Friday, November 14, 2008

Au revoir for now!

In preparation for my trip to Paris next week, I am taking an inventory of my French to see what I might need to add. In its entirety, then, the inventory:

Excusez-moi, parlez-vous francais?
Sacre bleu!
Je voudrais un tete-a-tete.
Je ne sais pas pourquoi.
Je suis canadien.
Le burre, s'il vous plait.
Avec un petit fromage.
J'adore la discotheque.
C'est la vie.

Yep, guess I'm all set. See you all in a bit.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The displaced traveler

Mark Twain is so amusing on the subject of European travel, culture, and manners, it's hard for me not to quote him constantly. Indeed, few travel guidebooks are able to resist this temptation. A special favorite is Twain's witty, ironic observation:

"The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad."

But the even wittier line that follows, I've noticed, is often omitted from these guidebooks:

"I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass."

There's only so much the gentle reader of a travel book can take, I guess, is what they conclude. No need to be so blunt about it. Any observant fellow will figure this out himself, reading the faces of family and friends back home, as he tries to tell them he has trouble with English now or dreams in French or just can't stand the horribly inefficient train system anymore. Soon enough, he'll likely feel just as lame as he did ordering wine with his pizza or forgetting which cheek to kiss first or how to say "the check, please" in German. Let him plan his vacation in peace.

But, might I add, heaven help the friends and family of the unobservant fellow.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In which I rail against Amtrak

Is it unfair to complain about Amtrak these days? Is it like beating a guy while he's down? Well, I don't care – I am tired of being patient and understanding. Amtrak needs to get a clue.

Do not let Amtrak's somewhat updated website trick you: they are as lame as they always were. When you buy your "ticket" online, they can't actually give you a ticket, they give you a bar code which allows you to go to a "Quik-Trak self-service ticketing kiosk" to pick up your ticket on the day of your journey. I am sure they thought they were being very 20th century by putting these self-service kiosks in some of their major stations, but a better, actually useful step would have been to provide conductors with ticket scanners so as to eliminate the need for ticket pick-up altogether. All the kiosks do, in my opinion, is save them money on service counter staff. We see right through your ruse, Amtrak.

But I live in Munster, Indiana, you say, a kiosk would be better than nothing – we have no service counter at all! So true, my dear Hoosiers, so true. But this illogical, c-fearing organization, I am sorry to report, only puts "Quik-Trak" kiosks in their "larger Amtrak stations," i.e., in cities.

So what is a resident of or visitor outside the city to do, then? Pay, of course: It's the American way. $15 and an afternoon off work to receive your express-delivered ticket later, you are enabled to participate in the pathetic excuse for a train system that is Amtrak. Not only is this just a lame way to do business, our country just cannot afford discrimination of this kind at this polarized moment. I say: Equal opportunities for all riders!

You know, Amtrak's board of directors is appointed by the US president. Since the future vice-president of the US is such an avid Amtrak user, I am thinking he might-could take this issue straight to the president in January. They seem to be in the mood for cleaning house. Although Mr. Biden probably has some fancy east coast version of the Amtrak service, I am sure he has at least one horror story of his own – or someone in Pennsylvania told him one. If any case, it's pretty much common knowledge that service in the rest of the country (pardon me) sucks. And since it's clear that Americans are too nostalgic (or practical) to give up the idea of passenger rail, we might as well make it worth all the money we are pouring into it.

So, why not get to redistributing the kiosk wealth? Why not wrest some of the tracks from rail freight companies so we can be on time for a change? Why not promote train travel as an often cheaper, more efficient alternative to driving? And, if nothing else, why not use US mail to deliver tickets?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Man, I am still not used to cutting being socially acceptable. Today in line, keeping a comfortable but not surely not ambiguous amount of space behind the person at the register, I turned my head to read a sign. When I turned back seconds later, I was being cut in on. So amazing to be able to do this with no shame – no doubt the same kind of person comfortable using the word imbecile.

Friday, November 7, 2008

God save us from the imbeciles

I was recently reading through a summary of the responses and congratulations sent to Barack Obama by various European leaders after Tuesday's election. They were saying things like "it was a brilliant victory" (Sarkozy), offering "sincere congratulations" (Brown), and expressing desire "to work together in search of opportunities and solutions to address common challenges" (Zapatero). Prime Minister Berlusconi rounded them out: "I can give him advice because I am older," a sentiment only slightly improved by its conclusion, "but I'll give the advice while I embrace him."

Later this week he told President Medvedev of Russia that Barack Obama "has all the qualities to get along well with you: he’s young, handsome and suntanned, so I think you can develop a good working relationship" (video at Corriere della Sera, via NYTimes). Berlusconi, himself not one to miss a tanning session, responded to criticism of his remark, "Are there really people who don’t understand it was a cute thing to say? God save us from the imbeciles. How can you take such a great compliment negatively?"

I imagine the tanned joke did not go over so well in Russia, either.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The up side to getting blamed for everything

As I have heretofore diligently and occasionally bitterly chronicled, we Americans abroad often find ourselves on the defensive, easy targets for disgruntled Europeans looking for somewhere to direct their frustration with American policy and the irrepressible forces of globalization. Our unimaginably huge size, inward focus, and frequent complacency only exacerbate their sense of powerlessness and irrelevance. And, I think, they are weary and sober and disenchanted by history in a way most Americans can't really understand. A friend recently observed, more elegantly than I remember here, "Europe is tired of wars. We have been fighting each other for centuries and we are ready to move on, try different things."

We abroad here usually serve as whipping boy and scapegoat quietly, polite guests at another's dinner party. We nod and listen and explain and mediate. We concede points. We apologize. We laugh. Sometimes we, I, do not maintain the dignity of our country, but it is not without personal cost. 

Today, though, Europe celebrates with us. Europeans know our history and they see the grand significance of this moment. The blame has morphed into (literal) personal thanks and congratulations. For better or worse, we take all the blame and all the credit for our huge, amazing, perplexing nation.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Get your vote on!

"That ballot looks really complicated. I didn't think Americans were smart enough to have such a complex ballot."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Lugano 3, Bern 0

In what has inadvertently become an annual tradition, we once again attended the Bern/Lugano hockey match on Friday. Lugano, no doubt still smarting from last year's bitter defeat, was able to avenge the loss quite tidily, in spite of a rough and somewhat dull first period during which we were all thinking Lugano probably deserved to lose. 

Despite the very thorough pat-down we all received upon entry, some Bern fan managed to sneak in a stinky though beautiful smoke bomb into the stadium and release it upon conclusion of Bern's shameful defeat. It eventually enveloped the whole stadium and obscured our view of the MVP awards following the game. But I had to admire their aesthetically pleasant expression of anger.