Q: What do you get when you cross a deconstructionist with the Godfather? A: A man who makes you an offer you can’t understand. Language is often a hindrance to communication. I’m not referring to language in the sense of somebody’s mother tongue—obviously, if I only speak English and my interlocutor only speaks Farsi, we’re going have problems getting our points across. I’m thinking of language used to erect a deliberate barrier, one in which a group of people throws up impenetrable thickets of jargon or seemingly meaningless words in order to obscure what they’re trying to say. To see this, one need look no further than academia, where (paradoxically) I started thinking of “language” in a different way.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about the changing bread consumption habits of the French: The average Frenchman these days eats only half a baguette a day compared with almost a whole baguette in 1970 and more than three in 1900. Women, still the main shoppers in most families, eat about a third less than men, and young people almost 30 percent less than a decade ago. The decline is so worrisome that Observatoire du Pain, the bakers’ and millers’ lobby, started a nationwide campaign in June that champions bread as promoting good health, good conversation and French civilization. “Coucou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hi there, have you picked up the bread?”) is the campaign’s slogan. Modeled on the American advertising campaign “Got Milk?” the bread slogan was plastered on billboards and inscribed on bread bags in 130 cities around the country. I’m sorry to hear this, since regular access to fresh-baked breads is one of the major advantages of my life in Paris. I’ve cut back fairly recently on my bread consumption, but that’s because I wildly overindulged for so long. The novelty of having freshly-baked bread within two minutes, whenever I wanted it (at least between the hours of 7 AM and 8 PM) was too much for my never-strong willpower.

I sat on the couch with my glass of wine. I was beat. Although it was a Sunday, I’d spent most of the day at work, welcoming the incoming summer study abroad students to their Paris program and helping out at their first orientation session, before seeing them off for their group dinner. So it was with a touch of wariness that I answered my cellphone, which was indicating an unknown American number. On the first day of a new program, anything can happen. “Yes, hi, this is Jared’s mother. Is this Emily with the study abroad program?” It was. To what did I owe the pleasure of this Sunday evening call? “I’m getting worried. I texted Jared a couple hours ago and I haven’t heard back from him.”

The first hint I had that the evening on Phillip Island was going to be unique came in the form of this sign in the Visitor Center: checkunderyourcarsforpenguins My husband and I had decided to spend the night on this Australian island, a couple of hours from Melbourne, in order to see the Penguin Parade, a nightly event that turned out to be exactly as adorable as the name promised. And it delivers exactly what it claims to: a parade of penguins, hundreds of them coming ashore once the sun sets, landing on the beach and heading to their burrows. The viewing areas are set off from the landing site, in order to protect the penguins and their habitats. A series of boardwalks are built over the area immediately inland, so that you can wander around after the penguins land, and watch them up close as they make their way to their burrows.

France and the United States' often tempestuous relationship hit another sour note this week after the CEO of Titan Tire company sent a letter to Arnaud Montebourg, the French Minister of Industry, in which he clearly and very undiplomatically lays out the reasons that Titan Tire will not be taking over a struggling Goodyear factory in the French city of Amiens. The CEO, Maurice Taylor, writes: I have visited that factory a couple of times. The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that’s the French way! …Sir, your letter states that you want Titan to start a discussion. How stupid do you think we are? Titan is the one with the money and the talent to produce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government. Not surprisingly, this has created a furor in France, and when I read the comments accompanying some of the articles, most of the them were in agreement that this sort of letter was exactly what one should expect from rapacious American companies.

In spring of 2000, I moved to the northern France city of Lille to spend a semester abroad. At that point, Internet usage hadn’t really penetrated French homes—only 10% of the French population used the Internet (in the U.S. at the same time, between 45 and 50% of American adults were online). My host family didn’t own a computer, nor did any of the other families that hosted the American students in my group. I had a laptop in the U.S. but didn’t bother bringing it with me. If I wanted to use the Internet, I went to the cybercafé in the center of town. I rarely spent more than half an hour there. It was full of smoke, and the slightly sour smell of the adolescent males who filled the place in the afternoon to play video games online. The French keyboards were also a hindrance to electronic communication. The positions of the A and Q were reversed, as were the W and Z.

The student was irate. "I wasn't told what time we were supposed to meet, that's why I was late. No one gave me that information" She was referring to a visit to the Pompidou Center. I was the logistics coordinator for study-abroad in Paris for her university. I'd scheduled a group visit, but she was half an hour late and ended up missing it. "That's weird," I said. "I sent out a message to everyone a couple of days ago with all the meeting information." "Well, I didn't get it," she said. I checked my Sent mail. Her name was in the list of recipients. I pointed to it, feeling the small thrill of self-righteousness as I awaited her apology. I should have known better. "Oh, you emailed it," she said, in a tone that implied I might as well have strapped the information to a carrier pigeon. "I don't really check my email that much. You should have Facebooked me."

After deciding that I was tired of being a financial ignoramus, I spent some time looking for books and articles that would explain the vocabulary and the rudiments of the world of finance. The global economy had essentially imploded in 2008 and I didn’t understand why. Once I finished a couple of books, such as John Lanchester’s I.O.U., which laid out difficult concepts in simple terms to explain the financial crash, and Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, which detailed much of the politics behind national economic strategy since 2008, I felt as though I finally had at least a grip of the overarching story behind the crisis. But it wasn’t until I picked up Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker that I really understood how far back the roots of the crisis stretched.

There Is (Almost) No Such Thing as a Free Lunch The other day, a French acquaintance of mine realized she was suffering from culture shock. She lives and works in Paris; the clash of cultures was coming at work, where she deals with large numbers of international students, including many North Americans. “They come to my office between noon and 1, and when I’m not there, they complain. It’s lunchtime! Where do they expect me to be?” But it makes sense that they would come up then, I replied, because that’s when they’re not in class. Why didn’t she just take her lunch break a little later? She stared at me like I’d just suggested selling her kidney on the black market.

On my first day of kindergarten,  the morning rush was more hectic than usual as my parents verified that I had all my school supplies and was properly dressed to exit the house (at the age of five, I still occasionally forgot to put on some crucial article of clothing). After making sure that I was indeed wearing pants, my mother bundled me onto the bus. Since I hadn’t had time to eat, she thrust two quarters into my hand and told me to buy my breakfast in the school cafeteria. That evening, my mother asked me how everything had gone. Fine, I replied, except I hadn’t been able to eat breakfast. It had cost forty cents. Since I had fifty cents-not the correct amount- I hadn’t tried to buy anything. Managing to keep a straight face, my mother explained the concept of receiving change. And my worldview shifted slightly....