Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Hello, Kindly advise if your company has the license or capability to execute a mutil million contract supply project for the Government of Iraq. kindly furnish me your response. Thank you and treat very urgent. Looking forward to an early response. Ali Hassan. (Text of an email received twice in four minutes.)
Ooh! Ooh!  Me! I want the mutil (sic) million contract with the Government of Iraq.
You have exceeded limit of your email account, helpdesk requires your quick regeneration survey to create space. Click link below to upgrade:
http://aminos.by/wp-admin/js/01/. You need to upgrade for new space otherwise you will not be able to send or receive message.
Helpdesk Support. (Text of an email received at least once a day for the past month.)
Oh no! Here’s my password and social security number!  Please don’t turn my email off!  
It’s a sad state of affairs when the scam artists get so lazy they can’t come up with anything original. I want to tell Ali Hassan that I now understand why his country is in such a sad state. If Ali is the best swindler that Iraq has to offer, there’s little hope for the country.
A couple of months ago, I received a message from Irina L, who sent along a photo of herself in a very skimpy outfit. Irina was 22 years old and, to put it succinctly, comely and possibly surgically enhanced. She was writing from her Ukrainian village because my friend Joe (everyone has a friend named Joe) had given her my name and email address. My friend Joe thought I was just the man to help Irina out of a bind.  
Irina, it seems, had done all that was necessary to come to America.  Her papers were in order, and she’d purchased a one-way airline ticket to get to New York.  But the situation in her country had gone from bad to worse, and now the airlines wanted another $500. Could I help?  
I wrote back to Irina asking for more info. What kind of visa did she have? Tourist, student? Was she asking for refugee status? Irina said she had a green card visa—something I wasn’t familiar with—that would enable her to apply for immigrant status shortly after her arrival in the US. And then I noticed Irina’s mail seemed to be coming from an NGA IP address. Hmmm. How had Irina traveled so quickly from the Ukraine to Nigeria? Was it possible that Irina was actually a Nigerian scammer?  No, really? How disappointing.
I wrote Irina an accusatory email, basically telling her/him to get stuffed, although I used a different word.
Irina’s offended response the next morning read: Dear Thierry, Please stop all commubnicating (sic) with me. You are not a very nice man.
I’m crushed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


About 18 years ago I became an orphan. I wasn’t even aware of it.  My father had just died, and a friend who attended the funeral said, in French, “Et voila. Tu es orphelin...”
The word ‘orphan’ is fraught with Dickensian sentimentality. It is almost always applied to children, particularly small children, who have lost their parents through a monstrous tragedy--an airplane crash, an insurgency, a fire in a nursing home. The word’s origins are straightforward: it is a late Middle English noun derived from the Late Latin orphanus, which means destitute or without parents. The Latin comes from the Greek orphanós, or bereaved.
The term orphan is rarely applied to adults; it has Dickensian overtones and lives in James Michener's home for the poor in Pennsylvania, or John Irving's Cider House. It smacks of tragedy and abuse, and yet it is the fate of most humans.
A true orphan lacks not just mother and father but family as a whole. An abundance of siblings who are alive and well waters orphancy down. So does an excess of money. Orphans, ideally, are small, pale, have runny noses and worn shoes. They exist on the edge of society and are taken care of by draconian trustees who are in it for the bucks and perversions.
But in real life, most orphans have jobs and wives or husbands, children, friends. The fact that they have lost both parents is not, in the word of Oscar Wilde, carelessness. We outlive our parents and not much thought is given to the effect this may have on a grown adult. Personally, I think it's a staggering change in one's life.
For many, many years, I have believed that you cannot be truly free until your parents die--not a popular opinion, I assure you. But I think it's only then  that we can fully seek a life of our own without fear of reproach, criticism, disappointment or judgement. Most of us are so imbued with our own parents' expectations that any major decision to be made contains a strain of, "What will mom and dad think?" Often, this alone will sway our choices--we want to be what they wanted us to be, regardless of our own age and desires.  More and more, as the elderly live increasingly long lives, we find ourselves taking care of them and--still fearful of their opinions--delaying our own dreams. What happens to a 60-year-old with 90-year-old parents? Sandwiched between having to work and raise children and, once this is done, assuming responsibility for elderly parents, he or she finds that the time to realize one's own expectations has suddenly vanished. 
When my mother died in France some 23 years ago, I brought my father to the US. Being raised in the UK and having spent many years here, he largely led his own life--until his Alzheimer's became increasingly pronounced. 
When this occurred, my life went on hold. There were midnight calls; his thoughts were such that he would often wake in the night confused and terrified. Once, while on vacation, I received a phone message telling me he had gotten involved in an altercation and was going to be evicted from his apartment in his retirement community. I drove 1000 miles in a day to find him strapped in a hospital bed; this bright, intelligent man had overstepped the bounds of what is allowed for the elderly and been relegated to the role of raving lunatic in a second-rate clinic.
For a while, every decision I made had him at the forefront. When he died following a fall from a window in an assisted living  facility, I was horrified, guilty, relieved. The last emotion was the hardest to accept. I carried his ashes back to France and let them go where those of my mother lay in Paris'  Père Lachaise cemetery. Only then--and now an orphan--did I feel I could resume my own life.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” H.L. Mencken
This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s totally silly, and yet somewhere in the contiguous 48, there’s a Bible-thumper who will read those words and rejoice because yes, there are people who believe the writings in the Bible were originally in English--and American English, at that--and that God spoke like an angry Quaker with thees and thous and thines.
English, some believe, is the second most complex language after Cantonese. I can’t vouch for that, since my linguistic abilities—other than this adopted language—are limited to French, a smattering of Spanish, and about a hundred words of Japanese I learned in martial arts. Nevertheless, I am a passionate believer in learning the tongue of your adopted home. One of my most notable pet peeves is this country’s willingness to bend over backwards, language-wise.
My sainted mother learned English when we came to the States. She spoke it awkwardly at best. The language’s vagaries infuriated her, the cheap and ship and chip and cheep and sheep rolled off her tongue sounding exactly alike. But she never stopped trying to differentiate them one from another.
I do not understand why; in the past 20-or-so years, the US has gone out of its way to weaken its language base, to become a nation of idiots incapable of using an ATM unless the instructions are in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese or Portuguese. I do not understand why speaking English is not a basic requirement of citizenship, why immigrants seeking to become Americans are not required to have basic English reading and writing skills. I am tired of dealing with store clerks and fast food employees who are incapable of filling the simplest order or providing the most basic of information. I don’t understand why we’re willing to sacrifice a brilliant, vibrant language and get nothing in return.
Europeans have long known that a nation’s language is one of its primary sources of strength, pride and unity. This is why breakaway nationalist movements, be they Basque, Tamil, Breton, Flemish, or any one of a hundred others, always rally around their own tongues. Nothing binds like a shared dialect, a way to communicate with others of your clan while excluding others.
The French, who truly love their mother tongue and rightly consider it the most beautiful in the world, have an Académie that everyone not French finds risible. The Académie comprises France’s most notable writers, poets, playwrights and journalists. It works to protect the French language from accepting too many foreign terms at work and in the arts and entertainment. This is not an easy job, and the Académie has not always been successful. The onslaught of computerese alone constantly threatens the integrity of the language. But the academicians have managed, in spite of it all, to maintain French as the official language of France (fancy that!). It may be fighting a losing battle in the information age, but it will see to it that French does not become Franglais.
Here, sadly, not so much. Our willingness to put English in second place after whatever languages is brought in by new arrivals will not benefit us, in spite of the false assertion that a flood of foreign terms make a language richer.  Some words, yes. Think gestalt, savoir-faire or my personal favorite, schadenfreude. Most other words, no.
OK, all from me.  Hasta la bye bye.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jean Octave Sagnier

My father, Jean Octave Sagnier, died on this date 18 years ago. He was a good wise man who without being secretive hated talking about himself. He was an architectural student working as the traveling secretary of a wealthy Brit when the war broke out and he walked from the south of France to St. Malo in Brittany, then hopped a boat to England so he could join the upstart general Charles de Gaulle and become a Free French. The Free French are largely forgotten now. They were the ones, men and women, who left France when it capitulated to the Germans, and traveled to the UK and North Africa in response to de Gaulle’s call. De Gaulle assigned my father a mobile radio station which roamed occupied France and relayed Allied news to the maquis and other underground forces. He never fired a shot during the war but was nevertheless awarded the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honor, for deeds that I do not know. He’d never told me this. After his death, I found the medal in the back of his desk drawer.
He met my mother in the summer of 1945 in Marseilles. She was Free French too and they conceived me that very night in January in the back of a US Army truck.
He was estranged from his family. I would be an adult before I was told I had uncles and an alcoholic aunt who died of the disease in the UK. He lost a younger brother during the V2 bombings of London. He never, as I recall, mentioned his own mother. I have an aged family photo taken in the 20s, three boys and a girl posing with a man and a woman standing at attention. A much later shot of my father shows a painfully thin young man wearing boxing gloves and looking not at all ready to fight.
It was snowing when I was born in the American Hospital in Paris, and the barely liberated capital was devoid of food. Regardless, my mother craved a ham omelet. My father, using the military issue Colt he had never fired, forced the hospital cook at gunpoint to go into his own larder for eggs, butter and meat. He fixed the omelet himself, ate it, made another and served it to her. She complained it wasn't hot enough, and that would be the tenet of their relationship. They were married 46 years, nursing each other through poverty, joblessness, an eventual move to the US, cancer.
He died five years after my mother. I carried his ashes in an oak box from the US to France, and when I went through airport customs the douaniers  were very curious as to what I was cradling in my arms. One of them took the box, shook it. It rattled as if there were pebbles inside. When I told him he was manhandling my father's remains, he turned sheet-white, handed the box to his superior officer who in turn gave it back to me. I said these were the ashes of a Free French and the man saluted.
He was not a natural father. The growing up and education of a son baffled him. He was unlikely to give advice, and did so only at my mother's prompting. He taught by doing, showing, and patience. We never played catch, never went fishing together, did not bond in the accepted way. There were few family vacations, a limited number of father/son experiences shared. He was a good and quiet man who witnessed and took part in moments of history that are now almost forgotten.
He told two jokes, neither particularly well, but each telling brought tears to his eyes. He died a bad death and I hope he didn't suffer and I think of him every day.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Lunch in Hell

“Frijoles negros?”  The Latina lady is short, rather squat, and wears a hairnet. She is wielding a ladle and the Anglo man in front of me shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “Black beans.”
“Si,” says the lady, “Frijoles negros!” Her smile is on the verge of being strained.
“No no!” Says the man. “Black beans!  Back beans!” He speaks louder, like people do when addressing someone not of their shores. I’ve always been fascinated by the widely held belief that if you increase the volume of your voice, people will miraculously grasp what you’re trying to communicate.
The Latina lady loses her smile. The line is backing up; I imagine she’s been there since eight this morning; it’s hot back there behind the counter and her feet hurt. She points to the pan of black beans and enunciates very slowly, as if to a challenged child, “Fri-joles-ne-gros.”
The man too is losing patience. This could take a long time to resolve so I intercede and say to him, “Frijoles Negros are black beans.”
He looks at me, at the Mexican lady, back at me. “Then why the hell didn’t she say so!”
I am having lunch in hell.
This is what happened. My friend Stacey and I were headed for a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant we both liked but hadn’t been to in more than a year. We drove, parked and… no restaurant. The place had vanished.
We looked around. Close by was something called the Cantina Mexicana, or perhaps Mexicana Cantina, one of the two. The menu displayed reasonable prices for standard rice-and-beans fare. We went in.
It was stupidly noisy, and by that I mean the restaurant seemed to have been designed with aural destruction in mind. Hard surfaces everywhere, perfect for reverberating the clatter of pots and pans. We should have turned around and left, but didn’t. Sometimes you have to suffer for good food. We got in line behind the black bean guy.
I can’t tell you what I ordered, but I do know that it looked exactly like what Stacey ordered, though we’d chosen different dishes. There was a vat of black beans, another of tan beans, and another still of beans of an indescribable color. I pointed to various vats and was given a splash of each dish. White rice, brown rice, what may have been a taco or an enchilada shell, shredded chicken, or was it pork? A spoonful of diced tomatoes and a large plate of corn chips.  
As soon as we sat down, the racket increased. One employee was dragging wooden chairs across the tile floor, two at a time, in what seemed a rhythmic pattern matching the music raining from ceiling speakers. Twenty feet away, the Latina lady was dealing with another Español-challenged American. A child was bawling. No, make that two bawling children at separate tables, as well as one shouting busboy and an eight-year-old catapulting frijoles across the room with his plastic spoon. The food in my plate had run together to form a glutinous brownish mass that tasted somewhat like the inside of a vegetarian burrito.  I went into a sort of catatonic state from which Stacey had to rouse me.
The thing is, I should know better. I’ve eaten in horrible places all over the world. This wasn’t the absolute worst--that was in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, and I still shudder when I think of that meal. 
This? It was a close third, or maybe even a second.