love and cheese

I stumbled across a rather strange quote whereby Colette apparently said “Un homme qui n’aime pas le fromage ne peut être bien au lit” (“A man who does not like cheese cannot be good in bed”). Few things pique my attention the way unlikely attributions do, and whilst I can see the rest of the world loving the idea of the glorious Colette dropping bon mots about men and cheese, to a French reader, the simplistic sentence structure and the quip itself seemed inelegant and unworthy of her writing. And “bien au lit”? that doesn’t really translate as “good in bed” — more like “comfortable in bed”, really.

A bit of googling detective work suggests to me that this attribution originated with that tacky book “French Women Don’t Get Fat”… which made me roll my eyes even harder, because it’s such a ridiculous concept. Even more suspiciously, there were no French results for this quote!

So I harnessed the power of the internet to search Colette’s canon for mentions of fromage. Nothing linking cheese and sex showed up in her most famous books, however a slightly more obscure book Paysages et Portraits contained this:

Si j’avais un fils à marier, je lui dirais :
“Méfie-toi de la jeune fille qui n’aime ni le vin, ni la truffe,
ni le fromage, ni la musique.”

If I had a son to marry off, I would tell him:
“Beware the young woman who does not like wine, truffles,
Cheese or music.”

I find it fascinating how her original words seem to have been twisted from celebrating the value of a young woman who loves rich and delicious food when choosing a life partner, to being misquoted (and downgraded, in my opinion) to a blasé statement about men who don’t like cheese being bad in bed.

That said, if anyone can find the original Colette reference, I will take it all back. Maybe Colette had inelegant moments after all!

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run like a diva

Done! 73.5km of running in June. Completed after I went out for a short morning jog (4.5km — my shins are painful so I’m taking it easy). It was pleasant enough and I came home to find that the appartment I wanted on AirBNB was available! I’m so happy, as it was the one I wanted the most, with the best price, best location, and nicest pictures and reviews. I spotted it earlier in the week but had to wait till James was sure to come, then the lady said she was waiting on another booking to be confirmed… eep! But I got it. Let’s hope it’s as perfect as it seems on the website.

Diva in the title is in reference to the Diva Cup that I am getting used to (yah yah girly talk, those who are squeamish re:ladies can stop reading now)… I’m still getting the hang of it, and whilst sometimes it seems to work just great, it sometimes is also really frustrating when it keeps leaking no matter how I tweak it. I rarely if ever had problems with tampons, but even though the cup claims it’s less prone to leaking than any other form I have had some dodgy moments with it, and this I find very stressful. There’s sometime about not being in control of my period that sends me into a panic only experienced as a 13-year-old when I was still getting the hang of it, and I never had that problem with tampons in the last 15 years, so I’m not sure if I’m a convert yet… but I’m willing to keep trying for now. Just don’t invite me to sit on your white couch.

things I will miss about Taiwan

Around 60% of today’s 3-hour class was spent bashing Taiwan and its stupid, illogical, frustrating facets. Some things we all agreed upon, like why the hell the Taiwanese stubbornly ignore the benefits of insulation; some were individual grievances, including my own pet peeve (why do children stare me down coldly when I smile at them — cannot explain why this gets to me but last night I was so close to kicking a child in the shins).

Our teacher patiently took it all, listening to us pummel Taiwan into a bloody, unrecognisable mess, and then said sadly, “I hope that when you leave Taiwan you will not be telling everyone how awful you think we are, we are a small country and we need support.” Nice guilt-trip, but I was quick to reassure her there are many things I love about Taiwan.

This is not actually a list, but just the main thing that I will miss when I leave. I will miss how safe it is here.

I have never lived in a really dangerous place; even King’s Cross in London is fairly tame nowadays. Because I am inexplicably lucky, I have experienced a couple of failed muggings (London, Melbourne) and failed bag-snatchings (Brussels, Beijing). I did had my wallet stolen once in Beijing though, and that once was enough for me. So I can really appreciate how safe things are here — I love, really, really love, that I can leave my iPad and phone on my desk in the library and know that they will be there when I return. Every time I come back from the bathroom, I want to hug the students around me.

But more than that, I love how safe I feel as a woman here. I remember a poster protesting violence against women in the JCR at SOAS (where else…), which quoted a man saying “I want to live in a world where women aren’t afraid of me when I walk down the street behind them”. He would probably think men in Taiwan don’t know how lucky they are. I often walk home late at night, or run on isolated trails, and my path will cross that of a gaggle of young men smoking, or an old man flailing his arms about and muttering to himself. Anywhere else in the world, a thousand scenarios flash through my mind, my heart will beat faster, and I will mentally prepare myself for fight or flight. No, of course nothing (hardly ever) happens in Melbourne or London either, but as a woman you are always aware of how vulnerable you are, and those groups of men who stand in your path probably will never know how menacing they appear.

I am aware that bad things can happen in Taiwan, and sadly have heard several shocking stories from friends here, but I do feel that if something bad did happen to me, it would really be bad luck, as opposed to something born from a culture of violence towards women. Taipei is full of dark alleys, but whenever I turn down a back-street at night and see a man sitting on a scooter smoking and watching me, I see him for precisely what he is: a man sitting on his scooter and having a smoke. If I’m walking home at 2am and the street ahead of me is full of teenagers lurking outside the 7-11, I will walk straight through them without a second thought. I would never, ever do that in London, and it infuriates me to think of the power my fear gives to those men — but common sense just dictates to avoid confrontation and unnecessary risk.

Yes, the rowdy construction workers who squat by the side of the road chewing betel nut still will call out “I love you!” as I walk by — but they are never threatening. I don’t know how much my perceptions and experiences are biased because of being a foreign woman as opposed to a local. I also don’t believe this demonstrates a significant increase in actual respect for women, but I really will miss how safe I feel here. Safe is perhaps not even the right word, because I’m not so deluded as to imagine a complete absence of danger. I just feel like the balance is better maintained here, where the men around me are just normal people, and their threat isn’t increased by mere virtue of their gender, or their race (this feeling extends to all the foreigners living here as well as the locals).

Anyway, this is a bit long, but it’s something I have been thinking about for a long time, and something I will really miss.

character study

Guess who got up at 4:47 today to ensure she had time to do everything she needed to before class at 12:00? yup that’s me. Green tea power.

I am waiting at the airport now, and I wanted to write about some of the characters I had to learn this morning, which have stuck in my head since I first met them yesterday.

First, how misleading Chinese characters can be. A lot of the time you can guess the pronunciation and/or the meaning of a word based on the composition of the character.

AI MEI:

The radical here is the same for both characters, the little box on the left-hand side with a line through it. That radical is the sun radical, and so I can already guess the word will have something to do with light, especially as both characters carry it.

The other parts of the character are most likely going to be there to indicate the sound but may be related to the meaning of the word. The first character’s right-hand element may look familiar even if you have never studied chinese in your life, because it is ai — love — one that pops up all the time in (bad) tattoos and cheesy calligraphied clothes and wall hangings.

The second character’s right-hand element is wei (pronounced way). On its own it means “not yet” but as a character element it is pronounced “MEI” and is most frequently see with a female radical to compose the character mei, little sister.

So I know that the word is related to light, and is probably pronounced aimei, which sounds like “love-little sister”, and looks like it too. So what does it mean? Well in fact the first character means “dim” and the second means “dark”. Together they form the word “vague, unclear”. Nothing like what it looks or sounds like. Oh.

Sometimes, the reason a character sticks in my head nothing to do with the word itself, but the way the teacher decides to explain it. This is HENXIN:

hexin means coldhearted, callous. Because all the definitions are in Chinese, sometimes this means that the teacher will need to give several explanations and examples to get the meaning across, so that all of us understand without having actually translated the word into our own language.

The first character, hen, means fierce. It’s actually the character for wolf, only pronounced differently (normally it’s LANG). The second character is xin (another popular one in the West), which means heart. Together they mean heartless, but whilst its nefarious meaning is obvious, the subtleties needed to be explained further. 

So our teacher explained to us that it meant someone who would do something very evil and not care. Such as, according to her, a woman who would have an abortion, because it is very cruel to kill an unborn child. 

MMMmmm had to sit on my hands and bite my tongue on that one! Some battles are not meant to be held in a small classroom with a teacher who has the power to make or break you. But for someone who is so passionately pro-choice as myself, it was so hard to let that one go. I wanted to yell, AM I DOUBLE EVIL THEN SINCE I HAD TWO ABORTIONS?

So yes, I will always remember henxin.

gender and language

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the “Anglo” culture is from the rest of the world (Anglos, as a lot of my French friends call them, being for the most part people from the UK and Australia, as well as to a lesser degree Americans and other Anglophones with whom I’ve had far less interaction). I’ve discussed it with a few different people, and it was very interesting to read this article about how language can shape the view we have of the world.

It’s just the theoretical kind of crap I like to put out there, but… would the absence of gendered nouns in English go some way in explaining why the Anglos are so cold and restrained compared to the Europeans? Of course, I am writing this on an English-language blog, so I should probably hold off bashing them too much… but I liked several of the concepts in this article.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to.

I do have a tendency to make sweeping generalisations, but this all rings quite true to me. Similarly, many of my experiences in East Asia, where nouns do not have genders, have led to that same feeling that “us Eurotrash” have more passionate, involved and emotional reactions to the world around us. In a similar vein, in a discussion I had with a French friend the other day, we were saying how bizarrely many Australians and English we have met tend to have a very defined sense of what is WOMAN and what is MAN (think Sex and the City vs football and beer) and the two roles don’t mingle or overlap that much, even appearing highly suspicious of each other. Maybe if gender was a more casual thing, assigned to objects used on a daily basis, there wouldn’t be such a rigid concept of Man and Woman being two entirely separate entities, and the interactions would be a little more comfortable, fluid and mutually respectful, without either sex losing any of its masculinity or femininity.

Again… it entertains me to think of things in this way, but it’s probably easy to disprove both my ideas and those of the article. Regardless, I enjoy considering alternate theories and approaches to the world even when they are unlikely; I have always been delighted with Bernard Werber‘s books on the Missing Link, when he gives the (entirely fictional) solution to how Man evolved from apes. In his science-fiction novels Le Pere de nos Peres and L’Ultime Secret, we discover that Man was born of the taboo union of an ape… and a pig! Whilst scientifically questionable, it is a hilarious and fascinating way of explaining certain things, such as why certain religions forbid the consumption of pork and why we have pink, hairless skins.

There’s no right or wrong answer, I suppose, but I still think that a familiarity with gendered languages might go some way to explaining a different approach to gender.