Back in the Saddle Again, or Most French Stereotypes are True

I traveled recently to Rennes, France for an in-person conference, Eurosys, and had occasion to spend a wondrous week basking in the French sun, getting soaked in the French rain, interacting with people who are their entire selves, and remembering the joys and the tribulations of physical travel. I hope I will never have to go two and a half years without international travel. Lest the memory of this once-in-a-lifetime return from celibacy fades, I jotted down five immediate reflections.

Sweetness of the language

Start with the well-trodden Merci and Bon jour. Then the French person will start speaking at a fast trot and  you have to quickly fall back to the safety of “Je ne parle pas Francais“. But that feeble attempt at speaking the language brings out the warmth of the French. Grocery shopping takes a lot longer because you are puzzling in your head why poisson has a place on grocery shelves.

And then you tend to lose your common sense at times. Lait is milk I know. Since French coffee is good but you will not get milk with it, not if you begged for it on your knees. So I got to carrying the small pack of Lait that I got at the grocery store. Only after pouring a little bit into my inviting coffee cup I felt something was amiss. I looked close to realize that both SC and I had missed the “fermenter” annotation to the lait that was hiding in plain sight. If we had not been hurrying through the grocery shelves, we would have realized that fermented milk is not what we need for our coffee.

Aah now regarding the sweetness of the language, French sounds even sweeter in person than on screen. Second in sweetness only to Bengali of course.

The French know to make good cheese

Goat and camembert and about a half dozen other varieties that we had. But smelly cheese is just that … smelly and enough to ruin a perfectly good meal. So don’t get fooled by the French person’s almost religious reverence for smelly cheese.

The French are of course well known for their discriminating taste in cheese. And their rules and regulations to preserve the sanctity of their cheese. To the point where we were informed by the chef at an Indian restaurant we frequented that he could not get paneer easily and he had taken to substituting tofu for it (and he had gotten it down to perfection).

French drivers are very good drivers

And they don’t suffer the timid drivers from the US well. If you have to turn right just go ahead and do it, goddammit. Stop looking over your shoulders and letting all those bicyclists pass. And are those bicyclists bold or do they get some sort of osmosis effect from the Tour de France. They will ride through tiny curving roads, threading through cars with aforementioned daredevil drivers, and with a little kid in an added kid seat at the back. And all the while stopping suddenly to let pedestrians cross.

The French are also good parkers, make that excellent parkers. They can get their tiny cars into the tinier parking spots. All those spots that I had passed over because I knew there was no way I could parallel park our rented car into it. And the grief that I came to due to that is described next.

Parking will make your life miserable

My few annoyances through Europe travels have mostly been centered on parking. Seinfeld anticipated this issue perfectly, transplanted to Manhattan. But it seems orders of magnitude worse here in Rennes.

Once a car has gotten a spot it will simply not move out. The owner will walk, take the bus or the train, even put up with a few connections but will not take out the car. When you do find an underground car park, even one with a few empty spots, you are challenged by the fact that the spots are microscopic and are hemmed in both sides by cars. So you struggle for an eon trying to get your fancy rental car into one of these microscopic spots without denting it. Before you give up in frustration and decide to go down further into the netherworld of the parking garage. And you see, heaven be praised, one solitary spot which does not have any other car on either side. You get your hopes up and drive hurriedly toward it. And then see the dreaded handicap sign printed in microscopic size on the floor.

Back in the saddle again

More on the professional side of things, I realize all over again the joy of attending a conference in person. The day long travel, the jet lag, the long immigration lines, lugging luggage through cobbled streets … they are all worth it.

The old networking skills may be a tad rusty but they have not been forgotten. You love the Q&A after the talk and the poster session and then interacting with a person in person. You get to go into the depths of your colleague’s work and your work and through this discussion, discover a pearl of wisdom that is not quite the grand unified theory of the universe but comes close.

At the drinks reception you sight an old friend and head there to have an an animated discussion … on the upcoming French election, a topic which none of you cared a whit about till two days back. Then at another reception, you notice a group of three people chatting. You recognize one from conference interactions a few years back and another from an email interaction. You decide to plunge in. And within two minutes, you are part of that group discussing in an animated fashion … wait, what was it that you discussed? The best paper at the conference? Or the French election? Or the geopolitical battles raging in the world? My memory is foggy as the French wine was both good and plentiful. But it does not matter what you were discussing. You remember that you were in the moment, in that physical space.

To Sum

So the week passes in a joyous series of technical sessions, hallway coffee sessions, enlivening discussions with colleagues old and new, and a curious admixture of French, English, and wild gesticulation. You realize how much you had missed it and decide to throw caution to the wind and wave goodbye to any 6″ distancing rule. Hopefully for good.

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