It had always amused me that the French word for an ink stamp is a ‘tampon’.
Alas I no longer find it so funny – and here’s why:
Landing in Tel Aviv, Israel Sunday I’d heard a lot about the officious Israeli border police.
On the one hand I was dreading possibly having to spend hours in interrogation explaining the booty call behind every stamp in my two passports.
But on the other, it was only 4.30am, and there was a lot of time I’d have to otherwise kill before the 2pm check in at the Jerusalem hotel.
My first inkling that things would not go smoothly came almost immediately as I crossed the threshold from airline cabin to elevated walkway.
A young female customs officer singled me out from 50 metres for special questioning, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t to ask where I’d bought by crappy fake Panama hat (it’s an authentic Ecuador hat however).
If she thought my hat looked crappy, that was because she hadn’t yet seen my Australian passport. You can tell my passport is Australian because although only being seven-years-old it has the skin of a 50-year-old and possibly cancer too.
“Do you have any other ID?” She asked upon seeing it. Not a great start – what with passports usually being the standard bearers of identification and all. I fished around and retrieved my UK passport.
“Had I been to Malaysia,” she then asked, followed with “Did I have any friends there?” I didn’t think she wanted to hear “toilet paper and a glue-bag” so I replied in the negative, at which point she let me continue into the airport itself.
Ben Gurion airport is a modern building with a food court that’s abuzz even at 5am. But even so you still want to spend as little time as possible there.
Which is why recommend anyone to not tell the border police you’ve been to Lebanon. It was only a 5-day trip two years ago, but even that was enough to score me a 15-minute initial interrogation. I was then led away and told to sit on my own in a room – I’m sure it said “Principal’s Office” in Hebrew –while my details were further examined.
Another 10 minutes passed before the officer cheerfully poked her head around the door and asked me which passport I wanted the stamp in.
Critically, I asked for her to stamp the visa on a slip of paper instead of a passport – thereby saving me from needing a new passport should I wish to travel to Syria, Iraq or other tinpot democracy that will possibly expire well before the three years left until my passport does. She obliged, handing me a stamped pink slip of paper.
Passing through the customs control, there was another woman positioned to the side who was collecting everyone’s pink slips, and – again critically – I duly handed her mine.
After two days sans probleme in Jerusalem, my friend and I are about to head to Bethlehem. Informed journalist that I am, I have just realised that this Mecca of Christian cities lies in the Palestinian Territories, and therefore I will most likely need to show a passport with valid visa to enter. Well, surprise, I don’t have proof of either.
What I was sure to have proof of though was landing in the country – if only I could find my boarding pass.
With a growing sense of dread, I realised I’d thrown it out on arriving at the hotel – but luckily I was pretty sure I’d thrown it in the bathroom bin, which hadn’t yet been emptied.
After this moment of relief, my sense of dread grew even deeper as I realised that my friend has had rather a heavy period over the last few days, and –the state of 15th century-era Jerusalem plumbing systems being what it is – had been duly disposing of all sanitary items into said bathroom bin.
On top of my boarding pass. Donning a plastic bag as a glove, I ruefully thought that it only I’d thrown away my passport instead, at least it would have been ‘tamponed’.
La Cigale, l’Elysee…Montmartre and music go hand in hand like the tourists and hookers who walk its winter streets.
Journo Dave and I had a rendez-vous near the metro stop Anvers at beer o’clock.
We were on the lookout for a charming Montmartre bar. After 15 minutes’ uphill walk we changed the criteria simply to ‘a bar’.
Montmartre is notable for its musical haunts; we however were not noticing any of them. We settled for a quiet – nay, silent – bar populated by three geriatrics slightly older than their hair styles.
Taking two quiet beers and a table for four, we pondered the meaning of silence.
The answer was staring us in the face: a vintage juke box Dave was resting his back against that was flashing its lights as an invitation to be played.
I took a closer look. With its coin intake that still accepted French francs (last seen in 2001) the machine dated more than the fur-clad hooker who had just arrived and kissed me on the cheek before saying hello.
I had two euros in my pocket and was now faced with the choice of whose slot to spend it on.
Looking from the dishevelled hooker to the dishevelled public, I decided it was better to spread the love.
But what songs should I select?
Around 2001 I was at a bogan party in Warrandyte community centre that had a juke box. It was at this event, surrounded by party-goers dressed in sheepskin-lined denim jackets that I developed the concept of the ‘juke box spike’.
Just like date-rape the idea revolved around slipping something unsavoury into the mix. On that occasion I managed three back-to-back plays of Kylie Minogue’s Locomotion before the bogan crowd twigged that Axl Rose wasn’t hitting enough high notes and unplugged the machine.
Nine years later in France I decided to test the limits of the locals.
My 2 euros had bought me 5 songs to choose. With input from Dave, we started innocently enough with some Jimmy Cliff, followed by Barry White growling ‘Never Give you Up’.
If it was the first time these hardened French men had drunken with black men their expressions didn’t register it.
So as not to give the game up too early, the third song we selected was by France’s Sinatra, Jacques Brel. This segued into ‘Paint it, Black’, which until then I had thought was sung by any band that wasn’t the Rolling Stones.
I looked for signs of reaction from the crowd but found their expressions to be unreadable.
Alors, it was time for the piece de resistance: a song I was sure would raise the heckles of these classic Frenchies – or at the very least make them acknowledge I was in the bar.
If there was one song that could do it, this would be the mustard.
As the telltale sound of five talentless British pop queens “If you wannabe my love you gotta get with my friends,” filled the bar with shrill tones, I eagerly awaited the reaction.
All I got was flicker of recognition from one man who held my eye a fraction of a second.
Were they excited? It was hard to tell.
Was I excited? Hard to tell also – I’d just had an accident in the bathroom and the state of my undies erroneously suggested that I was.
The game was up. Yet again, France had refused to rise to the challenge.
Or was I mistaken?
For now, the man who had turned my way during the Spice Girls indeed did rise from his bar stool and made his way to the juke box. Inserting 2 coins, he pushed a few numbers and returned to his perch.
The music started. Dave suppressed a shudder. “It’s Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney singing ‘The Girl is Mine’,” he said. This was backed up with Amazing Grace played on the organ and bagpipes, twice.
The war was on.
SO the old man liked Michael Jackson did he? Did he like little boys as well? I returned volley with Kriss Kross ‘Jump’.
The man gave a moment’s thought – more than he’d put into wearing sandals on a -1 degree night – then returned to the juke box.
More coins this time, and we hit with 5 ‘chansons francaises’ in quick succession. Low blow.
A note to readers: While ‘chansons francaises’ literally translates as ‘French songs’, a more exact translation would be ‘French song’. Indeed, the difference between each and every one of these old musty ballads is discernible only to the most seasoned of the French.
I conceded defeat. The French had played a dirty game, but they’d played it well – unlike the bagpipes on Amazing Grace.
It was getting late and we decided to go. Collecting our coats, I emptied my final coin into the juke box for a last hurrah. Together, Dave and I exited the bar in the very heart of Paris’ musical heartland, to the dulcet tones of SNAP, Rhythm is a Dancer.
Nadjenka Boudjilivitch suggested ‘pharmacy visits’ as a rich topic of humiliation. Suggest your own topic for a personalised embarrassment-related post.
Pharmacies in Paris combine the patient confidentiality aspects of a medical clinic with the shopfloor ambience of H&M.
It is not uncommon to find yourself explaining an embarrassing situation to a small audience of passive eavesdroppers: “Excuse, do you have the same model as that lady has but in ‘more absorbent’?”
For these reasons, if you have a choice of staff, it is best not to approach the older – and therefore deafer – pharmacist for advice.
A friend recently witnessed this exchange:
Young, elegant Parisian woman: [inaudible whisper]
Old pharmacist: “You’d like what, sorry?”
Young woman: A SUPPOSITORY.
This potential for embarrassment has led some enterprising young French people to make gain from the pain. A few years ago, a young business school graduate launched a successful online business to deliver adult diapers in inconspicuous packaging to your home addresses. His website even has a blog.
The last time I was in a pharmacy it was with my housemate. We needed to buy a syringe.
The pharmacists presented a 30ml model.
“Do you have any bigger?” I asked.
She presented a 50ml version.
“We’re going to need something more substantial,” I said.
Rummaging she pulled out a 100ml.
“No…do you have anything for use on large animals?” I asked, nodding at my housemate for approval.
By now the curiosity got the better of her. I could see she wasn’t going to search further without knowing what we needed it for.
I stepped in to explain: “We need to inject a watermelon.”
Looking from me to my housemate, I could see her wondering which of the two would be the lucky recipient.
“Well I don’t know if we have anything that big, but I’ll see what I can find,” she responded.
Who knows what the pharmacist thought, but for the housemate and I, we made one damned good vodka watermelon.
(The theme of this post, Last Metro, comes courtesy of La Rouf Laquette.)
In French, the word for mastery is the same as that for mistress. I was a long time in France before I could put the two together.
I’d met a gorgeous Sicilian French girl in New York in 2006 and a sporadic relationship ensued. Unfortunately, what started with being cross-border and cross-cultural, ended one year later with, simply, one cross woman.
Returning from Rome one Sunday in January 2008, I needed to pass through Paris before taking my midday train to Montpellier. This necessitated spending a night in Paris.
Whereas I used to stay with the Sicilian French connection, I’d worn out my welcome about the same time that I’d worn out her patience.
Instead, I decided to stay with another French girlfriend who I’d met in Qatar. We spent the night sharing our adventures since Qatar, biscuits, cheese and a bottle of wine before sharing her meagre sofa bed too.
In the morning, I accompanied her to the metro. I wanted to go to La Defence to buy some socks at the Uniqlo store that had just opened there.
La Defense is France’s heartland for its multinational industries without hearts. It is not known for its socks. For what I was about to endure, it was not worth finding this out first-hand.
It was high rush hour, about 8.30, when we descended into the metro at Place de Clichy. Being used to Montpellier, it was a shock for two reasons: first to see so many people gathered together for a reason other than to protest; and second because that reason was they had real jobs to go to.
A friendly ‘Hello’ disturbed my train of thought. Of all the people I didn’t know in Paris, I happened to be standing next to the only other person I did…the Sicilian.
“I didn’t know you were in Paris,” she said.
“I’m not,” I responded, unconvincingly.
“So, who is your ‘friend’?” she said, gesturing at my friend. She had me by the balls, and, unlike in the NY youth hostel, this time it wasn’t half as enjoyable.
For the record, the only fluids my friend and I had shared that last night had been alcoholic ones, but the weight of suspicion was against me: why I hadn’t called her, and how I ended up with another woman at her metro stop at 8.30 in the morning.
Our train of conversation ended just as the metro arrived. Thereafter we spent 5 torturous metro stops together until my friend disembarked at her stop and left me alone to make up with the Sicilian. If you thought sharing a carriage with gypsy buskers can be gruelling, this was like sharing a carriage with two rival gypsy buskers. I vowed thereafter that it be the last metro I take with two lovers.
Adding insult to injured ego, I arrived at La Defense only to find that store didn’t sell socks.
In the end, managing mistresses is like a pair of large comfy socks…having two is better than one, as long as realise it’s easier than you think to put your foot in it.
The need to keep my beard permanently positioned at 3’o-clock in the shade meant a trip to the local electronics store was in order.
Keeping a beard is relatively new to me. When I was 12 I used to keep a rabbit. He ended up dead and buried in the backyard. Then the neighbour’s dog came and dug him up. A few days later he was still dead but now reburied, with a large stone on top.
The point is that I’m not always good at keeping and maintaining things.
When it comes to growing and removing beards, I’ve had my fair share of facial hair, but always accidentally kill it off just when it starts to mature. Days later I usually end up resurrecting it as a questionable moustache.
Last year, shortly after I came to understand that integrating with locals would necessitate growing some stubble, I went to the store and bought a beard trimmer.
It was Vidal Sassoon brand, a name I recognised from the shampoo. I soon realised why Vidal Sassoon is more known for shampoo than beard trimmers.
The device had about 3 different length attachments, starting at about 2 centimetres. It would have useful had I been a werewolf wanting to keep my body trim for summer. But for my purposes, maintaining a snazzy beard, I was going to need to something that allowed me to go shorter.
I palmed it off to an Australian friend who at that stage in his life was quite comfortable with having a 2cm beard.
Dad now stepped in with some fatherly advice. “It’s always worth buying good quality tools, son,” he said, handing me his beard trimmer that, since he was now clean shaven, he would no longer need.
I presume his advice came from experience: the tool he gave me was missing half of the blade comb and used perennially dying AA batteries. While it trimmed at a decently short length, unless you held it at the right angle it left large holes in the beard. Many friends asked me at that time whether I had facial alopecia.
Finally, last week I returned to the store to invest in a new, fancy, expensive beard trimmer.
Faced with a substantial selection, I told the store lady, “I will take any beard trimmer, so long as it is not that Vidal Sassoon one.”
“Well, that’s not a beard trimmer, sir,” she replied.
Then she added, in a didn’t-you-know tone, “That’s for trimming body hair.”
At least that partly explained why I’d never heard of the Vidal Sasoon beard trimmer. “Why did you sell that model to me last time then?” I asked.
She now made a gesture at the ample chest hair spilling over from the v-neck of my t-shirt and said, “Maybe the lady thought what you really wanted was a body hair trimmer.”
She then informed me that there had been a rush on beard trimmers that weekend and there was only one or two models left anyway.
I took a large and expensive model, being sure to ask that it was fully adjustable. “Not a problem, this one does everything,” she assured me.
The sales woman was right. Taking it home, I applied it to my face. With the speed of an 8-cyclinder lawnmower, the trimmer literally did everything. Charging all over my face, it removed all virtually but the barest trace of a beard.
With a soft downy transparent hair shadow, memories of high school pretending I’d hit puberty came flooding back. If those memories weren’t the stone on the grave of growing beards, they should have been.
PS, Jay, if you haven’t already gathered, you can do your body hair with that beard trimmer I gave you in summer.
Midnight Juggernauts, Bataclan, Paris, October 14
Midnight Juggernauts, already darlings of French electro lords Justice, endeared themselves to several more French last night with a simple, clean set at the Bataclan, in the opening act of a global tour.
When I saw them 5 years ago in Melbourne, their DJ-set aced a full house at a Brunswick St club. On Wednesday, the medium-sized Bataclan was not overpacked, but so what? It ain’t always the size of the crowd on the night, it’s the size of the night for the crowd.
“We need some energy,” the group’s Vincent Vendetta implored. It was there, I swear, though just maybe not how he was used to seeing it.
Already 20 minutes into the set, “noddage” was at a solid 60%; in demure France, noddage (of heads) is as much an indicator of having an agreeable time as being in agreement. Encouraged along by some confident, but not overbearing showmanship, noddage soon gave way to pointage.
With their fingers in the air, the crowd was in the Juggernauts’ hands. Vendetta now stepped out from behind the keys to meet his partner Andrew Szekeres in the centre of stage. Procuring drumsticks from a hidden stockpile (the group chewed through them like toothpicks), the two delivered a nifty percussive break.
Vendetta then tossed a drumstick into the crowd as if was incriminating evidence. It was such an abrupt and flat throw that the audience member whose eye it poked almost certainly hadn’t seen it coming. At any rate, he probably now won’t see much more coming for a couple of days.
Everyone else, though, was able to appreciate the visual appeal of their set design. This comprised 50 euros worth of black and white feather boas, bought at the costume shop up the road.
There was no disguising the French appreciation of this touch, with many boas slipping away into eager hands while the band was off stage awaiting encore.
Seeing electronic artists live can often be hit and miss. For the Juggernauts last night, it was only hit after hit.
Despite or because of going to a school where the girls’ uniform was a gum-nut patterned maternity-shaped dress, I have always taken perverse pleasure in seeing two apparent strangers standing next to each other unwittingly wearing the same idiotic outfit.
In Melbourne, whenever I found myself to be one of those idiots, I would go to considerable lengths to make sure the other party was also fully aware of the awful coincidence.
This especially included the time I was inadvertently dressed as ‘Where’s Wally’ outside the Cinema Nova in Carlton. “You should have hidden better,” I told the only other guy in Melbourne that night wearing a red-striped t-shirt. He looked at me awkwardly, and fumbled nervously with his cane.
I had no reason to expect things would be different in France. But I was wrong.
Along with berets and onion necklaces, stripy blue and white tops have always been big in France. For reasons known only to the French, last year they decided to embrace this stereotype with both arms; which means that one year later, everyone else living in Paris started following along.
I bought in to the trend shortly before summer, investing in a blue/white stripy singlet that was on sale. “No wonder it’s 30% off,” I thought, “this t-shirt is missing arms.”
The only thing more atrophied than my sense of taste this year has been my arm muscles. But this did not deter me from purchasing the piece of clothing that would most reveal my weakness.
With only a few days above 20 degrees this Paris summer, I haven’t busted out the singlet too often. Saturday was an exception. After an unproductive day, I dashed to the local Chinese supermarket looking for a fish for dinner. I was wearing flip-flops, shorts and the famous singlet.
Entering the fruit and vegetable section, lo and behold, I saw a young Asian man wearing a similarly patterned singlet. Being well rehearsed in what to do after all those years of dressing like a dickhead in Melbourne, I made sure to catch his eye and then gave him a knowing head-nod that silently asked “do you see the singlet solidarity?”
His reaction was a little unexpected. Coming over to me he said, “Hey how are you! How have you been?” Then as is the custom for French men and women among friends, he leant into me and obliged me to kiss him on both cheeks.
Until that point, I was pretty certain that the only thing we’d shared was the same bad sense in clothing.
Quickly heading home with a half-kilo of bass in a plastic bag, I reflected that for all Paris is known for being a good singles’ market, it’s not necessarily the best place if you like to wear singlets in markets.
The question among pilgrims is, Did Jesus really come to Paray Le Monial? Each year, that questions draws a hundred thousand pilgrims to the quaint Bourgogne town.
Arriving on the 10am train, I was tackling a more pressing question: “If Jesus indeed did come, how did he manage to leave?”
I was due at a wedding in four hours time in the nearby village of Anzy le Duc but was stuck in Paray having exhausted public transport options for the last 20km.
Perhaps Jesus hired a bicycle. I asked the tourist information desk but all they could tell me was that the only bike left to hire was a novelty one that would require 4 people to ride it. No wonder Jesus liked to travel with disciples.
I instead headed to the southern outbound road to try my luck thumbing a ride. If I was lucky, Cam and Clem wouldn’t be the only ones getting hitched today.
A man in an electric wheelchair seemed a promising first lead. He had good pace and was heading in the right direction. I estimated he could probably make the journey in about 2 hours assuming we had a good tail wind and I didn’t have to push him up any hills. But he got away from me on the straight as I waited at a pedestrian crossing.
An electrician picked me up soon enough and in the cabin of his truck we small-talked about our lives in Paris. “It’s such a youthful and cultural city,” I said. “So many accessible museums, and very social too.”
He looked at me sceptically then told me he worked long hours on the road putting power line cables underground. Only later did I twig that while I’d been crapping on about Paris, he’d been talking about ‘Paray’.
Anzy is usually a town of 509 people (2006 census), but this week its population had swelled by 30%. This was mainly due to the wedding, but probably also to the rodeo and flea market that were taking place around the same time.
More than 50 odd Australians had made a special journey to the bride’s home town in preparation for the celebrations. I say “odd” because in the eyes of the Frenchthese visitors brought with them such strange customs as drinking large amounts of beer from midday, and falling asleep in their crops at night.
But on the wedding day, Saturday, not even the bar’s cheap prices could retain the Australians for long. After just one quick pot we headed across the driveway to the church for the service.
The priest stepped outside the rustic 11th century Roman church to greet us; though looking at his perfectly trimmed moustache he might just as easily have stepped out from a barbershop quartet, or even a Freddie Mercury tribute band.
The parallel was not without merit: he loved to sing, and during the ceremony, if not a word was spoken, it was because he was too busy singing everything. Friends must rarely have heard Cam’s name uttered so melodically, let alone with all three syllables in tact, “Cam-er-on”.
The priest’s modus opera-ndi of service ensured the ceremony continued with levity if perhaps not brevity. After 1.5 hours, the guests poured out in the sun blinking and, catching the bartenders by surprise, also poured their own beers, from the exotic beer kegs neatly arranged on a trestle table.
With all guests mingling it was time to play ‘spot the Aussie’. Not too hard, truth be told – they were the only ones wearing Ray Bans and drinking beer. They were also the only ones who mistook the foie gras for crème caramel, which one aptly described as, “like biting into Nutella and getting Vegemite!”
French guests meanwhile could be spotted for their beige-coloured clothing, and blanching expressions upon seeing the kegs of beer.
Skip forward a few hours and the reception was in full swing. I say “Swing,” because that’s the way the older generations were dancing.
On the decks – or at least on a raised stage – DJ Butt was presiding over the music. More used to playing the Big Day Out, on this occasion she had gladly substituted the Boiler Room for a room full of Boyles – that being the name of the groom in question.
As the night wore on, French cougars started circling poor innocent Australian men, who in turn formed their own circle and started doing the worm. The inevitable wedding breakdance competition had begun.
With the kegs eventually depleted of beer and the last of the stashed vodka bottles emptied, the dregs of the wedding started on their own pilgrimage back to the dorms.
And I say “pilgrimage” here on purpose too, for it should be noted that the Australians were more than mindful of the sanctity of the region they were visiting. For this reason more than one stopped by at the bathroom for a quick porcelain ‘pray’ before hitting either the hay or their bed, whichever they saw first.