English course of Lapasserelle
This is the full text of all the lessons of the English course of Lapasserelle, to help you find a specific piece of text.
Lesson 1: Going to America
François goes to the United States, to spend one year in California.
He is French and his English is not very good.
But he plans to improve it when he lives there.
His plane takes off from Paris on Sunday at 10 o'clock.
Twelve hours later it lands at San Francisco airport.
The time difference between France and the west coast of the United States is nine hours.
So the local time is only one o'clock in the afternoon of the same day when his plane lands.
François changes 500 euros into dollars at the airport.
Then he asks a young woman where is the bus to Palo Alto.
M.: Oh, I go to Palo Alto too, she says. We can share a cab.
M.: My name is Margaret. And you?
F.: I'm François.
An hour later they are in Palo Alto.
Margaret gives her phone number to François.
They say goodbye on the sidewalk of University avenue.
Lesson 2: Finding a place
For his first night in Palo Alto, François goes to a cheap hotel.
Monday morning, he walks to a rental agency.
He asks the clerk if they have flats available.
There is a flat with a living-room and two bedrooms in a high-rise.
They go to see it. It is located on the fifth floor of a modern building.
It is spacious and luminous. It is fine, thinks François.
The next day, in a coffee shop, he finds a roommate.
Werner comes from Germany. He is fat and good-natured.
In the afternoon, François calls Margaret.
She says that she has friends in Palo Alto.
She invites him to come with her to see them on Friday evening.
Lesson 3: The flat
François and his roommate Werner become friends.
Their flat is partially furnished.
There is a sofa, a coffee table and a pair of chairs in the living-room.
But there is no TV.
In each bedroom there is a bed and a pillow. But there are no sheets.
They must buy theirs.
A desk and a chair complete each bedroom.
The kitchen is equipped with a stove, an oven and a fridge.
It also comes with all the necessary kitchen utensils.
The view from François's room is beautiful.
A tree gives some shade in front of his window.
He can see lawns and more trees in the background.
In his new place, François begins to feel at home.
Now he must do some shopping.
Lesson 4: Buying food
Werner, I am going to the grocery store to get us some food.
W.: We need a well balanced diet, says Werner.
F.: Of course. It must contain carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and vitamins.
The grocery store is not far.
It is fifteen minutes on foot from the flat.
There François buys spaghetti, olive oil, vegetables, cheese, and fruit.
He also buys the ingredients to make a cake.
How are you today? the salesperson at the checkout counter asks him.
François is surprised.
The question sounds as if they know each other well.
After a few seconds, he answers: Fine. And you?
I'm fine too, thank you. It's $13.
He pays and leaves the store.
Then, at the drugstore nearby, he buys a bar of soap, shampoo, dishwashing detergent and a couple of cleaning sponges.
Finally he goes back home.
Lesson 5: Making a cake
Today François makes a cake.
At the store, yesterday, he bought flour, eggs, sugar, butter, yeast, salt and raisins.
So, he has everything he needs.
He sets the temperature of the oven to 350° Fahrenheit, and he begins to prepare the dough.
In a large bowl, he pours two cups of flour. Then he breaks four eggs and starts to mix the dough.
After a few minutes of kneading, he adds a quarter of pound of melted butter and another quarter of pound of sugar.
Finally he puts in the raisins, some salt, and the yeast.
W.: Are you making a cake? asks Werner.
F.: Yes, I am. We cannot eat it yet. It must bake for one hour.
When it is ready, François pulls it out of the oven, and puts it in a dish on the kitchen counter.
It must cool down before they can eat it.
It must not be eaten right away because it is too hot.
Meanwhile François goes out for a walk.
When he comes back there is no more cake on the counter! Only a few crumbs are left.
Werner comes out of his room, looking very embarrassed. He apologizes:
W.: I'm sorry, François. I tasted your cake, and it was so good that I could not stop, so I ate it all.
W.: Tomorrow it is going to be my turn to make one. I hope you will forgive me then.
Lesson 6: An evening with friends
On Friday afternoon, François and Margaret meet at Francois's place.
They are invited to come to Tom and Susie's home in the evening.
F.: Where do they live? asks François.
M.: They live in College Terrace. It's a district of Palo Alto near the university.
F.: When are we expected?
M.: At seven o'clock. Americans like to begin the evening early.
F.: And how are we going there?
M.: Oh, it is within walking distance. We shall go on foot, if you don't mind.
Tom and Susie live in a two-storey wooden house with a little backyard.
Tom is in his forties. He is of average size, stocky, with blond hair. His face is round and he smiles easily.
He has built a nice fire in the living-room's fireplace, and he has put some music on.
Susie is shorter than her husband. She is slim, with long brown hair, and an East Coast touch of elegance.
She brings a tray of snacks and sweet and savoury biscuits.
The four of them spend the evening chatting in front of the fireplace, eating, and drinking Californian wine.
They talk about life in the United States which François is discovering for the first time. And they talk about life in France which the Americans have visited several times.
The Americans are very friendly. They try to understand François's English.
They have an international culture. The rooms of their house are lined with bookshelves of pocket books in several languages.
Near the end of the evening, Tom wants to make François a gift. He offers him to choose a shirt in his collection of rayon Hawaiian shirts.
The Frenchman picks a colourful one, yellow, green and red, from Tom's dressing.
After a couple more glasses of wine from Napa Valley, they say goodbye and part.
Lesson 7: At the bank
To complete his moving in, François has many things to do.
Among them, he must open a bank account.
He goes to the Wells Fargo bank agency.
F.: Good morning. I would like to open an account, he tells the bank clerk.
C.: Good morning. I need to know what kind you want.
F.: I do not understand what you mean.
C.: Well, there are two main kinds of account: a checking account and a savings account.
F.: What is the difference?
C.: A savings account is one where you deposit your savings.
C.: We keep them for a certain period of time: three months, or six months, or a year, etc.
C.: During this period you cannot withdraw your money.
C.: But, it yields interest.
C.: At the moment, we offer 5% on one year savings accounts.
F.: And what is the other kind?
C.: A checking account is simpler: you deposit money whenever you want. And you also have access to it anytime.
C.: We give you a checkbook.
C.: When you need to pay some expenditure, for a purchase or for any other reason, you write a cheque.
C.: It is drawn from your account. Your account is debited. And the bank account of whoever you paid is credited by the clearinghouse.
C.: It's as simple as that.
C.: Please note that it yields no interest.
F.: OK, I understand, says François. It's a checking account that I need.
C.: Do you want to make an initial deposit?
F.: Yes, I do.
F.: I have 5000 euros in my bank account in France.
F.: I would like to change them into dollars and deposit those in the new checking account at your bank.
C.: Fine. You can wire transfer them to us.
C.: We will exchange them at the rate of 1.30 dollars to a euro. This makes 6500 dollars.
C.: You will get less, however, because of the transfer charge of $50.
C.: So we will credit your account with $6450.
F.: That's fine.
C.: Then, please fill out this form.
F.: There you are.
C.: Thank you. Have a nice day.
F.: You too. Goodbye.
Lesson 8: A tour of San Francisco
M.: Why don't we go spend the day in San Francisco?, asks Margaret.
She is eager to show her friend the city where she grew up.
F.: That's fine with me, says François.
M.: How shall we go there? There is a bus, but it takes hours.
F.: Can we rent a car?
M.: Oh yes, that's a good idea.
F.: I will love to drive on Highway 280. I was told it's one of the most beautiful highways in the whole country.
San Francisco is located at the northern tip of a peninsula which separates a bay from the Pacific ocean.
After a half hour drive, they arrive in San Francisco.
François wants to park on Union square.
M.: We can't park here.
F.: Why can't we?
M.: We would get a fine. Let's go to an underground parking lot.
Then they take a cable car to go to Fisherman's wharf.
On Ghirardelly square, they buy ice creams.
They spend a few minutes listening to a pianist playing Dixie music on the back of a pick-up truck.
François relishes the ambiance of the city.
In the distance, they admire the majestuous Golden Gate bridge linking San Francisco to Sausalito on the northern side of the bay.
After a few hours of strolling around the city, they return to Palo Alto via Highway 101.
Lesson 9: At home
Werner and François are spending the evening at home.
They are watching a baseball game on TV, trying to figure out the rules.
They slouch on the couch, their feet on the coffee table.
It is littered with magazines and beer cans on top.
F.: Do you read the New Yorker?, François asks Werner.
W.: I try. But I can't understand a thing.
W.: Anyway. So, how was your outing the other day in San Francisco with your girlfriend?
F.: It was great. This city is marvellous, built on many hills, and surrounded on three sides by the sea.
F.: From anywhere you are, you have a wonderful view. And you can't imagine how lively it is.
F.: Margaret took me there because that's where she was born and grew up. She wanted to show her city to me.
F.: By the way, I should call her to thank her for that fine day out.
At that moment, a phone rings somewhere in the flat. It's Werner's.
W.: Shit, where did I put it?
F.: I think I can hear it ring in your room.
W.: Werner speaking. Who is it?
Werner has a brief conversation with someone. Then he hangs up.
F.: Who was it?
W.: Angela, a girl I met at the cafeteria two days ago.
F.: Where does she come from?
W.: She comes from Berlin, Germany.
F.: Do you think it's the best way to learn English?
F.: Shouldn't you rather try to find American friends?
W.: Perhaps you're right. But – you know – she helps me be less homesick.
Later in the evening, François calls Margaret.
She invites him to come and have tea at her place next week.
Lesson 10: Tea at Margaret's
At five o'clock, François arrives at Margaret's house for afternoon tea.
Margaret, who is twenty-two, still lives with her mother. She greets her boyfriend at the front door.
Margaret's mother, Mrs Dawson, is a British lady in her early sixties, tall and slender, with elegant silver grey hair, and a dark blue dress.
She maintains in her home the lifestyle of her native country.
It is a change from the easygoing manners of Americans.
M.: François, let me introduce you to my mother.
F.: Good afternoon, Madam. What a lovely place you have!
Mrs D.: Oh hello, François, I'm delighted to meet you. Margaret talks a lot about you.
Mrs Dawson has set up tea and cakes on a table under an umbrella in the garden.
They sit down and begin chatting.
A moment later, Margaret goes fetch the kettle which is whistling in the kitchen, and brings it back.
Her mother pours some hot water in the teapot to warm it, then pours it out.
Now she puts one teaspoonful of tea per person, plus "one for the pot", and adds water.
When tea has finished brewing, she fills carefully through a strainer three cups.
After a few minutes of small talk, François wants to help himself to more tea, and is about to take the teapot.
M.: Don't do that! The tradition wants that it be always the same person who handles the teapot.
F.: Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know.
Mrs Dawson smiles and refills François's cup.
They chat for a while, drinking and eating scones and muffins.
After an hour, Margaret gets up, followed by François. They say goodbye to Mrs Dawson and leave together.
Lesson 11: The university
François has come to Palo Alto to study at Stanford University.
He is enrolled in the Master of Science program in Applied Mathematics, of the Mathematics department.
Stanford is a private university.
It was founded in 1885 by Leland Stanford and his wife Jane Lathrop Stanford.
Leland Stanford (1824-1893) was a tycoon and robber baron who amassed his huge fortune in railroads.
He pursued in parallel a career in politics, serving as governor of California for one term in the early sixties, and later being senator from that state from 1885 until his death.
Stanford University is built on an 8200 acre campus located between El Camino Real and the foothills to the west.
It offers undergraduate and graduate studies and delivers diplomas in all disciplines pertaining to Humanities, Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Law, Business, etc.
Until World War II it was a relatively provincial university, much less well known for instance than the Ivy League universities of the East Coast.
Since WWII it has been the main engine of development of the Silicon Valley.
This is the name given to the region extending from San Francisco to San José, 42 miles south.
It used to be covered with fields and orchards.
Now it is the home of such high-tech firms as Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild, Apple, Google, Facebook, and many more.
Lesson 12: Conversation between roommates
Werner was sitting at the terrace of a café on Ramona street relaxing after the day's classes.
François came by.
F.: Hello, Werner. May I join you?
W.: Sure. Have a seat. So, what's up?
F.: Nothing much. You never told me why you came to the US.
W.: The third year of the engineering program I'm attending in Hamburg must take place abroad.
W.: I got a scholarship. And I had the chance to be able to go overseas.
W.: What about you ?
F.: One summer during my studies in France, I travelled for leisure to the Far East.
F.: In South-East Asia, I met with Australians and I learned three things:
1) My English was very poor.
2) Yet speaking English is a must in life. Not only to get by, but also learning a foreign language you discover a new culture and a much richer world.
3) And I learned that the more you are told your English is good, the less it is indeed.
W.: Oh good, I haven't been told so for a while.
F.: I used to enjoy many American songs, without understanding the words.
F.: Now that I understand the lyrics as well, I find them all the more interesting.
W.: Yes, that's right. So do I.
W.: Oh my! It's already six thirty. I'm supposed to meet with Angela.
He got up to leave.
W.: See you, François.
F.: Take care.
Lesson 13: Margaret
This afternoon, François has a date at five thirty with Margaret.
He has been waiting for her in the Quadrangle, the main building in the center of the university, for already a quarter of an hour.
They have agreed to visit the campus together.
At ten to six, he is looking anxiously at his watch when he sees her arriving.
She is tall, with long chestnut hair, a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. She walks with the gait of a queen.
François's heart beats faster and harder in his chest.
M.: Hello François. How are you?
F.: Hello sweetheart. You look wonderful!
M.: It's so kind of you. You haven't been waiting for me for too long, I hope?
F.: I arrived a few minutes ago.
They begin walking under the arcades which border the inner side of the Quadrangle. The style is inspired by Spanish California Mission architecture.
F.: Where do you study, Maggie?
M.: I'm finishing the undergraduate cursus at Foothill College majoring in choreography.
F.: Why aren't you enrolled at Stanford?
M.: My mother and I, we don't have enough money. The tuition here is $40 000 per year. This is way above what we can afford. And undergraduate scholarships are hard to come by.
M.: Besides, for years I wanted to be a dancer. At Stanford they do have a Theater and Performance studies program, but when I checked some years ago they weren't teaching classical ballet.
F.: Do you still dance?
M.: Not as much as I used to. It's too demanding. For a living, I do some modelling with a photographer who sells my pictures to magazines. I once appeared in Vanity Fair!
F.: Whaaaooow! I'm impressed.
M.: Let's not talk about that. Come along, darling. I'll show you the campus.
Lesson 14: Around campus
Margaret and François leave the Quadrangle through the passageway leading to the Main Library, and turn left.
It is a pleasant alley shaded by big old sycamores, between the outer side of the Quad and the Art dept.
From all sides, the roads are teeming with young people on bicycles or on foot.
The undergrads look happy, the world belonging to them. The grads look more serious and concentrated.
One feature François soon notices is the eerie rareness of children and of older people.
They arrive at Serra mall and take left again. They cross the main access to the campus, and keep on going.
They walk along the William Hewlett teaching center, the David Packard electrical engineering dept, and the Gilbert biological sciences dept.
Finally they reach a building named William Gates computer science.
F.: Why do all these buildings have names?
M.: These are the names of individuals who helped finance them. For example, the computer science bldg was made possible thanks to a grant from Bill Gates and some other benefactors.
M.: There is a strong tradition of philanthropy in the United States. People who have become very rich often invest some of their wealth back into various projects or institutions in particular private educational outfits.
M.: It can be a whole university, as did Leland Stanford, or a building, or an endowed chair.
F.: What's that?
M.: A wealthy person – let's call him John Doe – gives to the university a large sum of money, say $10 million. He specifies that it is to finance, for instance, a teaching in structural anthropology, because John Doe has all his life been quite committed to this discipline. The money is placed into very safe investments, government bonds and such like.
M.: Then the yearly proceeds pay for a professorship, that is the salary of the teacher and miscellaneous related expenses. The official title of the teacher holding the position will be "the John Doe professor of structural anthropology".
F.: I understand. It's a bit like in Europe when, in medieval times, very rich aristocrats built palaces, academies and other monuments.
M.: I guess so.
They arrive at the cafeteria.
F.: I'm a bit tired. Can we stop here?
M.: I wanted to show you the fraternities and sororities. But it'll be for another time.
M.: And someday I'll take you to the radiotelescope. It is called "the Dish". It's on the top of a hill. From there, the view is stunning over the Bay area.
F.: Great. I'm going to order, Maggie. What will you have?
M.: An orange juice please.
F.: A couple minutes later, François comes back with the juice for Margaret and a beer for himself.
Lesson 15: A class
At a quarter to nine, the doors of the auditorium were opened, and students began to enter.
Most of them were dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. A few wore a suit and a tie.
All of them carried their notebooks and other belongings in a backpack.
They were going to attend their first math class on the theory of measure.
The 300 seat auditorium was slowly filling up.
When François arrived, he had to look for an empty seat.
He climbed to the third row where he saw one still free between two other students.
The noise of the conversations was dominating the room.
François leaned toward his right neighbor:
F.: Hello. My name is François, from France. What's your name?
D.: Hi. I'm Dragomir. I come from Serbia.
François said bantering:
F.: I thought I had learned everything I needed to know about measuring things in primary school.
D.: So did I. I had never thought I would need a higher math course on the subject.
At nine o'clock the professor came in.
The auditorium became instantly quiet.
Prof.: Hello everyone. I'm professor Chung. Welcome to my course on measure theory.
Prof.: Before we start, I'm going to hand out these cards. Please fill them out, and turn them in at the end of the class. They will be useful for me to know the students better.
The professor began his course, explaining the basics of set theory, and the concept of measure of a set.
This applied not only to intervals [a, b] on the line of numbers (the measure being b-a), or the surface areas on a plane but also to more complicated mathematical objects.
At some point he wrote on the board: "I O U the proof that S is measurable."
François was puzzled. He told Dragomir:
F.: He didn't define these variables I, O and U. Do you know what they are?
D.: I haven't got a clue.
François raised his hand and, when invited to speak, asked the teacher.
The whole auditorium burst into laughter.
Prof.: It's an abbreviation to mean "I owe you". I'll give you the proof later. Remind me if I forget.
At the end of the class, François packed his stuff and left his seat. He was making his way to the door when he ran into Jamie, an American friend he had met in Paris the summer before.
F.: Hey Jamie, what are you doing here? I thought you were studying electrical engineering in Europe.
J.: I was last year. But since then I got accepted at Stanford. I joined the Master's program here. And the first year we have to take fundamental courses in maths and physics.
F.: It's great to see you. So how have you been?
J.: Good. It's wonderful to see you too. We will be able to catch up.
F.: Yeah. Unfortunately I've got to go now. Do you sometimes come to the cafeteria?
J.: Yes, I do. We will see each other there.
Lesson 16: Life in the department
The building where François works is a one floor construction with the shape of a T.
Originally, when it was erected at the end of the XIXth century, it had three floors. But because the Bay area is subject to frequent powerful earthquakes, in the fifties the building was judged to be a hazard.
The upper floors were demolished, and only the ground floor was kept.
The horizontal bar of the T is the main corridor, where are the professors's and secretaries's offices.
In the vertical bar of the T are located the students's offices, a small conference room, and the lounge where people can have tea or coffee or just make a pause.
The atmosphere in the department is at the same time studious and laid-back. It is easy to go and talk to professors. Some of them even never close their door.
On Thursdays at four o'clock, is formal tea hour in the lounge. Everyone is invited to come, though it is not mandatory.
It is a pleasant moment to forget one's studies, and to get to know each other better.
François enjoyed very much this atmosphere much less formal than in France.
Once he came to the department carrying in a basket his two black kittens.
As soon as it was known that two adorable young cats were cavorting in the main corridor, all the secretaries stepped out of their offices.
Judith: Oh, how irresistible is this one! What's his name?
Melanie: And that one? How hilarious!
F.: That's Cauchy.
Cynthia: These are funny names.
After a while, Bradley, the chairman of the dept, arrived and told François:
Bradley: Look François, it's nice to entertain the department with your pets, but the work of the whole place has come to a halt.
Bradley: The secretaries stopped typing anything. They are no longer answering the phone. We cannot work anymore.
Bradley: Please take them back and don't bring them again.
With the help of Judith and Melanie, François captured his kittens and went home.
The next morning people asked him:
- What have you done with your animals? You didn't bring them today?
F.: No, no. They enjoyed their visit yesterday, but they were tired afterwards. Mathematics is not for them.
Lesson 17: The libraries
Stanford, like every university, has many libraries.
Each department has its own, more or less important.
And there are a few others which do not depend on any specific department.
The largest one is the Green library.
It is named after Cecil H. Green (1900 - 2003), who with his wife financed a substantial part of it.
Cecil H. Green was the founder of Texas Instruments.
After having earned a lot of money, like so many Americans he became a philanthropist.
No one, however, calls the building the Green library.
It goes by the name of "Main library".
It contains collections in the humanities, social sciences, area studies, and interdisciplinary topics.
Its stacks rise on six or seven levels. Altogether it houses about 4 million books.
Whenever he had some free time, François would go to the Main library.
Inside, he felt like Jonas in the whale's belly.
In the quietness and dim light of the place, he would spend hours looking at shelves after shelves of covers and titles, reading a few pages here and there, and dreaming about all the knowledge contained therein.
Many classical English novels, but also history books, essays, travelogs, documents, were among his borrowings.
He read Steinbeck, Maugham, Nabokov, McCullers, Mansfield, Percy, Kerouac, Naipaul and dozens more.
He felt almost like a member of the wacky and so endearing Glass family which Salinger wrote about.
He appreciated Woolf, whose subtle style was capable of expressing such delicate feelings. The virtuosity of Joyce in Dubliners reminded him of Proust's.
All these authors left him vivid memories which he kept over the years.
And the suppleness of the English tongue never ceased to amaze him.
Sometimes he picked novels at random, from authors he had never heard of, and chanced on marvels like "A High Wind in Jamaica" by Richard Hughes. It has the power of Conrad, without the excessive exotism peculiar to the Polish author.
The collections of French books had nothing to envy to libraries in France.
In his mother tongue he liked borrowing completely (and deservedly) forgotten books, like those of Édouard Estaunié (1862 - 1942), an engineer become improbable novelist.
Estaunié even accessed in 1926 to the presidency of the "Société des Gens De Lettres" (society of people of literature) in Paris.
This was making François ponder over the transience of tastes, fame, and life.
On another occasion, this time in the Maths library, he borrowed a book on series written by his own great-grandfather.
After Anne, the round and cheerful student working part time at the checkout desk, whom he had befriended, had stamped the borrowing date on the card stuck inside, François looked it up.
The preceding date was 1932.
Libraries are places where time does not separate periods but links them.
Lesson 18: At the cafeteria
It is five o'clock in the afternoon on a weekday.
After class, François likes to go and spend a moment at the cafeteria to unwind, before putting some more hours of work in the evening at home.
In the open air area set up with tables and chairs outside the cafeteria, he spots Werner in great conversation with a girl looking like Marlene Dietrich.
W.: François! Come over. Have you met Angela?
F.: Not yet.
He gives her a long look from head to toe.
F.: Pleased to meet you, Angela.
A.: Hello, François. Werner had told me about his roommate who liked to cook. He's so happy to share his flat with you. Glad to meet you.
F.: What is it you are drinking? It looks pretty nice.
A.: It's a piña colada, a mix of rum, cream of coconut, and pineapple juice. You should try it.
F.: Margaret is meeting me at five. She should be here anytime now. Though punctuality is not an outstanding quality of hers.
F.: I'll wait till she comes, if you don't mind.
After five minutes, she shows up, walking her body upright as though she were treading on eggs.
M.: Hello dear. How is it going?
Then, glancing at Werner and Angela:
M.: Can you introduce me to your friends?
F.: Angela, Werner, this is Margaret. Margaret, here are Angela and Werner.
François convinces her to try a piña colada too. He asks the Germans if they want anything else, but they don't. He goes to order.
After a short lull, Margaret asks:
M.: Are you in Palo Alto for long?
W.: I study at the university. I'm here until next June.
A.: I came last summer, and will stay till the beginning of next year. I decided to take a year off my studies in cinema in Berlin. Next I plan to go on to Beijing.
Werner tries to look composed, but a tinge of sadness can be seen fleeting in his eyes.
Back with the cocktails, François announces:
F.: Margaret and I are going to Carmel this weekend. Will you come with us?
Angela looks at Werner.
W.: What is there to do?
M.: There is a Spanish mission in Carmel. It's one of the best preserved. It's really worth seeing.
W.: Yeah, let's do that. How are we going there?
M.: When we go somewhere far away, we usually rent a car. It's rather cheap.
F.: Well, this is organized then. Let's all get together at the flat Saturday morning at nine.
Lesson 19: Meeting Robert
- François, did you meet Robert? He comes from France like you. Let me introduce each other.
François's thesis advisor was inviting him to get to know a fellow countryman who was taking some courses in the department.
Although François was not too keen on meeting them - he was in the United States to immerse in American culture not to mingle with the French expat community -, he accepted.
R.: Hello. So, you come from France?
R.: Where did you study there?
F.: In an engineering school. And you?
R.: Me too.
It turned out it was the same school, where they both went at some years distance. Robert was a few years older than François.
The fact that neither of them put forth its name marked the beginning of a friendship.
Robert was short and stocky, with a large, intelligent and vivacious face.
Some years previously, he had begun his thesis in math, with one of the world most renowned mathematician, who had solved the Continuum Hypothesis.
However, after several instances of working hard for three weeks on a difficulty, going to his advisor for help, and watching him solve it in three minutes, he thought he was in the wrong field.
He took his car, drove to the Mojave desert, and spent a fortnight there mulling over his future.
When he came back, he enrolled in Earth Sciences.
He was living in a big house on Middlefield, sharing it with a dozen other young people, some in school, some holding jobs.
It was a kind of latter-day hippie community.
They shared values, emotions and apparently more.
Robert had a fine mind, interested in numerous subjects, ranging from maths, physics, computers, and biology to literature, languages, theater, and Asian philosophies.
He would occasionally spend some days in Ojai, north of Los Angeles, where there was a spiritual center.
He spoke slowly and carefully.
He loathed mixing French and English in his speech, to the point, when he was speaking French, of pronouncing "John Updike" "John Updike".
While being different, Robert and François enjoyed each other's sensibility, way of thinking, and views on life.
They stayed friends for years, until unfortunately Robert disappeared in an air disaster.
Lesson 20: At the language lab
Half a dozen students were working in separate cubicles that evening at the language lab.
Mitchell, the tall blond guy with a crew cut in his early thirties running the lab and the English as a Foreign Language (E F L) course for foreign students, was in his office next to the booths. Mitchell's workday began at 2 p.m. and ended at 10.
Headsets on the ears, a microphone at the side of the mouth, and a control panel of buttons for the tape recorder on his desk, each student was trying to pronounce English words and sentences as natives.
Dragomir was there, a booklet opened in front of him. Like a medical textbook, it presented elaborate and slightly disgusting pictures of the tongue, the mouth and the larynx to produce specific sounds.
On the first figure of a page entitled "ze and the" the tongue touched the palate and on the second it touched the tip of the upper teeth.
Joe was there too, lost in deep thought, watching the ceiling.
This was another Frenchman whom François had made friend with.
They had met in Mitchell's classes, and discovered that both did their best to keep away from the community of French expats.
They also had many centers of interest in common.
To start with, both enjoyed learning English. They liked to challenge each other:
J.: Hello, I have a hard one for you today. What is a pew?
François happened to know. He had read it in the delightful short story "For Esmé - with Love and Squalor" by J.D. Salinger a couple days before.
He faked fathoming his memory for a while, so Joe would think he did not know, and suddenly answered:
F.: It's a church bench!
Joe was startled.
F.: My turn. What is a poker? I'm not talking about the card game.
J.: That's an easy one: it's a rod to stir a fire.
F.: Gosh! How do you know?
J.: Every evening I learn a few pages of the dictionary. Yesterday I reached the letter p.
Joe suggested a pause.
They went outside, and he lit a cigarette.
Joe was a very smart man if somewhat unconventional. His field was mathematical logic.
The previous week, he had bought a second hand bike at a student sale.
F.: Where is your bike? You didn't come with it?
J.: No, I abandoned it against a wall somewhere. It was going too fast. I prefer walking.
He began to talk about his topic of the day - the rôle of medieval trade fairs in bringing about modern money -, and there was no way to sway the conversation elsewhere.
Lesson 21: Spanish missions in California
Despite the myth of a virgin country conquered during the Gold Rush in mid-XIXth century, the history of California is far more complex.
As often concerning America, the best starting point to understand it is Christopher Columbus's landing in 1492.
Thirty years later, following the conquest of the Aztec empire by Hernán Cortés in 1521, the Spanish crown created the kingdom of New Spain, which was transformed into a viceroyalty in 1535.
Cities were established one after the other: Mexico city, near Tenochtitlán, the old capital of the Aztecs, Veracruz, Guadalajara. etc.
At the end of the XVIIIth century, the territory claimed by New Spain covered Mexico, a part of central America to the south, a large chunk of present-day United States to the north, Cuba and Hispaniola, the Philippines in the Pacific ocean, and other miscellaneous islands.
The Spanish empire, which encompassed other viceroyalties, extended, of course, over a much greater area.
Beginning in the XVIth century, catholic missions had begun to be established all over New Spain. They sprang up in Mexico, Florida, Texas, Trinidad, etc.
As regards California, Jesuits began to found missions in Baja California in 1683. This is the name of the long narrow peninsula on the northwestern coast of Mexico.
In mid-XVIIIth century, king Philip V of Spain, fearing the threat of Russia over the western coast of North America, ordered mission settlements in Alta California as well - that is, present-day California.
After the ban of Jesuits by Charles III and eventually by the Pope in 1767, the Franciscans took over the missions development.
Franciscan friar Junípero Serra (1713, Majorca, Spain - 1784, Monterey, California) founded the first mission in Alta California in 1769, at a location which came to be known as San Diego. The second was installed in 1770 in what became Carmel, and was followed by nineteen more.
The official purpose of these missions was to greet natives into Christianity. It was also a way to take physical control of the region. This explains why they were structured like self-sustaining garrisons. They nonetheless left a beautiful architectural legacy.
After three hundred years of existence the Spanish holdings overseas no longer formed a strong empire. Florida had been lost to the British in 1763. The vast territory of Louisiana was ceded to Napoleon who in turn sold it to the United States in 1803.
Louisiana roughly spanned the middle third of present-day U.S. and should not be confused with the state of Louisiana of our days.
Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821. Then, encouraged by the United States, Texas became independent from Mexico in 1836.
The Mexican American war of 1846-1848 resulted in Alta California, together with Arizona and New Mexico, becoming part of the United States.
The ink of the treaty was not yet dry when Johann Sutter (1803-1880) discovered gold on his large estate, named New Helvetia, near Sacramento.
This launched the Gold Rush of 1848-1855. San Francisco turned from small town to big city. California was settled by pioneers arriving via the California Trail and other routes. And it began to develop, at first into an agricultural state.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But the Spanish missions were the seeds of all the major cities of California and provided its first economic spine.
This is why they play such an important historical and cultural role in the memory of modern California.
Lesson 22: Carmel
Saturday morning the four friends met at Werner and François's flat to go to Carmel.
Werner: I checked on the map. From Palo Alto, there are two ways to go there: highway 101 or highway 1.
Margaret: That's right. The first is the faster, the second is the more scenic.
Angela: I suggest we take 101. We want to spend as much time as we can visiting the mission and the city of Carmel, don't we?
A.: We can always take route 1 another time.
François: OK, we're gonna take 101. Route 1 will be for when we go to Santa Cruz, for instance.
They are on the highway speeding south. Angela is a bit nervous because of François's driving.
A.: Can we pass this truck and then go back on the right lane?
F.: Angela, you are not a back-seat driver, are you?
M.: François! Don't be cross. Angela just worries that we arrive safely. I do too. You drive very well, but please I'd prefer if we slowed down a bit.
After an hour on 101, they leave the highway before Salinas and take 156. They go through Castroville, Marina, Monterey, and finally make it to Carmel around 11 a.m.
They decide to first go visit the mission, and to have lunch afterwards.
The mission, whose official name is "San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo", is located south of town, in a wide district of one-floor or low-rise houses hidden in the vegetation.
The church with its early baroque facade, Moorish bell tower, and long nave like a barn, exudes a feeling of simplicity, peace and self-assurance at the same time. It evokes the spirituality of the first missionaries.
F.: I can't but think of Father Serra arriving in this beautiful lonely place in 1770, finding and converting natives, organizing the mission (clearing fields for agriculture and cattle raising, building lodgings, kitchens, food storage etc.) and erecting this church.
F.: Did you know that he made Carmel the headquarters of all the missions in Alta-California?
A.: You are not paid by the National Geographic, François, are you? says Angela smiling.
W.: Touché, François!
Everybody laughs and they forget the tension of the morning.
After eating tacos in a Mexican restaurant, they go to the beach to rest, digest, and enjoy the view, while chatting.
W.: I learned that Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel from 1986 to 1988.
F.: It's funny. I rather think of him like a desperado shooting fast, than the mayor of a sedate touristic town on the Pacific coast.
A woman scantily clad lying on a towel next to them intervened: Forgive me, I heard your conversation.
Woman: For many years, we had had a mayoress who managed the city rather well, but who was prudish and imposed a strict code of conduct. I could never have stayed on the beach in this attire.
F.: She was a descendant of Father Serra?
Woman: I don't know. But the population got fed up. So Clint Eastwood, who was a resident, ran for town hall, and was elected. He relaxed the rules to adapt them to the end of the XXth century.
The four friends shot the breeze for another while, and at sunset went back home.
Lesson 23: Santa Cruz
François: Maggie, my friend Anne, the librarian, is offering to take us to Santa Cruz this weekend.
Margaret: This weekend? That's too bad, but I can't. Johnny and I do a photo shoot at Point Reyes.
F.: Oh what a pity!
M.: Do go there anyway. You'll enjoy Santa Cruz. There is a Spanish mission as well as a Luna park to cater to every taste.
François likes the company of Anne because she loves books and they can talk for hours about their shared interest.
She also knows a bit of French, and it's a recreation for François. Instead of learning, for a change he can teach.
They arrive in Santa Cruz early Saturday afternoon. Anne parks the car on Beach street.
Anne: Let's walk to the end of the wharf. It affords a nice view of the whole town.
The pier, built on wooden stilts and jutting straight into the sea, is the longest on the west coast of the United States, almost a kilometer long.
At one point, François exclaims in French: "Oh des phoques!"
A.: Shhhhh, don't shout that! These are seals.
F.: Why can't I name them in French?
A.: There is in English slang the verb "to fuck", which is very dirty.
A.: Technically, it means "to have sexual intercourse" but can be used in all sorts of circumstances if you like crude language and swearing.
A couple of tourists approach François and Anne, and address them in French.
Man: Hello! Don't worry, we know you spoke in French.
Although they look very much American, wearing checkered short pants, garish shirts, a purple baseball cap with a tiger for the husband, a large pale green bucket hat for the wife, and are both slightly overweight, they speak to each other in a weird kind of French.
F.: Hello, do you come from France?
Woman: No, we come from Shreveport, Louisiana. We are Acadians, but the Anglo-Saxons call us Cajuns because that's what they hear when we pronounce it.
Woman: Our ancestors left Acadia (nowadays New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, in Canada) during the Great Expulsion in mid-XVIIIth century. And they settled in Louisiana.
Anne: And you are still speaking French?
Man: Yes, we try to maintain our culture and traditions. But sadly it is on the wane now.
F.: Well, we are almost countrymen! So, "bon après-midi!".
They say goodbye.
Anne: François, would you like to visit Santa Cruz mission?
François: Er, Margaret and I went to Carmel with friends the other day. I think I have had my fix of missions for the time being.
A.: Then, let's go to the amusement park. I would love to take a ride on the Ferris wheel.
F.: Alright, if you promise it's safe.
They walk back toward town, leave the wharf, and take the boardwalk to the right. They can see the huge wheel where they are heading towering over the houses.
After it has finished loading everyone, the wheel slowly gains speed. From the soaring cabin, the view is breathtaking over the city, the surrounding hills, and the bay.
Each time they reach the top, François feels queasy from vertigo and remains mute.
Anne has the time of her life and laughs and speaks like a chatterbox all along the ride.
After some more sightseeing in town, they walk back to Anne's car.
On their way home, they talk about Margaret who could not come because she was working with her photographer at Point Reyes in Marin county north of San Francisco.
Anne explains to François that it is a very beautiful beach and why it is famous in history. She tells him of Francis Drake, of the second world circumnavigation between 1577 and 1580, and of Drake's mooring there during his journey.
Lesson 24: Photo shoot at Point Reyes
Saturday morning, before she left to meet her photographer, Margaret had a brief conversation with François.
F.: It always makes me jittery when I know that you are going to spend the day with Johnny.
Maggie burst into laughter.
M.: Oh, don't be jealous. He is very kind indeed, but it's strictly a professional relationship.
M.: Furthermore, even though at thirty five, with his perpetual three day beard, broad shoulders, and hazelnut eyes, he is rather nice looking, considering his inclination, if you were here I would be the one who has grounds to be jealous, she added mischievously.
Johnny was packing his photographer's paraphernalia when she arrived at the studio.
They headed north in Johnny's Range Rover.
M.: Who do we work with today?
J.: With my old friend Gertrud. She's a freelance designer. I don't know her age, perhaps in her fifties. For the past few months she's been working mostly for this chain of stores based in New York City.
J.: Gertrud produces the designs. The chain outsources production to various apparel manufacturers all over the world, and then they sell the garments in their own boutiques, as well as in corners they rent under their brand in other stores.
J.: They also buy pages in fashion magazines to place your pictures.
M.: But who pays you, Johnny, and me?
J.: Gertrud's agent.
M.: I'll never really understand who is responsible for what in this business.
J.: It's OK, honey. Gertrud is meeting us at the beach with the clothes in her van. That's what counts this morning.
J.: Oh and I should warn you: don't be put off by her demeanor. She can be a bit rough with people she doesn't know. It's the expression of her shyness.
M.: Sure. And if I get into a fit, she'll know me better and behave?
J.: Oh please, sugar, you haven't even met her! She's the sweetest of girls - once you know her.
After crossing the Golden Gate bridge, they drove for another while until they reached Drake's beach at Point Reyes.
The van was already there. And Gertrud, smoking a cigarette, was waiting with another woman for the photographer and his model.
J.: Hello Gertrud! Let me introduce Margaret to you.
G.: Hi, said Gertrud with a coarse voice. Here is Carolyn, who works for my client. She assists me.
After having chosen a spot, Johnny began to install various cameras mounted on tripods and silvery screens in the sand.
The designer and her assistant put an old marine trunk in the makeshift outdoors studio to create a buccaneer ambiance.
Margaret went into the van with the other women. A few minutes later she came out wearing a gorgeous ensemble consisting of a sleeveless woolen grege jacket over a white cotton blouse and a long assorted skirt. On her feet she wore raw leather stilettos.
Carolyn tied a pearl necklace around Margaret's neck and straightened out the clothes. Gertrud decided to comb the model's long hair on one side.
Johnny told her how to hold herself, reclining on the trunk with the left hand down on her hip and the other up touching the nape of her neck. And he began shooting.
When he had completed a first series he moved the cameras to have another angle with the scenery, changed some light filters, and did another series.
Then the three women disappeared into the van. After a moment Maggie stepped out again in another stylish outfit.
The same procedure was repeated with the thirty models they shot.
Apparently Maggie had tamed Gertrud, because no clash ever happened between the two women during the whole day.
J.: OK, Gertrud. I'll work on the pictures with Photoshop and send you the files at the end of the week.
On the way home, Johnny told Margaret that Gertrud might be whimsical at times, but was very professional and a respected designer in New York.
J.: By the way, how did you manage to make friend with her so quickly?
M.: I told her I smoked the same Russian cigarettes as hers, but never at work.
J.: Is that true?
M.: Actually, I don't smoke.
J.: I think one day you'll make it in the Big Apple too, Maggie.
Lesson 25: Outing to Yosemite
From the top of Sentinel Dome one has a magnificent 360° panoramic view over El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite valley and the rest of the park.
Margaret and François had departed from Palo Alto in the wee hours of the night to be at Yosemite park by mid-morning.
Now, after a ninety minute hike, they were eating a picnic lunch near Jeffrey pine, overseeing the park from a vantage point 8100 feet high.
Margaret: It would have been nice if Angela and Werner had come as planned. Why do you think they called it off at the last minute?
François: Werner must have been afraid, said François his mouth full, that there would not be enough to eat.
F.: More seriously, considering that he weighs over two hundred and fifty pounds, he probably had misgivings, reckoning that he would not be much of a mountain climber. And, if I may add, Angela seems to me more like a city girl than a country one.
Margaret rummaged through her rucksack for another tuna fish sandwich and unwrapped it for her boyfriend. She poured herself tea from the thermos bottle.
M.: If you stand up, I will take a picture of you like the famous one of Roosevelt here.
F.: Roosevelt? That ought to be before he was in a wheelchair!
M.: I'm not talking about President Franklin Roosevelt but about President Theodore Roosevelt, who came here around the turn of last century at the invitation of John Muir, a writer and early environmentalist who worked on protecting areas of wilderness in California.
The picture done, François, intoxicated by the fresh air at this altitude, decided to take a nap. Maggie rested her back against a rock, and let herself cozily slid into daydreaming.
The valley of Yosemite, that is the part of the park opened to the public, is only a small section of the whole. The rest is a wildlife preserve forbidden to trekkers.
The Yosemite Grant Act creating the park was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864. The federal administration of national parks didn't exist yet. That is why the first official national park in the U.S. is Yellowstone established by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. But Yosemite was a forerunner eight years ahead.
M.: Shall we go down, darling, and find a place to camp tonight?
They began the descent. Margaret was skipping as if out of reach of gravity.
François thought that his girlfriend, usually dressed up to the nines, was cute with her mountain gear, thick mid-calf woolen socks and hiking boots.
Near a lake, under oak trees, they found a clearing in the midst of chaparral schrubs and decided to install their tent there.
M.: I hope we won't be bothered by bears.
F.: Don't worry, Maggie, in this country you can bear arms, but you can't arm bears!
M.: You're funny my dear! And I appreciate your budding mastery of English. But bears can be harmful, though I suppose not here.
M.: Let's make sure, however, that we throw our trash in the bins supplied by park rangers to that effect. And tonight we should not leave our bags outside the tent either.
F.: Can't we also tie them to a high branch?
M.: I would not be too sure. Cubs climb trees and they are as clever as your cats.
After dinner, they zipped their two sleeping bags into a double one, and slept like logs.
In the morning, François and Margaret went for a swim in the lake in their birthday suits.
Later in the day they paid a must visit to the giant sequoias in Mariposa grove, and it was time to go home.
Lesson 26: Disneyland
Joe and his girlfriend Betty decided to fly to L.A., because Betty was prone to car sickness.
François declared that he preferred to drive. He wanted, as he said, "to get a feel for California".
So as usual he and Maggie rented a car.
On the way, they were to pick up Bob, who was meditating in his favorite spiritual hangout.
All along the drive, François listened to Beach Boys songs.
Maggie: Do you really need to set it full blast?
François: But it's "Good Vibrations"! One cannot travel throughout California without listening to it at least once.
M.: Certainly, dear, but these are not good vibrations they are a deafening din.
On the morning of the second day, they stopped in Ojai.
Bob, who had spent a week nurturing his karma with Krishnamurti or Werner Erhard or some other conscience opening figure, was in fine shape.
F.: Hello buddy. How were your gurus? We are taking you to another fantasy world.
Bob: All worlds are fantasy: Disneyland, the world broadcast by TV, classical ballet, quantum physics, the one in your head, even what we call ordinary reality.
M.: Whaaaooow! Do you intend to be on a high during the whole visit?
Betty and Joe joined them in a motel in Anaheim where they had all made reservations.
After resting a bit and getting refreshed, they met in the lounge to go visit the world most famous amusement park.
Joe showed up donning a brown "Pluto" disguise, complete with ravenous eyes, dripping tongue and huge paws.
F.: Far out! What's this?
Joe: I hope to get free entry.
M.: No kidding! And for all of us to boot?
J.: At least for me. Then I'll do my best to parlay it into getting yours as well.
After waiting for a long time in the slow moving queue at the ticket booths, they entered the park. (Despite his eye catching outfit, Joe didn't get away with having to pay like everyone else.)
Two big live Mickey and Minnie Mouse welcomed them with this strange mix of human warmth and still faces which used to frighten François so much when he was a kid.
While chatting lightheartedly, the five friends began walking toward the enchanting castle which loomed a couple hundred yards ahead.
F.: Is this Snow White's castle?
Betty: Snow White has no castle. Her stepmother threw her out and tried several times to have her killed. It is that of Sleeping Beauty.
F.: Sorry, I get confused at times with all this hodgepodge of recycled European folklore peppered with Walt Disney's own creations.
F.: I've even heard that they have parks in the US where you can see prehistoric men living among dinosaurs.
J.: Yeah, they are usually run by the same people who support the Intelligent Design idea.
Betty: Joe, you can't say that! The Intelligent Design idea is not without merits. Would all of this otherwise be the product of sheer haphazard? Admit then that it's a rather intelligent haphazard.
J.: You know me well enough, Betty, to be aware that I have reached an age where I can say whatever I like.
Turning then to Margaret:
J.: Maggie, you definitely look like Snow White. For François I hesitate: one of the dwarfs of course, but which among Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy or Dopey?
Bob: All the characters fit all of us. We are in a superposition. When you look at us you see one of them at random. That's what makes them so apt and endearing.
M.: Well yes, but the best for François is undoubtedly Doc.
F.: Bob, it's time you land. Do you think we'll meet Goldilocks and her friends?
Betty: Why are you so interested in her?
M.: Since we went camping in Yosemite, François goes berserk as soon as there is a possibility, however remote, of encountering bears.
Betty: He is scared, you mean?
M.: Not at all. He wanted to catch a cub and bring it home, to keep company to his cats.
M.: But when I described to him how the she-bear would likely react, he wisely gave up on this outlandish idea.
F.: No idea is outlandish in California, sweetie.
Lesson 27: A decision
Judith: François, Brad wants to see you. At what time do you finish today?
François: At five.
J.: OK, I’ll tell him. Please be here at five.
Weeks and months had passed, an odd mix of routine and change: the routine of attending daily lectures, studying courses, reading English books, going away or partying at weekends; and the change, noticeable or imperceptible, taking place in the lives of François and his friends.
Angela had left for Beijing, after which Werner had become glum and ate more, getting ready to return to Hamburg.
Margaret and François saw each other regularly but had chosen not to live together. The relationship, while still very pleasant, was less fulfilling than at the outset.
After mediocre studies the previous two years in France, François was again a good student.
His English was nearing fluency. His American friends who had had fun hearing him say « Lynn », instead of « Lynn », had helped him improve his pronunciation.
He had begun to even think in English.
François’s master diploma was approaching. And it was time to plan the future.
At five sharp, François knocked on the chairman's door in the main corridor of the dept.
Bradley: Come in!
Brad, rising from his seat, shook hands with François -- something less usual and more formal in the U.S. than in France -- and invited him to sit down.
B.: François, you are one of our best students. You’re gonna get your master in a few weeks. Have you thought about pursuing toward the PhD?
F.: My scholarship is only for one year. I would not have the money for three more.
B.: The department offers you to enroll in September in the doctorate program, with a position as teaching and research assistant. Your tuitions will be paid, and you’ll also earn enough money for food and lodging and miscellaneous living expenditures.
F.: That’s a great offer! I have to think. When do you need an answer?
B.: Please tell us by next week, so that in case you turn it down we can make the offer to someone else.
François borrowed Jamie’s car and drove to Half Moon Bay, a harbour on the Pacific coast across the hills from Palo Alto, to think about this opportunity.
In the restaurant overlooking the pier, hearing the cries of seagulls and the clanking of shrouds against masts, which reminded him of the fisherman village where he grew up on the Mediterranean shore, while eating a clam chowder François reasoned:
Wherever he would get a job in France, when it was time to select the head of the group, it would go to a doctor rather than a master.
Moreover, even though he was occasionally homesick, he felt that the time had not come to go home. America had already been a wonderful experience in every respects, personal, social, cultural, intellectual, enlarging tremendously his outlook on life, but he sensed that it had not brought him everything it could yet.
He decided to accept Brad’s offer. He would stay three more years in the U.S.
Lesson 28: A party in College Terrace
At nine in the evening, Guy and Sally's place in College Terrace was already crowded.
Guy was one of François's classmates in the department.
Unlike most students he was already married, which, even though he was still in his twenties, gave him the clout of an elder.
He and his wife had organized a party to celebrate the master diplomas.
Guy: Hello François. Margaret didn't come with you?
François: She had some stuff to finish. She'll come later, she told me, if she can make it.
A lot of members of the department were there. François saw Vicky, Gaby, some professors and many other people. Joe and Betty were there too, as well as Bob who knew everybody.
Joe, a glass of punch in his hand, seemed already sloshed.
Joe: Hey, François, do you know the difference between California and a bowl of cereal?
F.: Tell me.
J.: There is none: once you remove the fruit and the nuts ,you're left with the flakes! And he roared with laughter. François smiled.
F.: Excuse me, I need some booze.
He elbowed his way to the buffet, followed by Joe.
J.: The drinks are for a children's afternoon party. If you need to spike yours up, I've got this, he added, pulling out of his pocket a flask of spirit.
Vicky, with her round smiling face and curly hair making her look like a daisy, came to François. She was one of the smart students in the dept.
V.: Nice to see you! I saw brad the other day. I'll stay for the doctorate. I heard you too.
The music was Billy Swan's « I can help ».
F.: Will you dance?
They danced a frenzied rock and roll. The crowd even made room to watch them.
During the evening, François talked to many people and danced a lot.
Joe, by now totaled, was asking someone: do you know the difference between... Betty apparently had gone home.
Eventually François saw Margaret in great conversation with Bob.
F.: Hello, you finally made it!
M.: You dance well...
F.: Not as well as you.
M.: I'm more classical.
F.: I have been accepted in the doctorate program starting in September!
M.: That's great.
F.: Before that, during the Summer, I'll go and work in Paris. But I'll be back at the end of August.
M.: I won't be there. I've accepted a job as a model in an agency in New York.
Lesson 29: New home in Menlo Park
That summer, François analyzed oil prospecting data in a firm in Paris.
He had gotten the summer job from his brother's girlfriend's father who was a bigwig in the company.
Then, back in the U.S. with a first real work experience and some nice money in the pocket, his next objective was to find a new place to live.
In the meantime, his friend Harry invited him to stay in the room he was himself temporarily occupying in a fraternity.
Harry was an American student in the French department. He looked like Proust in the painting by J.-E. Blanche and was homosexual.
The first night, sharing a huge waterbed with his friend, François had to straighten some things out.
In this situation, François understood better how girls suffer from boys who don't understand that a girl can be friendly with you without meaning sex.
He and Harry decided nonetheless to live in a villa, sharing it with two or three other roommates to form a small community and split the rent.
In Menlo Park, near what was to become Facebook campus, they found a one floor five bedroom house with lemon and avocado trees in the garden.
They put ads on various bulletin boards across campus looking for roommates.
Harry got all excited with one candidate, a forty years old truck driver with tattoos currently living in Ashbury Heights in San Francisco.
François: Look, Harry, we are not auditioning for your next lover, but for people we're gonna live with.
Harry: Isn't that the same?
Eventually, they selected Wayne, an engineer in a startup in computers, Belinda, a doctoral student in Education, and Sophia, an opera singer with no engagements, temporarily working as a waitress, all in their twenties.
Wayne was a burly guy who had grown up in the Midwest. He was speaking a lot about what seemed to be his main feat in life: to have befriended Joan Baez, remaining vague on how far it had gone.
Belinda was a small and private person, leaving in the morning and coming home at night, participating very little in the life of the house aside from her part of the chores.
Sophia, tall with long wavy brown hair and thick glasses, turned out to be a nymphomaniac, who would step out of the bathroom yelling: « Please nobody watch, I'm coming out naked! »
Everyone would dutifully turn toward the wall until she had entered her room and closed the door.
Although kooky, she was kindhearted, and -- no question -- she sang beautifully in the shower.
In the coming years, the house would become a well-known place for great parties.
Harry had also been delighted to discover that the neighbor was cultivating a field of marijuana behind the garage.
For now, François's next project was to buy a car.
Lesson 30: Buying a car
In the parking lot, bedecked with myriads of banners and club flags fluttering in the wind, like a circus newly arrived in town, there were dozens of cars of all shapes, sizes and colors awaiting customers.
From loudspeakers mounted on poles was blaring Madonna's "Lucky star".
A salesman in a green jacket, yellow shirt and pink tie, came up to François.
He took a good look at the Frenchman from head to toe.
Salesman: Can I help you?
François: Well, I’m looking for a second hand car.
S.: Foreigner, uhuh?
F.: Yes, I’m from France.
S.: Sorry, we don’t have French cars. But if you like Volkswagen, Saab, or perhaps Japanese…?
François knew that Americans did not like French cars, particularly not the DS, which they thought looked like a suppository.
F.: I’d prefer an American car.
S.: Coupé, roadster, sedan, station wagon…?
F.: A four door. Something classical, not too expensive.
S.: What is your price range? We have cars for every purse and purpose.
François had learned never to trust a used car salesman.
And he had also been told to beware their selling techniques.
F.: Around a grand.
S.: That'll be tough, but let's see...
François noticed a beautiful faded gold Chevy, but pretended to be interested in the red Camaro parked next to it.
S.: Unfortunately, this Camaro goes for $1800.
The Frenchman tried to look disappointed.
S.: But I have this Chevy II, a great American classic, for $1400, if you can go up to that.
F.: Well, I guess I could. May I try it?
The salesman went to the showroom and came back with the keys.
S.: Leave me your passport, and come back in a quarter of an hour.
François sat into the driver's seat, turned the ignition, and left the lot. It was an automatic, so there was no gear stick. He checked the direction lights, the wipers, windshield sprayers, the radio...
He drove around a few blocks. The transmission was smooth. The power steering made it very easy to drive. All seemed fine. He drove back to the car dealer.
S.: Everything's OK, mate?
F.: Yeah. I think I'll take it.
He got his passport back, wrote a cheque, shook hands with the salesman and left at the wheel.
On El Camino Real, driving his own car, paid with the money from his summer job, François was feeling on top of the world.
Lesson 31: Earthquake
François was in the office, working at his desk, that morning, when he heard a strange noise like Kraft paper being torn behind him.
Then it was the rumbling of tanks passing by during a military parade...
...except that it was not a fourteenth of July in Paris, but an unusually cold winter day in Palo Alto. And there were no tanks on campus.
At the same time, everything around him began to sway weirdly.
Even though he was sitting on a swivel chair mounted on casters, this was startling.
Someone shouted down the hall: « Earthquake! »
Everybody dived under tables for protection, as instructed during earthquake preparedness training.
The noise, it turned out, was coming from the window panes being distorted and amplifying earth tremors going through the building structure.
The whole episode did not last more than half a minute.
Then all was eerily silent.
People reappeared and began to talk.
Judith: Anyone hurt? Beware of aftershocks.
After a few minutes no perceptible aftershock had occurred.
And the earthquake had not been powerful enough to do harm to persons, nor damage to buildings and properties.
The San Francisco region straddles the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates, along the so-called San Andreas fault.
The two plates move at a relative speed of about 4 centimeters per year, causing frequent earthquakes in the Bay Area and elsewhere in California.
The last two major ones were the San Francisco quake of April 1906 in Northern California (magnitude 7.8), and the Fort Tejon quake of January 1857, in central and Southern California (magnitude 7.9).
Since then decades elapsed without major quake. Consequently tectonic (as well as psychological) stress is building up. And -- as unbelievable as that might be -- a sudden readjustment could measure in meters, or more some people say!
All along the second half of the twentieth century, up until today, San Francisco has been waiting for « The Big One ».
A few days after the earthquake, François was chatting with Susie in front of her fireplace, in hand a glass of white wine through which danced the refractions of flames:
F.: Did you feel the earthquake the other day?
S.: Yes. I was in San Francisco that morning. I had been invited to a party the night before, and I was staying in a room on the fourteenth floor of a hotel downtown.
S.: When I woke up, with a headache, and went to the window, and saw the city covered with a white mantle, and the floor beneath my feet began swinging, I thought « Holy cow! We went overboard with boozing and smoking joints last night », and I went back to bed.
F.: When did you realize that it had indeed snowed in the city and that there was an earthquake?
S.: Only when the receptionist later told me « Happy white Christmas! » and thanked God that the building was earthquake-proof did I understand that what I had seen and felt was genuine and not a side effect of my hangover.
S.: Do you have earthquakes in France?
F.: The French Riviera is a mess from a geological point of view, but major plate movements happen mostly further east, in Italy, Greece, or Macedonia, and on the southern side of the Mediterranean. I only lived through a small one when I was a kid.
S.: So neither of us have been thru The Big One yet. Let’s have another glass of wine to celebrate.
Lesson 32: New Year's Eve in Lake Tahoe
On the ski lift taking them to the top of the snow fields, François said to Vicky:
F.: I do think that we human beings have a mating season.
Vicky cuddled against him.
From the top of the mountain, swaddled in warm clothes, equipped with their skiing gear, they could see to the east in the far distance the preternatural view of the Nevada desert shimmering like liquid gold on the horizon.
Having grown up in Colorado, Vicky was a natural on skis. François tried to ignore his fear of heights and followed her down the slope rated very difficult.
After a moment of apprehension he forgot the steepness, managed with frequent curves to control his speed and began to evolve almost as gracefully as his friend.
Vicky was waiting for him at the bottom of the descent.
V.: What a run! Let's do it again, she said enthusiastically. They slid leisurely to the foot of the lift, and sat together once more on a chair.
At the end of the afternoon, they went back to the lodge which François had rented for the New Year's Eve holidays.
Jamie and his girlfriend Carol were already there enjoying a hot toddy. François and Vicky joined them.
Jay, a professor from the dept, and his wife Helen, an older couple who had come along, arrived a few minutes later. A whiff of cold air from the outside scented with fir entered the room with them.
Seeing the drinks, Jay exclaimed: Great minds think alike! As soon as the sun has set, it turns so cold. For the past hour I've been dreaming of a hot spiked drink.
Helen: Please, Jay, don't show the youngsters what is an old professor.
Jay: What is an old professor?
H.: Vicky, François, Jamie and Carol still think that it is a pundit, not a drunkard.
Carol feeling the tension slowly rise said soothingly: It's not being a drunkard to need a hot drink at the end of a day on skis. Let me prepare it for you.
Jay: Make one for Helen too; she complains about me, but she has the same wants.
Vicky: François was talking to me about human needs, said Vicky giggling, already tipsy after one swig.
F.: Well, I think we humans have five fundamental needs: food, protection, confidence in oneself, control over one's environment...
V.: ... and sex, didn't you say?
H.: You should tell Jay.
Jamie: Shouldn't you add "understanding the world"?
Carol: Jamie wants to become an engineer and he is in awe of scientists.
Jamie: I'm just thinking that one of the drives of "we humans", to speak like François, is to make sense of what we perceive around us.
Jay: It's amazing that this world even lends itself to rational explanations, that it obeys rules, if you think of it, it is unsettling, said Jay helping himself to more rum.
F.: It is true that one of the things that fascinate me about my cats is that they seem so adapted to their world, so smart, and at the same time not caring a fig about explaining anything.
F.: Yet, when they are in the house, nowhere to be found, in the fourth dimension, if I open a can of tuna for them in the kitchen, within a few seconds they show up silently, unhurriedly, as though just by chance, to eat it.
H.: Jamie, you describe my husband when he was young.
Jay: And François describes me when I'm old? I'm perfectly adapted to this world, still smart I'm told, but no longer so keen to rationalize it. It is at the same time too simple, and too complicated.
V.: I wish Bob were here, he would have the definitive comment on that matter.
C.: We sound like the protagonists of "Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?".
F.: It's a wonderful play, showing how relationships take place simultaneously at different levels, cortical, limbic and reptilian, to use Maclean's model.
V.: I suppose I can see what you mean. For me the best level is that of affection.
H.: My husband grows more and more reptilian as time goes by.
Jay: Helen, you are the one who will give a bad image of old professors's wives.
Jamie: Did you see the movie made from Albee's play by Mike Nichols?
C.: It's a great movie too! Nichols had a streak of successes. He also made The Graduate.
F.: How interesting! The themes, while not the same, do overlap. In each case, the main argument is about the worlds of old and young people at first in unison, eventually colliding.
Jamie: And they always drink like fish.
C.: Richard Burton is wonderful in "Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
F.: And Elisabeth Taylor so beautiful!
Jay: Yeah, that was before she blimped out.
C.: It's soon midnight everyone. Let's not squabble but make a wish.
V.: I made mine.
Lesson 33: The doctorate
The Ph.D. program in Mathematics comprises two years of courses followed by a third year of personal research work, under the guidance of an advisor, to produce a dissertation, also called a thesis.
Ph.D. stands for "Philosophy Doctor". It is the generic name of the doctorate degree in all the sciences (maths, physics, computer science, etc.) and the humanities (literature, languages, history, etc.), with the exception of law. In medicine, it is M.D.; and in law it has yet another name.
At the end of the first two years, students must pass qualification examinations -- the Quals -- to be allowed to pursue toward the diploma.
François's professors were all outstanding, not only because of their impeccable academic credentials but some of them because of their background or non academic activities as well.
Thomas, the professor in charge of Advanced hypothesis testing, drove a yellow Lotus sports car and was barred from all United States casinos.
With some friends, he had designed a method to observe extremely accurately the gestures of the croupier and the behavior of the roulette wheel, and transformed quite legally the game into a vacuum cleaner of money for them.
Morris was one of those friends . Still a young associate professor, teaching Introductory probability, he had been in a previous life a professional magician who performed on stages all over the world amongst chorus girls, acrobats and lion tamers.
He kept from his past trade a peculiar way to produce the expected results at the end of long calculations.
Often students would ask Morris to perform a trick, but he almost invariably declined.
Once though, he came to the office of Vicky, Fay and François, who were working late at night. They asked him to do a trick, and he accepted.
From his pocket he pulled a deck of cards, and with one hand opened it into a fan, like the tail of a peacock. Without seeing the cards, he asked Vicky to pick one, show it to Fay and François, and put it back into the deck.
He asked François to shuffle it and hand it back to him. Then he put the cards on a table face up and spread them. The three students could see that the card Vicky had picked wasn't there.
Morris said: Fay, would you please check under your notepad. She did and there was Vicky's card.
Fay: And you know which one it is too?
Morris: Sure, said Morris with his high-pitched voice and an impish smile, it's the one missing from the deck... Vicky chose the Queen of Hearts.
François and his fellow students were nearly all teaching and research assistants in the department which in return took charge of their tuitions and paid them a small stipend for living expenditures.
The work of T.A. (teaching assistant) consisted in correcting papers of undergraduate and master's students, and helping them with their studies.
François was also the R.A. (research assistant) of Morris. He would meet with him almost every day, in late afternoon, in Morris's little office crammed with science books on shelves and in piles on the floor. On one shelf there was also a basketball.
François read over papers, checked proofs and results, sometimes simplified final mathematical expressions.
That, in addition to his own studies, was a heavy load. But he enjoyed this life, which still left him some time to spend with his friends, most of them, like him, enrolled in doctorate programs.
They were all gradually leaving the world of students to that of academics.
The autumn following the Quals, Morris was away for the year, on leave to another university.
One day François was talking to Saul, a tenured professor both in Applied Maths and in Geology, who suggested to him a problem that would be suitable for a doctorate. He accepted and Saul became his advisor.
The following months, François worked on the problem, seeing his advisor every two or three days. In March, Saul told him that he had enough results and was ready for the thesis.
During the spring François wrote his dissertation, while now and then travelling to give lectures on his work at several universities on the East Coast and West Coast.
François received his diploma in June.
Soon afterwards came an offer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, near Boston, as instructor in the math department for the following two years.
During the month of July, he taught his first course at Stanford in the Summer program, and then got ready to move.
The Californian period of his life was over. It would continue on the East Coast of the United States.
He was twenty-five.
He knew what the next two years would be.
But, beyond that, like for any young man, the future was vast, open and unknown.
Lesson 34: Crossing the US by car
Bob: So, you are on the go. How are you gonna travel to the East Coast? Will you take the plane?
François: I plan to cross the US with my car.
B.: With your car! But didn't you throw a rod a few weeks ago on San Mateo bridge?
F.: Yeah, but AAA came and towed the Chevy II to a repair shop.
F.: When I told the mechanic I intended to go to Boston with it, François added with a laugh, he looked at me puzzled and said that in his opinion the car would not make it past Sacramento. But I think these Chevrolet engines are unbreakable.
F.: And, what the hell, didn't Nietzsche say "the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously"?
François kissed Vicky goodbye. They agreed that after his arrival in Boston he would join her in Niagara Falls where she was gonna be staying at friends's.
He packed all his belongings in two small trunks, a suitcase and a couple bags, put them in the boot and on the back seat, and one early morning of August hit the road.
The weather was warm and sunny, the freeways unencumbered, and the car ran like clockwork. By noon, Sacramento was already far behind. François had crossed the Sierra Nevada near Donner Pass, and entered Nevada.
He planned to stay on Interstate 80 for the next 4000 kilometers, till he reached Cleveland, where he would take Interstate 90 toward Buffalo, in upstate New York, and end up on the Massachusetts turnpike to Boston and Cambridge.
The most striking feature of the stretch through Nevada was the starkness of landscapes and the immensity of skies.
During the long hours of driving, his mind roamed as unshackled as François himself. In various places he crossed, he had memories either from past experiences or from readings.
In Reno, some months earlier, he had gone to a casino and felt the strange atmosphere with no windows, no clocks, no sense of time, and the gamblers, old and young alike, looking addicted, faintly mad, swarming the roulette and blackjack tables, or alone like automatons actioning one-arm bandits.
At Winnemucca, NV, he remembered that it was the place where Mrs Madrigal, the unforgettable character of the San Francisco Chronicles, had lived in her youth. And he thought about life at 28 Barbary Lane, described by Armistead Maupin, which appeared so zany and yet was so true, as he could attest because he had lived a similar one in Palo Alto.
In the evening of the first day, he reached Utah, traversed Salt Lake City, the first big city with business skyscrapers since San Francisco, and kept on going eastward to Wyoming.
Around midnight, near Laramie, WY, he had driven 1800 kilometers and decided to call it a day. He didn't check into a motel or anything, but lurched in a shallow ditch by roadside, stopped the engine, put the handbrake on, and fell asleep on the front seat.
At four o'clock in the morning, he was woken up by the breathing of fillies, from the neighbouring field along which he was parked, poking their heads through the open front car window. It was Mary O'Hara's novel, My Friend Flicka, which he loved so much, in a French translation, when he was a kid, which popped up to mind this time.
He poured himself a cup of strong coffee from the Thermos bottle and got going.
The next city was Cheyenne. Even though the section of the journey geographically speaking was still in the Rocky Mountains, there Route 80 unfurled in rolling hill country between Wyoming mountains in the north and Colorado mountains and ski resorts in the south.
Then François entered Nebraska. In North-Platte, he thought of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), "The Boy Orator of the Platte", the famous figure of American politics of the end of the XIXth century and the beginning of the XXth century, who marked so strongly the American psyche, even if some may not be aware of it.
Bryan was a moving character, at the same time very progressive, not to say advanced, from a social standpoint, and very conservative in matters of religion and education. He was a proponent of many social laws which were all eventually voted long after his death. But in the "Scopes Monkey trial" of 1925, he defended the biblical view of the universe and the interdiction to teach Darwin's ideas in schools.
The second day of driving through the western part of the Middle West was monotonous, just punctuated with stops at petrol stations to refill the tank with gasoline and the Thermos with coffee, and get food at some roadside store or diner.
After Omaha in Nebraska, the road continued to Iowa, and the state capital, Des Moines, one of the rare places around there not bearing an Indian name. At the end of another 15 hour lap, François decided to sleep in a bed, and stopped at a motel the blue neon sign of which he sighted glaring in the night before Davenport.
The morning of the third day the journey crossed a major landmark, the wide Mississippi river at Davenport, IA, in the glorious sunrise light, and continued through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. At Cleveland, OH, on Lake Erie, as planned François left route 80 and headed north-east. He drove through a small chunk of Pennsylvania, before entering New York state a few miles after Erie.
That night again, he slept in his car on the road bank near Buffalo. Niagara Falls was only 20 kilometers away, but his goal next day was to reach Cambridge and leave his car and stuff there.
That fourth day, he went through New York state (Rochester, Syracuse, Albany) in the early morning and reached Massachusetts, the final state of the trip, around 10 o'clock.
In the Berkshire Hills, the car which had been so reliable for more than 4500 kilometers began to show signs of fatigue. The engine overheated and lost power. The throttle pedal seemed no longer to command speed.
Eventually François had to stop in a forest near Springfield, MA, to let the motor cool off. Would he have to call AAA just a few hundred kilometers from his goal? he wondered. That would be an irksome setback so close to the end.
After half an hour of rest, however, the engine started without trouble and she appeared to have sufficiently recovered to go on. François drove more slowly, and somewhat anxiously, up to Cambridge where he arrived in the afternoon.
He had covered 5000 km in three and a half days.
He parked the car on Memorial Drive, along the Charles River, near MIT buildings which he had visited in the spring, took the suitcase, and flagged a cab to go to Logan airport and fly back to Niagara Falls.
At nine in the evening, he landed at Buffalo airport, where Vicky was waiting for him.
V.: Hey, François, you look thinner than last week. How was your trip?
F.: The trip was fine. It's wonderful to see you again, Vicky. I'll tell you all about it later if you don't mind.
She drove him to her friends in Niagara Falls, and after minimal greetings he excused himself and went to sleep.