Crossing Cultures in Stealth Mode


Have you ever been overseas and wished that you could just blend in—going unnoticed, attracting no stares?

Sometimes, that’s hard to do:

But other times, you’re in a place where you look as if you could fit in. For instance, that could be me in England, where my ancestors are from. I have the genetic foundation for looking like a Brit, but it’s the extra things—the add ons, so to speak—that are harder to manage.

Below is an interesting video featuring Jonna Mendez, the CIA’s former chief of disguise. In it, she says that her goal in the agency was to help people disappear in plain sight. “You want to be the person,” she explains, “that gets on the elevator and then gets off, and nobody really remembers that you were even there.”

But a physical disguise can only go so far. Especially, it seems, for those of us from the States. According to Mendez, “Americans are oblivious to what it is that reveals them to a foreign crowd, or a foreign intelligence service, when they’re out in public.” She then goes on to point out how we use silverware differently than Europeans do (they cut their meat and eat with their forks staying in the left hand, while we switch our forks to the right hand to put food in our mouths), how we hold cigarettes differently (they put their smokes between the thumb and first finger, while we put it between our first two fingers), and even how we stand (Europeans tend to stand with their weight evenly balanced between their feet, while we put most of our weight on one foot or the other).

Of course, clothes can be a giveaway, too. If you’re an American in Europe and don’t want to be a target for those who prey on tourists, she suggests, you could wear clothes that you’ve bought from a local store or put a local pack of cigarettes in your pocket.

Ladies, if you want to blend in in France, here are seven clothing non-nons from Marie-Anne Lecoeur, author of How to Be Chic and Elegant. I must say, I love her accent, especially as she describes tip number two, “No plunging necklines.” I’m pretty sure she says you don’t want to wear a top where “a lot of your bust is explosed.” How appropriate.

Lecoeur is something of a fashionista. American travel guru, Mark Wolters, is nothing of the sort (something he is eager to point out in this next video). But he does have apparel tips for Americans traveling in Europe, aimed mostly at the male population over 35.

Of course, this all requires that you don’t blow your cover by opening your mouth and saying something.


Once, in London, I was taking a ride on a red double-decker bus and saw two women, fellow visitors also enjoying the sights. Wanting to strike up a conversation with some fellow Americans, I asked, “Where are ya’ll from?”

“Well,” one answered. “Now we know where you’re from. We’re Canadians.”

I can’t even blend in with the tourists.

[photos: “Moth in Stealth Mode,” by feck_aRt_post, used under a Creative Commons license; “Double-Decker Bus,” by Kevin Oliver, used under a Creative Commons license]


With Love Locks Leaving Paris, Give Peace a Chance


‘Tis Better to Have Loved and Lost . . .

The French are turning their back on love! Oh, say it isn’t so! Well, it really isn’t so. But as you may have heard, last Monday, the city of Paris began removing the approximately 700,000 padlocks clinging to the Pont des Arts. As a symbol of their undying affection for each other, couples have been adding their “love locks” (not to be confused with “Locks of Love“) to the fencing of the pedestrian bridge, throwing the keys into the Seine river below.

The tradition started in Rome after the 2006 publication of Frederico Moccia’s best-selling novel I Want You, and the following movie adaptation, in which a young couple proclaim their love by fastening a padlock to the Milvian Bridge.

From there the practice has become something of a global phenomenon, with businesses springing up to cash in. For example, there are Lovelocks and MakeLoveLocks, which sell their own lines of locks and post maps showing sites around the globe for locking up love.

Looks as if they’ll need to remove at least one of those map markers, as Paris has decided that enough is enough. Actually, it’s too much, as sections of the Pont des Arts railing have begun to collapse under the padlocks’ 100-ton weight.

If US expats Lisa Anselmo and Lisa Taylor Huff have their way, Paris will soon be love-lock free. In January of last year, the two started No Love Locks with the slogan “Free your love. Save our bridges.” They’ve also started a petition asking the mayor of their city to ban the locks once and for all.


Make Peace, Not Love

Where, oh where, then, will young lovers and tourists go to take selfies in a Paris sans love locks?

Well, the French capital does have another photo-worthy site. You might have heard of it, though probably not. It’s one of France’s best-kept secrets, but it may just turn the City of Love into the City of . . . Peace.

It’s the Mur de la Paix, or the Wall for Peace, situated on the Champ de Mars, in front of the École Militaire. Created by artist Clara halter and architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the wall was installed in 2000 to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium.

The structure is made of metal and glass panels and 20-foot-tall stainless-steel columns, all displaying the word peace in 32 languages. Inspired by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Wall for Peace contains slits so that visitors can leave messages in them. And virtual guests can leave their messages at the wall’s site to be displayed on monitors and online.

When it was built, the monument was supposed to be temporary, lasting only a few months. Some of the locals regret that its removal hasn’t happened, and a few are very vocal about it. In 2011, Rachida Dati, mayor of the area surrounding the Wall for Peace, was found guilty of defamation after accusing the wall’s creators of lying to keep their work in place. The wall has also been the target of vandalism. And yet, 15 years after its construction, it still stands.

3372837834_f11dcbdd97_zIf you look from the right vantage point, you’ll see that the Wall of Peace frames a nice view of a rather tall radio and TV antenna at the end of the Champ de Mars, opposite the École Militaire. It also was built as a temporary structure, to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the French Revolution at the 1889 World’s Fair. Originally meant to stay for only 20 years, it was saved from the scrap pile when it’s creator realized how useful it could be for broadcasting. The tower’s still there, and if you’d like to get a glimpse of it, just go to the Wall for Peace and look southeast.

Ahh, Paris. What a fickle city. That which is meant to be forever is taken away. And that which is meant to be temporary lives on. C’est la vie.

C’est l’amour. C’est la paix.

(Emanuella Grinberg, “Paris Ends Relationship with ‘Love Locks,'” CNN, May 31, 2015; Angela Diffley, “Rachida Dati Libelled Peace Wall Couple, Court Rules,” RFI, November 22, 2011)

[photos: “Paris: Love Lock Bridge,” by Abi, used under a Creative Commons license; “Paris—Champ de Mars: Le Mur pour La Paix and Eiffel Tower,” by Wally Goetz, used under a Creative Commons license; “The Tower with Letters for Peace,” by Vincent Brassinne, used under a Creative Commons license]

“An Extraordinary Theory of Objects”: A TCK in Paris and the Things That Keep Her Sane, Sort of

31703109_4ad6f7ce2c_nI just finished reading a cool little book entitled An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris. It was a Christmas gift from my son, the one who got a Moleskine Journal from me.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects is a series of vignettes by Stephanie LaCava about her move to France as a twelve-year-old in 1993, her years there growing up, and then her visits back again after attending college in the States.

On the cover of my copy of the book are romantically filtered and tinted photos of the Eiffel Tower, and on the pages inside, her writing style evokes the same kind of mood. If stories could be sepia-toned, this is how they might sound.

Actually, the filter through which LaCava encounters the world is her attachment to things. First, there are the small, curious relics—a skeleton key, a mushroom, an opal necklace found in the mud—that she gathers and places on her windowsill. Initially they replace her old collection, “everything that represented [her] past life and its predictable ways,” which is on a container ship making its way across the ocean from New York.

And then there are the objects she encounters from day to day, common things that she illuminates in copious footnotes often taking up more than half a page. Cataloging these objects gives her security and makes sense of her life in a new city . . . as she faces depression and what she calls her own “kind of crazy.”

Some might find her footnotes distracting, but they cover just the kind of obscure topics that intrigue me, such as a Japanese smuggler of black-market butterflies, a photo book dedicated to Salvador Dali’s mustache, and the origins of the tea bag. And they are replete with references to a variety of figures, from Pliny the Elder to Kurt Cobain, from Anne Boylen to Kate Moss.

Much of LaCava’s narrative is about time spent with her father, often searching flea markets for items to fulfill their eccentric tastes. At other times, she talks about her classmates at the international school. She says she was “mostly alone” her first year there. Even among these other outsiders, she doesn’t fit in.

I rode the bus to school and listened to my Discman while the girl in the back row threw gum wrappers at my head. The girls at school didn’t like me very much. They had never given me a chance, decided immediately that I didn’t belong, which was funny, as they didn’t either—at least not in France. They made me feel as if I had done something wrong, and they spoke badly about me to each other. Through my own odd rationalization, I decided excommunicating me meant they belonged to something, simply because I did not. . . .

Come the new academic year, the old class would be replaced with another set of students who had just moved overseas. Only a few remained year after year—and still the same insensitivity.

One day, a classmate tells her that she looks like Angela from the TV series My So-Called Life.

“I haven’t seen it,” she replies.

“Everyone’s seen that show,” he says. “Don’t you have friends in the States? They can send it to you.”

In a footnote, LaCava delves into the significance of the series, quoting Matt Zoller Seitz of The New York Times, who writes, “What the series’ narration does best: it shows how teen-agers try to control their chaotic inner lives by naming things, defining them, generalizing about them.”

That’s what LaClava does, as well—controlling the inner chaos of her life in a Paris suburb by naming the objects she encounters. Then, years later, she examines them even more closely and writes about them so that she can share with us her own kind of strange . . . and her own kind of normal.

(Stephanie LaCava, An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris, New York: Harper Perennial, 2013)
[photo: “Eiffel Tower,” by charley1965, used under a Creative Commons license]

Miniscule: An Animated Series with a Lot of Buzz

457539675_d5c2d43dc9_mIt’s been over two years since we moved back to the US, and we’ve finally relieved our friends/forwarding agents of the things that we’ve had stored in their basement. Inside the boxes and Rubbermaid containers were several items that I’d forgotten about. But there were others that I knew we had—I just couldn’t figure out where they were.

One of those that I’d been looking for was a DVD set that I’d bought in Taiwan and left in Missouri during one of our times in the States. It’s the first season of the French series, Miniscule: The Private Life of Insects.

So why would an English-speaking American in Taiwan buy DVDs of a program from France?

First of all, while Miniscule is produced by the French company Futurikon, it’s not in the French language. Actually, it’s not in any language at all . . . unless you count bug sounds. And second, with—according to Encyclopedia Smithsonian—around 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects on the planet at any given time, the program’s storylines have near universal appeal.

Combining computer animation and live footage, the award-winning series has been aired around the globe, counting young—like my son—and old—like me—among its fans. According to the Futurikon Website, the production company has sold Miniscule for broadcast in over 80 countries, including a deal with the Disney Channel in the US.

To watch Miniscule at your leisure, you can buy a 6-disc set of DVDs at

Or . . . you can fly to Spain this week for the San Sebastián Film Festival, where Futurikon’s first feature-length, 3-D film, Miniscule: Valley of the Lost Ants, will have its world premiere (September 20 and 21).

Or . . . you can just take a look at these clips below:


“libellules” (“dragonflies”)

Teaser for Miniscule: Valley of the Lost Ants

(“Number of Insects [Species and Individuals],” Encyclopedia Smithsonian)

[photo: “Ladybird, About to Leave a Dandelion,” by nutmeg66, used under a Creative Commons license]

Les Images de France 5

I can’t speak French, but I like the way it sounds.

And I don’t know much about the French public TV channel France 5, but I like their video logos.

Last year, the branding agency Les Télécréateurs, helped rebrand the channel and came up with a series of 25 “idents” to show between programs. Les Télécréateurs, on their Vimeo site, writes,

The concept is as simple as it is strong; a multitude of things that move in the same direction, one following the other, like a chain reaction between completely different worlds. Its underlying meaning is stated loud and clear: knowledge derives from making new links.

The idents become a voyage in which the viewer experiences the ever changing world. Each shot is just long enough for you to grasp what you’re watching, but not too long that it bores you. It also instills in you the feeling of wanting more. Everything travels from left to right but sometimes a thing can reach the apex of its trajectory and start moving in the opposite direction.

And Alphabetical Order®, who directed the spots, says,

[T]his is of course about moving forward, striving, exploring, fighting, longing, pushing the limits and developing. It symbolizes what makes humanity prosper, what fascinates us in life.

Here’s a “Branding Montage” of idents paired with announcements for some of their programming. I can understand some of the words and can make out several of the locations (the pictures help). But, man, I really should have studied French harder in college.

(Les Télécréateurs, France 5 Rebrand | Idents, Vimeo)

Paris: The City and the Syndrome

from Trey Ratcliff at

Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.

These are the opening words of Paula McClain’s novel, The Paris Wife. Told from the viewpoint of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, the book shares the story of the young couple as they dive into life in Jazz-Age Paris.

I’ve not read the book, but I’ve read the first page, on the back of the most recent issue of the travel magazine Afar (which, by the way, I purchased with frequent-flier miles). The page is part of an advertisement, displayed on a Kindle Paperwhite held by a tourist overlooking the iconic white and blue buildings of Santorini, Greece. The caption for the ad reads, “Perfect for Getaways.”

It seems that some Japanese travelers have the same view of Paris as Mrs. Hemingway: It’s a condition in need of a remedy.

Back in 2006, BBC published an oft-quoted story about a phenomenon called “Paris Syndrome.” According to the article, each year, a dozen or so Japanese tourists have a psychiatric breakdown of sorts upon visiting the French capital. First identified by Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist in France, the syndrome is brought about when the realities of Paris don’t match the visitors’ romanticized expectations. While some of the symptoms sound like culture shock, others, such as delusions and hallucinations, are more extreme.

While some deny the existence of an actual syndrome, BBC reports that the Japanese embassy in France has set us a 24-hour hotline to help deal with the situation.

Below is a short documentary from John Menick, Paris Syndrome (2010). It takes a more in-depth—and sometimes sceptical—look at the condition, including interviews with French psychiatric professionals. Besides Paris Syndrome, the video also touches on such topics as Stendhal Syndrome, psychiatric portraiture, and historical views of travel-related mental illnesses. It even looks at Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the inspiration for the movie The Terminal.

So . . . what is the cure for Paris? While some are searching for one, most see no need. The author Gertrude Stein, a friend of the Hemingways from their time in France, saw the City of Light as a place that nurtured her creativity. “America is my country,” she said, “and Paris is my hometown.”

(Paula McClain, The Paris Wife, New York: Ballantine, 2011; Caroline Wyatt, “‘Paris Syndrome’ Strikes Japanese,” BBC News, December 20, 2006)

[photo: “Another Summer Day in Paris,” by Trey Ratcliff at Stuck in Customs, used under a Creative Commons license]