RUE AMELOT
This is Worldcrunch's international collection of essays, which includes pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any other language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to info@worldcrunch.com.
Rue Amelot
Genevieve Mansfield

Manga Mon Amour: On French Passion For Japanese Anime

The visiting American writer pieces together how the French culture of comics (bandes dessinées) mixes with their deepening love of Japanese anime'.

PARIS — When I was in sixth grade, Cartoon Network aired episodes of the TV show Code Lyoko almost every day around 3 p.m. I was a loyal fan — watching practically every day when I got home from school.

In the show, a group of teenagers wage virtual battle against a virus-like artificial intelligence force that threatens to wreak havoc on the physical world. If I had to categorize it, I would place it loosely into the "anime-influenced Western animated series" box. Uninformed as I was, I had simply assumed the show was a real Japanese anime, when in actuality it was a French animated television series. Fast forward a decade: I had just moved to the Paris region and begun work as a middle school English teacher. About halfway through the day, it was time for free reading. As I told my students to take out their reading materials, I was struck as, one by one, virtually all pulled out the same thing: Manga.

This mainstream status in France surprised me after my experience in a U.S. middle school, where being a manga (or anime) fan was typically frowned upon. If you were looking to secure popularity, your book of choice might be the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or the Uglies series. Manga was more of a niche interest, and as such, frequently viewed as "weird," indicative perhaps of some latent xenophobia. And yet, here were my French students — those aspiring to coolness and the wallflowers alike — flipping eagerly through their copies of Demon Slayer or One Piece.

Of course, in recent years anime and manga have entered more of the mainstream in the United States. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Michael B Jordan are open fans, to the chagrin of those who detest the thought of the genre being overtaken by "normies." But in France, the story is different altogether. Anime and manga are extremely popular, and have held a special place here for a long time, as noted in a recent article in Le Monde.

"All you have to do is look up and you'll see it all around the school," Solal, a 16-year-old highschooler in Brittany, told the French daily. "Tons of people wear anime-inspired t-shirts or sweaters. Some people even have phone cases with characters from their favorite series on them, while others might be a bit more discreet and just have anime on their computer screen."

Manga actually overtook the traditional BD style, becoming the most popular comic sold in France.

France is ranked, in fact, as the second largest consumer of manga outside of Japan. And it's a love affair that goes back decades, to 1978 to be precise, when it appeared on public television as after-school series.

Young viewers tuned into the public television channel of a production group called Club Dorothée to watch series such as Goldorak or Maya the Bee. These lower budget shows would pave the way for well-known shows like Dragon Balland Sailor Moon. Interestingly, anime as a genre was originally met with backlash, as naysayers decried the genre's tendency to oversexualize characters and portray too much gore and violence. And yet in some ways, the bad press served to make anime more popular, and as anime took off, so did manga.

France was already fertile ground for the manga market given its rich history of graphic novels, or as they are known in French: bandes dessinées (BDs for short). Cultural phenomena like The Adventures of Tintin (1929) and Astérix (1959) have marked generations of French people, with some in France even referring to BDs as the "9th Art." Every year, France hosts the Angoulême International Comics Festival, the second largest comic festival in Europe and the third largest in the world, after Japan's Comiket Festival. Several French government officials attend the event each year, and in 2019, Franck Riester, a former culture minister, even gave a speech where he likened the import of the comic festival to that of the Cannes Film Festival in cinema.

France was already fertile ground for the manga market given its rich history of graphic novels — Photo: Visual/ZUMA Wire

Thus, converting to manga was not that big of an ask for an already comic-loving culture. But by 2005, manga actually overtook the traditional BD style, becoming the most popular comic sold in France. And as manga and anime have taken hold of France, the French have started to create their own comics and series — à la française. Publishers that have sought to create "French-style" manga, or Manfras, tend to feature art inspired by Japanese manga while sometimes offering left-to-right reading styles or incorporating a bande dessinée-style hardcover. Their popularity is growing too, both in France and even in Japan, as evidenced by the success of Radiant, a French comic written and illustrated by Tony Valente, and published by Ankama, the French entertainment company.

Satoko Inaba, editorial director at the publishing house, Glénat told Le Monde that publishing houses have been overwhelmed by requests for publication in this style. "We have piles of projects coming in," he said.

This is where Code Lyoko, the show that grabbed my attention so much as an 11-year-old, fits in. Created by French animators Thomas Romain and Tania Palumbo, the illustration style in the show is an homage to manga iconography and drawing style, even though it is presented through 3D CGI animation. But the imagery is simultaneously inspired by scenes from the Paris area, from a Renault production plant in Boulogne-Billancourt to a high school in Sceaux.

Code Lyoko represents the way that manga and anime, adapted with a few French twists, has triumphed in France — to the point even of being beamed into living rooms in the United States, where the show dazzled at least one curious (and unsuspecting) middle-schooler, who could hardly have imagined she'd one day call Paris home.

Green
Alessio Perrone*

Why All The E-Scooter Bashing Is Just Urban Myth

European media is failing to state the obvious about electric scooter reality: Our cities have to adapt.

Across Europe, newspapers and magazines continue to warn the public about the Biblical scourge of electric scooters. The stream of articles have turned into a tired trope: Start with the story of a recent electric scooter accident. Then move on to explain how the driver violated decades-old traffic rules — maybe he rode on the sidewalk or didn't wear a helmet or two people rode it at the same time. Then rant about how chaotic our streets have become after the coming of the scooters. And the article inevitably wraps up with a scathing indictment: Electric scooters should be banned or heavily restricted.

Such articles litter the media across the continent. We've seen them in Paris, where electric scooters are a mighty fearsome time bomb and prompted public outcry after an accident on the sidewalk caused the death of a young woman, as Le Parisien reported. The city of Lisbon has levied hefty fines for the electric scooters parked on its sidewalks. And the latest has come from Italy, where national media thundered against them after a young man died in an accident. (Plot twist: The man who lost his life was the e-scooter rider; a motorbike plowed into him. But I digress.)

If we find electric scooters so annoying, it's because most of our infrastructure was built to serve cars.

A few telling details are often missing. Accidents frequently happen on sidewalks or roads, because there is no adequate infrastructure for e-mobility. Often, it's the driver that gets hurt. In Italy, media emphasized that four people have lost their lives in e-scooter accidents in 2021 so far — but failed to compare that with the number of casualties of car, motorbike, bicycle, boat or plane accidents. Demand for this new technology is high, and it's not hard to see why given how inexpensive it is, how little public space it takes and how convenient it is for short-haul commutes.

A woman rides a scooter on the Black Sea coast in Russia — Photo: Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS/ZUMA

But such stories are frequently awash with suggestions: Electric scooters should carry plates; minors shouldn't be allowed to drive them; users should be forced to wear helmets and high-vis gear; they shouldn't park on the sidewalk; there should be speed limits and hefty fines if two people ride one same scooter; they should be banned from the sidewalk, the cycle lanes and the road ... Earlier this week, a La Stampa article summed up the mood in Italy with the headline "Stop the scooters!" (The author then admitted in the piece that he'd never ridden an e-scooter, e-bike or even a bicycle in his life.)

Maybe it's time we stop demonizing electric scooters.

I'm not criticizing those who think that this emerging tool should be better regulated: Such calls are indisputable. Nor do I resent the pushback against them: Resistance to change is understandable. But I find it striking that amid this furor, none of these stories go through the trouble of stating the obvious, that if we find electric scooters so annoying, it's because most of our infrastructure was built or rebuilt in the 20th century, and was designed to serve cars. But that could change. If micro-mobility continues to boom in the same staggering way it has in the last few years, maybe it's time we stop demonizing electric scooters and calling for them to be banned. Maybe it's time we roll up our sleeves and make sure that our cities adapt to the times.


*The author of this article does not own an electric scooter and does not subscribe to a scooter sharing app. He is, however, very jealous of the people who do.

Future
Meike Eijsberg

Why The World’s Military Leaders Are Drafting Science Fiction Writers

The year is 2056. Decades of war have resulted in constant advances in weapon technology — including one such novelty dubbed the "hypervelocity missile." Moving at six times the speed of sound, these weapons have changed the rules of combat. In order to protect themselves against attacks, armies have designed a sophisticated shield that can protect an entire city. Still it is not impenetrable, and the simmering war worsens when one government tries to break through the shield of another.

What sounds like the premise of a new binge-worthy series is instead the beginnings of an intricate scenario developed by science fiction writers hired by the French military. As Le Monde reported recently, the unusual collaboration between the French Ministry of Defense and the University of Paris Sciences and Lettres (PSL) has just launched the second season of this project.

Science fiction tends to conjure the futuristic and surreal settings of space exploration, extraterrestrial life, and time travel. Fascinating and mindboggingly fun, but not exactly useful in the real world. As an avid reader of science fiction and a student of political science and international relations, I prefer to think of it differently: Almost every scifi tale introduces some kind of scientific invention or phenomenon that changes society in irreversible ways — which doesn't sound so different than something you might find in this morning's headlines.

The efforts like those of the French Defense Ministry raise questions like: How will governments approach a new technology? Some might be diplomatic about it and will want to commence scientific collaborations to discuss the best possible application. But other ill-intending individuals might throw all ethical concerns out the window. And what about the people? Will they be supportive or will they turn on their own rulers?

For now, the French army is devising ways to make the practice as useful as possible: there's a "Red Team" consisting of authors, who have wide freedom in coming up with scenarios. They can put ideas on the table that the French army typically excludes for ethical reasons, such as Autonomous Lethality Weapon Systems (ALWS), or augmented humans.

Infantry battalion commander Jean-Baptiste Colas, 36, explains to Le Monde the goal of this process: "What the Red Team imagines must destabilize us, scare us, blame, or even beat us."

The red team has the option to consult the "Purple Team," which consists of academics working in AI and technology, to make sure their ideas are reasonable and realistic. The military side, or "The Blue Team," provides the finishing touches before the scenarios are officially sequestered with a top secret seal.

The official trailer for the French Defense Military Red Team — Red Team Defense/Youtube

The elected participants were subjected to a thorough investigation to ensure that they did not have any weaknesses that could be exploited by someone from the outside (significant debts, links with a foreign power, etc). The precaution is needed because the teams work with confidential information. "We start with a real threat that the army helps us to make even more plausible, more worrying," explains Xavier Mauméjean, who is part of both teams.

To maintain a somewhat transparent image, a very small fraction of the scenarios is made public. But before they reach our eyes, these scenarios are put under a loop and anything that comes close to reality is removed: people and locations will be replaced by fictional alternatives. When the scenarios are published, the creators go all out: scriptwriters, illustrators, actors, and graphic designers are hired to make the project as attractive as possible. The result is a win-win situation: the public has a new form of entertainment and the army has a fresh set of practice scenarios.

Although mocked by some for this initiative, the army insists that employing science fiction authors is helping them prepare for previously unthought of situations. They say it boosts creativity and makes soldiers and generals more resourceful, something that is needed in an unpredictable world.

The truth is that the practice has long existed, in different forms and sectors. For instance, the famous Frankenstein (1818), a story about a fictionalized scientist obsessed with bringing a monster to life using lightning, was inspired by the limited scientific research into electricity on the human body being done at the time. More than a hundred years after its publication, a young Earl Bakken watched the movie adaptation in 1937. It inspired him to create the first ever battery powered cardiac pacemaker in 1957, a life saving medical device still being used today.

The more "crazy" science fiction out there remains just that: fiction.

Jules Verne's 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, went a step further and indirectly influenced politics and military decisions in the United States. The story is about a group of men who decide to launch themselves to the moon in a cylinder-shaped projectile. This fictional shell has striking similarities to the Apollo 11 command module used to bring the first humans to the moon 104 years later: it was hollow, made mostly of aluminium, crewed by three people, launched from Florida, and it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Verne's tale inspired real people to work on the challenges of space travel, eventually prompting the 20th century space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

We know now that an all-out space war was avoided due to international space treaties prohibiting the use of outer space for military aspirations. But the years leading up to these events were tense and characterized by politicians frantically debating the influence of this new, potentially disruptive, technology. Not fictional at all!

Instead of hiring science fiction writers, the German military has therefore opted for researching existing literature and in 2018 teamed up with a handful of academics. Their plan is to use novels to pinpoint the world's next potential conflict. As German weekly Die Zeit reports, this collaboration, dubbed "Project Cassandra" after the Trojan priestess of Greek myth who had the gift of foresight, doesn't solely focus on science fiction and future technologies, but takes into account human behavior. They look for social trends, moods, and conflicts that arose in response to political decisions and technological breakthroughs (whether real or fictional).


SF literature, the new Art of War? — Photo: scifi.book.club via Instagram

Jürgen Wertheimer, a literary scholar who set up the project, emphasizes the seismographic function that novels can have and why States should learn to understand it. "There are authors," he said, who "who are extremely sensitive to changes and mood swings in society and put that into words."

Just like the French army's science fiction writers, the German literary academics work with AI. But where the French use AI to improve their scenarios, the Germans are consulted to improve AI. This is because the already existing German AI computer Watson, which is used to predict conflicts, isn't able to read between the lines and pick up on social cues. That's where Wertheimer and his team come in. They look for literature that "hits a nerve," whether it wins prizes or ends up censored. The multi-year analysis ensured that officials can now, with quite a bit of accuracy, predict a conflict five years in advance, instead of just one.

Movies are also a source of inspiration. In fact, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon reached out to Hollywood filmmakers, such as Die Hard screenwriter Steve de Souza. This was supposedly a reaction to the belief that an attack of this scale could have been anticipated if the CIA had a bit more imagination. The group of screenwriters and filmmakers were commissioned to brainstorm with Pentagon advisors and officials over several days, in a secure location, using declassified intelligence reports. The meeting could have been a movie scene: Souza described how they were sitting in a dark room, being talked to by someone on a screen "like Captain Kirk" from Star Trek. Although the exact content of these sessions is shrouded in secrecy, it is known that they asked for "left-field, off the wall ideas" and participants were encouraged to share the most insane things that came to mind.

The more "crazy" science fiction out there remains just that: fiction. It's highly unlikely that an alien race will destroy our planet because it was blocking plans for a new "hyperspatial express route," as was the case in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Nor is there any real chance of entering a time-traveling war like in This Is How You Lose the Time War. Instead, the apocalyptic scenario we really have to fear can already be seen this summer in (non-fiction) stories of California wildfires and European floods: it's called Climate Change.

Rue Amelot
Alessio Perrone

Confessions Of A Recovering Meme Stock Trader

MILAN — There were a few moments of silence when I told my girlfriend what I'd done. I'd kept the information from her for a few days, fearing her reaction and forced to explain: I had chucked a few hundred dollars at shares of the so-called "meme stock" extraordinaire GameStop on the New York Stock Exchange. Then, still dissatisfied, I'd come to own shares of AMC, BlackBerry, Plug Power. I'd never even heard of these companies until I saw them, well, trending on the internet. And in just a few clicks, the same internet made it easy to invest my hard-earned money in these stocks.


As soon as I confessed, her lips arched into an unsure smile — one that looked to be hiding several emotions: confusion, incredulity, anger, compassion. "What are you doing?" was the rhetorical (and otherwise) question.


It's true I'm not the kind of person you'd think of as a meme stock or cryptocurrency trader — at least not in the way they've been portrayed in the media: geeky types in their early 20s, sometimes fresh out of a U.S. college, who see the stock market as a giant casino they now have access to enter with (or without) their savings to try to hit it big. Instead, I'm a 29-year-old freelance journalist from Italy who never cared much about money or computers.

They are inherently risky because they run on hype

And yet here I was, having excitedly chucked $2,000 into obscure stocks, hiding the information from those around me, and struggling to understand how things had come to be this way.


My meme stock journey was about to teach me a lesson or three — about finance, the world, and myself.


Meme stocks are like all other stocks, except they are traded not because of their companies' prowess, but because — for one reason or another — they're trending on social media. The term became popular when the shares of GameStop, a languishing video game retailer, rose 1,700% in a month last January and February for no particular business reason: GameStop had gone viral on a Reddit forum called Wall Street Bets. Meme stocks are inherently risky because you're buying and selling stuff whose value has nothing to do with objective criteria like business parameters: They run on hype. For this reason, the trades tend to yield spectacular gains or gut-wrenching losses; there is no middle ground.


I started buying meme stocks almost by chance. When the pandemic flared up in northern Italy, where I live and work, I was hired to report on it for a handful of U.S. publications, who paid me in dollars. But with the value of the dollar plummeting, I decided against exchanging it into euros, which made the money a strange beast: a sum that I owned but couldn't use. So, I wondered if I could make a few extra bucks by investing online.

I had watched some of my peers, and my twin brother, making a few hundred, sometimes thousand dollars quickly as the stock market began to boom after the first wave of COVID had passed. This was also fueled by how easy it is for an individual to invest in the stock market today, thanks to the explosion of personal finance apps like Robinhood, which last week announced it hoped to raise $100 million by going public.


Because Robinhood is not available outside the U.S., I had to turn to another app: Revolut, the app I already used for my day-to-day digital spending. I found out that it allowed users to stock up on anything from stock shares to cryptocurrency to gold at the tap of the screen and with minimal fees. I did not double my money, but my first trades gained me a few extra dollars. By the end of 2020, I started looking for new shares to buy.


One day, my brother giggled as he told me about people on the "Wall Street Bets' group on the social media Reddit making ludicrous amounts of money with GameStop shares. Some posted their gains online, and a few reached six digits. The logic seemed sound, the money seemed easy: around 140% of GameStop stocks were sold short at the time: many people had bet on their price to fall, borrowing and selling shares, hoping to be able to buy them back for cheaper later. This means that more people had to buy back GameStop shares than there were out there: by the law of demand and supply, it seemed like a ticking time bomb — in the good sense.


With the price still relatively low, I purchased myself a few shares through Revolut, then tapped on the sell button when the price spiked suddenly. It went well: just like that, in a matter of minutes, I made the same amount of money I would make in four days of journalistic research. And so, right after I sold, I looked again to where to put my money next: AMC, BlackBerry, Plug Power.

Trading meme stocks, as long as you don't go bankrupt, is fun. This is partly due to the online community at Wall Street Bets, with its peculiar culture and jargon. Almost everything is expressed through memes, and Reddit's algorithms will push the funniest ones to your screen. People go out of their way to make fun of conventional financial wisdom and YOLO their savings on ridiculous trades. They mock each other as "apes' for stupid bets and boast when they win big that they would buy gifts for their "wife's boyfriend." There is also the sport of "loss porn" posts, recounting the supposed spectacular side effects of bad finance. One guy posted that he was "financially ruined" after he invested his life savings in ornamental gourds, hoping to capitalize on an emerging trend. Stuck with a shipment of "gargantuan" gourds from Argentina, he claimed to have looked for ways to turn them into musical instruments.

There is a typically millennial element of meme stocks.

But there was another more serious side of Wall Street Bets that emerged with sagas like GameStop, one that resonated with my still living sense of injustice. About the time GameStop shares skyrocketed, users began writing posts about how the 2007-08 crash had destroyed their lives; how their parents lost their jobs; how they had to sell their homes; how they'd felt suicidal. Some were gambling their retirement funds on GameStop. Others fanned the flames, noting how the hedge fund bosses they were trying to beat by inflating the value of GameStop shares had screens in their offices linked to CCTV on their premium car collections and yachts.


I came to see this as the typically millennial element of meme stocks. People came to them for a variety of reasons, but meme stocks seemed to me to prey on the deep-rooted, disillusioned nihilism that cloaks the anger of young people against the hand they were dealt in the global economy. Hope is not something many of us — children of the global financial crisis, globalization, the pandemic — see in the economy or their careers. Salaries across most sectors have stalled for years. Inequality is rising across the West.

One night shortly after I'd made my GameStop trade, I had a dream. I'd wound up in a dark and massive empty room where I could see none of its walls or boundaries. In front of me stood a chart and a handful of red and green lights, showing how my money was growing or decreasing. Suddenly, the chart started cratering. It went down quickly, inexorably as I gasped for breath and time, paralyzed as to what to do next. Quickly it went to 0 — all my money was gone. I awoke drenched in sweat.


I was beginning to realize how big an emotional toll gambling was taking on my mental health: the dream was one of the ways that my mind was trying to put itself back in charge of the flurry of anxiety, excitement, and fear that meme stocks generated. There were other signs: my devouring of financial news, my sullen mood when a trade had me lose money, my scouring forums for ideas, and constant chatting about it with others.


It was then that I decided to wind down and get out of meme stocks. I'd had a losing position in AMC for some months when the stock skyrocketed again in June. I closed it as soon as it allowed me to break even — later I discovered that I had unwittingly renounced hefty gains doing so.

Through trading stocks, I learned about myself and other young people, and experientially, I'm glad to have gone through it


I am still recovering, and still have a few dollars invested in some stocks and funds. But I've come to terms with what drew me into the memes — the injustice, the community — and all the ways it was damaging me: anxiety, constant distraction, a collapse in productivity in my real profession.


Over time, I've also tried to think of the less obvious opposite side: had trading meme stocks given me something? For sure, I had picked up a few lessons about basic finance and impulsivity. I learned about myself and other young people, and experientially, I'm glad to have gone through it.


The other obvious thing meme stocks have left me is money. I made a few hundred dollars at the tap of a button with GameStop and AMC, and I'm glad to have exited meme stocks with some gains.


If you don't count BlackBerry, that is. I bought that one on a high, it plummeted shortly after, and I still own some shares. I'm down 40%.

Rue Amelot
Anne Sophie Goninet

How A Road Trip And YouTube Saved Me From A Bad TV News Habit

Watching the nightly news on television was a recipe for unhappiness. It's just one lesson from two years on the road in Europe, even though the depressing headlines will follow you through other channels.

In 2018, I set off with my partner in our camper van on a road trip across Europe that would wind up lasting more than two years. The experience has, not surprisingly, changed us in many ways: from how we think about bigger questions of work and life, but also our daily habits. For one thing, it has ended our attachment to television — but not for the reasons you might think.

Before beginning the van life, in our Nissan Primastar nicknamed Foxy, we lived in an apartment and had a nightly rendezvous of watching the news on TV while eating dinner. Most of the time, those 30 minutes left us, well … depressed. Even before COVID, the news mainly revolved around bleak events and bad politicians.

Consuming this regular dose of current events, relayed not just by television but also our smartphones, was draining us, making us feel pessimistic about the future of society or the fate of the planet, blasés about politics, etc. But we didn't really realize that back then. It was only when we left on our trip that we felt the weight of all of this slowly lifting.

During our travels, we made a conscious decision to cut ourselves off from the news world. We removed the pop-up notifications on our smartphones and stopped watching live feeds about current events. Instead we chose to focus on learning more about the history, the language and the culture of the countries we were visiting.

This was bound to redirect us toward YouTube, so much so that eventually, our smartphones became our new televisions.

The platform allowed us to access content from around the world, much more than TV.

For years, YouTube had been a place to watch funny and weird videos, from a sneezing baby panda to that guy in awe of a double rainbow. But the platform has evolved since, and publishing videos there has become a full time job for an array of "YouTubers' and "content creators."

On YouTube, we found videos about topics we were really interested in, from a fellow French "vanlifer" sharing his experiences to documentaries about tiny houses around the world. We also discovered creators specialized in niche topics, from the restoration of ancient rusty objects to explaining the names of places and people or a funny show specialized in maps — topics that would probably never be broadcasted on traditional television channels. As people who are very interested in other cultures and languages, we felt the platform was also allowing us to access content from around the world, much more than TV.

Youtube_smartphone

On YouTube, we found videos about topics we were really interested in. — Photo: Hello I'm Nik

Now that we are back in one place (our van trip ended just three months before the first COVID lockdown in France), we are also watching the news again — although in a different way: opting to go directly to videos from websites like Vox, Le Monde or The New York Times, which, rather than reacting to what we call l'actu chaude (breaking news) take news item and dissect it, analyze it, with cool graphics and designs that make it pop out from the screen.

We felt we just couldn't go back to our old habits.

Contrary to a limited two-minute segment on TV, the videos allow the journalists to develop the item and its content with more nuance. But the big difference with our old TV habits is also that you can choose to click on what you want, by the topic.

Just like French philosopher Gaspard Koenig, who cut himself completely from the news during one summer while traveling on horseback across Europe, when we came back from our trip, we felt we just couldn't go back to our old habits. "I tried to pick up the news feed, but after such a long period of time away from it, I wasn't able to absorb such large quantities," Koenig wrote in Les Echos, wondering "do we really need all this information?"

For us the answer is clearly no. And ever since we stopped trying to catch up with the frenetic pace of news channels, we feel much better. Maybe we should have listened to what Morrissey says in his song "Spent the Day in Bed": "Stop watching the news / Because the news contrives to frighten you / To make you feel small and alone / To make you feel that your mind isn't your own."

Rue Amelot
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty

Say It Proud, Joe! Stutterers Of The World Will Be With Biden

Our New Delhi-based writer will be watching with pride as Kamala Harris becomes the first woman of Indian descent become vice president — but is also very much aware of the glass ceiling the incoming president is breaking.

-Essay-

NEW DELHI — On January 20th, four glass ceilings will be shattered in Washington: the United States will have its first woman vice president, first vice president of color, first vice president of Indian origin… and first president with a stutter.

As an Indian woman, I will be watching with particular interest as Kamala Harris is sworn as Vice President of the United States. But it will be no less momentous for me personally to watch Joe Biden deliver his inaugural address as president.

The Mayo Clinic defines stuttering as "a speech disorder that involves frequent and significant problems with normal fluency and flow of speech. People who stutter know what they want to say, but have difficulty saying it." While research is not definitive, the cause of stuttering seems to have both neurological and genetic aspects. Scientists recently identified several gene mutations that may be associated with stuttering. Unlike most disabilities, it's invisible. Strangers don't know you're disabled until you start to talk – or try to.

Some three million Americans stutter, as do some 70 million people worldwide. Stuttering is often developmental and begins in childhood, but it can continue for a lifetime; estimates are that it affects some 10% of preschoolers and some 1% of adults. It crosses all boundaries of gender, color, race, ethnicity and IQ. It also crosses boundaries of fame and fortune to afflict literally kings and commoners.

VP-elect Kamala Harris at a drive-in rally in Georgia — Photo: Sue Dorfman/ZUMA Wire

Some stutterers choose occupations that are less demanding on their speech – like editors, artists, musicians, athletes, construction workers and computer programmers. Others grab the bull by the horns and become teachers, news readers, actors… and yes, politicians.

Joe Biden began stuttering as a child. And does so even to this day, when he's tired or talking impromptu. He's been very open about his stutter in interviews, in town halls and even in a letter to the Stuttering Foundation.

I too began stuttering as a child and it has remained with me. Over the decades, it has kept me more silent than I'd like to have been. We stutterers all know how it is to be bullied at school. We know the terror of spelling bees, and seemingly innocuous games like Trivial Pursuits and Battleship. We know the frustration of not always being able to say what we want to say. As adults, we know the absurdity of sounding unconvincing when truthfully giving verification information over the phone – and sensing the person on the other end getting more and more suspicious. We know the anxiety of foreseeing an upcoming killer word… and we know the agony of indeed getting stuck on that word. Once during a group introduction, I got royally stuck – only to hear someone laugh breezily and ask if I had forgotten my own name. I gave him a smile but would love to have given him a swift uppercut instead.

We know the frustration of not always being able to say what we want to say.

Recently, I've become more talkative – not because my stuttering has necessarily improved, but for other reasons. The first, to paraphrase Rhett Butler, "Frankly my dear, I no longer give a damn." Pushing 60, with my mortality becoming more evident, what other people may think of me if they hear me stutter doesn't seem so important anymore. Second, I've realized that no one can or will speak for me or represent my interests as well as I can. The third is a personal story. Once, during a particularly frustrating period with my speech, I vented to my sister – who in return gave me some wise words: "How you say something is not as important as what you say. And I think you have some valuable things to say." This is true for stutterers as much as anyone else.

Having a stutter shapes us. It makes us deeply appreciative of the understanding and support of our family, friends and enlightened strangers. It makes us more compassionate of others with disabilities. It teaches us humility, because we never know when the rug of language will be pulled out from under our feet. It forces us to be good listeners.

And this week in particular, it makes us view Joe Biden as more than just another president. We understand his hesitations, his search for easier words, his substitutions, his run-ups when approaching a tough but irreplaceable word, and his pauses to relax, regroup and literally catch his breath. Biden will serve as an inspiration for Brayden Harrington (the brave boy who spoke at the Democratic National Convention), for me and for the millions of others young and old who struggle daily with their speech.

So, on January 20, while part of me will be cheering for Kamala Harris, another part of me will be cheering for Joe Biden – wishing him well not only for his inauguration speech, but also for the fluency these next four years to say all the valuable things he needs to say.

Rue Amelot
Carl-Johan Karlsson

Sweden Revisited, From Nordic Model To Pandemic Pariah

MALMÖ — On one of the final Fridays of 2020, I passed through the Malmö airport customs and underwent that subtle metamorphosis from The Swede to a Swede. This crossing from the definite to the indefinite is familiar to all returning expats, and its downside (deflated exceptionalism) and perks (nostalgia, familiarity) are felt at the first native exchange, and then sporadically with depreciating force — until, if you stay long enough, you're once again part of the herd.

At this year's homecoming however, the usual reassimilation also included a new adjustment: to a country that had lost its international shine. Yes, Sweden is still perceived abroad as exceptional. But this past year, the government's refusal to impose rules to restrict contact to combat COVID-19 led to a death toll higher than all of the country's northern European neighbors combined. By flirting with a strategy of so-called "herd immunity," decades of reverence for the Swedish model of common sense and social protection has steadily turned from doubt to outright disdain.

After the baggage carousel and two successive cigarettes on the rain-and-wind swept platform (there is zero fluctuation in these regional weather conditions for eight months of the year), I ended up on a bus splashing its way closer to Sweden's forested and somber middle, towards a somber two-roomer my dad (Gunnar) calls home.

Ever worry about your country's reputation? Ever participated in sullying it? Arriving home prompted some fleeting guilt for having criticized the government's pandemic response in conversations with friends in France and articles I'd written in English. But as we rumbled northward on this crowded and humid regional bus, and as the sniffling and coughing multiplied, I verified that I was the sole mask-wearer on board. No, Sweden's laissez-faire strategy was a train wreck, and it was right to call it out.

"Sure, there's some international schadenfreude too, no doubt." Gunnar landed in his oversized brown armchair. "And," firing up his pipe, "Who can blame them. Passing judgment from the sidelines is always risky business."

We never had to make the impossible decisions.

I'd had that national reputation discussion a few weeks back, in another living room back in Paris. "Fucking easy for you to say!" Ryan, my former college roommate and a U.S. military vet, was barking at my computer screen, where I had cued up a 1972 clip of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme condemning the Vietnam War. From the other side, Ryan was making Gunnar's point. Sweden was at the height of its international standing in the 1970s, when students from all over the world were shipped to the freshly remodeled Stockholm suburbs to witness our welfare utopia. My father's generation had the luxury of being engaged, but not involved in, the troubles of the outside world.

Palme (center) marching in 1968 against the Vietnam War alongside North Korean officials — Photo: Wikipedia

"In a way," Gunnar continued, "we became the world's conscience… a humanitarian superpower, if you will. But we never had to make the impossible decisions — Vietnam, 9/11 — of an actual superpower."

That was then. Now Sweden faces its own war, on home turf, and needless casualties are piling up. That a new emergency law went into effect Sunday, granting the government the power to impose coronavirus-related curbs for the very first time, only highlighted how wrong-headed the government's policy has been until now. Of course, the undoing of our folkhem (welfare state) and Sweden's global influence started long before our government decided to bet on herd immunity. But there's no denying that the glory days left a stubborn residue of what was a very healthy self-imagery. Bidding farewell to father and fatherland, I wonder where we'll be once COVID-19 is behind us: What will it mean to be a Swede? How will it feel to be The Swede?

Rue Amelot
Alessio Perrone

Foreign Eye On The Descent Of American Democracy, 2008 To 2020

In the midst of America’s election limbo, our Milan-based writer looks back on the first U.S. campaign he followed — from up close — and wonders what comes next.

On Sept. 15, 2008, a teenaged version of me with shaggy hair, cheap Wayfarer sunglasses and a The Clash t-shirt, stood in a packed crowd under the dry sun of Pueblo, Colorado, waiting for the candidate to arrive.

I was a month into spending my junior year of high school with a host family who lived just outside Pueblo, where locals prided themselves on hailing from Colorado's ninth biggest city. The year 2008 was also when the financial crash was tumbling global economies, and had already sent much of my host family's savings up in smoke. As for the U.S. presidential campaign in full throttle, I didn't know much, but someone had explained to me that Colorado was a swing state, which had brought both candidates to Pueblo.

There was optimism — euphoria, even.

I skipped the appearance of John McCain, but to the chagrin of my host family — die-hard Republicans — I was eager to join the crowd that had come to see his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. Looking back now, I wasn't moved by anything I'd call a political conscience, which would arrive later. Instead, I was curious to see someone who somehow seemed different from politicians I'd seen growing up, and who everyone back home in Italy was asking about.

Six weeks later, when election night arrived, I watched Obama's victory speech in Chicago with a sense of seeing history in the making. In a country stained by slavery's past, voters were sending the first African-American to the White House, a man who had spent part of his youth in Indonesia and spoke about hope without false promises, vowed to end America's senseless wars abroad and build unity at home. There was optimism — euphoria, even. America, the most powerful country in the world, was also showing the rest of us a better way.

Obama speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, on Sept. 15, 2008 — Photo: Alessio Perrone

Twelve years later, all of that seems to be long gone. Most of the people in my life, Americans and otherwise, see Donald Trump as an existential threat to a democracy that had seemed to reach a pinnacle as Obama took office. I am also still in touch with some friends, back in rural Colorado, who have always been warm and generous with me — but who passionately defend Trump on Facebook, worrying that a Joe Biden presidency would be the end for Christian values. The middle ground and all meeting points have vanished.

America was showing the rest of us a better way.

I'm not sure what has happened to America, and whether other democracies will follow in its path. But in this unprecedented election season, amid a global pandemic, I am following the results from the heart of Europe closer than I ever did in Colorado. The uncertainty right now goes beyond the counting of votes. What does it mean that approximately half the nation supports a president who has questioned basic science and brushed off hundreds of thousands of deaths in order to boost his own campaign? What does it mean that my colleagues in the media have again misunderstood what is happening in the country?

As we wait for the final, painful count of the votes, I think back to that rally in Pueblo. Standing under the sun, shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow humans, is not the only thing I feel wistful for.

food / travel
Anne Sophie Goninet

A Trip To Nowhere? Twisted Travel Plans For Our Pandemic Times

-Essay-

COVID-19's economic impact on travel is matched only by the existential impact on the modern traveler. In a sign of the desperation of both, several airlines and cruise ship companies have been offering trips to… nowhere.

In Australia, Japan and Taiwan, passengers can book a flight that takes off and lands at the same airport for a scenic cruise in a cramped seat. Hong Kong's budget carrier HK Express recently joined the trend, with a flight carrying 110 passengers that circles the island before returning to the airport 90 minutes later. Royal Caribbean also plans to resume sailing in Asia with three and four-night "Ocean Getaways' for Singapore residents, at a reduced capacity of 50%.

There are of course no illusions that any of this can fill the void in either people's souls or travel company bank accounts. But the symbolism (and P.R.) of boarding these flights of fancy has apparently provided some sense of comfort.

But as someone in the "born traveler" category, I cannot help but wonder why. Having traveled with my boyfriend in a campervan across Europe for 14 months, I can tell you that, yes, it was the journey (driving through the fjords in Norway or the Carpathian Mountains in Romania) but also the destinations (Copenhagen, Sarajevo or Tallinn). I treasured the passing hours (and days) in our van we called Foxy, but it would have been rather meaningless to drive across the continent without having places to go.

Norway's majestic landscapes — Photo: Foxy The Van

Traveling is not just about hitting the road. It's the anticipation of discovering something new, planning your itinerary and the excitement growing as you get closer to your destination — and then finally plunging into the new playground of your next adventure.

Still, the current exceptional circumstances seems to be pushing people to the extremes of take-what-you-can-get. Qantas' scenic seven-hour flight around Australia sold out within 10 minutes, the fastest selling ticket in the airlines' history. "So many of our frequent fliers (...) have been telling us they miss the experience of flying as much as the destinations themselves," Alan Joyce, the chief executive of Qantas told the The New York Times.

Still, Katherine Wei, writing in the Singapore-based The Straits Times, described her experience on a "moongazing" flight to nowhere in Taiwan. "There was no real destination to get to, which is really the best part about traveling. Because of this, I found the whole trip rather pointless."

The strict lockdown in my home country of France last spring meant our van (and the two of us) didn't get very far. We did have the good fortune this summer to visit Auvergne's volcanoes and explore the Pyrenees. Now, with the government introducing new restrictions of movement, it may be time to take Foxy for a quick spin — even if it means going back to where we started.

Rue Amelot
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty

Dinner With Netflix, When A Lockdown Drama Turns Extra Dark

From the moment the movie began, I had a funny feeling.

First, there were no opening credits — nothing to tell us who the producers or director were nor what famous actors would appear. No sign of even the author's name, like they showed in The Godfather. But I had seen Batman Begins, so I wasn't too worried.

Then I noticed there was no opening theme song (think Charade or Manhattan) to set the tone and tell me what to expect. But, during the past six months of online on-demand bingeing, I had seen all the James Bond movies and was used to waiting five minutes for the action and beautiful people and pulsating music to burst on the screen.

For the moment, all I saw was a table out in a pleasant backyard set with plenty of food and drink. The time was evening and the season was fall. The movie was in color — not high-definition, but it would do.

Then suddenly a couple entered the frame and sat down. I scanned their faces carefully. They looked strangely familiar but were neither famous nor beautiful. In fact, they were quite ordinary and frankly a little plump. Their clothes seemed a touch too festive for the informal occasion. But they looked friendly, rather flushed, even a bit excited. They started talking right away, exchanging some pleasantries, making a few small jokes — not particularly funny ones — that they laughed at themselves. Then, they looked deep into the camera and asked the most ordinary social questions … How are you doing? How's the family? Not the greatest dialogue and I couldn't quite figure out where the plot was going, but hey, the movie was just beginning.

They sat quietly for a while, looking back and forth at the camera and each other. I wondered if parts of this would be silent like in The Artist. Then they laughed nervously, reached out for the food, and began eating. They talked of very mundane things, and continued to periodically look at the camera nervously. Their awkwardness reminded me of the dinner at the in-laws in Shrek 2.

I wondered who these two rather pathetic, middle-aged people could be. Maybe he was a Nobel Prize winner, but she was the real brains behind the work. Maybe he was an adventurer and she owned a large farm in Africa. Or perhaps he was a famous resistance leader and while she admired him, she actually loved a short surly heart-broken café owner with a piano-playing sidekick. But in this movie, there would be no character development to speak of.

I couldn't quite figure out where the plot was going, but hey, the movie was just beginning.

Suddenly, as a contrast, I thought of that scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta takes Uma Thurman to a restaurant — and I hoped fervently that, like in the Tarantino masterpiece, a great song would start up and this couple would break out on the dance floor. But they didn't do that either.

Indeed, there was no music at all in this film. How was I to know what to feel — when to laugh, when to cry, when to empathize with the characters, when to suspect them, when to get scared, when to know everything would be just fine — if there were no musical cues?

Photo: jeshoots

Still, I felt certain that something dramatic must be about to happen, something like Mr. and Mrs. Smith each pulling out a long knife. Or Timothy Spall announcing to Kristin Scott Thomas that he was leaving her. Or maybe this couple was like Martha and George — although you wouldn't know it from their stilted dialogue — and another dysfunctional couple would join them.

The suspense was killing me, but I had to get up to go pee. I told my husband to hit pause.

When I came back, the movie was still running. I angrily asked him why he hadn't hit the pause button. My husband looked at me with glazed eyes and said that he couldn't find the pause button. As Dickie Greenleaf said in The Talented Mr. Ripley, "Spoo-ky-ky-ky".

Then, suddenly, there was some action on the screen. The couple had pushed back their chairs and were standing up. They were both looking straight at the camera and appeared visibly upset. Now at last there would be some exciting dialogue. "I don't know what the hell you two are playing at, inviting us here and not talking to us all evening," said the man. "But we've had more than enough." The woman, sobbing quietly, added: "And to think that after months of isolating, you two were the first friends we had wanted to see."

Truly experimental, so avant-garde!

OK, now things were getting interesting. We watched intently. The couple looked at the camera expectantly for a few moments, then shook their heads, sighed heavily, and left the frame.

My husband and I sat for a minute, watching their empty chairs, waiting for them to return; they did not. Then we sat for another minute, waiting for the closing credits; there were none.

Disgusted, I turned to my husband. "What a ridiculous movie! Didn't you read the RottenTomatoes reviews?"

He looked gobsmacked — like First Officer Murdoch after shooting two passengers on the Titanic — and whispered, "I thought you had."

But later on that night, I began to reevaluate what we had seen. No opening or closing credits. No music. Unattractive actors. No plot or character development. A script that perfectly captured the utter boredom of our reality. Breaking down the fourth wall ... Truly experimental, so avant-garde!

Or wait. Maybe this was just the first episode of another one of those series they label "slow burn," designed to suck you in whether you want to watch or not. Anyway, I'm hooked and we'll definitely be there for the next episode.

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