31 March 2011

Take a message?



I promised myself when I began this blog not to use it as an expat gripe session; especially since expat life is really wonderful, filled with incredible richness and diversity. But that said, I challenge anyone living in a different country other than the one they grew up in, not to compare. It’s frankly impossible. You can’t help it – it’s always ‘better croissants here, better bagels there.’ In general, I find things come out pretty close to even. So much I love about life here and still things I miss about there.

But…

There is no denying that coming from the USA, I am spoiled rotten in terms of service. Good old, friendly American customer service – the kind that tries to help and comes with a smile.

So, I’m going to allow myself one little, tiny, miniscule gripe – involving the telephone. After 16 years of calling professional organizations in the south of France – from doctors' offices to businesses and stores – I am amazed at how the onus is always on the caller to do the work. The reason I find it surprising is because the caller is usually the client. The one paying for the service he or she is calling for.

One would think it a good idea to make life easy for said client. For instance, if the client asks to speak to someone unavailable (for whatever reason, it can happen) the phone responder need only ask a simple question. Just one – not asking for the moon here! Five measly words: can I take a message? (Six, if you add please) That amounts to four fewer words than: Could you not call back in a few minutes/hours/days?

Because, you see, I’ve already gone to the trouble of calling once. And this is not the only call I must make and in between I need to do about 17 other things. So now that I’ve remembered and actually made the call, I want the ball to be in the callee’s court. I shouldn’t have to throw it out again. And again. But when I’m asked to call back, that is exactly what I must do. Remember! Call back! In five minutes, in an hour, after the person is back from lunch.

I made a call this morning. I didn’t reach who I wanted. The person I got told me the person I wanted wasn’t available – then asked if I could call back in 20 minutes. Standard procedure. I politely asked that he call me back instead. Whenever convenient – not trying to be difficult here! But I could literally feel the distress float over the phone waves. She: Couldn’t you please call back? Me: Couldn’t you please take a message? It went on and on.

Finally, I lost it. I explained that in 20 minutes I was going to be busy trying to reach five other people who never answer their phones and I can’t be expected to remember to call someone I’ve already called because chances are, when I call again they still won’t be available! Is it that much of an imposition to jot down a name and number? It’s two words, ten lousy digits! But apparently, in the here versus there of expat life, ‘can he call you back’ is a foreign concept.

By the time it was over, the responder agreed to take a message. I, however, was so frustrated I was feeling a bit sick. And I started to wonder, what would happen if I ever got really sick? Then I would have to call an ambulance and go to the hospital. And if the ambulance driver was out on call, I’m sure the dispatcher would want to know if I could please call back…

28 March 2011

Populist Poppycock



“If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president.  It’s kind of a pipe dream, it’s a personal fantasy of mine.” – Ann Coulter

Ladies, please! I admit that being born at the tail end of the baby boomers, I might have taken the women’s movement for granted, but I promise, no more! Not with the Tea Party Poppycockettes trying their best to set us back pre-suffragettes.

Recent news has left me, for once, speechless. Simply and utterly. When I heard Sarah Palin (in an interview with yet another wunderfemme, Fox reporter Greta von Susteren) wonder about whether or not to run for President because, and I quote: ‘Who the heck is going to be out there with a servant’s heart willing to serve the American people for the right reason, not for ego (not for EGO?) not for special interests, not with obsessive partisanship’ – well, it leaves me with nothing to say. Except, maybe, a question to ask. Does Sarah really assume the American people are so credulous? Does she of the servant’s heart truly believe a heart without a head is enough to run a nation? A heart which given the nastiness I’ve heard it spew forth, strikes me as being three sizes too small?

Sarah isn’t alone. There are four Tea Party women almost equally frightening. And many Tea Party men, but at the moment I’m sticking to what feels like a personal betrayal by my sex. So let me tell you - Michelle B, Ann C, Christine O’ and Sarah P – you fearsome four do not make it easy to be an educated American woman abroad. Let’s qualify that: an educated woman anywhere. Think what you like about high profile female Democrats (Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton) say what you like about their politics, but at least they are indisputably intelligent, well-educated and yes, dignified. All seemingly really bad elitist qualities according to the Tea Party. Is it any wonder that enlightened females who have worked so hard and striven to achieve these very distinctions are leaving the party in droves?

You have to wonder. The four women I mention are not only a full-fledged embarrassment to America; they are an embarrassment to women.  They are incomprehensible to virtually all the educated multi-cultural Europeans I know. They come across as so pride fully ignorant, so simplistic, not to mention harsh, whiny and just plain bitchy that they set women back to the time of the shrew. I don’t want them speaking for my country and I don’t want them speaking for my sex.

Even, of course, if they are all willing to serve like Sarah, without ego, out of their selfless desire to soccer mom a nation.

Just last week, right wing columnist Ann Coulter started us off, using the catastrophe in Japan to proclaim the health benefits of radiation.  (Yeah, wow, thanks, little did I realize – I’m just going to go stick my arm in the microwave right now.)

And then followed Michelle Bachman. She believes American education should go back to the days of covered wagons, when moms and dads educated their own children because ‘Parents know best!’ OK, maybe not everything, maybe not history (Shot heard around the world? Lexington? Concord? Massachusetts?) But since when was a command of facts important?  We’re talking about teachers here, people! The same ones, so very anxious to insist afflatus beliefs that oh-so-not-intelligent, intelligent design is taught along with evolution in schools.

And last but not least, not in recent headlines but still deserving an honorable mention for furthering the cause of women everywhere (not!)  My favorite (not!) candidate Christine O’Donnell, as in ‘not’ a Princeton or Oxford grad, ‘not’ a taxpayer, ‘not’ in the constitution separation of church & state and ‘not’ a witch.  The one who seems to think ‘she is me.’ Well, she’s not.  And if these four females are so anxious to portray women the way they do, to take away women’s rights, then I suggest they go back to the kitchen to bake a cake and boil up a pot of tea – because their place is in the home.

25 March 2011

Reflections on a Village Morn



Whenever I describe Monaco to friends not from here, I say it is a village in which we live – but one of the most sophisticated villages on earth. Certainly in terms of offerings, it is more like a world-class city. On the agenda in the next couple of months we find the ATP Rolex Masters Tennis, the 69th Formula One Grand Prix and a packed spring Festival of the Arts. All to be followed by Prince Albert’s long anticipated wedding on the Rocher. 

Before gearing up for that (and believe me, fun as it promises to be, it takes gearing up) I find myself enjoying an interlude in a tranquil spring. A spring that not only came late this year but most likely will be short lived. Soon the tourists will invade like the sugar ants beginning to dot the terraces and the conversation will be all about ‘la chaleur’ with hand-fanning emphasis.

This year witnessed a long cold winter on the Cote d’Azur, one many feared would never end. Spring was ushered in protesting with torrents of rain. Rain for days on end. You could visibly sense the anxiety on the face of locals. Everything from distressed posts of homebound Facebook users to unseasonal traffic as errands were run by car and not à pied. Long waits to get into packed parkings.

And now at last the rain has ended and spring is here. ‘Ça y est’ you hear all around town, delivered with a heartfelt sigh of relief – ‘le printemps est arrivé.’ We are back to sunshine and normalcy on the Cote d’Azur, shopping in outdoor markets, a stronger than normal compulsion to clean, (o.k., for me anyway) to exercise, to eat less and to walk along the sea. Gardeners are digging up winter cyclamen and planting vibrant tulips, boats and terraces are being scrubbed in anticipation of long hot summer days.

This is the other side to Monaco, the one I love. One I fear is slowly disappearing but which you still find some mornings with an early walk.  The little corners that remain of a sleepy, fishing village on the Med.  Pockets where the air smells of quiet, of spring and an ever so faint mélange of fish, sea and diesel oil. Where coffee is delicious in a café in a quiet port, under massive cliffs where the Oceanographic Museum perches defying gravity for more than a hundred years. A scowling fisherman preparing his nets and boat just in front of you. Everyone out and about and the lovely feeling of familiar faces, people you know if only by sight. And, oh yes, the long awaited start of rosé season!  Bon Weekend and Vive le Printemps!

21 March 2011

Dear Donald


An open letter to Donald Trump, who is a very rich man, only one of the beautiful things about him.

Dear Donald:

You might not remember me, but we’ve met a couple of times. We are both members of the same historic golf club. If I remember correctly, the first time we met was in the pro shop, when you were just back from the club having suspended you. Natch, you were a bit p’ d off. I remember you threatened to buy the club (which wasn’t for sale) and sow the greens with salt or some such thing, but hey, in your position I’d probably be kind of ticked too. 

What did they suspend you for again, exactly?  Oh, right, it was because you decked a guy out on the course over a putting dispute – nothing like a competitive game of golf to bring out the raging beast in a man. At least, so I hear. Stuffy old club to insist that it’s a gentleman’s game and maybe those playing it should act like gentlemen (the men, anyway). In any case, sorry about that. I think self-control is highly overrated, especially in someone considering a run for President of the United States.

I saw your interview on TV the other day! Boy, you were fabulous! Love the jet. That was a really good idea to have the interview on your own plane. Make it clear right from the outset that if you do decide to run, it isn’t for a ride on Air Force One. You already have a great big plane of your own and from what I understand, plenty of money to fund your campaign.

How did you put it precisely? Oh, yes, I remember. “One of the beautiful things about me, is that I am very, very rich.’ Boy, that’s good. Because I hear running for president is very, very expensive. I’m glad it won’t be a problem for you!

So what other beautiful things about you? Certainly not that you’re one of the few nuts left in America still questioning where our President was born? (Honestly, Don, think you might want to give that one a rest!) Or how about your third wife?  She’s pretty darn beautiful from what I’ve seen. I don’t think it’s your comb-over hair though! Forgive me for being so frank but you could do with a better barber – maybe give you a look that’s more presidential. I take it you’re no longer wearing the pale pink golf pants? Melanie sure looks like she has plenty of style – bet she’s spruced up your wardrobe since I saw you last.

But, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to the braggy rich thing. Undoubtedly, you are very rich. You know you are, I know you are and I think so does the whole world. So maybe you don’t need to state the obvious quite so – obviously.  I mean, I live in Monaco where there are lots of people who are very, very rich too.  But they don’t go around saying it.

Just a thought…

Take care, Donald, and best to Melanie and the kids.

18 March 2011

Attention, Please!

Yesterday my son asked me ‘if, please, when I was speaking to him, I could pay attention only to him.’ Frankly, he caught me off guard, as I was only doing two other things at the time, both fairly mindless activities. So I thought he was receiving a pretty good sized chunk of my normally somewhat divided concentration. Also because just one of his two brothers was speaking to me at that same instant, and my husband was occupied and not asking me to help him find some household object that had been in the same place for the past five years.

Granted, my son’s request came during that lovely quiet, wind down ‘all/almost done’ time in the evening. You know, when dinner is almost ready, when the day’s emails are all answered, when all three boys are home and almost finished with homework. Oh, and almost about to practice piano without being asked. I hope you know I jest.

So why I was distracted I don’t know, but it could be that I was running through the upcoming events of the next day/weekend, with five M-beings going separate ways. One off to a sailing regatta, one off to two different sleepovers Friday and Saturday. Another child having a friend come to sleep over here. Two birthday parties to wrap gifts/have kids write cards for. Muffins for the Middle School bake sale for Japan. Wondering if I had any Dramamine for Saturday’s boat driving lessons that my husband had arranged. And three evening events – a cocktail party followed by a dinner party with another party the night after and the highly unlikely possibility of fitting in a much needed hair appointment between them.

I didn’t even try to look who was spending too much time on Facebook. Frankly, I didn’t even care.

Multi-tasking gets a deservedly bad rap, but most mothers don’t do it by choice. It’s mathematical. When you divide the hundreds of things that have to be done in an hour into the actual number of minutes available, the numbers don’t work out unless you can manage at least three at a time.

Would I have loved to concentrate solely on what my son was telling me?  Yes, of course (depending on if it was interesting or not). No, I kid, I usually love listening to anything my boys have to tell me and that’s why family dinners are so important. But much as it pains me to admit, giving anyone my undivided attention is not always possible.

A friend who teaches at a wonderful school in the U.S. once told me that at the end of the day they accompany the children down to their parents’ cars. The school principal will not let the kids get into the car if the parent is on a cell phone. Her philosophy is that the child has been away from home all day, and deserves at least a few minutes of the parent’s focused attention in the time it takes to go home. 

It sure sounds like a great idea…

16 March 2011

From One Second to the Next



The world seems far more frightening in the wake of a natural disaster, particularly when it is of the cataclysmic magnitude of Japan. Especially for a generation like our own, raised in such relative security, we are shocked, saddened and scared to see the upheaval to ordered lives. We simply aren’t used to it.

Watching scenes of the roiling angry ocean pouring into Japan, all of a sudden the Mediterranean on which we live seems a bit more sinister (wild winds and weather the past three days haven’t helped calm that effect.) Rational or not, it feels as if mother earth was kicked in Sendai and all her mighty waters are now lashing out in protest. 

Yesterday’s torrential rains in Monaco also brought over Sahara sand, a phenomenon that happens occasionally. Red sand from the Sahara swirls in the atmosphere and eventually works its way over and lands on our side of the Med. It covers all the places that rain falls - cars, boats, and buildings - with a fine, pale red dust. It’s a starkly visual reminder that for the winds that circulate in our atmosphere, distances are not as great as they might seem.

So it is the invisible danger swirling in Japan that is most terrifying now.  The radiation leaking into the atmosphere we all share. That, and the breathtaking speed at which conflicting assessments of the dangers flow on top of the other. Reuters has reported that ‘radioactive materials spewed into the air by Japan's earthquake-crippled nuclear plant may contaminate food and water resources, with children and unborn babies most at risk.’  Germany has shut down seven of its older power plants and the Swiss are reviewing theirs for safety.

And even France, the most pro-nuclear country in the world, has been rattled. We live within a 10-meter vicinity of France, where apparently every person is within a 150-mile zone of one of the 59 nuclear power plants in the country. Today that is certainly a much more terrifying thought than it was before.

It’s impossible to imagine the human suffering unleashed since last week’s events. But I’ve been thinking of one little girl who died on October 25, 1955. A few years ago, my son’s fifth grade teacher asked me to read a book about her, as the teacher was concerned the story might be too sad for her young class. Called Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, it is a true (and truly heartbreaking) story of a Japanese child who died as a result of radiation from Hiroshima. She wanted to fold one thousand paper cranes before she died, from a legend that said if a sick person folds 1000 paper cranes they would be made well.  Sadako folded 644 before her death, 10 years after her radiation exposure.  Her classmates, family and friends finished the remaining 356.  We can only hope that this latest crisis in our nuclear world won’t someday require any more paper cranes…

11 March 2011

Panda Porn



The things people come up with!  Solutions to problems you might not realize exist. Which is great, really. It makes you believe that despite the complex challenges facing the myriad species on our planet, all is ultimately going to be right with the world.

Don’t worry about the disastrous decline of the honeybee, for example. The honeybee, which pollinates more than 70 percent of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food. We have to hope the scientists are working on that one. Or how about governments ensuring that tuna are able to spawn before being hunted in flagrant disregard of international law?  Or stopping the killing of baby seals – on my cutetronometer, they rank right up there and might be worth saving.

But at least we are apparently making great progress on one front in the animal kingdom. Scientists, concerned that the world’s panda population is plummeting, have been working really hard to get the bears to mate with more – enthusiasm. The scientists have tried just about everything, without much success. Apparently it isn’t happening for the poor pandas.

So it was considered indispensible to research how to stimulate their sex drive. Limited progress was made with Viagra, but nothing to write home about. Next they tried showing the pandas erotic films – which in Pandaland means letting them watch big screen videos at the local Zoo Cineplex.  I’m serious; they showed fur flicks of some studdly Panda Man steamin it up with that cute Pandette they all have the hots for. But that didn’t do the trick either. I’m guessing if the quality was anything like 99% of the porn out there, it probably bored the poor pandas straight to sleep.

It’s a tough one. Especially because they’ve now learned that female pandas like some social interaction before mating. Hmm, really? And it would also seem that the second the male is  - um, finished, he disappears and leaves the female to raise the babies on her own. I’m thinking this might have something to do with females getting it on only a couple days per year, but then again, I know virtually nothing about pandas. Although come to think of it, we did see a mother bear in the San Diego Zoo a while back and she looked exhausted – talk about circles under the eyes!

But fortunately for human if not panda persistence, it turns out the scientists have recently arrived at a breakthrough.  They haven’t exactly solved the problem, yet, but they think they’ve identified the secret to unleashing the giant panda libido.    

What would that be? There are two key factors that lead to increased panda reproduction. Interestingly, both involve the male. Turns out Panda Man doesn’t need Viagra, doesn’t even need Triple XXX rated. All he needs are strong hind legs (for obvious reasons) and better hearing.  Better hearing.  Did you get that?  Scientists have now confirmed that males need to listen much more carefully to the females, so that they get when it is that the females are in the mood…

Ha!  Who’d a thought?  Methinks there might be a modicum of real insight in that there breakthrough.

Now if we could only get those bees buzzing!

08 March 2011

What Women Do!



Today is International Women’s Day. Women everywhere are being celebrated for being the mothers and daughters and sisters, the nurturers, caretakers, educators, workers and givers that we are. The women we have all known, who’ve surrounded us our entire lives. Those who have made us laugh and comforted us when we’ve cried.  I’ve known far too many extraordinary women to ever list them, but I want to mention just a few that illustrate that which never ceases to amaze me - the remarkable range of what women do.

I’ll start with two of my aunts. One, Dr. Lily Macrakis just retired from an educational career that began in Greece, brought her to Radcliffe and Harvard for a PhD and was celebrated last week after she gave more than 50 years of her life to higher education as a university professor and dean. My late Aunt Lela’s education was far more basic but she nonetheless remains the stuff of family legend. One particular story: about 45 years ago her neighbor’s child was diagnosed with diabetes, in the days of much bigger needles. The little boy was terrified to have the daily injections he would need to live his life, so my aunt had him come and practice with her, first on oranges, then on her own two legs until she was poked full of holes and the little boy wasn’t afraid any more.

More recently, there was my high school friend Claire Collier, who died two years ago after a seven-year battle with ALS, the truly horrific, non-curable disease known as Lou Gehrig’s. Claire was fully present for her three children every second of those seven years, making them laugh when they came home from school and ultimately giving them the courage to face her death. The whole while she inspired us all, battling unjust Social Security and Medicare laws all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And another mutual high school friend, who organized an entire community and created a foundation to help provide Claire and her family with the support they needed.

Then there are the women I’ve met in Monaco, like Annabelle Bond, who looks like a fashion model, has scaled Mt. Everest and all the seven summits, and raised over 1.6 million dollars for the Eve Appeal benefitting Ovarian Cancer in the process. There is the radiologist at the local hospital who treated my cancer with skill and empathy, all the while battling her own. There is Teresa Maxova, a former top model whose foundation supports over 24,000 orphans in her home country of Czechoslovakia. Women like Fabiola Loffredi, who has not only raised two children, worked full time, helped establish the International School of Monaco, but now annually joins a group of women and doctors who trek to the remote village of Rigoan in Nepal. There they teach village women to help themselves, bringing sewing machines and education. They build schools and perhaps most importantly, they bring along other young, privileged students to teach them how to give others the help they need.

Always giving, always teaching, and always teaching to give.  For women everywhere, thank you for all that you are and all that you do.

05 March 2011

Holiday???


I’m probably safe in assuming that very few of us are happy to find ourselves at the end of a holiday. Perhaps some ultra-type-A personalities exist – those anxious to return to normal life and work, those who find themselves fully revitalized in body and spirit. I count myself not among them. I have never even met one of them. Nor can I say I would ever want to. Let’s face it; the end of a holiday is a real bummer.

I would go further to assert that the end of a winter ski holiday presents a harsher return to reality than almost any other. Because as vacations go, I’m thinking ski holidays are a bit of a misnomer. If there is a more exhausting way to spend leisure time, like possibly trekking in the Himalayas without a Sherpa, then I would like to know so I can avoid it at all costs. At the moment, I’m fantasizing about another vacation where the only thing cold is a pina colada on a tropical beach.

For there is the undeniable fact that winter ski vacations, while irrefutably fun (and probably despite everything my most favorite holiday) are just plain exhausting. Even the mere thought of the stuff involved – in our case skis, poles, snowboards, boots, goggles, gear, helmets, socks, long underwear – times five – is more than enough to make me tired.

Then there is the mountain tan – another disappointment.  Everyone knows returning from holiday requires you to sport a great tan; it is essential in easing the transition from play to work mode. Those lucky souls who return beautifully bronzed from the Caribbean to join their poor pasty faced colleagues find the first day back a breeze. Because they are tan. Even if it’s hidden under winter clothes, they still know it’s there. But a ski tan just doesn’t provide the same satisfaction. Ski tans tend to be confined to a narrow, very dark strip of nose and cheeks just under the goggle line and above the chin warmer, which gives others the impression that you’ve returned as a human zebra.

But undoubtedly the toughest part is the diet. I can only speak for myself, but inexplicably, for whatever reason – and despite skiing every single day, my clothes are a bit tight. It seems the enormous energy I thought I expended didn’t quite balance with the thoughtful intake of food energy I assumed I needed. Go figure. Unless, of course, my scale is a bit off – that happens more often than you would think. Granted – raclette, chocolate, and the delicious apfel struedel are not exactly low cal choices, but aren’t they the reason people ski?

One would think surely it would even out. Yes, it must be the scale. And it’s a well-known fact that mountain air dries everything out – which accounts for the seeming shrinkage of the clothes. I mean, have you ever seen what happens to ski socks in the dryer? You buy these absolutely enormous socks big enough to fit not only your foot but your calf, knee and thigh, and after a wash or two they look like they are bobby socks for a three year old.

I wonder if there are any islands that serve low-cal coladas?


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