Monday, November 7, 2011

South of France


It’s been raining. When I say raining, it really has been raining. I’m in the South of France right now. Apparently, I am in the sunniest area of France. People do drive nice cars here because the

rich live where the sun shines.

I go out once in awhile with my two French hosts, even in the rain. One host is named Remi; the other is Olivier. We both have language barriers. I speak no French, and their English needs some polishing. In any event, they also have a cat named Azazel. She’s black with light green eyes. I can see why the named her after a demon. She doesn’t have a mean spirit, but she definitely behaves like a temptress. Whenever, I attempt to work, she comes up to me to distract me. I tell her, “Look kitty: I need to do this work. Otherwise, they will think I am a stupid American.” Like kitty cares. She only cares about herself.

We went out Friday night, making our way through the labyrinth of the ancient, Medieval city of Aix. One day, everyone is joyous from the drinking. They introduce me to a friend, who says, “Wherez you fromz?”

I say, “Los Angeles.”

He presses his hand against my face, and moves my hat to a whacky position. He then says, “Ah, now you look like you’re from Los Angeles.” How intimate to do this. How bold of him. They are French. They are different because they have passion.

My host promises to make me a French National Dish, one I’ve always wanted to try: Pot Au Feu. It’s like Irish Stew, except the French version of it. My hosts hardly do any work. It is quite shocking to me actually how little anyone does here. I wonder to myself – how does this society maintain itself? My host has some common expressions. I like all of them.

“Go slow. It’s ok.”

“Enjoy life. You live and you die.”

“I don’t care about politicians. They – they – steal from me to be rich for themselves.”

“I don’t care about Sarkozi. I care about travelling and life.”

On rainy afternoons, I am working on PowerPoint Presentation for International Trade Law and Human Rights. It takes ten boring hours to finish. But it’s pouring outside, I do not feel like going out. Once in awhile, I take afternoon naps because I am so jetlagged.

My hosts, no doubt, think I’m crazy. They hardly ever work. They take half days on Fridays. They have long lunches with me. Their cat jumps on my computer to tempt me to stop working. They’re always feeding me cheese and wine. And I think, they think I’m crazy because I am constantly working on this PowerPoint.

Why? Why do I work so hard on my presentation? Because, I know, I really know: that these French already have it in the back of their minds that Americans are stupid. I am aware that if I perform (yes, it is a bit like drama), to their standards, they will wonder why I came all the way from Los Angeles to present. It makes sense. So for 10 hours, I think through my presentation, my slides, and what I will say. I will not use notes. I almost never use notes. Notes prevent you from feeling the pulse of the audience.

Before the food is cooked, however, the host and I have a philosophical conflict. I tell him the Pot Au Feu would tast better if we braised or roasted it first. He says, “NO NO NO! Myz grandma never did that. We do not do this! It is a bad thing.” I think to myself, this recipe must be as ancient as time and as nice as that is, get with the times. I keep my opinion to myself. It is so obvious in that moment, I represent the new world and he the old one.

PowerPoint presentation done. Pot Au Feu is ready too. Mmmm. The smell of spices, vegetables, and meat diffuse through the air. We sit together on their black table. They speak no English. But we all have a common understanding: Food is good. Food should be eaten slowly. Dinner takes four hours long. The cat takes its begging place. They give me a shot of French alcohol. I down it. My host says, “You American! You drinkz it too fast! Enjoy! Enjoy! Slow! Slowly and surely.”

The day after, I do some tourist stuff: museums, cafes, bars, etc. It’s a beautiful and ancient place. I meet a French contact. His English is much more superior than anyone else I met. We eat crepes and drink cider. Have you noticed a theme: eat and drink and do nothing! We have a great conversation. I’m not a usual traveler. Not in the sense that I am at a place to see the common things and do the common things. No. I like to build up my networks. I am planning on world domination one day. It is still pouring. The last time I was in France, it rained the whole time. France rains – all the time.

The day I give my lecture, the glorious sun comes out. It shines and drives the darkness out. People are happy on the street. As I walk down the streets of Aix, people stare at me because I look so different. I am wearing a spiffy British outfit, but I’m also a short Asian guy. They stare and stare. They know I am not from here, but it’s not an ugly or mean stare. They are curious and fascinated by the short Asian guy with black hair. One guy in the street even says, “Bonjour.”

I respond, “Como seva?” (How are you?) He looks surprised for a split instance as he realizes I respond as any human should to another.

And he smiles and shouts, “SEVA! SEVA!”

Wow, I think. It’s like I’m in a movie. The more I walk on the street, the more the old and young again stare and say, “Bonjour.” I respond, “Bonjour!” What a beautiful world we can all say “Bonjour” to each other.

I make my way to the law university, the faculty de politique. My director, who invited me to the lecture, gives me a tour. The place looks so Medieval. It is not like my law university. It has no technology. The computers are old and ancient, like the city itself. I think to myself, how do these law students not learn to integrate technology into their practice?

He introduces me to the students and faculty. The students, again, stare, but this time for a different reason. I’m sure with the name Paul Cook – they were expecting a white American guy. A second reason they stare, and it’s probably the more prominent of the two reasons, is that I look their age. They cannot believe I will be giving a lecture.

My director tells me that he wants a longer lecture than I have. I said, “You know, in America we work very hard to keep to the time. Make short presentations. Cut out the trash.” My director reminds me of someone who could be in French Intelligence for some reason. Black suit. Dark colors. Brief case.

He says, “Oh, I knowz. I knowz. But here, we lovez long lectures – even if they can get boring.”

Are you serious? I think. The American way is the entertainment way.

Before lecture starts, one student tells me, we’ve thought the last two international lecturers very bad. Both were Asian. I smile and say, “Well, I am Asian too. So that makes three of us. But do not worry, I will not bore you.”

The lecture starts. I do plug in a PowerPoint projector that is from the 90’s in this ancient, medieval looking hall. They are eager as what I will say. I feel the eyes scanning over me. I remove the layers of clothing I have been wearing, my jacket, and then my vest. Underneath my vest, is my dress shirt, suspenders, and very bright blue and gold tie. (The bright colors represent my alma matter and my law school – both are the same school). I walk in front of the podium, signaling to the students that I WILL NOT be using the podium. I start my lecture by saying, “Let us all move down from the back seats to the front. I am Paul Cook. I am your lecturer this evening. Even if you are not confident in your English, you will – I repeat, you will come out of this lecture with an understanding of how international trade law intersects with human rights.” I smile to show them I believe this. “Let’s begin.”

I present, in total 70 slides within the 50 minutes. The students have been engaged the whole time, not missing a beat of my words. After, my throat feels dry. I do not want to lecture anymore. I feel like I’ll choke. I ask if there are any questions, I get seven. My professors tell me this is incredible for a French audience to be so attentive.

After lecture, several students approach me and ask me to have drinks with them. We reschedule for breakfast. My professors tell me that students have never asked a lecturer to go have breakfast with them. I know that it’s a big deal to these students – them asking me to breakfast.

My director and professor and I eat at the best French restaurant in AIX. We chat. We laugh. We eat, as they say, slowly. He says, “Ho ho ho! Brilliant lecture, Paul. I think you have a great career ahead of you.” I said, “Why thank you.” I return the compliment and say, “A toast to my hospitable host.” I raise my glass of decantered red wine. I believe I ate the best appetizer in my life at that restaurant, foi gras ravoli over a bed of sautéed mushrooms. Could life get better?

Tomorrow, Bavaria to see my Bavarian friend.


  1. Are these conversations translated from the French, or did a lot of the people you encountered correspond in English?

  2. Nice to have a bit more details on how the presentation went... And good to see you received a lot of attention! As I told you, I did not expect it so yes, it had to be a very good and dynamic one to have students inviting you for a breakfast after! Congrats!

    Not sure if your hosts are representative of French people when it deals with work because from my experience French people work quite a lot (at least in private companies) but never during week-ends indeed... On the other hand, they are totally representative when it deals with food of way of thinking :-) I like the quotes a lot!

    And I love that one from you "They are different because they have passion." So nice...