Quipu 11

This is the March 2000 issue of an irregularly published personalzine, by Vicki Rosenzweig, 33 Indian Road, 6-R, New York, NY 10034 (although this issue is being written and published in Seattle, for distribution at Corflu) or vr@redbird.org. It is available for the fannish usual, and is copyright 2000 by Vicki Rosenzweig. For those of you who have been wondering, itís pronounced "key-poo eh-lev-in." Thanks to Alan Rosenthal and Janice Murray for the computer and the time.

My sweetie was kidnapped by aliens.

They cut him open and scraped a sample out of his bones. Or so we were told: all he remembers is waking up and being relieved to see me there, but the scar is fairly good evidence.

Then they made him come to the alien embassy three times a week to be rebuilt. The new version isnít quite as good as the old--heís less flexible, and snores. (So much for superior alien technology.) And he still has to visit the alien embassy three times a week, to be stretched on the alien machines. He comes home sore, and on the good days he says that itís not as bad as he feared it would be, or itís less painful than when it started. Heís getting used to it, and has some of his flexibility back.

Well, fans tend to be inquisitive. I made an appointment to visit the aliens myself. They made me welcome and showed me around the alien world: here are the other denizens of our planet, here are the machines we use, hereís where we wash, here are the storage lockers. They even have a pool.

I asked more questions. One of the aliens--one in a red shirt, so heís probably not going to survive--offered to show me how the machines they use to alter the human body work. You sit here, and do that, weíll start it on a low setting. Okay, and for this one you stand up, and do that, and weíll measure your vital signs as we go.

The friendly red-shirted alien told me "We expect great things of you."

So now I go to the gym three times a week, too. The aliens are all friendly and welcoming, nobody ever makes fun of me, and I even enjoy what the machines are doing to me.

He looks charmingly like Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

I donít even remember why I decided to go to Paris, the first time.

Maybe it was just the cheap airfare I found. Maybe itís because I explained my trip to Hong Kong as "Paris will be there later." Paris is a nice destination, but I hadnít dreamed of it, I didnít know anyone there. No matter. KLM was offering cheap tickets, and I had the vacation time, so I booked the flight.

Once it was booked, I got excited. I bought a phrasebook and muttered over it on the A train until complete strangers asked me where I was going, I told people about my plans, I asked for advice: half of rec.arts.sf.fandom was enjoying my adventure vicariously.

Then I got sick. I thought at first I had scratched my cornea, because my vision was blurry in one eye. The eye doctor sent me to a specialist. (Until then, Iíd thought ophthalmology was a specialty.) The specialist looked at my eye more closely, praised my eye doctorís quick action, and told me I had an inflamed optic nerve.

Three days and an MRI later, we were scheduling IV steroids. No Paris trip, not that week. (Not much desire to go, by then, half-blind in one eye and worried about whether Iíd get my sight back.)

Fast forward three months, and my vision is fine, Iíve gotten a refund from KLM (amazing what a letter from a doctor, saying that you cannot leave the New York area, can do), but Iím still in New York.

Now I wanted to go to Paris because I felt cheated: I was all set, then I got sick, and I had to stay home. It was like being told I couldnít go to a particular party: even if I might have chosen to stay home, I resented being forced.

I became the little engine who could: scouring the Internet for discounts, studying the phrasebook, thinking of more and more things I wanted to do and reasons why I wanted to go to Paris. I still couldnít find a suitable traveling companion, but I wasnít going to let that stop me. I finally found a package deal for airfare and a weekís hotel in November, well off-season but the weather should be decent.

Amazingly, Paris managed to live up to most of those expectations. I discovered that I knew--and especially could read--more French than Iíd realized, whether from English mystery novels, analogy with Spanish, or reading the bilingual labels on packaged foods. Even better, I discovered that you can get by, for simple purposes, with few or no verbs. When the answer to "Bonjour, monsieur, parlez-vous anglais?" was no, I could get by by muttering "carte telephone?" with a questioning intonation. When people realize you donít speak much French, they donít throw complicated sentences at you.

My first night in Paris, after buying a weekly Metro pass that I technically wasnít entitled to (itís supposed to be limited to residents of the area, but they donít check), I made my way to a tiny bistro near my hotel, smiled, managed a greeting, and ordered one of the set menus, with smiles, pointing, and guesswork. Many places have two or three menus, at different prices, depending on how hungry you are or whether you want a fancy meal. I ate all sorts of things I normally wouldnít, having decided that for one week I was going to eat good French food and not worry about the ingredients. If we had bacon at home as good as what was in my country salad, Iíd have a hard time not eating a lot more of it. "Faux filet" with a tarragon cream sauce turned out to be steak. For the cheese course (I would never have thought to order a cheese course, if it hadnít been included), they brought me an assorted plate, with one good enough that I asked the name, wrote it down, and brought a whole cheese home with me. I looked into it later, when I had the net handy, and discovered that Livarot, which even Andy had never heard of (he is much more of a cheese enthusiast than I), was the most popular cheese in France a century ago. A deserved popularity, I would say. In between salad and potatoes, steak and cheeses, I had a delightful, fractured, bilingual conversation with the man at the next table, who started by asking what I was writing and wound up telling me about his relatives in Florida and a war monument I ought to see while I was in Paris. When my French and his English failed, I took out my phrasebook: once he saw me hunting through the back for translations, he did the same, and I think we mostly understood each other. (I didnít visit any war memorials, unless you count a fast look at the Arc de Triomphe and a bemused one at La Defense, but it wasnít for lack of enthusiasm on his part.) I let him convince me to have the special dessert of the day, without bothering to ask what it was. It turned out to be Calvados sorbet, something I never would have chosen, and quite enjoyed. The pleasures of serendipity. Both my temporary neighbor and the proprietor of the restaurant seemed actively pleased by my halting French, which left me wondering what sort of Americans, if any, they were used to meeting.

With an unlimited Metro pass and a good pair of walking shoes, I was all set to wander the streets of Paris. Berthillon, on the Ile St. Louis, does not have the worldís best ice cream--the fruit sorbets are superior, but the chocolate doesnít live up to Ben and Jerryís, never mind my favorite ice cream shopís. Still, it was a fine excuse for a destination and a wander around the Ile: I went back twice in the course of my visit, for cones to wander around the narrow streets with. The fruit flavors--berry and peach and melon--do live up to the reputation. The Metro turned out to be a destination as well as a means of transport. I was impressed by the ornamentation. By the time I got there, it wasnít surprising that thereís a Rodin statue on the platform of the station that serves the Museť Rodin, but I couldnít have predicted that Jussieu would be done up to look like a station on the Cairo subway, for two weeks only, as a celebration of the centenary of the Metro. Arts et Metiers station is itself a work of art, with the walls and ceiling covered in polished copper, and models of technological wonders, from a balloon to a Telstar, inset in portholes in the walls.

Since it was part of my package, I took a boat ride on the Seine. It was a very touristy thing, of course, but fun. Iíd been in Paris just long enough to find myself thinking "Iíve been there!" as we went past the Ile St. Louis, and as I got to see a sculpture garden Iíd wandered in a few hours earlier from the river, but not long enough to be bored by the trip: from the river, you couldnít see the scaffolding that was covering part of the faÁade of Notre Dame, but I got a very nice picture of a miniature Statue of Liberty on the riverbank, with the Eiffel Tower behind it.

Unlike the similar boats on the Thames, they didnít assault us with constant narrative and bad jokes: just a quick description, repeated (with slight changes) in French, English, and Spanish.

As long as I was being a tourist, I went up the Eiffel Tower at sunset. The view is worth the money, though the signs telling you how many hundred or thousand kilometers your hometown is in some direction seemed a little silly, and there was nothing I wanted at the souvenir shop.

I did get a souvenir because of the tower, even if not of it: I realized after dinner that I hadnít seen my hat since I went up there, and it was a cold night. For 49 francs (call it eight dollars), I have a hat that is warm and reasonably attractive, one garment to which I can say "Paris" when asked where I got it.

I spent one morning with a woman I knew from the Internet. Arranging that was one of the few times I needed a whole sentence of French: her husband answered the phone, and I managed to come up with the French for "Hello, I would like to speak to Jo Ann." We wandered around an outdoor market, where she did her grocery shopping for the week and I bought a couple of Elstar apples, just because Iíd never even heard of the variety, and dried apricots to snack on: "cent grammes díabricots, si vous plait." That was enough fun that I spent my last morning in Paris on a more determined wander through two outdoor markets, and added a can of patť to the bread and berries and tangerines and more Elstar apples that I hoped to be able to eat before my plane landed in New York 36 hours later.

The Louvre was one place that my guidebook came in handy: it referred me to the side entrance, which let me skip the lines (though theyíre not very long in late November), and assured me that I could in fact get a good long look at the Mona Lisa by standing a little to either side, while one person after another waited to stand right in front, snapped a photo, and wandered off.

The oddest discovery of the week was that French seems to be inherently quieter than English. Not only was the conversation around me quiet to my English-speaking and New York perceptions, but I noticed that I spoke more quietly in French, whether I was stumbling over wording, pleased with myself to be sure of the French for some such commonplace as a pot of Oolong tea, or offering a memorized sentence from my phrasebook, than when I spoke English, even to the same people in the same context.

Probably the most foolish thing I did was climbing all the way to the top of Notre Dame. The climb partway up is strenuous enough, spiral stairs all the way, but at least there were a few places I could rest. After a good look at the view, and a few photos of gargoyles, I looked at the sign warning, in French and English, that it was another 125 steps and strictly limited occupancy, ignored the way my knees had felt on the first climb, and went on up. It was narrower and steeper, and there were no landings this time. The view was a little better, but not significantly: I did this mostly because I might never be back there, or might not be able to make the climb at all if I do return. The do-it-while-I-can mindset is better than giving up and not doing things because they seem difficult, but it can be overdone: my calves ached for a couple of days after the climb down all those narrow stairs.

After all that, I decided it was a good time to walk down the Champs Elysee. The holiday lights were very pretty; the rest was expensive and oddly soulless, a mix of Mercedes dealerships and fancy jewelers with the Hard Rock Cafe, McDonaldís, and the Virgin Megastore. There were a few French, or at least French-named cafes, but they didnít seem like the sort of place I belonged: I had dinner that night at a Thai restaurant near my hotel, and handed the fork back to the waiter out of sheer habit. When I get homesick overseas, I seem to seek out east Asian food. Itís a good thing I didnít get homesick in Hong Kong, where I ate nothing else.

The Museť Rodin was the first thing on my list when I was planning this trip, and I went there on the first sunny morning, arriving before it opened. I was the first visitor in, giving me the chance to look at the sculptures in relative isolation. The best thing about the museum is the garden: Iíd seen the Thinker before, of course, but not with blue sky behind it. I also took pictures of a Paris gas station: one gas pump standing on the sidewalk, a delightful and sensible miniaturization.

One of the bonuses of a Metro pass is that it includes the funicular railway up Montmartre. I took in the view, wandered around a bit, and eventually found myself back at the bottom of the hill after tea and a pastry at a local arts center. Since it was essentially free, I rode up again just so I could enjoy the ride back down. Best of all, at the base of the funicular is a double-decker Viennese carousel, with rocking horses.

One of the reasons I went to Paris was to eat, of course. I particularly remember a charming bistro named Le Petit Picard, tucked away in winding side streets. I had to ask for directions at the hotel, and when I told the man where I was going, he seconded the recommendation Iíd gotten online. The onion soup was wonderful, rich and thick, with cheese toast floating on top. One of those dishes that becomes your definition for a food, a standard few other places will meet. I also tried a trick Iíd learned from someone at the Thai place, mixing the harsh red wine with Paris tap water, about which the best can be said is that thereís nothing really wrong with it: the combination was tastier than either alone, and not seriously intoxicating.

I have to go back, of course. Not just for the Picasso museum, which I didnít even realize Iíd missed until I was over the Atlantic on the way home, or the chocolate shop Jon Singer recommended, where I want to buy more tea-flavored chocolates, but because I found myself thinking, on my last evening, that now I know enough to do Paris right. I understand the Metro, I have a feeling for what is near which, and where I want to stay: on or near the rue Mouffetard in the fifth arrondissement, with the two markets and the friendly tea shop and the East Asian immigrant who sold me an onion quiche for a late lunch. And to go up the Eiffel tower in the daytime, and see what the Tuileries Gardens look like when theyíre green, and maybe even get further out of Paris than the suburban rail took me, though the Museum of Prehistory was fine and good for my self-confidence: not a word of English in the place, and I did just fine, even if I did answer another visitorís hopeful "Ņhabla usted espaŮol?" with "oui." The outdoor Christmas market across the road from that museum was a fine place to wander with a sandwich from a local bakery, where I learned that I do like mayonnaise, Iíd just never had it before. Besides, it seemed as though half of Paris was being cleaned and refurbished to be ready by January 2000, and I want to see it with the scaffolding off.

Welcome to the Century of the Iguana

Over on the Discworld, this is the Century of the Fruitbat. Fruitbats are fine, but this is a different world. Here on our round Earth, we have just entered the Century of the Iguana. The previous century, which ended in 1999, was, of course, the Century of the Tree Weasel, appropriate for an era when we seemed to spend a lot of time up in the air, trying to sneak up on each other. Iguanas are less energetic, but also less treacherous: with a bit of luck weíll have a calm, quiet hundred years to adjust to all the recent changes. If weíre not so lucky, our iguana may plummet off the nearest cliff into the Singularity.

If youíre muttering "wait a minute, there was no year zero," youíre sneaking up on the point, in a very Century of the Tree Weasel way: There was no year zero, but nowhere is it written that centuries have to begin at any particular time: a century is a series of 100 years, no more and no less. There are several New Years, celebrated in an array of ways, in any series of 365 days. The twentieth century has a year to go, but the Century of the Iguana has already started.

Sheís got a black belt in tiramisu.

The computer store supplies grooming fish. Thatís what it says. It doesnít say who it supplies them to, or what you, or anyone, would do with grooming fish that you couldnít do just as well with a hair brush or some good scented soap. Maybe fish are what you use to groom a keyboard: mine could certainly use something.

A Twice-Told Tale

If J. R. R. Tolkien had written a space opera, it might be Pat Murphy's There and Back Again.

Plot isnít the point of fiction, of course, but it turns out that The Hobbit makes a fine framework for a space opera, complete with clones, wormholes, alien artifacts, pirate, and ship-eating spiders. Bilbo becomes a norbit named Bailey, and a convenient McGuffin brings the adventuring clones to his quiet, agrarian home in the asteroid belt.

From there, it's pure space opera, but with a twist. Just as reader of Lafferty's Space Chantey can predict the plot from Homer, most SF fans will know where they are in Murphy's story as it reflects Tolkien's: if this is where they meet the goblins, that must be Beorn, though the parallels are never forced. The ending is exactly what Bilbo would have wished, what the reader of any comfort book expects. The tone is light, sometimes humorous, though Murphy isnít trying to be Terry Pratchett, any more than sheís trying to be Tolkien. In particular, the 'pataphysicians are a delight: a school of philosophers who embrace confusion, who will cheerfully admit that the reason 'pataphysics is said to be the best defense in the universe is because a 'pataphysician knows that there is nothing to defend against, and thus won't try to fight off anyone or anything.

I have no idea how this book would look to someone who hasn't read Tolkien; if you haven't read The Hobbit and pick this up, let me know what you think.

Letters of comment are welcome at the usual address or any plausible facsimile, or on paper.

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