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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Monday, July 11, 2005

Au Revoir, Europe

It’s funny how much you can fit into one month. It seems like a long, long time ago that I touched down in Heathrow to begin my European adventure. After a month of moving from city to city and trying to squeeze in classes, visits to international organizations, sightseeing, and partying, I need time to recover, and so the next month, which I’ll spend in Philly, will be a welcome break before returning to L.A.

I realized yesterday, as I wandered the streets of Didsbury Village in Manchester, that I’m currently spending 24 hours on my own, without anyone to consult or meet, for the first time in a long time. Now, as I head home to the U.S., I’m looking forward immensely to seeing the smiling faces of my family and friends, but at the same time, I enjoyed the last 24 hours as a change of pace from the frenetic “Be downstairs at 9 a.m. to catch the metro to UNESCO,” “Meet at the statue of the Winged Victory of something I can’t pronounce,” “Last call is in five minutes, here’s five pounds, buy me another beer,” and “We are not hanging out with those girls again after tonight.” Instead, I walked at my own pace, found a nice Italian restaurant I wanted to go to, ate there without worrying what anyone else thought about the place, enjoyed a delicious mushroom risotto and a big glass of Pinot Grigio, and bought an ice cream bar on the way back to the hotel. Then I watched online as the Phillies came back and beat the Nationals in extra innings. It was relaxing.

The final week of the trip, in Geneva, was very different from the other cities we visited. Although it’s a beautiful city, there’s nothing to do there unless you’re there on business. The business end, we handled – an alphabet soup of six visits in the first three days there (WTO, ICRC, OHCHR, ILO, UNHCR, IOM), followed by a couple days of studying for the exam on Saturday. We didn’t sightsee much, unless you count a Ron Burgundy-esque cannonball into chilly Lake Geneva and a stop at the United Nations bookshop.

What we did visit were the bars in Geneva and a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurant near our hotel that served the only inexpensive food in the city aside from McDonald’s (I had a “Royal Cheese” at the one in Paris) and Burger King (it is called a Whopper in Europe).

Since the most memorable experience I had in Geneva was a three-team race to finish a 10-liter column of beer (that three-liter giraffe seems so quaint now), and the times I spent in Geneva weren’t spent seeing tourist spots, I think I’ll just offer some overall impressions of the trip.

Watching a group of people who didn’t know each other sort itself out over the course of a month is fascinating. About 2/3 of the group all went to the same school, but the 1/3 of us who didn’t quickly fell into our own cliques, each of which had their own set of nicknames for each other and plenty of other people in the program. My group of five friends began calling ourselves the G5 (like the G8 – get it?), and our list of nicknames for various people was a long one (New Guy, Lebanese James Bond, Mystery Girl, the Meatheads, Beta Version, Dominator/Modulator, Soul Patch, Bodyguard, Yasser Arafat’s Daughter, Ked, J. Crew, Pop The Collar, Russian Whore, Russian Porn King, and so on – and if you’re reading this and you think one of these may be you, it’s probably not). It didn’t take more than a week for the groups to form, friendships to establish themselves, and dislikes, both rational and irrational, to take shape.

I also got a pretty good look at international organizations, and, with a few exceptions, most of them are enormous buildings of red tape. They overlap, have scores of subdivisions and committees, establish themselves in too many locations in groups that are too large, and often times can’t even enforce anything they actually do produce. The most effective ones seem to be the ones that are more or less independent of politics – the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Chamber of Commerce Court of Arbitration, for example. The ICRC is actually out in the world making a difference in regions wracked with violence and hate. The ICC Court of Arbitration provides a more efficient forum for dispute resolution than the legal systems of most countries. Compare that to an organization such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which, to my understanding, takes about a year to publicly declare that a human rights violation has occurred – and then can’t do anything about it other than to wag a finger and say, “Bad country! Don’t do it again!”

I was often reminded of an exchange from Clue: The Movie between Wadsworth and Professor Plum:

Wadsworth: Professor Plum, you were once a professor of psychiatry specializing in helping paranoid and homicidal lunatics suffering from delusions of grandeur.
Professor Plum: Yes, but now I work for the United Nations.
Wadsworth: Then your work has not changed.

Another thing I learned – or rather, a belief I already held that was reinforced – was that an engaging speaker is invaluable in a presentation. When we visited the ICRC, or the UN High Commission for Refugees, for instance, we had speakers who had served in Africa working in extremely awful conditions, and they were articulate and held the class’s attention. We came away from those presentations fascinated (or at least I did). On the other hand, at the ILO, we heard one of their press officers speak. We figured he would be an excellent presenter, since his job is to deal with the media. Wrong. The guy was European anesthesia. After he was done his presentation, most of the class was looking forward to leaving, and when the 15 percent that didn’t fall asleep started asking questions, the rest of us began glaring menacingly around the room to try to keep more questions from being asked. The guy was long-winded, spoke softly, and stood in the middle of the room and faced only half of the class.

Spending a month interacting with all kinds of people really made me appreciate genuinely friendly people. A few of the people I met from my group fall into that category. So do some people who I randomly met along the way – the cabbie who picked me up from the hotel this morning, for instance (he knew all about baseball from watching ESPN’s Wednesday and Sunday night broadcasts on satellite, which made me feel like my life has had a minor overseas impact). There also were the people who ran the cheap restaurants which we ended up frequenting – they were often immigrants, and I wondered if that had anything to do with it. In France, I learned that their culture is big on polite “bonjours,” “mercis,” and “au revoirs.” If you don’t go through the pleasantries, you won’t get nice treatment in return. It’s different from the States, where people are in a hurry – think about Geno’s Steaks, where you go up to the counter and use a shortened form of what you want to order (“provolone wit raw”). If you went there and said, “Good evening. Provolone wit raw, please. Thank you,” I think you’d get funny looks. But I might try it. I kind of liked being wished a good evening when I walked up to a counter. It’s a nice touch you don’t get at home. A smile and a hello go a long way.

I wish I could say that I learned something about myself, but instead, everything I’ve believed about myself was merely reinforced. I more or less like myself, though, so I’ll take that as a good thing.

I’ve gone more than a month at a time without seeing my family and friends before, but when you’re in a foreign country, it makes you miss familiar faces even more. So I’m excited about coming out of the international terminal and seeing my dad waiting for me in the crowd. My bags are also heavy, so I could use the help carrying them.

Well, one of the movies available to watch on my flight right now is Hotel Rwanda, so I’m going to use my newfound knowledge from the UNHCR and check that film out.

And so ends another chapter in the life. Many thanks to my mom and dad, who made it all possible. Your generosity and support is invaluable.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

My Tour De France

The blow-by-blow recap of my final days in France:

Musee d’Orsay – I finally got around to doing some real sightseeing in my second week in Paris. Wednesday was Art Day. The first stop was the Musee d’Orsay, which is pretty much sculpture and paintings from the 19th century. It’s in an old train station, which makes it a very cool building – it’s five stories, with a giant atrium in the center. The view of the atrium from the fifth floor is fantastic, overlooking all the sculptures on the main floor.

The collection of art there is quite impressive as well. There’s one room which features 20 or so Van Goghs, which was very impressive – one of the "Starry Nights" was there, as well as several cool self-portraits. Whistler’s Mother was also there. There’s also an impressive collection of impressionist art – Monet, Manet, and so on.

Also, the museum is right on the Seine, and from the outdoor terrace on the top floor, there’s a very nice view of the surrounding area, and you can see the sightseeing cruise boats go by on the river.

The Louvre – After seeing Orsay, I was really looking forward to seeing the Louvre, which is most likely the best-known art museum in the world. It certainly deserves its reputation. The building itself is absolutely massive. The size of the building almost takes away from how pretty it is. There’s also the I.M. Pei glass pyramid within the horseshoe of the building, an interesting but very cool-looking juxtaposition of architectural styles.

One of my friends who I went to the Louvre with was a big fan of The Da Vinci Code, so I had to take the opportunity to tease her about it: "Hey, I heard Jesus is buried here at the Louvre!" I mean, I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think it was so earth-shattering as to deserve all the hype.

Once inside the museum, the first stop was, of course, the Mona Lisa. The folks at the Louvre are well aware that it’s the big drawing card, so there are signs all over the museum pointing tourists in the direction of the room where it’s housed. It gets a wall all to itself, and the crowd around the painting was deep. It’s cased in glass (probably one-way glass, because flash photography is allowed in the Louvre). I got my picture, admired it for a bit, and then moved on. There’s a ton of stuff to see there.

The Mona Lisa is just off a very, very long hallway with Italian Renaissance art – a very impressive collection ranging from Titian to Raphael to Caravaggio. We also visited a very ornate room which had a nice display of crystal and jewelry, including tiaras and crowns such as Louis XVI’s coronation crown.

There’s also a recreation of Napoleon’s apartment, which reminded me of how my apartment in LA is decorated, only exactly the opposite. If red velvet, wood carvings in gold leaf, and massive chandeliers are your thing, you would feel right at home there. From there, we went downstairs to check out their Mesopotamian collection, which includes the Code of Hammurabi. Unfortunately, we got there too late in the day, and it was already closed. Instead, we decided to check out the Venus de Milo. Really, the sheer amount of stuff they have at the Louvre is mind-boggling – you could spend a week there and probably not see it all.

Crazy Horse – After enough highbrow tourist stuff, it was time to visit the seedier side of Paris. The Moulin Rouge was expensive – at least 80 Euros – so on Thursday night, we checked out Crazy Horse instead, which was a reasonable 29 Euros for students. Of course, Crazy Horse’s show was somewhere between a nice strip club and a Vegas show.

I didn’t have high expectations – usually, when I go to a strip club, I leave wondering why I went in the first place. Crazy Horse was different, though – for one, the girls were actually attractive (one who danced to "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" was smoking). Also, everything was actually choreographed, and there were different sets for different performances. The lighting was also a nice effect.

I’m not sure what I thought of the two guys who came out at points in the show and did magic tricks though – I suppose they were funny and impressive, but at the same time, I was thinking, "Wait a minute – there are dudes on stage."

The Catacombs – Friday was Morbid Tourist Attraction Day. I had no idea what to expect when I went to the Catacombs. After descending the 130 steps or so, we found ourselves in a tunnel lined with stacks of thousands of bones and skulls. It was pretty eerie at first, but being the obnoxious Americans we were, it soon turned into a fiasco, with us posing next to skulls for pictures, choruses of "The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone" and me pointing my video camera at myself with a skull right behind me, doing an "I’m so scared" monologue a la The Blair Witch Project.

Seriously though, that place is nuts. It’s sort of like the Champagne cellars, but instead of tunnels with stacks and stacks of bottles, it’s bones that are stacked. Apparently during the Black Plague, this is where bodies were taken because there just wasn’t enough room to bury them all individually. The bones are very neatly stacked (to make room, I suppose), with periodic rows of skulls between the various limb bones.

Pere Lachaise – After the Catacombs, I continued my morbid day of sightseeing by leaving the group and going solo to Pere Lachaise, Paris’s largest cemetery. I knew Jim Morrison is buried there (contrary to one of my friends’ claims that he’s still alive), but other than that, I had no idea what to expect.

First of all, Pere Lachaise is beautiful in an unusual way. It was designed not only as a cemetery, but as a park. Also, the map I got referred to it as a City of Death, and it truthfully resembles a city, because it isn’t like cemeteries in the States, where there are merely stones everywhere. Here, literally touching each other, are sepulchers, monuments, and mausoleums, some of which must have been at least 10 feet tall. There are roads and paths snaking through it all, nearly dividing the cemetery into "neighborhoods." The cemetery itself is huge – probably a square kilometer – and I must have walked over a mile through it.

Also, Jim Morrison is in good company there – composers (Bizet, Chopin, Rossini), painters, (Pissarro, Seurat, Modigliani), writers (Oscar Wilde), and plenty of other famous figures, both French and from elsewhere, are resting in Pere Lachaise. When I visited the grave of Mr. Mojo Risin’, there were several hippies there contemplating whatever it is they contemplate. I wanted to capture that image, so I videotaped the grave, then slowly turned around as though I was filming the surroundings. Actually, I wanted to film the hippie dad and his kids sitting quietly by the grave. As I was turning, though, a few Japanese tourists came up the path to the grave, and one flashed me the peace sign. Very appropriate.

I was glad I went to Pere Lachaise on my own, because there are some very moving Holocaust memorials in the northeast corner of the cemetery. From what I could tell, the survivors of the various concentration camps each erected monuments to those who were killed at each camp. There were at least seven different monuments to the camps – Dachau, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and so on. Each one was unique – and all were striking. It was the most moving thing I’ve seen since I’ve been in Europe.

Sacre Coeur – This cathedral is at the highest point in Paris – higher than the Eiffel Tower, supposedly. We took the subway there on Saturday morning and then had to climb up some insane number of stairs to get there. Once there, we took in the view – nice, although I was partial to the view from the Eiffel Tower. Then we went inside, and I was a little disappointed. It was a short lap around the cathedral, which was far more impressive from the outside than the inside. Plus, they didn’t allow any form of photography inside. Bummer.

Live 8 – Saturday was also the day of Live 8 – the global concert to raise awareness for the G8 summit happening next week. The Paris show was held about 45 minutes outside the city, right in front of the palace at Versailles – a stunning setting. The estimated attendance, I found out later, was 100,000, although I would have guessed more – the place was crawling with people.

The lineup of artists was very eclectic. Most of the performers were French acts of whom I knew nothing, but there were some who I really wanted to see. Sheryl Crow was supposed to be there, but apparently she pulled out at the last minute. Dido was also going to perform, but not until 11 p.m., which would have been too late for us to catch a train back to Paris and go out on our last night there. The Cure was also performing after 11. We did catch Muse, whom I didn’t even know was going to be there. I bought a t-shirt, saw their name on the back, and said, "Muse is playing here?" Right then, they took the stage and launched into a great rendition of "Hysteria."

Andrea Bocelli came on shortly after Muse – probably the only time they’ll ever share a bill – and, backed by a full orchestra, belted out some great songs. Craig David was there and did a duet with someone I don’t know, covering The Beatles’ "Come Together." Shakira also performed two songs – not nearly enough for the liking of my friends and I, who were captivated by her, um, singing.

A few other notes on Paris:

Safaris on Beer Island – My friends and I found ourselves spending our nightlife Euros in a neighborhood of Paris called Bastille (I assume it’s where the famous prison used to stand). In Bastille, there was a bar/restaurant called Falstaff, which we affectionately nicknamed Beer Island (for no reason other than that it had a massive beer list). Beer Island was known, to us, for "La Girafe," the coolest way to have a beer…maybe ever.

La Girafe was a tube, about three feet high, set on a wooden base. The tube holds three liters of beer, and there’s a tap at the bottom to drain it. We ordered several over the course of our stay in Paris, filled with Leffe, a great Belgian beer that one of my friends proclaimed was the best beer he’d ever had. And we killed those giraffes – hence, safaris on Beer Island.

Good Time/Chinese restaurant – Paris, in many aspects, was a hit-or-miss city. Restaurants were either expensive or they weren’t. People were either rude or they weren’t. There was very little middle ground. Near our hotel, we found two spots that were on the good end of both spectrums.

Good Time was a sandwich shop run by a guy from Tunisia who began to recognize us whenever we came in. He spoke pretty good English, and he was happy to serve us – he even gave us free Skittles. Plus, you could get a chicken and cheese pita, fries, and a soda for under six Euros.

Around the corner from Good Time was a Chinese restaurant, the name of which I never got. The woman who ran it spoke better English than at most of the Chinese restaurants you go to in the States. For 8.50 Euros, you could get two chicken egg rolls, noodles or rice, an entrée (the beef with onions was delicious, as was the chicken with mushrooms), a soda, and either dessert or coffee. Plus, the fortune cookies were in both French and English (although the English translations came out a little garbled sometimes). Those were my two favorite restaurants in Paris.

Paris metro/Taxis – Transportation in Paris had its pros and cons. The metro wasn’t quite as good as the Tube in London. It seemed like in London, the Tube was always a pretty direct route. In Paris, you always had at least one connection to make, and the metro seemed to wind around excessively. Also, while we were there, Paris was in the middle of a heat wave, and the metro wasn’t air conditioned. Apparently, the transportation department actually requested that Parisians shower before riding the metro. You can imagine how it smelled on some of those trains.

The metro stopped running around 12:30 a.m., so we ended up relying on taxis to ferry us back from Bastille most nights. Cabs in Paris are actually pretty cheap – way more so than in the States (or at least L.A.). A ride from Bastille to Place d’Italie, where our hotel was, took about 10 minutes and cost about six Euros. Not bad. The real trick was finding a cabbie who was willing to drive four tipsy Americans.

So that’s Paris in a nutshell. As I write this, I’m looking out the window of the train to Switzerland as we’re starting to get into more mountainous terrain. Actually, some of the scenery reminds me a lot of Vail, Colorado. In about an hour, we’ll be pulling into Geneva for the final country and final week of our trip. It’s been going by very quickly, but I’ve been doing so much while I’m here that it makes the start of the trip seem like a long time ago. I suppose the trick is to savor it while it lasts.