20 October 2010

Paris: Le Battement de Cœur et Les Rêves - Part 1

It's only fair to begin writing about Paris with a confession.  I loved this city before I ever arrived and all my thoughts about it now are the hopelessly skewed thoughts of a young lover still too infatuated with a distant, lovely mistress (which he has had scant few real conversations with) to really consider any of the realistic downfalls she almost certainly has.

It's not even just Paris.  It's France.  It's the French language.  I am enamored by it all.  The mere sound of French flowing into my ears is enough to make my heart start throbbing; make my lungs feel strained from the breaths I'm holding back.

I suspect this all started really, really early in my life.  When I was a kid, we didn't have television at home.  Or, more accurately, we did have it, but not in the way that most people had it.  The technology that was used to bring the television signals into our home was a large, white satellite dish that stood prominently in our yard.  In order to set this satellite dish you had to physically go out and crank the thing up and down, degree by degree.  Our version of "channels" mostly consisted of a set of lines hand cut into the crank shaft to mark specific orientations that we had empirically shown to receive viewable signals.  The only real way to find those orientations was to go outside, crank the dish up one or two turns, walk back inside, check all the knobs on the television set (which predated remote controls) and if you found anything at all, mark the shaft.  It took hundreds and hundreds of cranks to span the entire range the satellite could cover.

The difficulties did not end there.  Once the satellite was cranked to a position where it was actually receiving some sort of signal there was still a question of whether or not you could actually view it.  Often the signals were encrypted or "scrambled," a phenomenon known to anyone who's tried in vain to catch a nipple slip through the static of a hotel television screen when you haven't paid for the adult channels.  You could buy a dubiously legal box called a "de-scrambler" that could turn those channels into real television.  We did not have a de-scrambler. 

Finally, if you were able to find a channel that appeared clear and un-scrambled, there was the problem of scheduling.  The satellite we had was generally picking up the broadcasts from a parent station to local affiliates.  As a normal television consumer you may not realize how this whole process works.  What typically happens (or at least, how it happened when I was a kid) is that the parent station, Fox, for example, broadcasts a whole week's (or month's or whatever) lineup of a particular show or particular time slot to their local affiliates (like Fox 5 DC or KPTM Fox 45: Omaha) who record the shows and replay them later according to their own programming schedule.  (I'm sure this happens digitally now, but I assume the process is comparable.)  What that really meant to us is that if we were going to watch a show, we typically were presented with five or ten episodes of that show at a time.  When episodes of a show weren't being broadcast, all that you saw were those rainbow colored bars on the screen accompanied by a very steady, persistent and annoyingly loud ring tone.  This "no signal" screen was not entertaining for very long.  Our solution to the scheduling problem was to act like our own local affiliate station, figure out when the broadcasts would happen by trial and error, record all the shows onto a VHS cassette when we got it right and watch the episodes later at our leisure.  For all the difficulty involved, we really could fast forward through all the commercials even in the 1980's, so I guess our unconventional system wasn't entirely without merits.  The original Tivo, I suppose.

Because of all the difficulties and complexities involved, usually our television could only show one channel at a time, and it would show that channel for months or years until we lost the signal.  Luckily, when I was very small, the one channel we got played age-appropriate shows for me like Sesame Street.  The problem was that the broadcaster was CBC, i.e. the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  The feed we were receiving was aimed at affiliates in Québec, which leads me to the moral of this whole discussion about my television.  I watched Sesame Street like any other American kid, but when I watched it, it was bi-lingual, half in French, half in English.  I could count to ten in French before Kindergarten.  "Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, seis, sept, huit, neuf, dix."

When I hear French now, on some level it feels comfortable, safe, nostalgic.  It was integrated into my childhood mind irreversibly.  Lost, waiting to be awakened.

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