Sunday, July 31, 2016

I’ve Got The British Blues

Working out of London last week, I started feeling blue. Don’t get me wrong, I love the capital of Great Britain. It’s bustling, bountiful, beautiful … But I wonder how long it will last.

Britain will change as it exits the EU, that’s for certain. As you know, on June 23, the British went to the polls and decided to exit the EU. It may take a few years or a decade, but I fear the country won’t be the same again.

Ever since the Chunnel opened more than 20 years ago, connecting France and the U.K. with underground rails, the two countries became closer culturally, economically, socially. I began to think of Merry Old England as a state, rather than a country. In travel time, going from Paris to London is like going from Philadelphia to New York City. (For those of you and me who can’t keep straight the difference between Britain, England, and the U.K., see this hilarious video by Foil, Arms & Hog.)

While I don’t think the U.K. will cut the cord and close the Chunnel, sooner or later we’ll feel the island nation break with the continent. We’ll hear fewer French accents among the workers in London, see fewer British students at universities in Europe. The financial district, Canary Wharf, will suffer as banks and brokers try to find another city to serve as the capital of Europe.

In the U.S., the Founding Fathers decided that the states were better together than apart, but that didn’t prevent the Civil War. Texas talks about seceding, but that’s Texas Talk. Let’s remember what the founders said: “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one. We have our differences, still, but we have learned (the hard way) to work them out, peacefully, democratically.

There are some benefits of togetherness: economists call it economies of scale. The U.S. is enormous, and in world affairs, size matters. My fear is that once out of the EU, Britain will shrink in stature and size. Twenty years from now, will the U.K. still matter? Will London be anything more than the capital of England?
Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes the blog Paris, Pittsburgh, And More, about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, email me at rose.burke89 "at", or Google+.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

American Ballet In Paris

Walpurgisnacht Ballet
Châtelet Theater
Hunting around for something to do one evening, we discovered tickets reserved months ago for the ballet. I was actually looking forward to a movie in the neighborhood.

My daughter expressed interest in seeing a ballet in January, something I’ve never done in Paris. But instead of booking to see a French ballet, she picked an evening with the New York City Ballet at the Châtelet Theater. Oh well.

I wanted to see French ballet in the country that made dance into an art form. (See “The King Who Invented Ballet.”)

That night, July 16, we were treated to four works—Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Sonatine, La Valse, and Symphony in C. These were all created by George Balanchine (1904-1983), who founded the company in 1948. The intention of the director of NYCB was to tell Paris: this is the way Balanchine does it, this is the way it’s done in America.

I didn't realize that where French ballet left off, the Russians took it to new dimensions. And one Russian, George Balanchine, took this dance form to the U.S. and made it American in the years after WWII. His influence led to the popularity of ballet in the U.S. and the founding of ballet schools and companies throughout the country--including the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater in 1969.

I told my daughter Balanchine was modern, but that's not right. It's certainly not classical ballet. You know something’s up when you see ballerinas wearing limp dresses rather than tutus. The stage is sparse. Compared with French ballerinas, the ones in this troupe take the stage rather than flutter across it. The dances tend to express abstract themes rather than tell stories. Balanchine is considered “neoclassical.”

Yet the last number, Symphony in C, was a classical crowd pleaser, a joyous romp with tutus and tiaras. The crowd roared with amazing applause, and wouldn’t let the troupe leave the stage. Did these American ballet slippers leave a mark on Paris?
Symphony in C
Châtelet Theater

Going out to see a live performance in Paris can be expensive, but I’ll give you a tip. At the Châtelet, buy the seats with an obstructed view. Our tickets were 35 euros each, and we don’t feel we missed a thing, even though we couldn’t see the left edge of the stage. To get a good deal, book in advance.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fireworks And Freedom

On Thursday, we celebrated Bastille Day by watching our town’s stunning display of fireworks. As people gathered at sunset, I had this warm, fuzzy feeling. Here we were, people of all colors, and by the looks of it, all faiths, assembling peacefully together to have a good time. Live and let live.

France and the U.S. have much in common (so much so that we love to debate the differences). Our celebrations of independence from rule by monarchies are only 10 days apart. We both have republics, private ownership, democracy, capitalism, and a number of individual freedoms—though they might vary in degree or application. The U.S. has red, white, and blue, and France has blue, white, and red.

When I woke up on Friday to hear about the horrible attack in Nice, I thought again about another thing France and the U.S. have in common: the threat of terrorism.

It’s hard to know how to respond. One of my U.S. blogger friends believes in counteracting random acts of terrorism with random acts of kindness. (Read her post here.) That beats giving into fear, which is exactly what the terrorists want.

For now, I think I’ll respond by remembering those moments when we stood together in the park on July 14 in awe of the magic of fireworks, and in celebration of freedom. And remembering those people in Nice who never made it home from their night out.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Monessen And Le Monde

Monessen is a small town south of Pittsburgh.
Source: Google Maps.
Over the past week, I've been reading and hearing about Monessen—a rusty former steel town in the Pittsburgh area—everywhere. The story not only went viral, it went global.

Through Google, I counted more than 1,700 references to the city in the English-language media worldwide, from The Guardian in London to the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. In France, I saw reports on French television and in Libération and Le Monde.

What was it about Monessen, home now to just 7,720 people and 300 blighted homes, that attracted the world’s attention?

The answer is Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. president. The mayor of Monessen, a Democrat, invited him to come—and how could Mr. Trump refuse such a breakdown in party discipline?

On his visit on June 28, Mr. Trump spoke about his policy on world trade, which he said would bring steel production back to the U.S. and save towns like Monessen. But wait a minute—bring steel production back to the U.S.?
Trump speaking in Monessen

Since I was born in Pittsburgh, I too long believed that since steel production left the area, it left the country. But that's not right. About 71 percent of the steel used last year in the U.S. was made in the U.S., according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, in an article submitted by Tim Worstall to Forbes magazine, “Donald Trump's Monessen Steel Plant Wasn't Killed By China.”

Mr. Worstall explains that when Monessen was booming, the steel industry in the U.S. focused on making virgin steel from raw materials, using blast furnaces. Then along came innovation in the form of the company Nucor, which found it was much cheaper (and thus more profitable) to recycle old steel into new using arc furnace technology. That put blast furnaces, like the one in Monessen, out of business.

Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter
Blighted houses in Monesesen.
Now some will say the problem was more complex than that. Even then, am I the only one who has a hard time seeing how a change in world trade agreements will resurrect Monessen?

I have to give it to Mr. Trump for one thing. He accepted the mayor’s invitation and visited the town, which President Obama did not. Who knows if the Republican candidate actually cares about the people of Monessen, but for one week in decades, a lot of people filled Main Street. Like the good old days.

Monessen started out having grand, global designs. The town, which sits on the bend of the Monongahela River, gets it name from the first three letters of the river's name and the German city of Essen, famous around the world as a producer of iron and steel.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Paris-Pittsburgh People: Greg Grefenstette

Pittsburgher in Paris, Greg Grefensette,
with his wife Irène on a recent visit to China
It’s amazing how many stories about Americans in Paris have to do with romance. And Pittsburgher Greg Grefenstette’s story is no exception.

I met Greg at a meeting of Paris Speech Masters, a Toastmasters club where I am a member and he came a guest. I found out that we grew up 3 miles away from each other in the South Hills of Pittsburgh!

It was in his junior year abroad in the city of Tours that Greg started his lifelong love of France.

Actually, it didn’t start out so pleasantly. He spent three miserable months in a French student dorm—nothing like today’s U.S. dorms. It was more like living in a monastery: “just beds and showers, and cockroaches.”

So Greg asked to be housed with a family for the remaining three months. At the first address, there was no sign of life, just letters piled up in the entryway.

At the second address, a lovely young woman, Irène, answered the door, but Greg didn’t understand a word. He finally understood that he was to return at dinner time.

“I did, expecting to be invited to eat. I was always hungry back then. I wasn't invited to dine, but I was given the room.”

“During the next three months, I saw Irène, and thought her way out of my class.” He was going out with a French girl, but it wasn’t serious. It was “just to learn French.” But one fateful day in June 1977, the girl was away, and Irène and Greg went to a movie, and we “fell in love then and there.”

One love letter led to another (no Internet and the telephone was $1 a minute back then). After graduating from Stanford, Greg obtained a grant to study in Belgium for a year, the closest he could get to Tours. The couple married in 1980 in a French civil ceremony, then in a religious ceremony at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh. After a few years in Paris, they settled in Tours, and started a family as Irène finished her qualifications as an obstetrician-gynecologist in 1989.

That done, they decided to test out life as a family in Pittsburgh. While Greg completed a doctoral degree at the University of Pittsburgh, Irène studied and acquired the U.S. medical equivalency for general medicine. (Medical degrees aren’t transferable from foreign countries to the U.S., unlike Greg’s degree in computer science.) By 1993, Greg had finished his Ph.D., and “we had a choice to make: stay or go back.”

They weighed the pros and cons. A big negative: Irène would have to redo her training as an Ob-Gyn. Who knows where in the U.S. she would be accepted? In the end, they felt their children (by now two boys and one girl) would be exposed to a wider variety of people, cultures, and thought in Europe. Greg believes it was the right choice.

Two of his two of children live in London now, while the last is finishing up a double master’s at Cornell “before going off somewhere else in the world.”

His very big family from Pittsburgh—he grew up with eight siblings and two cousins--all like the idea that Greg lives in Paris, and almost all have visited at one point. They all have fallen in love with France.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes the blog Paris, Pittsburgh, And More, about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, email me at rose.burke89 "at", or follow me on Google+.