Category Archives: french & the french

Alliance Françaises of the World, pt. 5: Hanoi, Vietnam

The Alliance Française in Hanoi is a fancy place.

It’s in an Art Deco building, and has within it classrooms, an expensive café, an art gallery area, and a TV that plays FRANCE5 MONDE or something similar at all times. Students attempt to do their homework beneath the screen.

The library is on the second floor, and is quite nice– except for the magazine and newspaper section. The newspapers are years old, and often the magazines are as well. If you are aching to read an issue of Le Monde from some random date two years ago, they may have a gently used copy available at this location. Similarly, while the magazines are neatly ordered, the subscriptions for many of them expired years ago. I’m not sure who is super-interested in old copies of Sciences & Vie and prefers a ragged copy to just looking online, but again, this is the place to come.

You will find many Vietnamese students studying French within the library, constantly looking up words and cramming. One young fellow wanted to practice his French with me. I did so, but he couldn’t understand anything I said in French. He was then disappointed to learn that I wasn’t French, and recoiled when I told him my age.

BONUS: Open Saturdays, and the famous rice ice cream shop is a couple blocks over.

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Filed under french & the french, Uncategorized, vietnam

seattle parks, pt. 1: danny woo garden & kobe terrace

Here in Seattle there are many parks, but since this is not exactly a walkable city, I can’t say I’ve visited them all. Contrast that with somewhere like Paris, which has maybe four times the population of Seattle, but in an area 1/4th the size. In Paris, I’ve probably visited all the parks, gardens, squares, and every other type of green area, but in Seattle, I’ve not visited many, for they are too spread out and the city too sprawling. Paris also has a sort of set-up whereby events are held in the city parks– events that people might actually want to go to: musical groups from Palestine or Mexico or Bordeaux, for example. In Seattle, the events in the parks tend to be Easter egg hunts for babies or trash clean-up days, neither of which interest me all that much. The City of Paris also has the common sense to stagger (or rotate) events around to all the different parks, so that out-of-the-way parks see some action and get discovered: in this way I’ve visited any number of parks in out-of-the-way arrondissments that I wouldn’t otherwise maybe see. Seattle, by contrast, hosts events in Volunteer Park and one or two others, if that, and uses the other parks as pot-smoking refuges for underage hippies, dog-walking areas for pit bull fanciers, and frisbee-throwing areas for brawny frat boys. As these three activities don’t interest me in the slightest, and Palestinian musical groups do, I find Seattle’s parks to be lacking in excitement compared to those of Paris. That said, Seattle’s parks are certainly larger, and possibly greener, and contain some points of interest.

The Danny Woo Garden and Kobe Terrace are to be found in the Japanese area of the International District in Seattle. I was taken there by my associate and band-mate Bon-Bon, who, living in close proximity to said gardens, visits them often and was quite familiar with the whole to-do. It was my first time there.

You can get to these gardens quite easily by bus or tramway; they are about three blocks from the International District stop. That is what me and Bon-Bon did, arriving via tramway, and we wended our way up the streets to the gardens, which are across the street from Ichiban Japanese Restaurant and the Panama Hotel café (about which I’ll post something another time; it’s an interesting place and I used to deliver things there about ten years ago).

Danny Woo was a Chinese-American capitalist who, in a moment of social enlightenment, leased out this land at some point in the 1970s for the pithy sum of a $1 per year; it became a community garden for use by old folks and residents of low net financial worth, which is how people are judged these days. There are said to be about 100 plots there, and there is also a large chicken coop full of clucking birds with fanciful names. Bon-Bon said she’d never seen the chicken coop before, and surmised it must be a recent addition, as Seattle is suffering from an urban chicken craze of late as local residents become keen on caging up poor creatures in hastily-constructed backyard chicken coops. I believe the most popular local chicken name is “Henrietta”, based on anecdotal evidence.

We also spotted kale, carrots, some squash perhaps, and some various other vegetables. Actually Bon-Bon spotted these items; I being a city chap was most unfamiliar with the various stalks and above-ground parts of common vegetables. In one area there were some terraces on which were written things in some various Asian languages: I spotted Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and some others.

At the top of the vegetable-growing area, the garden gives way to Kobe Terrace, which butts up against the freeway and features a 200-year-old 4-ton stone lantern, which was a gift to Seattle from the people of Kobe, Japan (our sister city on the other side of the Pacific). According to the badly-copyedited City of Seattle website, the area is “adorned with Mt. Fuji cherry trees and laced with ground vines and pathways winding alongside the freeway”. We didn’t see any cherry trees at all, but a man with two pugs walked by playing what sounded like Frank Sinatra out of a transistor radio in his pocket. I asked the fellow about the music. “Big Band sound!” he told me proudly, asserting that the two pugs liked it immensely, and that said dogs were “famous in San Francisco”.

We examined the giant lantern, which sits in what appears to be a pool; Bon-bon told me she had never seen water in it, though, and there did not appear to be a mechanism by which water would be pumped into the area, so perhaps it’s meant to be a dry pool. At the same corner, next to the lantern, sits the Nippon Kan Theatre, which used to put on Japanese plays. It has since gone under, as the Japanese are no longer interested in emigrating to Seattle, leaving that to the Vietnamese. Furthermore, local Japanese-Americans have lost interest in such things, perhaps turning their attention to monster trucks or such other forms of Americana- a Seattle P-I newspaper article from 2005 (‘Seattle loses icon of Japanese heritage’) on the theatre attributes the fall of Seattle’s Japantown to lower Japanese emigrant numbers post-1965 and a general assimilation into mainstream American ‘culture’ by later generations of Japanese-Americans.

This little park is a nice place to sit around; Bon-bon also showed me an area of concrete bench-type creations which she asserted was a cool place to sit on scorching 62-degree Seattle summer days; I also found a stash in the bushes of a bunch of bags of chips, which Bon-bon believed must belong to a local transient. If I were you, I’d go have coffee at the Panama Hotel (or bring it over to the park even) and spend a nice little while there if you ever find yourself in this part of Seattle.

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Filed under daily life, french & the french, seattle

Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 4: Pnomh Penh, Cambodia

(See here for AF background).

The AF in Pnomh Penh is a pretty large structure that covers two sides of the street. One side is full of classrooms and large banners advertising DELFs and such; the other side houses a movie theatre, a library, a café, a bookshop, and a few other things. The library is on a few different levels and within was full of Cambodians studying French. I wept tears of joy to see people studying French.

I really didn’t see anything too special at this AF that was worth recounting. Evron, a dude who I was walking around with at the time, had never been to such a place before and was so excited by the comic section that he briefly considered learning French.

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Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 3: Bucharest, Romania

(See here for AF background).

AF inner chamber, Bucharest. Photo via l'Institut français de Bucarest (www.ambafrance-ro.org)

You never know what you’re going to get at the different AFs of the world. This one was a bit of a let-down. It’s in a grand old building- too bad I didn’t take any photos, so you get a stock photo off the AF website. The interior is the best part, a fancy wooden carved chamber.

That’s about as far as I got. Upon going in, I found this wooden chamber, and wine in plastic cups laying around half-drank and with flyers and trash scattered about. There seemed to be some to-do in a café/bookstore adjoining the main chamber, but I didn’t linger there too long.

BATHROOMS: Used them, and filled my water bottle. In one of the sinks were hundreds of ice cubes. Not sure what that was about- perhaps an ancient French custom (they do things with much more style than we Americans), or some Romanian thing.

LIBRARY: I saw a sign pointing upstairs and a sign reading “mediathèque”, so up I went. A hangdog foul-looking dude approached me and grumbled something.

La bibliothèque, c’est par là?” I asked.

He chuckled and said with relish “Fermé. Fermé tout. Vacances.”

So off I went. I did see a sign on the front door on the way out reading “13h: Fermeture exceptionelle”. No reason was given.

Later I met a dude of Sri Lankan origins from Australia who went on about the oft-debunked "Dropa Stones", which, according to him, feature “microscopic grooves” that play sublime music. He refused to elaborate on the exact mechanism or any other details.

Since I neglected to take any photos of the AF building, here are some various Bucharest scenes.

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Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 2: Istanbul, Turkey

(See here for AF background).

Today I went to visit the AF in Istanbul. It’s on the top end of Istiklal next to Taksim. They always have a banner out front listing the various cultural things they have going on throughout the month, and a sign telling you to come in and visit their cafe. However, this AF is really not very welcoming. In order to get in, the French, those traditional lovers of liberty, have posted a guard at the door who barks at you from behind glass: “WHAT DO YOU WANT!”

Oh, I don’t know, you’re promoting a library, French courses, a cafe, a bookshop, an art gallery… could it be one of those? I told the guard I was going to the library. He looked confused and shut down all bodily function for a second as he stared into space, trying to process this information. Finally he motioned, half-stupefied, for me to put my bag though a scanner and walk through a metal detector. Ye gods! What we go through to read French literature! In American libraries, you just walk through the door! No quiz, no scanning. Anyways, in I went.

TOILETS: Just fine. A sign in French and Turkish told us to keep the toilets clean. Two men were outside mopping.

CAFE: An outdoor cafe in the courtyard. For those who like a quick interrogation and search before buying 8TL coffee, this place is un must for summer.

GALLERY: There were some photos of boats and sunsets on the Bosphorus. The scenes were exceedingly cliched, but well done. There were also some terrible red paintings with glitter on them, and some small watercolours of Turkish scenes. There was a guest book in which had been written various comments in broken French in teenage hands.

LIBRARY: A big, cavernous library in the basement, with lots of archways and some screaming kids. I took a few photos and the librarian rushed up to me.

Vous êtes français?

Beh non, chuis américain.

The fellow then went on to tell me in broken English that it was “forbidden” to take photos! First off, don’t you think it’s strange that they hire a librarian who doesn’t speak any French? Come on, it’s a French library- the dude should at least learn more French than “Vous êtes français”. Quand même!

I told the fellow in French, hoping that he’s be able to understand bits and pieces if I spoke slowly, that I’d been to a number of AFs- more than he, I daresay- and never had any problem with photos. Oh, he said, but this is not just a library, cafe, art gallery, etc., it’s also the French consulate and full of sensitive material and information!

What!

Let me give you a piece of advice, French! If you have a building housing sensitive materials and documents, it’s probably not a good idea to build a cafe, an art gallery, a library, a children’s playing area, a bookshop, a room to practice the cello in (this I saw and heard), French classes for children 5-14, etc., and then advertise for people to walk in!

I sat and read Riad Sattouf’s Vie secrète des jeunes and did a lot of laughing. I wrote him a letter in 2004, but he never replied. Ah, les stars.

Overall, a paranoid and schizophrenic piece of France right in the middle of Istanbul. Oh, and I still have the photos.

Bonus: Top 5 ways to avoid having people take photos in your consulate:

1. Put up a sign that says “No photos please”.

2. Put up a sign that says “No photos please”.

3. Put up a sign that says “No photos please”.

4. Put up a sign that says “No photos please”.

5. Don’t tell people to come in and have fun drinking coffee, playing music, reading, and running around screaming and then not expect them to take photos.

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Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 1: Izmir, Turkey

Here begins a look at some of the many Alliances Françaises in the world. For those who don’t know, the Alliances Françaises are buildings set up all over the world by the French government in order to promote the French language, French culture, and (in my opinion) knowledge and culture in general.

It is sort of my goal to visit all of them. However, I don’t think that’s possible: according to their website, there are well over 1,000 of them. I’ve been to maybe twenty of them, and I highly doubt, for example, I’ll ever make it to the hundred-some in subsaharan Africa any time soon. But when I can, I make it a point to visit them and see what’s up, francophonically speaking.

Usually the AFs (or Centres Culturels, as they are sometimes called) encompass a school building with classrooms, a café (pour mieux diffuser la mode de vie française), a rather impressive library, some sort of hall for performances, a gallery, free toilets, and sometimes a bookstore. My main concern is with the libraries and the free toilets, and also the brochures sitting around and any cultural events that might be taking place.

For those francophiles such as myself, these places are a real treat. They, in the stitled and broken English of a Canadian branch, stretch:

[f]rom the Land of Fire to the Canadian boundaries, from the African continent to Northern Europe, from Asia to Oceania… the Alliances Françaises emerge out of a Francophile dynamics from every culture around the world.

Founded in 1883, Alliance Française’s success is due to the loyalty of a public with deep roots in the French language and francophone culture. The Alliance Française brand is known in 136 countries and has inspired a rich network of over a thousand local associations with a proper legal entity. (source. Don’t they have any English speakers in Canada to proofread?)

I once dragged my father to one, and he didn’t see the point: i.e., there is no American equivalent. For pops, this was a good thing: the entire world, he thinks, is an American cultural center. For example, in Turkey, the Turks go about wearing Mr. T t-shirts while rocking out to Metallica and watching NBA games as they chomp on hamburgers. (In America, by contrast, no-one is going about wearing Mustafa Uğur t-shirts while blasting Tarkan, cheering on Fenerbahçe and chowing down on çiğ köfte.) And you can get Anglophone books, newspapers, etc., anywhere in the world, he boasted triumphantly, while the French have to build special libraries to house the frayed manuscripts of their dying language.

Anyway, I just went to the one in Izmir:

ENTRY: There was a little cat scratching at the front door and trying to get in. I let the cat in and she ran to a food bowl under a desk. There was a woman at a desk who ignored me. This is in marked contrast to the Turkish world around the AF, where you are regularly greeted with iyi günler! hoş geldiniz! buyrun, buyrun!. The French froideur and peur des autres begins at reception!

GALLERY: They were putting in an exhibition that appeared to be B&W photos of rocks in Greece. As it was not open yet, I didn’t see it.

CAFE: Did not appear to be open, but some used tea cups and sugar packets sat on a table. DELF results were posted on the wall.

TOILET: excellent. Filled up my water bottle in the sink as well. Vive la France!

BIBLIOTHEQUE: A man said “Bonjour” as I walked in. He then ignored me, though he became animated when some fellow AF worker came in and offered him a piece of gateau. They had some nice books and magazines. I read “Le Monde Monthly” where they reprint old and outdated articles from years past. I spent five minutes trying to understand the French sense of humour and worrying I’d forgotten how to speak French as I examined two cartoons in the paper. Finally I realized the captions were reversed. Eh ben en effet. They had a lot of CDs and DVDs, and it was cool and air conditioned in 36-degree Izmir. They also had a lot of BDs, with a large space dedicated to Satrapi, and some in Turkish. Top notch!

Overall, a great place for any francophile to while away a hot afternoon in Izmir.

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la turquie

Depuis 40 ans, au moins 1000 diplômés turcs sortent francophones de l’université. Et 350 000 Turcs vivent en France. L’inverse n’est pas vrai : très peu de français parlent le turc. Beaucoup trop de diplomates français vivent entre eux, ne se donnent pas la peine d’apprendre la langue… [e]n comparaison, j’observe que les trois derniers ambassadeurs américains parlaient le turc !

(Bülent Akarcalı, ancien ministre turc de la santé et du tourisme, dans Aujourd’hui la Turquie, mai 2011)

En tant qu’américain… heh heh heh… et moi, je parle quelques mots de turc, et j’ai même pas eu l’accès à une éducation gratuite, universelle, laïque pour l’apprendre… ces putains de français!!!

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