new film you often can't. The big Oompa-Loompa production numbers are wonderful, but the cautionary tales of the lyrics aren't, because you can't hear half of them.

The music, itself, shows Danny Elfman doing his usual great job writing original stuff. He has abandoned, however, any clear recurring musical theme. In the original, the Oompa-Loompa music was inescapable. Like the theme from Jaws, you knew that when you heard that music, the little orange guys were on their way with some old-style skoolin'.

If you read anything else about this film, some of it's bound to be about Deep Roy: the single actor who plays ALL the Oompa-Loompas. The attention is deserved. He's fantastic. And he's integral to the single biggest, most successful gag in the movie, which comes right before the credits roll.

In the end, Geri and I asked ourselves if we would have liked the film more had we not seen the original. We both said yes quite quickly. The film does stand-up well on its own merits. But that's not a high enough bar for a re-make of what is, to us, a classic.

Go see it for fun. It's a visual spectacle with lots of panache and plenty of surprises. Go see it, especially, if you've never seen the original. Then, go get the Gene Wilder version out on DVD.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Auberge d'Chez Eux

These pictures are from dinner, last night, with our visiting friend, Shelley, from Sydney, at one of my favourite Paris haunts. Shelley and Geri sing together in Australia's premier gospel choir, Cafe of the Gate of Salvation. This is her second Paris visit, and she's got it sussed. Her low-cut top got us the best service we've ever had.

If you can get the guy on the right to smile, your dinner is free.

Tonight we had dinner at Le Verre a Soi. No pictures, unfortunately, but I'm happy to report that Evelyne had a good weekend away, and the chocolate cream with Sichuan pepper is in fine, fine form.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Lost weekend

This will be one of those weekends on which, at the end of life, I shall look back and reflect: "Fucking computers. Fucking WiFi. Fucking Microsoft."

Goodnight, moon.

Portugal a month ago

It's been a few weeks since we've been back, but Portugal is too vivid to fade quickly from memory. We spent the last week of June wandering from Lisbon, to Porto, and into the Douro Valley. It's a trip from the coastal capital up to the north, and into the most famous wine producing region, the origin of Port wine. This isn't the usual trip of sun-seekers, who head south to the beaches of the Algarve. But we were looking for interesting food, wine and history, and we found it.

Portugal is scruffy and simple. It's been the poor cousin of Europe for so much of the recent past, that it wears it's distantly historic grandeur a little uncomfortably. Everything is just a little -- and sometimes a lot -- crumbly and faded. But that's pretty damn fine if what you're looking for is simple. And simple was exactly what we were hoping to find.

None of the pictures would stun you. Portugal is a lot less spectacular looking than a lot of other places, but we fell in love with it. What our trip lacked in visual spectacle, it made up for in almost every other way: people, culture, history.

Did I mention food? Perhaps the best one-line review of the entire trip is that, consistently, the quality of the food was inversely proportional to the cost of the meal. Our top meal was a brunch of grilled baby cuttlefish and a rough shrimp and rice stew, which we ate packed into crowded communal tables in an out-of-the way neighborhood joint that Geri found. It was Sunday, and we were in with the post-church family crowd. The cuttlefish came out whole: cuttle, guts and all. And that's pretty much the way they get eaten, once you've cut off the cuttle. The ink sacs make for black teeth and tongue, which you see a lot of, because everyone is smiling so much at the taste. (The next day, you note that the ink turns other things black, too. And I mean BLACK.)

But that was far from the only remarkable meal. I now know one of the world's great treats is grilled sardines and vinho verde (green wine). It's cheap, it's yummy, and it's one of those things you just don't get anywhere but Portugal.

We had consistently great experiences in hotels, restaurants, shops, and just walking the streets of Lisbon and Porto. Even the language didn't stop us. I thought I'd have to bring out my butcher-block Spanish, but it's relationship to Portuguese is even more tenuous than I thought, and the Portuguese would rather speak English, anyway. In fact, we got the distinct impression that folks would rather speak either English or French before deigning to go for Spanish.

When we go back -- and we will -- we'll head down to the Alentejo region, in the south. The reds from there are one of my great wine discoveries of recent years. We didn't go this trip because the region is largely desert, and can be hard to travel around. But while we were in the north, we drank a lot of Alentejano wine and decided that heat and bad roads can't compete. The wine wins.

Click here to see more pictures of our trip to Portugal

...and Click here to see pictures of some of the most beautiful tiles we saw in Portugal

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Mammatus clouds?

Wow. Now that's cool. I've never heard of mammatus clouds, but I like anything that (a) occurs naturally, (b) looks that beautiful and freaky cool, and (c) has an erotic overtone even your grandmother couldn't miss.

Doubtful about (c)? Click here to see more pictures of mammatus clouds

The Champs Elysees on Bastille Day

Geri and I took the five-minute stroll from our apartment up to the Arc de Triomphe, this morning, to watch France show off.

The way they fly that flag under the Arc is just a stunner. This picture doesn't come close to conveying the visual effect.

The gendarmerie. Only way these guys could look more French is to tuck baguettes under their arms. Inspector Clouseau impressions, anyone?

The distinctive delta wing of Dassault. My guess is that the three lead planes are Rafales, rather than Mirages, but leave a comment if you know better.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Chocolate, Sichuan pepper and Portuguese wine on the eve of Bastille Day

Bastille Day is tomorrow: the closest thing France has to a national day. As it falls on a Thursday, most of the country will take Friday off – the bridge day, le jour du pont – making it a four-day weekend.

Geri and I took advantage of the beautiful summer evening to walk up to the Arc de Triomphe to absorb the magnificent sight of the huge tri-colour French flag that flies through the arc on major holidays. It’s a stunner. On our way, we stopped in to say hi to the owner-chef of our favourite local restaurant: Evelyne at Le Verre a Soi.

We meant to make a booking for Saturday night, but Evelyne told us that she, along with the rest of Paris, was bugging out of town for the weekend. We let her know we were disappointed, not least because we had intended to bring an eight-year-old with us to dinner, and we knew there would be rapture at Evelyne’s chocolate desserts.

Not to worry, she said. She would have dessert leftovers she would need to get rid of before she left for the weekend. Come back later and we could take them off her hands.

You have to understand: we’re talking dark chocolate mixed with egg yolks and Sichuan pepper and sugar. This is not your cousin’s mud cake.

And, to be honest, that's the smallest part of what is sticking with me as I write this. In that moment that she told us we could have the desserts out of her fridge, we felt like family. This felt like our neighbourhood: like we’ve made this, in its odd way, home for now, and like this home has adopted us.

We did go on our walk. And we did return to Evelyne’s later in the evening. We showed up at about 10:30, and a couple of customers were still in the restaurant. But we hadn’t come empty handed. We brought a bottle of Portuguese wine that we’d collected on a recent vacation, and offered it up to mark the beginning of the long weekend.

Geri and I left after midnight. In the intervening hours Evelyne and the pretty young sommelier, Clothide, closed the kitchen early and turned away customers as the four of us made short work of the wine. (It was a Mouchao from Alentejo. Wonderful.) And we left with four chocolate desserts under our arms and holiday wishes and kisses all around.

In future, when I think back on the big national celebrations surrounding Bastille Day, I’ll most likely remember tonight, just sitting around in a closed restaurant with our friends in their kitchen clothes, talking about wine, French beaches, and cute firemen.

Tomorrow we'll watch the parades, but tonight was full of the richness that living abroad is really all about.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Mao hates my blog

No sooner was this blog up, and gleefully advertised to my little world, than I began receiving messages from friends in China. They couldn’t see a thing. My blog doesn’t exist in China.

Turns out mine's not the only one.

About a half-dozen e-mails into the mystery, a friend in Shanghai solved it with the casual observation: “Too bad the Central Government blocks Blogspot.”

So, “blogger” is one of the many Chinese words for “verboten.”

Given I've got more than a couple friends in China, maybe I should have chosen a smaller blog domain: one that flies beneath the radar of Chinese censors. I'll have to figure out if it warrants moving.

In the meantime, great kizmet alighted in the form of this Slate article from yesterday: The Filtered Future. China's bid to divide the Internet.

The Chinese state accomplishes much more by filtering not just Web content, but the tools that allow the Internet to function: search engines, chat rooms, blogs, and even e-mail. The idea is to make filtering a basic fact of the Web. And filtering a tool like a search engine has the benefit of subtlety, because to most people searches will feel free even when they're not. How many of us can tell when something goes missing in a Google result?
For now, I’ll just keep lobbing my blog pieces into China by e-mail. It’s a hassle, but as subversiveness goes, it’s low-rent.

Dirty dead letter office

I sent a recent e-mail spam to friends and family. Every time I do that, there are a few bounces and kick-backs: dead e-mail addresses and the like. “Your message did not reach the intended recipient.” “Unknown domain or host name.” That kind of thing.

This time, one amused me:
Subject: IMSS has deleted a message

“The message you sent contains a word which the receiving email system has
blocked. Your message has NOT been delivered to the intended

This stealthy message hides from me both the intended recipient and the offending word. Not only don’t I know who didn’t receive my e-mail, but I don’t even know why.

As it happens, it was pretty easy to figure out the offending word. (I had described my writing as “textual masturbation”.) But I still haven’t a clue about who was the lucky person protected by this vigilant spam filter.

One of my friends is out there, right now, thinking, “Why doesn’t that bastard ever write to me anymore?”

Sunday, July 10, 2005

About a year ago, but all three of us look pretty much the same.

Vie en Rues #5

La Vie en Rues, #5
July 10, 2005

Motley Crue and Postcards from Home

Whenever I sit down to write something to family and friends, I’m torn. This mailing list you’re on is pretty big --- by my modest standards, anyway --- and, collectively, you’re a tough crowd. Which is, I suppose, the way I like it, but it doesn’t make the writing easy.

Here’s the problem: you’re a motley lot. You are. There was no intelligent design to how this list began, and there’s been plenty of messy evolution since. I’ve put everyone on it whom I’ve met and liked enough that I hope to keep in contact. Some other folks have snuck on, too. There are a few who have gotten a piece of my writing forwarded to them, at some point, and have asked to be copied on future spouts. And then there’s family, who can’t get away. Can’t run. Can’t hide.

In the few years I’ve been doing this by e-mail, you all haven’t been very critical. That makes you sound like an easy crowd. Only one person, a friend’s girlfriend, has ever been reported as lumping my e-mails in the blowhard-textual-masturbation category. And, so far, everyone who has added me to their spam filter has been polite enough not to mention it to me. I just assume that not hearing from them means they must be terribly busy at work, lately.

But the silence only proves that several hundred people in the world are adhering to the maxim about staying quiet if saying something nice isn’t an option. It does not mean you’re not an easy crowd. Well-mannered, pleasant, uncritical, good-looking, perhaps, but the fact is you’re impossible to please.

When I write cultural observations about freaky foreign climes, I get a dozen e-mails saying, “That’s nice, but what’s actually going on in your life?” Same reaction when I write about politics, but then that’s the stuff that, by a wide margin, gets forwarded the most. (I think even my Dad, a Bush Republican, forwards my political stuff, but to the FBI.) But when I *do* write about personal stuff, I know there’s a whole lot of people thinking, “I really, really, really don’t care what you had for dinner.” Only they’re too polite to say it, of course.

This is one of the reasons I’ve written less and less frequently. I’m paralyzed about what to write. I want it to be interesting. I want you to be rapt (no matter how small this stage). I want to be personal yet sweeping and grand! I want your love and approval, dammit, but for my desire to be wrapped in a cloak of humble intellectualism to be embraced from a safe distance.

All of this angst about what to write is taking up mental space, just now, for a simple reason: I’m about to start a blog. I was going to say that I don’t really have a good excuse for starting a blog, but that’s not true. I’d like to write more, and I hope the existence of the blog will force my hand. Ditto for staying in more frequent touch. Plus, I get the cool benefit of being on top of a cultural phenomenon that most 14 year-olds already think is passé. The blogosphere may be a lame way of trying to hang on to the long tail of my youth, but it’s cheaper than a midlife crisis and I get to keep both my marriage and my cash.

If you haven’t yet skimmed a few dozen blogs, you’re mostly not missing very much. Blogs are like souped-up on-line diaries, published at the click of a mouse for the whole world to see. It’s so easy, pretty much anyone can do it. So lots and lots of people are. And that’s the problem. It’s like the bad poetry we all wrote in junior high school. Just because we all wrote it doesn’t mean it wasn’t all crap. The statistical likelihood of landing on a good blog by accident is lower than launching a successful sitcom.

When you do find a good blog, however, it’s a treat. They’re written by people living their lives in a very public space, and doing it because they have something they’re at least a bit passionate about. Bad blogs, on the other hand, are simply inane. Imagine self-absorbed, unimaginative people writing letters to themselves. Some voice strong, ill-informed and ungrammatical opinions; others appear to have no opinions at all. It’s hard to say which is worse.

The medium, itself, invites the inanity. Personal broadcast is intrinsically self-centered, if not arrogant. It’s an act that declares one has something to say and thinks others will want to read it. If it ain’t that, one could just write a diary. No need to put it on Blogger.

Blogger (and its ilk) is the old-time soap-box speaker’s corner on a massive scale. But make it this easy to publish to a potentially global audience, and you find that the number of people who have something truly interesting to say isn’t exactly correlated with the number of people who want to be heard. It’s not that most people’s lives and thoughts are intrinsically boring. It’s just that most people aren’t particularly interesting when they talk about them.

Starting my own blog makes all this stuff pound inside my head. On the one hand, the bar is pretty low. On the other hand, I really, really don’t want to end up just adding to the blowhard-textual-masturbatory inanity. It’s easy to not completely suck, but it ain’t easy to be great.

Also, the thought of transitioning from this cozy, motley little e-mail list of friends, family and unfortunates to a public space has been a little daunting. As long as I was just e-mailing to you lot, the letters didn’t really have to be *about* anything. No implication of thematic consistency, one letter to the next. If wanted to rant, I’d rant. If I wanted to write about Geri being beautiful, I’d do that.

Could I do that on a blog? Would a blog only make sense if I took the whole thing more seriously? A blog, it seems to me, needs more internal consistency to be coherent. Writing about Carl Rove one day and the magic of electronic drums the next doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I wrestled with this for a while. Then I remembered you lot. The whole reason I started writing to you in the first place was to keep in touch. Everything else is just me rattling on about whatever’s filling my head. In other words, it’s mostly letters and post cards and notes on the fridge, with the occasional letter to the op-ed editor.

So, if you ever visit my blog, that’s what you’ll find there, too.

For anyone who cares, I plan to continue sending out these e-mail spams every now and then, but I’ll be trying to put more frequent, quick things on the blog. We’ll see how that works out.

If you want to visit, the doors to www.postcardsfromhome.blogspot.com are now open. There’s not much on the shelves, yet, but you’re welcome just the same. Come back often.

Cheers. --h


[stuck on the fridge door under an Elvis fridge magnet]
Sorry, but I couldn't find a stamp to send this while I was on vacation. I'll be back with the dog, in a couple of hours. Tell you all about the trip, then.