28 January 2011

The Scent of Jasmine

I WROTE A few weeks back about watching the unrest in Tunisa with keen interest (several of my students are from Tunisian backgrounds). Now I can't turn away from the TV as I watch the events in Egypt. I've basically spent all evening switching back and forth between the BBC and Al Jazeera.

Is this the start of what Tunisians are calling a Jasmine Revolution or is it just a brief flare-up of public discontent. Whatever it is, it's complicated. I find myself 'rooting' for change while fearing it as well. Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria are relatively (I emphasize that word) stable, moderate, and friendly toward the West. Are we sure the alternative would be better?

27 January 2011


THIS IS THE cover of Thursday's Nice-Matin, the largest local daily paper in the area. The photo on the front page is of David Manassen, a former student at my school who has been missing for nearly two weeks. David was not in my class, but a lot of his friends were so he was often hanging out in my room during breaks or between classes. His sister, Anouk, was in my history class for two years and in now a first year student at McGill University in Monteal. Obviously, this is a very anxious time for David's family and friends and we are all hoping for the best.

David was last seen leaving a friend's house in Chateauneuf-de-Grasse, a small village right next to ours and about 20 minutes from Cannes, on Saturday, January 15. Neither he nor his car have been seen since.

If you are familiar with this area at all you know that you don't have to get very far from the sea before you are in rugged, forbidding terrain with lots of high mountains, dense forests, and deep gorges. The large amounts of snow in the high elevations can also make searches quite difficult. One bit of good luck is that we have had very good weather since the 15th with little precipitation or storms.

The increased media exposure is seen as a step in the right direction since it will get David's face and story out to a large group of people. Here's hoping for a happy ending to this story.

[Late update]: The family has just put up this website to help coordinate the search.

24 January 2011

We are Haggis Fed

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembing earth resounds his tread.
Clapped his large fist a blade
He'll make it a whisle
An' legs an' arms an' heads he will cut off
Like the tops o' thissle.

You powers who make mankind your care
And dish them out their meals
Old Scotland wants no watery food
That splashes in dishes
But if you wish her grateful prayer
Give her a haggis!

'To a Haggis', Robert Burns

ALTHOUGH ROBERT BURNS was born on the 25th of January, we celebrated our very first 'Burns Day' a little early with some friends on Sunday afternoon. My colleague (who hails from St. Andrews) provided all the necessary elements for an authentic tribute to Scotland's greatest poet. And that included, of course, haggis.

This was my first time. I've heard all about this savory pudding but have never actually seen it before, let alone tasted it. For those who may not be aware, haggis is a dish that dates back to the 13th century and was quite common among the poor in Scotland throughout the middle ages. It is basically all the left-over bits of a sheep (including the heart, liver, lungs, insides, and the whole lot) that is mixed with oats, onions, and a variety of spices, then simmered for about three hours inside the animal's stomach lining.

I know! How could I have missed out on this for so long?

On Sunday the haggis (which in modern times like these is now cooked in an artificial casing, not the actually stomach) was served with the traditional 'neeps' and 'tatties' -- yellow turnips and potatoes. As our host read 'To a Haggis' she cut into the haggis and meal could begin.

I'm going to keep my review very short and to the point: delicious!

Look, I'm not going to clamour for haggis twice a week or special order it from the market, but I've got to be honest and tell you it was very good. Patrick and Henry absolutely loved it. Kerri even allowed me to give her a spoonful and she had to admit it was quite tastey. The key, of course, is the spices. It reminded me of a middle-eastern dish because of the cinnamon, cloves, onions and other fragrent spices. When I mentioned to another Scotish colleague that the spices were quite nice, he said, 'You know why it's so full of spices, right? To cover up the taste!'

So we've done haggis. If I don't ever have it again that will be fine with me. But if January 25 roles around in a few years and someone invites me to a Burns Day feast, I'll probably look forward to going.

But if you wish her grateful prayer
Give her a haggis!

19 January 2011

Good Mornings

AS ANY HONEST parent will tell you, there are plenty of ways in which my kids are a disappoinment to me: they don't say thank-you enough, they don't appreciate what they have, they fuss and whine over trival matters, and I could go on. Oh, how I could go on.

(Simmer, that was partly for effect).

But I have to admit that there is one area where I think I have spawned the world's most incredible kids: wake-up time. Mornings and children are notorious rivals. Children are supposed to be at their worst in the hours before the sun rises; they are almost required -- perhaps by tradition alone -- to moan and groan and stay under their blankets for 'five more minutes.' Then, about 10 minutes before you need to leave the house, there is the mad rush to get them dressed, force some breakfast into their mouths, find their shoes, and rush out the door and into the car.

But not in this house. At 6:40 each morning I stand at the top of the stairs with a fresh mug of coffee in my hand and call down to the twins in a soft, pleasant voice. 'Ju-Ju. Pud. Time to get up.' Sometimes I have to ask twice, but not often, and within a few seconds I get the same response: 'Ok, daddy,' or 'I'm awake.' That's it! 15 minutes later they are sitting next to me on the couch brushing their hair or putting on their shoes while I enjoy my second cup of coffee while watching the news on France 2. Once a week or so Patrick will even get out the frying pan and make himself a couple eggs-in-a-basket for breakfast. Often, he'll even whip one up for his younger brother.

It's almost creepy.

Now, if I could just figure out how to get the same sort of behavior from them between 7:30am and 9:00pm I'd really be on to something. But for now, I'll just be happy that we usually have fairly relaxing mornings in our house.

17 January 2011

Photo of the Day

I'VE BEEN VEERING away from things related to France in the past few posts, but there has just been a lot going on around the world that makes our day to day routine seem, well, routine. I came across this photo on Andrew Sullivan's blog and I couldn't take my eyes of it for nearly a full minute. Photo and caption follow. And it's worth mentioning that I don't even really like dogs. (click photo for larger view)

A dog, 'Leao', sits for a second consecutive day, next to the grave of her owner, Cristina Maria Cesario Santana, who died in the week's catastrophic landslides in Brazil, at the cemetery in Teresopolis, near Rio de Janiero, on January 15, 2011. By Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty.

15 January 2011

This Day

I REMEMBER THIS day in 1995 because:
  1. the Dallas Cowboys lost in the playoffs (always something I like)
  2. it was raining in DC and we were hoping for snow
  3. we had a lot of family visiting from around the country
  4. the music was incredible
  5. great jazz trio
  6. there was cake
  7. my little brother was sick
  8. and...Kerri and I got married.

14 January 2011

A Little Focus on Tunisia

AFTER A WEEK of focus on America's democracy, it would be a welcome development if the media would focus on what has been happening in Tunisia over the past few days. One of the benefits of having international news stations on our cable list (CNN International, BBC World, etc.) is that we get a lot of international news that 'national' news broadcasts often miss (and, fair enough -- they are trying to reach domestic markets -- I get that).

Like the Iranian protests a couple summers ago, there is a real sense that something big is happening. Today's development alone is worth noting: the current President of 23 years has agreed to to run for re-election. Yes, President Ben Ali has been in office for nearly a quater century. He has also told his security forces to stop shooting at protesters. Hopefully that means an end to scenes like this one:

Tunisia is just across the 'pond' from France and the area where we live is full of Tunisian immigrants so you can imagine the reaction the protests are getting here. I have several students who are of Tunisian background and one of the told me today that "it's all we do in our house...watch the television for news from back home."

Update: even more is happening since I first put up this post. Big things!

09 January 2011

The Greatest Threat to America

"Congresswomen Shot in Arizona. 6 Dead, 12 Injured"

history class we spend several weeks studying the geo-political power of the United States. We examine two main questions: 1) why is the US so powerful, and 2) what are the possible threats to that power? To answer question one we focus on an array of obvious explanations: political power (DC, NATO, UN), financial power (Wall Street, Fortune 500 companies, etc), military power (have you seen the Pentagon's budget?), cultural power (hollywood, McDonalds, Coke), and other areas where the US dominates the global scene (communications, transportation, even agriculture!). Our discussion of question two leads to some obvious answers as well: dependence on foreign energy sources, increasing debt, changing attitudes toward the US, domestic issues (immigration, crime, obesity, etc.), and the emergence of other global powers (can you say BRIC!).

But more and more I am becoming convinced that one of the greatest threats to America's future is not related to energy or money or debt or terrorism. In fact, it's not related to geo-politics at all. I have added a new section to my syllabus where it pertains to the greatest challenges facing American power and it is a section on discourse. Political discourse.

In my country the political rhetoric is deteriorating. Too many of our political leaders now put self-interest before progress, politics before purpose, and party before country. We have become a country where we stick to our embedded political views even when facts and information show we are wrong. We find more satisfaction in demonizing our opponents than in finding solutions with them. Compromise has become a sign of weakness.

This is, of course, nothing new. America has a rich tradition of distasteful political bickering (once even leading to a Senator being beaten with a club in the halls of Congress), but what is different about today's discourse is that it -- to use a 21st century term -- goes viral. Today the message of political intolerance is broadcast on talk shows or 24-hours cable outlets and spewed over the internet on blogs and social media sites. Partisan hacks like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Marcos Moulitsas, Sean Hanity and Keith Olberman (to name just a few) fan the flames at every turn, urging their loyal ditto-heads to 'stand by their guns', 'never give in', and 'lock and load'. Fox News and MSNBC spend so much time hurling verbal insults at each other that they fail so see how pathetic they look to the millions of Americans who don't subscribe to lowest-common-denominator politics. But to the millions who do buy-in to their Ratings-First approach, the result is a poisonous brand of political propaganda that is hurting America.

It has to stop.

A member of the United States House of Representatives was shot on Saturday. While it would be irresponsible to claim (at this point) that the shooter was driven by any political group or viewpoint, it has opened a nation-wide discussion about the nature of our dialogue. The Representative in question, Gabrielle Giffords -- a Democrat from Arizona, has recently been attacked by both sides of the political spectrum. Sarah Palin had a truly disgusting way to display her displeasure: placing a gun-sight 'target' over Giffords' district as part of a campaign to target 20 members of Congress she hoped to send home last November. But it's not just the political right. The ultra-liberal DailyKos website also had a target over her district, claiming she was not strong enough on liberal issues. It appears that Rep. Giffords was the worst kind of politician -- one who (gasp!) holds views that might appeal to people on both sides of the isle.

The shooting will certainly lead to sweeping condemnation of this group or that, this website or that, this person or that. I suppose I've sort of done that myself right here. But the issue is bigger than one horrific incident and the stakes are far greater. America needs to get back to basics and understand that the best part of a functioning democracy is the exchange of ideas, the give and the take, and -- yes -- the compromise that leaves everyone feeling as if they have gotten something good out of the deal. The United States will never be a 'conservative' country and it will never be a 'liberal' country and the only people who can't seem to grasp that idea is Conservatives and Liberals. America's strength lies in the balance between the two.

This year I'm going to spend a couple minutes explaining to my history class that the current discourse in the US is one of the greatest threats to America's future. With any luck, I'll be able to cut that part out of my lesson in future years.

06 January 2011

Here Comes the Sun

UNFORTUNATELY, THAT IS just the name of a famous Beatles song and has nothing to do with the current weather situation in the south of France. Here's the forecast for the next 5 days: Rain, Rain, Mostly Cloudy, Rain, Heavy Rain. This comes on the heels of the kind of weather we have had for the past 5 days: rain, more rain, little bits of rain, pretty-much-everything-except-sun, and rain.

On the bright side, I did get a piece of food out of my teeth that has been stuck there for a couple days.

04 January 2011

1 in 7 Billion

IN ONE OF my history classes we are discussing some of geo-political issues facing the world today: population, food and water issues, energy crisis, climate change. This short video by National Geographic kind of made a key point...

Ethiopian Restaurant in the Heart of Nice

ONE OF THE things we miss most about DC is the variety of ethnic restaurants we often frequented, including our favorite Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Silver Spring. When we heard about an Ethiopian place in Nice we wanted to give it a try. Finally got around to it -- and it was worth it: Le Soleil d'Asmara on the Rue Delille in Nice. Delicious.

Playing It By Ear in Italy

WHEN WE LEFT for Italy late last week we didn't really have a plan other than to visit the village of Torre Pellice (explanation here). We had a hotel room for two nights -- near Pinerolo between the village and Torino -- but no real plan. And you know what? It can be really fun to travel like that because you end up going places you might not otherwise. For example, when we woke up on Thursday morning we looked at the beautiful snow-peaked mountains and decided we needed to go up to the snow for the morning. We decided on Sestriere, the gorgeous ski village that hosted the olympic alpine events during the 2006 Games. We walked around the village, shopped a bit at the Christmas marche, had a great pizza lunch, and watched the skiers zig-zag down the mountain. Had no plans to go to Sestriere, but sure glad we did.

This might need some explaining: I got a bit excited because this is the ski jumping venue at the '06 Games (and I've never seen a ski jumping venue before) so I thought Henry and I should 'pose' like ski jumpers. Didn't really turn out, I know.

We like road signs, what can I say.

Street Snowman Photo!