May 112014

Warren Agin’s blog post on the survivability of contracts during bankruptcy prompted me to resurrect this blog post I had written on my law school blog during my semester studying in Germany.

In my French class* yesterday:

Me (reading aloud): “La resolution de contrat, lorsque celui-ci est syn… synal… synallagmatique?”

Teacher (in French): “It’s the same word as in German.”

Me: [sigh]

Actually, the word exists in English too: “synallagmatic.” But it’s not a word I’ve ever encountered before, not even in law school. Although interestingly, says it means “bilateral” in Louisiana civil law. I suspect, however, that it may mean “bilateral” in a distinctively civil law sense. In the common law system of contracts, when we mean bilateral we say “bilateral,” but then our whole perception of the directional dynamics of a contractual agreement may be significantly different from those in civil law systems.

Take German law, for instance. German contractual law includes the concept of separation. This means that in any transaction involving the transfer of ownership of some good, there are at least three separate agreements bound up in the transaction:

– A contract for the sale of the good
– A contract to transfer the ownership of the good, and
– A contract to transfer ownership of the money used to pay for the good

These agreements may be thought of as three strands twirled into one rope. And, by analogous extension, as we all understand ropes to work, cutting one strand will not necessarily cause the whole rope to be cut. (This separate strand-cutting is known as the principle of abstraction.) In other words, just because one contract fails does not mean the entire deal fails too.

To a common law American, this situation may seem strange. If one of those strands gets broken, how can the rest remain? We generally see each strand as a condition necessary for the contract to retain its overall enforceability. For instance, if the ownership of the bargained-for good has been transferred, but the money has not been paid, how can the party who received the good still keep it? Under American contract law, he couldn’t. But even under German law he likely couldn’t either, although via different legal reasoning than American law.
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Jul 142013

I wrote this originally on July 14, 2003, shortly after the US decided to invade Iraq.

It’s Bastille Day and a great time to comment on all things French.

On Friday the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood Shores hosted a party to celebrate an early Bastille Day. It wasn’t all that much fun – way too American! (The band should have played French music!) – but I got to catch up with my friend Valerie, an actual French person, and there were fireworks afterwards. We spoke French a little as well and I was happy to see I haven’t forgotten it all despite not having been in France since March. When I’m in France my French skills sort of warm up and I get more fluid with my speaking. But I don’t practice much when I’m in the US because it just doesn’t seem intuitive to describe life in the US in French. French fits France: the roads, the buildings, the people, the food, the life, the light, the French ambience in its entirety. But in the US, and maybe California in particular, the spaces are broader and, how shall I say it, differently colored? There is a rhythm to life which requires the English vocabulary and its broader phoenetic syllables to describe. Whereas IN France the opposite is true and English feels clunky and ineffectual.

Apparently last year for Bastille Day the Sofitel Hotel hung a gigantic French flag off of their building. This year I guess they’ve chosen to be more subdued. I think it’s an absolute shame that they think they need to. There was a recent article in the New York Times about how American families were refusing to host French foreign exchange students. Such behavior is absolutely appalling.

  • Even if we assume that the French have done something unforgivable, what sense does it make to penalize students?
  • Given the rift between our respective cultures, what sense does it make to deny ourselves the opportunities to build bridges between us that foreign exchanges afford?
  • Even if we accept the most cynical assessment of Chirac’s motivation for not agreeing with the US on Iraq, I don’t believe, from my experience meeting real live actual French people in France, that the French reluctance to invade Iraq was based on anything other than reasonable, rationale, and humane concerns.
  • If either country has behaved in a way that requires apologizing, it’s not France. All things considered I think the French have been tolerating tremendous American arrogance with astonishing equanimity. I’ve not heard of an example of the French being nearly as inhospitable to Americans as we are being to them.

Not to mention how foolish this attitude is if it turns out that the French were right about Iraq.

I just find it unfathomable that there are Americans who would tell me that to support my country I need to now hate the French. I didn’t go to all the trouble to learn their language just so I could lord myself over them in a misplaced sense of haughty patriotism. I think, rather, that it would be advisable for more Americans to go to the trouble to try to see things from the French perspective. And rather than continue to resent them for WWII, if we are determined to rely on history to justify our contemporary relationships, perhaps we would be better served by recalling the contributions of Lafayette, or perhaps the gift of the Statue of Liberty, or any other of a number unsung occasions of the French supporting Americans.

Mar 112013

Sometimes in life you just need to run off to Paris. So I did.

It was certainly time: I hadn’t set foot in France in 10 years, which was particularly odd given that I had twice lived there, once for a month in Provence and once for a better part of a year in Paris. That’s when I got the gift of French language skills. Unfortunately, being away from France for so long those skills had necessarily gotten really dusty, and for various reasons, now was the right time to find them again.

So I just spent a little over a week in Paris. I wasn’t a tourist. I didn’t see a single museum or historic site (at least not purposefully; in Paris you kind of can’t avoid seeing them accidentally). Instead I sublet an apartment and settled into my old home.

In many ways it felt like only yesterday since I’d been there, but the truth is that I left it nearly 15 years ago, and over and over I was reminded by how much has changed since. Back when I lived there they had JUST converted to the Euro, but still used French Francs. They had JUST built the 14th line of the Metro, but not the next several RER lines or tramways. The Internet had only just become popular back then, during that Christmas when everyone got “Internet in a box” (the hot item back then was a box containing a 14.4 modem, CD with Netscape, and a subscription to Wanadoo), but otherwise it was a country still attached to Minitel.

Back then I knew the rare places where you could find sushi (mostly in the 5th and a few spots in the 6th), but now it’s on every block, while bistros and other local cuisine has become much harder to come by. And now when people “take a coffee” it may well be from a Starbucks or McDonald’s “McCafe.”

It’s also much harder now to practice one’s French – English is everywhere. The Internet is everywhere, even in the Metro. What I noted about Germany seems true for France too: pan-Europeanism has replaced a lot of local cultural identity.

But, as a French friend reassured me, that is what the French want. Tastes have changed, he said. What you now see in Paris is what they have changed into. And to be sure, plenty of profoundly French hallmarks remain. There are still boulangerie-patisseries and boucheries on every block. Even supermarket food is French in style and reflects the local demand for quality and French ingredients. The Metro runs well, except when it doesn’t, just as it always has. The streets are still French, the buildings still French, and the people still French. But French life now includes a kind of global cosmopolitan openness it didn’t so much have before.

As well as far more bagels, donuts, cupcakes and burritos than there used to be.