Leftist tendencies, part 2 | London, England

Recently, I wrote about the negative connotations of the word ‘left’ and how the French word gauche (‘left’) is adopted into English to mean clumsy, awkward, maladroit, ungainly, gawky and unhandy.

Today, I received a series of pictures from my insanely funny friends Slavka and Austin in London, in which they not only stand over one of the city’s ubiquitous crossing signs, but also manage to perfectly illustrate this latter meaning of the word.

Leftist tendencies | Paris, France

The above image captures part of the a warning sign painted at many pedestrian crossings in Paris that in its entirety reads “Danger a gauche” (Danger to the left).

The word ‘gauche’ is another fascinating case of seemingly mundane words’ having multiple and unrelated meanings and undergoing a curious transformation as they are adopted in another language. (Similarly to the word pedestrian.)

In French, the most common usage of the word gauche is to mean left, as in the opposite of right. As an extension to that, the word can also be employed to mean bent, twisted, slanted, or skewed. Interestingly, it also holds several other meanings that have nothing to do with relative directions or egocentric coordinates. It is also a synonym for embarrassed, clumsy, awkward, incompetent, timid and constrained, and it is also used in old expressions, to indicate a certain “irregularity”, as in “mariage de la main gauche” (marriage of the left hand), used in references to royals who marry commoners or to a couple who lives together without being married.

In English, the straight-forward meaning of the word as an indicator of relative direction has been completely lost, and ‘gauche’ means lacking social grace, sensitivity, acuteness, or tact. It is synonymous with awkward, clumsy, ungainly, gawky, unhandy and… maladroit (another word borrowed from French, in whose roots stand the words mal (‘ill’) and droit (“right”), the relative direction opposite of left.

It is fascinating how these two words’ meanings have transformed, from the simple  names for the two most common relative directions – left and right, which presumably have the same value, to become injected with meanings that unquestionably make one better than and preferable to the other. In contrast to the gawky gauche, the word droit in French has an air of a definitive superiority, both physical and moral: it is used not only to mean straight (not bent or crooked) but is also at the root of all words related to law and justice (as opposed to criminal, illegal and unjust). The case is not so different in English, where labeling something as right means it is correct and not wrong.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that these positive (for the right) and negative (for the left) connotations stem from the long-standing assumption that right-handedness is superior to left-handedness. Just think of the words dextrous (= skillful) and sinister (= evil), whose meanings have largely shifted from their Latin origins but retain their positive and negative connotation: dexter in Latin means right-hand and skillful, while sinistra indicates ‘on the left hand or side, hence unfavorable, injurious’.

All this ties in rather well, though most likely accidentally, with the pedestrian crossing signs in Paris, which inadvertently confirm the notion of the sinister left (where danger lurks) and the benevolent, just and virtuous right. Curiously enough, while walking around Paris, I didn’t see any such signs warning pedestrians of dangers coming from the right. This is perplexing, considering the fact that in about 66% of the world, including France, traffic is on the right and thus, pedestrians would normally have the habit of looking for oncoming vehicles to the left as they cross. By contrast, the pedestrian crossing signs in London – where traffic moves on the left, thus confusing and endangering the billions of roaming tourists who come from those 66% of right-traffic countries, seem neutral. They never tire of telling people to look either left or right, having thus surely saved thousands, if not millions, of lives (including mine at least a dozen times).

These were some of the thoughts that filled my head as I walked the streets around the Latin Quarter in Paris’s Left Bank (Rive Gauche), the part of the city to the south of where the Seine flows. It could perhaps serve as a small consolation and redemption for the bad reputation of the word gauche to note that the term Rive Gauche stands not only for the geographical area just mentioned but also for three exciting and decidedly not awkward concepts:

1. “Rive Gauche” or “Left Bank” refers to the Paris of an earlier era; the city of artists, writers and philosophers, including Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and all the rest of the artistic community that lived, worked and hung out around Montparnasse around the 1920s and 1930s. The phrase implies a sense of bohemianism and creativity.

2. In cinema, the term Left Bank refers to a group of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the corresponding “right bank” group, which was made up of more famous and financially successful New Wave directors (Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard), the Left Bank directors (Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Henri Colpi and Jacques Demy) had a “fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking”, as well as an identification with the political left, according to critic and curator Richard Roud.

3. Finally, Left Bank has also come to signify a particular look in fashion. This meaning was initiated by Yves Saint Laurent who in 1966 launched a ready-to-wear collection of that name, with which he reportedly sought to democratize fashion by taking clothes that had been, until then, worn exclusively by the lower classes, such as the leather jacket, and incorporating them into high fashion.

Übercool underground | Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain

The subway system in Bilbao turned out to provide not just a super efficient and convenient way to get around the city, but it was also filled with visual feasts that suckers for good design and strange languages like me simply couldn’t pass up.

To my delight, warning signs in the wildly incomprehensible Basque, or Euskara, language abounded, whose meanings I could only guess imaginatively. Case in point: I assumed that the phrase above warned metro passengers to “mind the gap” or something to that extent, as they waited to board the train from the platform. But I can only guess. Even google translate fails miserably, providing the following unintelligible translation: ‘off the train into the’.

The metro signage, including the Rotis font typeface, the colors and the logo in the photos above and below, was designed by German graphic designer Otl Aicher – the man behind the visual identity of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, who is also credited with paving the way for the ubiquitous stick figures currently used in public signs, which he initially employed as symbols for the various Olympic sports.

Although impossible to capture within the format of this blog, several other features of the subway system’s design also impressed me and are worth mentioning. Most obvious, perhaps, were the glass tunnels that cover the escalators or stairs leading in and out of the stations, which were designed by Norman Foster as part of the entire underground system’s structure, and which are endearingly referred to as ‘fosteritos‘ by Bilbao’s residents.

The concrete vaults that house the stations themselves, also designed by Foster, were quite impressive as well. About them, the architect was quoted as saying:

“A tunnel dug by man through earth and rock is a very special place. Its shape is a reaction to the forces of nature and the texture of its construction bears the seal of man. This must be respected, not covered up to make the place look like any other building. One must be able to feel being underground, and make it a good, special experience.”

And it is one indeed. Even without awareness of the impressive design that is behind Bilbao’s underground systems (various features – from the Sariko station to the seating systems, have received design awards), using the Bilbao metro was nothing short of a special experience in pleasure and efficiency – something that very few subway systems in the world could compete with. To their defense, however, it’s worth remembering that the Bilbao Metro is relatively new (its first line opened in 1995) and small in scale – currently consisting of only two lines and 45 stations.

Hello, Eleventh Avenue | Lodève, France

On our way from Montpellier to Albi, where we headed for a few days of New Year’s Eve festivities, we made a short stopover at the small, sleepy, quaint – and very French, town of Lodève. As I came out of the car, parked on a street in the town’s center, I came face to face with a door: above it, inscribed with tiny tiles was the word onze (‘eleven’) and below, on the ground in front of it was written ‘ave’.

As in, you know, Eleventh Avenue! As in, you know, New York City! In this town that couldn’t be any less similar to the Big Apple. (I already wrote about the tendency to (often mistakenly) ascribe familiar meanings to that which is unknown, here).

Believe it or not, though, it turned out that there is no Eleventh Ave in Lodève. (The roads there, if you must know, have perfectly appropriate and very French-sounding names, like for example Avenue de la République, Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville and Chemin des Amoureux.) In this case, the onze was simply the number of the street where the building stood, whereas the ave before the threshold did not signify an abbreviation for avenue, but rather a greeting salutation, an old way of saying hello, or hail, if you will (same one as in Ave Maria). So, there you have it.

Strangely enough, at roughly the same time last year, I found myself standing on New York City’s streets on the outskirts of Sofia. I’m going to go ahead and assume this is a sign that I need to renew the tradition of spending New Year’s Eve in New York, which I did for much of the past decade.

Shadow theater | Montpellier, France

Shadow plays are an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment, which uses opaque, often articulated figures in front of an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images. According to ever-trusty Wikipedia, this form of entertainment for both adults and children has a long history in Asia.

Although it may not look like it, the stick-like shadow in the right part of the above picture is actually that of a baguette. Very French of me, I know.

Speaking of French, as fate and circumstance would have it, in addition to China, India, the Ottoman Empire, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, shadow theater has a long history in France as well. The Ombres chinoises, or Chinese shadows, first came to France in the middle of the 18th century, brought over by French missionaries to China and travelers to the Orient. Performed in Paris – especially in Montmartre, in Marseille and later in Versaille, for the pleasure of the royal family and its court, these shows caused quite a stir. After a time and some local modifications, the Asian shadow theater eventually became known as Ombres françaises.

Leave it to the French to hoard and appropriate other places’ cultural traditions. Just kidding… sort of.

P.S. This post is a special shout-out to my dear friend Tanya, who likes to take pictures of her shadow in interesting places. (Yes, the same Tanya I visited in Vienna last fall.)

Off-season girls | Bodrum, Turkey and elsewhere

In Japanese, there is a concise word to describe the feeling, upon first meeting someone, that the two of you are going to fall in love.

In the first week of October 2011, ten women gathered at the Adriatic seaside town of Bodrum in south-western Turkey. They called themselves The Off-Season Girls.

Belkıs | “Once I was a ghost and I was staying in Büyükada. I was found so I got scared and ran to the forest. They found me. Somehow we started to dance and it rained colorful paint.”

Yasemin Nur | “When I found out Uranus entered Aries, I decided that I would from now on do whatever I felt like. So, when I wanted to, I would wear high-heeled shoes to art openings and, if they made my feet hurt, I would simply take them off. I didn’t mind the dirty streets.”

Rebecca | “The sun is retreating, the blossoms have been scorched and paper lantern like litter the ground. Life is drawing down into the good earth beneath our feet. I feel its lingering warmth still.”

Iz | “this is where i dream of being when i am not there...”

Ekaterina | “In anticipation for my magic carpet to materialize. The one that just now appeared in my coffee cup’s fortune, that is.”

Şafak | “Our feet are our connection to the Earth; they are our roots to the Earth. A solid connection with the earth helps to keep us grounded which helps to balance the whole body. Capricorn is an earth sign. I love to sleep as a Capricorn and wake up as a Sagittarius. GET UP, GIMME FIRE!”

Swantje | “..green feet in the german fall, colorfully expecting to go walk into the blue or bodrum or somewhere else, but then the knee breaks, the achilles' heel is the lack of light, is the missing place, is the rain on the leaves of the fig tree in my garden in cologne...”

Nazlı | “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” - Robert Filliou

In between | Istanbul, Turkey

As September turned into October, in the span of 20 hours, I traveled from the East to the West and then back to the East: across seasons, months, continents and languages. Flew over Sofia twice. Passed through Istanbul once. Waited and exited. Waited and entered. And now I am here.

Mad riddles | Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s streets surfaces were not just a visual feast for the eyes, but also an excellent way to brush up on my rusty Spanish vocabulary.

Even the most mundane of maintenance shaft covers were educational and beautiful to look at.


Public lighting! (maintenance hole cover boasts Madrid’s coat of arms, featuring the city’s symbol – the bear with madroño tree)

Telephone systems! (Alright, I didn’t actually have to look this one up.)

Covers of canals, named after former Spanish monarchs!

And my all-time favorite design – natural gas!

Some other street markings were more ornamental than functional, like the gratitude plaques installed by the municipality in front of some businesses:

Here, the one in front of Casa Mira, a cake shop specializing in turrón (Spanish nougat) since 1855.

…. and the one at the Lhardy restaurant, established in 1839.

Others yet, perhaps most perplexingly, called for a quick gender self-identification: