Romasco-Kelly Family

February 2003

We've been meaning to do another update for a few weeks, after returning from our visit to the U.S. in December.  This update, rather than on a coherent theme, will be more of an assortment of observations, notes, and interesting (to us, anyway) thoughts on what's been happening.

A short article in the French newsweekly L'Express notes that an experiment with newspaper vending machines in the Paris Metro has ended in failure.  The article notes that maintaining the boxes proved too expensive -- "Constructed like strong-boxes (at nearly $13,000 each) -- nothing like the very vulnerable 'honesty boxes' of the U.S. -- they have been the target of all sorts of attacks by crooks" -- and that buying things from boxes is not the custom of the French, where a store selling newspapers (called a "tabac" because it probably makes more money selling cigarettes) seems to be on every corner.  However, the French have solved the "Blockbuster" problem -- how, with a mandated 35-hour work week, do you provide for rental of videos at all hours?  The answer: vending machines to rent videos, which can be found all over town, something you won't see anywhere in the U.S.!

An article in our local paper, which is as fun to read as any small-town newspaper, describes a hunger strike that was started by one Jean-Claude Normand at a ski area south of here, Alpe d'Huez, on January 28.  The war in Iraq?  Anti-globalization?  For world peace?  Nope.  It seems that two para-gliding guides have operated seasonally in the small resort town for over a dozen years and compete vigorously.  The town establishes where they can set up their temporary booths, and M. Normand (the hunger striker) claims that his competitor has been given a more advantageous place by the town this year.  He's on hunger strike in a tent in front of the main ski lift demanding "the simple right to earn a living fairly."  "They're worse than kids," a town official despairs in the story.  "So that's why we've separated them."

An op-ed piece in the February 9 New York Times ("Vote France Off the Island") expressed amazement that the French Foreign Minister, speaking after Colin Powell at the UN last week, "also suggested that Saddam's government pass 'legislation to prohibit the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.' (I am not making this up.)"  This rather silly idea illustrates the strong French belief in the power of laws; it makes no sense to Americans, but many French people probably think it's a fine idea.  We've often commented that "everything in France is a law" and it really can seem that France is what would happen if you had lawyers take over the country (hmm, but isn't that what happened in the US?).  Lisa was at a trade-show in Paris showing her wine glass tags called "Stemwear".  She had made a French label for the tags, replacing the clever English play on words StemWear  with the more boring (but seemingly clearer) French term "Marque Verres" (Wine Glass Markers).  One woman she was trying to sell to told her the English had to be literally translated into French; it could not be edited.  "That doesn't make sense; it's a play on words in English and won't make sense in French," Lisa explained.  "I know, but it's the law," the woman responded.  "Of course it is," Lisa sighed to herself.

France has a nearly universal system of bill payment that is pretty clever.  The first time you get a bill from the gas company, electric company, phone company, or really just about anywhere, you can either send back a check in payment, or you can send a "RIB".  When you open your bank account, you're given a bunch of these RIB slips which look kind of like checking deposit slips -- they have your name and account number on them, along with the routing number of the bank.  If you attach a RIB to the bill and return it, signed, it functions like a check except that the next time you get a bill, the company sends you a pre-printed RIB as the payment coupon.  You sign the RIB like a check, put it in the envelope and mail it back.  No need to write out a check with the amount, etc.


Slate as usual weighs in with an unusual take on the Iraqi crisis: the cost to the eventual victors of renaming all the things in Iraq that Saddam has, over the years, named after himself.  One example: "Saddam University for Islamic Sciences, founded in 1989 according to the direction of His Excellency the President the Fighter Saddam Hussein (May God preserve and protect him)."

The Onion has a hilarious piece on the next job for the inspectors: North Dakota.  "The stage was set for another international showdown Monday, when chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix confirmed that the remote, isolationist state of North Dakota is in possession of a large stockpile of nuclear missiles ... According to Blix, North Dakota is home to 500 Minuteman III ICBMs and 50 Peacekeeper missiles, giving it one of the heaviest concentrations of the weapons on earth. The biggest discovery made by U.N. inspectors, Blix said, was a missile field at Minot Air Force Base, where they found an 'almost unbelievable' stockpile of warheads ... The man at the center of the controversy is North Dakota's leader, Gov. John Hoeven. Having risen to power in 2000 after amassing tremendous wealth in the private sector, Hoeven lives a life of comfort and excess inside the heavily patrolled North Dakota governor's mansion, a lavish dwelling paid for entirely by the state, while many of his people engage in subsistence farming."

The French news here on Monday (February 17) included an interview with France Info's US correspondent on the worldwide demonstrations against the war on Saturday, February 15.  He remarked that "what strikes me is how the U.S. press seems to be trying to make the demonstrators look like imbeciles."  For instance, he mentioned that despite there being 250,000 French people in the streets of Paris, the Washington Post featured a picture of an outrageously dressed demonstrator.  However, I found that the story noted about the demonstration in London: "The demonstrators seemed to represent a cross-section of modern British society. There were entire families -- fathers and mothers with small children in tow -- and elderly people moving slowly but deliberately. Some wore costumes and some were in jeans. There were veteran activists and people who said they had never been on a march before."  Locally, there was a large demonstration in Lyon which we were warned about in an email from the local U.S. Embassy in Lyon: "Demonstrations in many parts of the world may have an anti-American character. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn into confrontational situations and possibly escalate into violence. U.S. citizens traveling or residing in France should avoid these demonstrations and take common sense precautions."

The February 20 Le Monde carries word of the growing call for a U.S. boycott of French products.  About 20 Republican lawmakers are calling for a boycott, although the Bush Administration is so far keeping its distance; "That would not be appropriate," the paper quotes National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice saying.  Nevertheless, the call has apparently also been heard on radio and television; the story quotes one Nashville radio DJ calling for "a boycott of everything French except French kisses", although the real financial impact of a boycott of French champagne and cheeses by his listeners seems questionable.  More serious is the potential impact on business exports from France, including Airbus airplanes, which Le Monde puts at 26 billion € per year (roughly $28 billion).  Funny how many of the right-wing Republicans who spent years rightly calling for the freedom of the Eastern European satellite states of the former Soviet Union now find that having some Western European satellites who just did what they were told might not be such a bad thing after all.  But Le Monde also relates that the French consulates in New York and Washington have received thousands of supportive emails from Americans and that such boycott calls, while always emotionally satisfying, rarely have any long-term impact.  "Last year, we were the target of a boycott by American Jewish organizations, claiming France was anti-Semitic," related one French importer in America.  "Three months later, no one heard any more about it ... These things never last."

Updates on the Us and the Kids

Kyle is taking ski lessons, after several years of snowboarding (and derisive comments about skiers).  He's finding that he likes it and is doing pretty well after just a couple of lessons.  The lessons are on Mondays at the local ski area (site of the '68 Olympics) and organized by the school and the local town government.  Buses provided by the town pick the kids up at school and cart them up to the ski area.  The equipment, helmets and instructors are paid for by the town.  Kids bring their own lunch, which they eat out in the open after the lessons.  In an unusual move by the school, parent chaperones are invited to accompany the kids and help with lessons.  Mike went on Monday, February 2 and helped with a group of ten "level 1" kids, including Kyle and his friends Simon and Anooj. 

Evan's class is too young to do the ski school, so they still have gym on Thursdays and Fridays.  He's started dance lessons in his gym class.  "I had to dance with a girl," he told Mike the other day.  He still claims to not like school ("They yell at kids too much, and I don't like the lunches," he tells us) but doesn't seem as unhappy as he was in the fall.  He turned seven on January 23. 

Lisa spent a week in sunny (but cold) Tucson, Arizona, at the bead show of the year in early February with three friends.  In addition to amassing a new collection of beads, she got her fill of margaritas and Mexican food.  She also went with our upstairs neighbor, Marie, to the Paris Gift Show, Maison+Objet, at the end of January.  The business she and her friend Jody started is in flux as they explore new product ideas and marketing options.

Mike took the boys skiing at La Plagne the weekend of February 8-9 while Lisa was out of town.  They had tremendous weather (sun and good temperatures) and surprisingly, not many crowds.  Both of the boys are doing pretty well skiing, although the ski trail map had one problem it took Mike a while to figure out.  The ski maps use a system where the easiest runs are shown in green, and the next harder in blue.  Evan can do greens, but usually is too challenged by blues, so we avoid them with him.  They did a couple of green runs that Evan was really having a hard time on.  Mike kept telling him, "Come on, Ev, these are green runs!"  Looking more closely at the trail map, though, he realized it also marked the runs that had snowmaking equipment by highlighting them in yellow.  Duh!  Mike realized then that what every fifth grader knows (but apparently not the graphic designers who did this map) -- when you mix yellow and blue, you get green!  These weren't green runs, but blue runs with snowmaking equipment -- no wonder Evan was having trouble!  One time, Mike had to carry Evan's skis about 100 yards down the hill while Evan slid down that particularly steep part of the mountain on his butt, until it got a bit less challenging!  But all in all, they had a great time and it's pretty impressive to see Kyle, now going on 11, handling runs all by himself, just staying in touch with those of us poking along on the easy runs with one of those handheld radios.  But speaking of aging -- Mike fell on Friday and either bruised or cracked a rib!  He's got pain every time he breathes and it slowed him down a bit, so staying on those easy runs with Evan was probably the right prescription!  Drives home something we've known but been able to ignore: skiing is a sport you get in shape to do, not do to get in shape.  Sigh..

Mike has started thinking about what's next job-wise for him and writing a technical article for Microsoft Developer Network.

The kids start their two-week winter break after school on Saturday morning, February 22.  The Saturday session will feature a carneval celebration of Mardi Gras.  We're planning on staying local and doing some skiing with Kyle's friend, George, who is visiting from the U.S. this week and then with our Icelandic friends, Siggi, Thora, Sindri and Snorri who will be visiting for the second week of break.