Saturday, September 28, 2013

honneur aux jolies filles

One Friday evening last year, I stopped outside a supermarket somewhere in Paris near the Saint-Lazare train station.  I was accompanying two friends, Jeannette and David, to a house party and we wanted to get some food beforehand.  At some point during the stop, I was observing the streets packed with people and I noticed the abundance of pretty women around.  Fascinated, I told David something to this effect: "Man, there are so many pretty girls in this city!"  He replied rather dryly: "Yep, there are pretty girls everywhere.  But it does not mean anything if all you do is look at them."  Right.

Several months later, with this moment still fresh in mind, I launched Operation Les Jolies Filles.  Indeed, Paris does have lots of beautiful women, and I felt ready to do something more about it than just look from afar.  Actually, I wanted to change how I perceived women in general.  I had grown tired of the fantasy in which I held them, as well as the suffering that resulted from maintaining that fantasy.

In other words, Operation Les Jolies Filles was designed to do away with something of an inferiority complex.

The operation as I had imagined it certainly had the potential to transform the turn of events in a situation similar to the one that occurred in Angoulême last July.  It presented itself also as an excellent opportunity to become better acquainted with women in France, since the only reply that I could muster to questions like "So how are the women in France?" or "And French women?" was "I don't really know", because I just didn't know.  An answer based on what I thought was the stereotype, that French women were "difficult" and "demanding", was naturally a no-no.

So during the first five months of the operation, I said "Bonjour" to random pretty women that I passed on the street.  The interaction remained at that.  There was little chance to wait for a "Bonjour" in return, much less to have a conversation, since I was already gone looking for the next pretty girl.  I did this every other day, and targeted at least two women and no more than five on operation day.

After taking my time to greet 250 women, I figured it was high time to take things a step further.  I therefore decided to stop after approaching a pretty girl to interact with her.  But only to tell her "Je vous trouve très jolie" ("I find you very pretty") before moving on along.

For three days straight, I failed to get this next step off the ground.  It was not that I did not cross paths with a pretty girl, but that I could not push past the fear of saying something that was unusual and unnecessary to a girl that I did not know at all, and on the street of all places.  In addition, I was afraid that my actions would make the girl think that I was trying to pick her up, which I was not comfortable with.  At the rare moments when I was able to overcome all these mental obstacles, I tried to get the job done.  I looked at almost every woman coming in my direction and got ready to do my act if I had deemed that she was pretty, only to end up doing nothing as we passed each other.  It was a sequence of events that repeated itself over and over again, leaving my mind increasingly in utter chaos.

But on the Sunday morning of September 1, I broke through.  I was not having it.  I was just going to do it.  I had to push past the fear.  Besides, how painful could it be to compliment a girl?  I had been told often that girls liked that kind of stuff.  So I got my mind ready.  Instead of taking the metro or a Vélib' like I usually did when going to Marché d'Aligre, I was going to walk there and talk to the first five pretty girls that I found on the way.  Which I actually did.  Well, five out of six.  Or seven.

The first encounter was interesting and clearly the most important.  In a large and virtually empty square, I saw the target, a bespectacled young woman with matte skin and curly hair.  Having decided that she was pretty, I stopped her with a "Bonjour" before following through.  "Je vous trouve trrrrr, très jolie."  A faint smile let itself out towards the end.  With a larger smile, the young woman replied : "Merci, c'est gentil" ("Thank you, that's kind of you").  The end.  Sure, I finally tasted success, but what was that R about?  The very thing ‒ the pronunciation of the French R ‒ at the core of my greatest complex with the French language had resurfaced to spoil the long-awaited occasion.  Or rather, perhaps, to make it more memorable.

Naturally, I felt good about the done deed and could not be more delighted with the result.  After all, the target got a sincere compliment.  I got a courage experience.  At the end of it, we each felt better.  Win-win.  I love win-win situations.

I followed suit with the remaining targets without much trouble until the operation was completed.  Target 2 looked at me and promptly ignored me.  Target 3 reacted by making hand gestures that seemed to say she did not understand, while she moved her lips at the same time as if to say something even though no sound came out.  In any case, she did not bother to stay.  Target 4 ignored me, without the slightest sign of eye contact.  Target 5 said thank you with a smile.  The best part of it all was the summary that my friend's Aziz gave after I recounted the day's events to him: "2 thank yous, 2 ignorances, and 1 confusion."

I see this kind of interactions as something playful for everyone involved.  And so, I look forward to more thank yous, ignorances, and confusions.

Friday, September 20, 2013

souvenirs kenyans

Last month, I traveled to Kenya to attend the wedding of Jeannette and Jeff, a couple of dear friends from Paris.

Before and after the occasion, I was able to explore parts of Nairobi and venture into the outskirts of the city, where I got more up close and personal with nature.  It was splendid but all too brief!

The following are a few souvenirs from the trip.

Feed (and kiss!) Stacy at the Giraffe Centre (Lang'ata, Nairobi)

Carnivore, ranked one of the world's 50 best restaurants (Lang'ata, Nairobi)

Lunch: pilau, sukuma wiki, kachumbari, chapati, ugali, and some tasty fish

Painting of the Big Five + giraffe at the Great Rift Valley viewpoint

View from Mount Longonot

Mount Longonot crater point and "false summit"

Marabou Stork near Lake Naivasha

Hippopotamus pod on Lake Naivasha

More tasty fish with Stoney Ginger Beer (Ranalo Foods, Nairobi)

Something useful when eating ugali at Ranalo Foods: outdoor sinks (Nairobi)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

vaincre ma timidité

"Vaincre sa timidité" is an expression in the French language to which I have taken somewhat of a fascination.  In English, it translates to "overcoming one's shyness".  And thinking about it, I have almost never seen nor heard "vaincre" and "timidité" otherwise or even separately.  Maybe I don't pay much attention to other ways in which these words are used or maybe I am singling out this expression from the several that I come across every day, because I may be timid.  Really, is it any surprise that I am writing on this particular subject?

Last July, at a drawing workshop that I attended in Angoulême, I met a fellow participant named Mélanie.  We got to talking during a group lunch on the first day, and I found her to be rather sincere and simple.  And pretty too.  An attraction started to brew.

One evening, after a day's worth of drawing exercises, Mélanie and I got a ride downtown from Dominique, who was also taking the workshop.  While searching for souvenirs to buy, Mélanie suggested that we have a hot dinner together in her stove-equipped hotel room since we were both staying alone in the city.  "It could be nice", she added.  Indeed, I thought.  So we stopped at a supermarket to get some food before making the walk towards her hotel.  Since being invited to dinner at home by a rather unfamiliar girl was unusual for me, I started to get anxious.  The situation was only troubled more by my increasing attraction.

At dinner, Mélanie and I got to know each other better.  More correctly, it was I who got to know her better.  It was all that I would allow myself to do, fearful of the uncertainty that would follow if I made it clear that I was smitten by her.  Eventually, after leaving for my hotel, I could not help but lament failure after failure to express my feelings.  Nevertheless, I remained optimistic.

The next day came.  The last evening before the workshop was a couple of hours away and I hoped very much that I would end up again at Mélanie's place.  I did.

Pleasant dinner, good conversation, and constant anxiety, all over again.  I stayed on the lookout for a good moment to break the ice.  It seemed like there were several, but I hesitated to make good use of them.  It was an ordeal holding both fantasy and reality in my mind; the obvious conflict between the two was quite difficult to tolerate.  Sometime after dinner, having run out of words, I figured that I might as well return to my hotel.  So I got up to head for the door.  But not before daring something at the last minute.

Since Mélanie and I were on the topic of fear at the time, I admitted that I had a fear.  She asked what it was and I found it interesting to overcome the fear at that instant.  The events that followed happened quickly and remain a blur.  They included me approaching Mélanie, who was standing at a certain distance, and then retreating halfway as if some invisible force field had prevented me from advancing.  What I felt at the time resembled shame.  And all that while, Melanie just stood there, watching silently.

Feeling suddenly exposed, I revealed that I had tried to kiss her.  Yet it was clear that I did not even give myself a decent chance, having botched my attempt.  Mélanie, however, remained silent.

Since I had already announced my departure, I found my way to the door, relieved from my anxiety but disappointed with my effort.  Once we got into the corridor, Mélanie broke her silence.  "Wow, you are timid!", she exclaimed, as if she could not believe it.  "Well, isn't it obvious?", I asked in reply.  She thought about it for a second.  "A little," she said, amused, letting out a slight smile.

So I guess that I am timid, at least with a woman.  After all, I did acknowledge that much.  "You are the person you chose to be", says Paul Arden.  Really, all I want to be is a free spirit, not only in what I do but also as far as who I am.  I think that overcoming one's shyness is important to that end, but it is merely a means.

Being a free spirit goes beyond that means.  And it appears to me that the subject does not have a place in popular discourse.  Maybe because the term "free spirit" is not easily defined.  Or maybe because such a state of being seems too difficult to achieve, if not impossible.  Is it even important in the first place?  Who knows.  Well, no worries.  Let's just resolve the matter by settling for something we can all recognize or relate to.  Shyness, and overcoming it.

So if you see me, hear me, or read about me doing anything silly, wrong, or maybe just downright cool, know that I am only trying to vaincre ma timidité.

Friday, September 6, 2013

shared dreams

The 50th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, inspired me to highlight an article written by Simon Sinek in 2010.

Entitled "Movement", the article describes how Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to spark a movement to bring about civil rights in the United States.  At its conclusion, Simon shares that he had been inspired not only by Dr. King himself, but also by how Dr. King inspired a movement.  As an admirer of Simon's work, I can understand his remarks since he himself started a movement several years ago.

Click here to view the full article

From a personal standpoint, I was drawn to the article while reading one particular detail: 250,000 people showed up to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, but not for him.  Let me reformulate that: not a single person in this enormous crowd was present because of Dr. King.  Well, why were they there?

For themselves.  They showed up for themselves.

And that's the power of sharing dreams.  The organizers of the rally in Washington must have given the general public something that they could resonate with to end up with 250,000 people in attendance.  Then, in his speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about a dream that members of the audience could resonate with.  The values evoked in the dream, notably those of freedom and equality, were just as important to these people as much as to Dr. King.  By sharing his dream with remarkable eloquence, Dr. King helped them to see themselves and their dream more clearly.

So Dr. King had a dream, and he said that much.  What about us?  Do we have dreams?  If so, are we sharing them?  It seems to me that some people believe that dreams should not belong in the real world.  They consider such matters as the fancy of children and adults that are out of touch with reality.  Others keep company with people for whom dreams don't exist, so any discourse on the subject is essentially foreign to them.  And there are a good number of people that have traded in their own dreams for those of others without even realizing it.

Naturally, I do not subscribe to these attitudes, since I am a dreamer.  A dream ‒ let's call it a vision if that is more like adultspeak ‒ can serve not only as a compass for navigating the complex society in which we live, but also as a path to a life continuously filled with meaning.  To quote Paul Arden, "your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have."  All that is left is to invest oneself in the pursuit of this vision.  This, in my opinion, is where the joy of living often comes from.

While an individual dream has to be pursued for it to work its magic, it can go even further when shared with others who have the same dream.  There is power in numbers, really.  Surely, Dr. King and his partners understood this. 

What is my own dream?  Actually, I don't know.  I just don't feel that I have the words to describe it clearly.  In any case, I do know that it has something to do with living in a world of my own, yet one that includes other people.

I'll share that much.