mercredi 28 novembre 2007

I'm cooler than you because I know Le Chat's cousin

Recently, our friends Will and Erica were in town. Walking around the neighborhood with them, they noticed a piece of graffitti on a building just down the road from us which features a cute, grinning cat. I had never noticed it before, but now I see it all around Paris. Here's a picture of the one at Place Jules Joffrin:

Last weekend another friend, Angela, was visiting. We were at Gare du Nord and she noticed a girl carrying a big cardboard cutout of the cute, grinning cat. I went up to the girl and asked her what was the deal with the cat and she said her cousin was the cat's creator. Indeed, her cutout cardboard cat was autographed "Le Chat est mon cousin".

I was excited, kind of like if I had just met some minor celebrity: the cousin of a prolific graffiti artist.

Hey, I don't get out much.

But I know Le Chat's cousin and you don't, so there.

But from now on, I will carry around my camera and try to capture any "Le Chat" spottings to post on this blog. Watch this space!!

P.S. I just saw this website that talks about "Monsieur Chat"

"Toll Free" French style

In the States, I, like so many others came to complain about calling customer service numbers where you're made to spend ungodly amounts of time listening to recorded voices telling you to punch on keys, only to then be put on eternal hold and eventually transfered to some call center in Hyderabad where a thickly accented "Bob from Atlanta" will ask you to repeat all the information you just spent the last half hour punching in to the automated system.

But hey, at least they don't make you pay for it.

Here in France, the concept of "toll free" isn't very widespread. Most customer service numbers start with 08. 0800 numbers are free to call (but good luck finding a company that actually has one). Other 08 numbers are special rate.

A few weeks ago, our phone service was cut off. I wanted to call the company to check on the status of the line, but I can't call "special rate" numbers from my cell phone. I tried calling from a public phone on the street, but that wouldn't work, either.

Every time I call IKEA to check whether a sofa we want is in stock yet, I have to call a special rate number that starts with 08.

Virtually every customer service number in France is a special rate number starting with 08. Some of these numbers are "local rate", meaning that theoretically you will be charged the cost of a local call no matter what part of the country you're calling from. Our phone plan actually includes unlimited free calls to all land lines in France, but of course, that doesn't include 08 numbers, so we would still have to pay to call "local rate" numbers.

I can kind of understand customer service helplines making you pay for the call (as long as I get to speak to a human being promptly, I don't really mind). But the French carry this idea to lenghts which seem, well, a little absurd.

Even numbers you call to BUY stuff are special rate. Who is going to want to call one of those?

Some of the more extreme examples are pictured here:

That's right, if you want to order a pizza from Pizza Hut, you don't just call a local number, you call a special rate number that charges 0.15 Euro per minute (more expensive than most international calls! I might as well call and order my pizza fresh from Napoli!)

Even more surreal is the following: a public service ad posted on a cigarette warning label.

"Get help to quit smoking: call 0825 809 810" That's right, 0.15 Euro per minute. Hmmm, maybe I'll just keep smoking! Or I could call my mother in Miami and get her to make me stop smoking: it will cost significantly less than calling the number advertised on the cigarette package.

Oh, and phone bills in France are sent out every two if you're the sort of person who likes to call tech support, just imagine what a nice little surprise might show up in your mailbox after two months.

vendredi 9 novembre 2007

A smuggler, a lesbian, a racist African, a stowaway and two tourists are in a train compartment...

Sorry for the long absence. As some of you may know, we were away in Italy for my brother Seb's wedding, and after we got back the whole tribe descended on Paris and I showed them around.

So, some observations: it's COLD in Italy. I took a bathing suit but no warm jacket. I had to purchase one of questionable quality from a street hawker in Florence. Italians are much better looking and much better dressed than the French: so much for the world capital of Chic and La Mode. On the other hand, are they ever temperamental. I can't count the number of times I was yelled at and told to "va fanculo". The reserve and indifference of the French was a welcome relief on our return.

The title of this post is not the introduction to a bad joke, it is a description of our return journey on the overnight Rome-Paris train. As soon as we take our seats in our couchette compartment, a large group of Africans laden with ridiculously oversized luggage comes into the comparment, places as much of the aforementioned luggage as they can squeeze into our compartment's luggage rack and then disappears to the neighboring compartment to stow the rest of it. Their senior member, who shall from now on be referred to as "el coyote" took his seat in our compartment briefly and then disappeared. Then came the butch French woman who was chatting up a storm, and then a fellow from the Cape Verde islands. Soon after leaving the station, the conductor came around and asked for everybody's tickets and passports (they keep these until you arrive in Paris, supposedly so when the Swiss border officials come on board in the middle of the night, they don't have to wake you up). He asks "el coyote" for his passport and he replies "I don't have one", laughing the whole while. Some sort of discussion ensues outside our compartment and all is apparently resolved.

The Cape Verdean then decides to lie down in one of the top couchettes, scooting a few suitcases out of the way in the process. A while later, el coyote comes back to the compartment, sees the Cape Verdean lying in "his" couchette, and proceeds to kick up a stink. "Hey, what are you doing there? That's MY bunk, look at my ticket. Did you move my bags? Why did you move my bags? How dare you touch my bags without my permission, what's wrong with you? I don't go around touching your bags without your permission". Maki, Butch and myself exchange nervous glances, wondering whether a fight is about to break out and we should scram. Cape Verdean moves out of the bunk. You would think, at this point, that El Coyote would take his place in the bunk he fought so ardently for, but no, he closes the door and goes back to the compartment next door. Cape Verdean man goes on a rant about how "these Africans think they own everything and they should all be sent back to where they came from" (like Cape Verde?) I reach an accord with our cabin mates that if Swiss customs comes and asks us questions about the ownership of the bulky suitcases in our compartment we will all shrug and look the other way.

The train stops in Florence and a stinky young backpacker is added to this bizarre menagerie. He takes his position on one of the top bunks. The train conductor comes to our compartment and asks "anybody boarded in Florence?" Silence. He then looks at Mr. Stinky and asks him: "did you get on at Florence?". Mr. Stinky replies "no". Conductor takes out a piece of paper and starts counting and recounting us. El Coyote wasn't there, so we were only five. His paper said five, so he figured it was all right and left. Is it just me, or does anybody else suspect that Mr. Stinky doesn't have a ticket to ride this train? Mr. Stinky leaves and doesn't return. Cape Verdean tells us a story about how a stowaway bribed the conductor on the train he took to Italy.

In the dead of the night, I am woken by the sound of banging on the door of the next compartment. "Swiss border police, your papers please!" I look out the window and we are stopped at a place called "Brig". El Coyote is nowhere in sight. A loud discussion ensues: "what do you mean no passport? No residence permit? Sorry, you have to get off the train. Hurry up and get all your things, now. The train is leaving." More loud discussion. El Coyote enters and leaves our compartment repeatedly. The train starts moving. I fall asleep.

The following morning, El Coyote is soundly asleep in his bunk. All the bulky suitcases are there. I take a look at the neighboring compartment and all the Africans (along with their bulky suitcases) appear to be there, too. How that was resolved, I have no idea, but apparently nobody ended up in the Brig. At this point, El Coyote is christened thus as Maki and I conclude that he's probably a smuggler of humans rather than goods.

There ends our little adventure. Stay tuned for more craziness when we visit Amsterdam next weekend.

mercredi 10 octobre 2007

Call me Mr. Bricolage

I've spent the last few days doing "bricolage", which is the French word for Do-it-yourself. Since our kitchen came stripped, I've had to install kitchen cabinets, shelves, etc, as well as curtain rods for the curtains.

Keep in mind that the walls here aren't drywall, they're solid cement. Well, actually, the walls that should be strong enough to support the weight of cabinets are drywall, and the ones which don't really matter are solid cement, but I digress.

Fortunately, our building's "gardien" (caretaker), who is a nice Portuguese fellow, has lent me his power drill, ladder, saw, etc. The power drill was particularly important: I had to make lots of holes in the cement. We hope the owner doesn't mind if we fill them up with toothpaste when we leave! The gardien also helped me put up the kitchen cabinets and find the right sort of anchors so they could be put on drywall without crashing down from the weight (we hope).

The funny thing is that since I really haven't done that much DIY before moving here, I have now learned a series of French terms for tools and equipment that I simply don't know how to say in English. I imagine someday I'll be at Home Depot at Mall of the Americas asking for chevilles or boulons a expansion. That's OK, the people who work at Home Depot at Mall of the Americas probably don't speak English either. (¿ Y este pa' que me habla en haitiano?)

I must say, though, that after a few hard days' work, I'm quite proud with the results, which I will share with you in these before and after pictures.

dimanche 7 octobre 2007

French prices are driving me to drink

Ok. so the dollar is tumbling against the Euro and Europe is not exactly a cheap place to be for those of us living on the modest greenback. Even so, many things in Paris aren't nearly as expensive as one might imagine (while others are just incomprehensively outrageous). There sometimes seems to be little rhyme or reason to the pricing regime here. A few weeks ago I went out to our local vegetable seller to buy some vegetables for dinner and ended up spending close to 30 Euros for some mushrooms and some salad. Turns out these mushrooms (cepes) cost 40 Euros a kilo, and they aren't even the magic kind!!! I figured I must have stumbled upon some rare delicacy along the lines of truffles from Perigord, but then I saw that another vegetable shop around the block sold the very same cepes for only 12 Euros a kilo. What gives? Did I just happen to stumble upon a pirate vegetable seller? Not really: many of his other products were very reasonably priced, some less so than the local Leader Price (cheap-o supermarket).

Why this big difference in prices? I have no idea, but you really need to check the prices before you buy in this town, and it pays to shop around.

Which leads me to the price of eating and drinking out in cafes and such. While a night out on the town in Paris is certainly not cheap, the prices of food in Cafes is not necessarily that expensive compared to the US, when you consider that what you see on the menu is what you pay (taxes are included and you normally don't have to leave big tips, just round up if the service was good). Many Parisian restaurants and cafes have some sort of fixed price deal where you can get appetizers, mains and dessert for a set price (around 11 Euros at the cheaper sort of establishment). The real profit generators seem to be the drinks. Maki and I have noticed that we don't hydrate well when we're out and about, but that's because a small bottle of water or a canned soft drink costs no less than 4 Euros at most places, so it kinda hurts to go get a can of coke or a bottle of Evian when you're thirsty. But here's the funny part: at just about any restaurant or cafe a half-pint of beer or a glass of wine costs about the same, or maybe only 50 cents more. At those kind of prices, why bother drinking water? If you're going to plonk down the cash, you might as well get some alcohol, right? Water??? Fish have sex in water.

So, it seems the pricing system for drinks in this country is driving the population towards alcoholism (or us, in any event).

dimanche 30 septembre 2007

All moved in

As you can see from the before and after pictures below, we have arrived.
Friday was our first night spent at our new apartment. Maki had the day off and we rented a van and did our final move from the temporary place. When we were done, we drove up to Ikea and loaded the van up again, this time with Billy bookcases and all the other usual stuff. Driving the van around the Etoile wasn't as bad as I expected. Yes, you just kind of have to be brave and go into the busy roundabout (no traffic lights or anything), but I guess my guardian angel was looking out for me that day and all went without a crash, scratch, or dent. As you can see, I put the missus to work!


El viernes de noche fue nuestra primera noche en el apartamento nuevo. El viernes Maki se tomó el día libre, nos alquilamos una camioneta y mudamos las últimas cosas del apartamento temporario. Despues nos fuimos a Ikea a cargar la camioneta de cachivaches. Manejar por Paris resultó más facil de lo que temía. En el etoile, hay que tirarse a lo macho, nomás, pero me imagino que mi angel de la guardia estaría trabajando ese día porque fuimos y volvimos sin incidente. Como podrán ver por las fotos "before and after", nuestra presencia ya se siente en el apartamento, que parece más bagdád que paris. Poco a poco iremos organizando. Ya tenemos heladera y cocina. El martes nos llega la lavarropa y el 10 esperamos el horno.
Como podrán ver, la hice trabajar a la doña.

lundi 24 septembre 2007

Suburban Bliss

This last weekend was spent heating up the old credit card. On Saturday, we bought all our electronic equipment for the kitchen (except an oven) at Darty, France's answer to Best Buy. We considered buying some of this equipment used, but then again we'd have to hire movers to deliver each and every single item, which would work out to cost a fortune (not to mention the hassle factor). Darty offers free delivery and apparently good post-sale service, oh, and their prices are no worse than anybody else's.

For those who missed the earlier post in Spanish: apartments here in Paris tend to come with stripped down kitchens: no fridge, no oven, no cabinets even. The tenant has to purchase all these things (or bring them from their former place). This means that when we eventually leave Paris, we'll have to get rid of all this stuff we just spent a fortune buying. Oh, well. I was happy to discover, however, that our apartment does come with a lovely doormat to scuff our shoes before entering the apartment. Very thoughtful of the landlord, but I would have preferred an equipped kitchen. C'est la vie, as the French say.

Anyway, after buying lots of "electromenagers" on Saturday, on Sunday we ventured out to the 'burbs in search of an oven and kitchen cabinets. Where else but Ikea? A train ride plus a bus ride took us out to a nondescript strip mall near Charles de Gaulle airport. From the attached pictures you'll be able to see that Paris isn't just grand boulevards and Haussmann style buildings. The French can do ugly, random suburbia, too.

The Ikea at Roissy is laid out exactly like the one in College Park, MD. Even the cafeteria selling the same Swedish meatballs is located in the same part of the store and looks exactly the same. They sell exactly the same stuff, too. The only thing that reminded me that I was in France and not Maryland was the presence of beer and wine in the aforementioned cafeteria. Dorothy: you're not in Maryland anymore. Furthermore a bottle of Swedish beer or a glass of wine (presumably not Swedish) costs exactly the same as a bottle of water or a coke (more on this in a later post: watch this space). Naturally, I had a Spendrup's with my Swedish meatballs.

vendredi 21 septembre 2007

Apartamento nuevo, por fin!!

Originally uploaded by dmoppett
Bueno, ayer firmamos el famoso "Baille", el contrato de alquiler de nuestro nuevo apartamento.

Esto es un alivio porque aquí, el famoso baille es prueba vital de nuestra existencia y residencia en el país. Hoy Maki ya tuvo que mandar como 5 copias del contrato por fax. La aduana francesa no deja pasar nuestra mudanza sin ella. "La migra" no procesa los papeles de residencia sin ella. (o sea: ya vamos en camino a mejorar nuestro estatus de "espaldas mojadas"). El banco no puede mandarnos nada por correo sin ella. Es mas, hasta la necesito para cancelar mi contrato de teléfono celular en Washington como prueba que me fuí del país y no con la competencia.

Aqui pueden ver una foto desde el balcón.
Si se fijan, esa torrecita blanca que se ve arriba del techo del edificio, es la puntita más alta del Sacre Coeur de Montmartre.

Y aquí pueden ver nuestra cocina para enanos, que no solo es diminuta, sino que no tiene una sola pared ni superficie recta! Esperemos que los electrodomesticos quepan. Como se habrán dado cuenta, la cocina viene sin electrodomésticos y sin estantes. Básicamente viene sin nada. Esto es típico en Paris. Generalmente la gente se lleva todas esas cosas cuando se mudan. Me parece muy poco práctico, ya que los electrodomésticos en Francia no son caros, pero la mano de obra para subirlos a apartamentos (generalmente por escaleras chiquitas o por la ventana) e instalarlos sí lo es.

Bueh. ¡Por suerte hay varios "cafés" en la zona o sea que de hambre no nos vamos a morir!

Nuestro baño también es de lo mas eccéntrico.

La ducha está a como medio metro o más de altura...hay que treparse. Nos prometieron escalones, pero ya veremos cuan "demain" es el "demain" de los Parisinos. (me parece que ya andamos por apres-demain) Me pregunto como haría la gente que vivía en el apartamento antes: seguro que eran alpinistas. Como veran, el baño tiene un "look" de lo mas moderno y minimalista, medio japonés con piedritas en el piso de la ducha. Nada que ver con el resto del apartamento y sus espejos y estufas de leña (no funciona ninguna, pero son un lindo toque decorativo).

lundi 17 septembre 2007

The mystery of Parisian merde

Paris is a very chien-friendly city. People here can take their dogs into stores, banks, and restaurants (and, we dare say, the dogs understand more French than we do). Parisians seem to prefer small breeds, like yorkies, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, lahsa apsos, and even the stereotypical poodle. And no wonder, considering that the size of the typical Parisian apartment is about the size of a California closet.

Although we both love dogs, we dont' like stepping into merde. Sadly, there are no "poop and scoop" laws in these parts. Some neighborhoods have posted signs stating, J'aime mon quartier, je ramasse (I love my neighborhood, I clean up), like the one below. Most Parisians, however, seem to barely notice these signs exist. Indeed, Parisians pay about as much attention to these signs as CDG customs officials pay to "tourists" bringing their entire household into the country in oversized suitcases.

Walking around the city, though, we've noticed a strange phenomenon: despite the small size of dogs here, these itty bitty dogs have enormous crottes! Can someone explain the following to us?


samedi 15 septembre 2007


Uno llega a este país con cierta idea de como son las cosas, o como deben ser, o como uno se imagina que son. Por supuesto que al pasar el tiempo (aunque solo sean dos semanas), uno se va llevando sorpresas.

Primero: todos sabemos que los Parisinos son arrogantes, maleducados y poco amistosos; que detestan a los turistas y a los extranjeros en general. Pues, desde que llegamos todo el mundo nos ha tratado muy bien. Nos ha parado gente en el ómnibus a ver si estabamos perdidos y necesitabamos ayuda. Hasta los notorios mozos de los cafés nos han charlado con buenisima onda. Hablar un poco el idioma ayuda, sin duda, pero igual en la zona donde nos estamos quedando (que a veces parece una especie de ghetto anglosajón), nos hablan en inglés con gusto y hasta en español a veces. Ahora eso sí, les importan mucho los modales y la formalidad. Cuando he entrado en tiendas y he empezado "Pardon, madame, est-ce-que vous avez de...¨, me interrumpen y me dicen ¨bonjour, monsieur¨, como haciendome acordar que no las saludé.

Segundo: los Parisinos son todos flacos porque comen comida sana en porciones chicas. Juajaa.... Es cierto que no hay tanta gente gorda aquí como en los USA, pero los gorditos (y gorditas) no son tan escasos como uno se imagina. Eso de las porciones chicas es un cuento, también. Cada vez que hemos salido a comer por ahí nos hemos ido bien, pero bien satisfechos. Claro, nada como Cheesecake Factory, pero igual son generosas las porciones. El otro día me comí un choucroute que hubiera alcanzado como para tres. El couscous de la noche anterior casi no lo pude terminar (imaginense: ¡yo!).

Y eso de comer sano, bueh. Ya saben que la comida francesa puede ser bastante cremosa y grasosa. Aparte, no es por nada que esta ciudad esta llena de McDonalds, su imitación local que se llama Quick, y unas sandwicherias Turcas que hacen unos Shawarmas grasientos enormes. No es ningún complot del capitalismo yanqui ni turco. La explicación es muy sencilla: ¡a los franceses les encanta! Los McDo están siempre llenos y se ve pilas de gente sentada comiendo sus Big Mac en el jardín de Luxemburgo. También les encanta Starbucks y cuanta otra gringada haya flotando por ahí.

Ah, y acá tienen dulce de leche. Hoy comí un helado de ¨confiture de lait¨y no es excactamente igual, pero bastante parecido al nuestro.


vendredi 14 septembre 2007

Ecosse 1 France 0

We're in the middle of a sporting bonanza here in Paris. The Rugby World Cup is going on, having brought some remarkably well behaved rugger fans from around the world. It hasn't caused nearly as much excitement as the soccer match between Scotland and France the night before last. It seems like the entire male population of Caledonia descended upon Paris to cheer their team on. I have been in Scotland before, but never have I seen so many kilts and tartans as I have in Paris over the last few days. The bottom of the Eiffel tower seems to have been ground zero for the Pictish invasion:

It's clear that these lads believe that you can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning. Oh, and I want to be the importer of Timberland shoes in Scotland, as they seem to have become a part of the traditional tribal costume by now.

But hey, at least those unruly Pictish hordes have some spirit, and they know how to kick back and have some fun. Which leads me to wonder, where are all the French fans?? From the proportion of fans on the streets the past couple of days, anybody would have thought Scotland was playing Equatorial Guinea. Do the French not care whether their team wins or loses? Or are they too buttoned up to sing and cheer on the streets?


lundi 10 septembre 2007

Apartment search

We've spent two long and tiring days looking at apartments. We saw roughly 20 apartments in different parts of the city, mostly concentrating our search in the 9th 10th and 18th arrondissements. We were accompanied the whole time by our agent, and at each apartment had to meet up with the landlord's agent, so don't let it be said that French real-estate agents don't work hard for their living.

Most of the apartments we saw were charming turn-of-the century apartments with wooden floors and some even with fireplaces. We also saw some more modern ones with cheap wall-to-wall carpeting, but we figure if we're living in Paris we might as well live Parisian style.

We've narrowed down our favorites to three:

Mont Cenis living room

Rue Lamarck Living room


Even though the last one is a bit out in the suburbs, it is our favorite of the three because it has lots of mirrors, plenty of closet space and a nice view over a park with fountains. We heard a rumor, however, that the previous occupants were beheaded by a mob, so we're a little concerned about the safety of the neighborhood.

(Y para los que entienden de estas cosas: que conste que en el Versailles de Paris no hay ni arroz moro, ni café con leche, ni pastelitos de guayaba)

vendredi 7 septembre 2007

Nous sommes arrivés

Well, we're finally here in Paris: our home for the next few years.

On arrival everything has gone smoothly, aided by the universal WD-40 of corruption, which is always an encouraging sign!

Mostly we're thrilled to finally be on our own again, considering that we've spent most of the few months that followed our wedding sleeping on the Aerobed in Maki's parents' house...always a good way to start off married life.

Ok, so back to the corruption: for starters, we showed up way too early to check in our bags at the Miami airport (they're not supposed to take them more than 4 hours before the flight). Our bags were also overweight. Oh, and by the way, you're not supposed to do curbside check-in for international flights. Fortunately, we WERE in Miami, where there's no problem that can't be solved with a smile and $40. (if you can't muster up a smile, the $40 alone shold do the trick). So, off we went, trying not to think too hard about what other sorts of things can be bribed onto aircraft at MIA.

Next on our arrival in Paris; where we should have been interrogated, searched and possibly deported, we were waved through by some very bored looking officials. Note to smugglers and illegal aliens: Charles de Gaulle terminal 2A: you heard it here first!!

My fears about kafkaeske bureaucratic catch 22's have proved unfounded. It undoubtedly helps to have "the professionals" behind one. All it takes is to know what form you have to fudge in order to satisfy whatever requirement. Luckily, plenty of people have been willing to help us do the fudging. This is a place where it pays to know people who know people.

The last couple of days we have been touring Paris with a relocation consultant whose job it is to help us find an apartment. We've seen about 20 apartments. Apparently, laws in France are very friendly to tenants and it's very difficult to get evicted. For this reason, landlords are understandably picky about who they rent to and will require all sorts of things like cosigners, bank guarantees, etc. Some will flat-out refuse to rent to foreigners (yes, go ahead, blame it all on us foreigners, everybody else does.). Having the help of our consultant is apparently very important.

For instance, landlords won't rent to you unless you can show proof of a bank account that they can debit for the rent. Banks generally won't open an account for you unless you have proof of address in the form of a lease agreement or a utility bill (utility bills are apparently crucial pieces of identification in France and are required for all sorts of transactions). So the question arises: how does one go about obtaining either a lease or a bank account without the other?

The answer is: somebody has to be willing to fudge some papers for you somewhere along the way. If you have relocation consultants being paid to help you, that's no problem. If you're some poor sucker who just showed up here, then you'd better go out and make some friends very quickly if you don't want to end up living under a bridge.