mercredi 3 décembre 2008

For Richer and for Poorer

Unlike Paris or Manhattan, London is a very mixed city. I can just hear some of you protest that Manhattan is indeed quite diverse, and that it is home to millions of people from all over the world. But the truth is that the poor can no longer really afford to live in Manhattan, as even areas like Spanish Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen are turned into yuppie condo enclaves. And let’s not forget that in Paris, it is the poor minorities that are relegated to an existence in the suburbs, while the affluent get to live in the central parts of town.

London, however, is different. Here you can have a street in a historical preservation neighborhood (like ours!) lined with charming Georgian homes interspersed with council estates (low-income housing). Sure, some neighborhoods are very, very posh and only the richest can afford to live in them. But as far as the majority of London areas are concerned, the poor and the not-so-poor tend to live in mixed company.

This phenomenon is due, in part, to the fact that London did not use to be a city with its own central government. Rather, it was made up of different boroughs, and each borough had to find a way to provide for its own poor. Now that London is more centralized, this means that low-income housing can be found throughout the city, rather than being concentrated in one area of the city.

This perhaps explains the public service announcements that appear in many streets and buses, like this one, warning against “benefits fraud.”

In our neighborhood, one resident, concerned with the government’s efforts to crack down on benefits fraud while letting other types of fraud go unchallenged, decided to add his own message to the public service announcement.

In case you can’t see it clearly in the picture, the message reads, “List Below Your Favourite Fraudsters.” The handwritten list, started by the original concerned resident and continued by other concerned residents, states:

1. British Aerospace £ 200m
2. Chairmen of Banks £ 900m
3. Ministry of Defence (£ xm) (perhaps the number is too difficult to calculate?)
4. People who you think love you (I think you can tell where the original poster left off!)
5. My phoney parents
6. Tony Blair £ 12m
7. The queen with more than £ 2 tax per hour for my job
10. Ordinary people – nothing

Alas, no one was able to fill in slots 8 and 9 as the friendly council folk took down the list. But stay tuned in case we see further public service announcements by Camberwell’s concerned residents.

mardi 2 décembre 2008

Living in Victorian Times

We’ve now been in London for about two months and are still disconnected from the outside world. I thought that our inability to get phone and internet installed sooner was related to the fact that we decided to use a cable-based service from Virgin Media. Last week, however, we went out for drinks with a couple of friends and learned that it also took them about two months to get the phone connected, despite choosing British Telecom as their provider. Even in France, where such things take much longer than in the US, we were connected to the outside world sooner than this.

I suppose it should not surprise me. The UK is oddly behind the times in some ways. For example, our plumbing is quite Victorian. We have a water tank in the kitchen, which is basically a big, plastic box with water stored in it. According to Diego, every building has some contraption to catch the water on the roof, and then somehow the water gets sent to each of the individual apartments.

While I don’t particularly care what type of plumbing system we use, I do care that we have rather weak water pressure. I learned this is because water pressure is based on gravity here. I think this means that once the water is collected on the roof, the water pressure is dictated by how fast it comes down the pipes to our first-floor shower. Bizarre!

I also remember that when Diego used to live here, he seemed to have constant issues with the boiler in his apartment breaking. I’m not too sure what a boiler is, but I do know that it heats up the water. I always assumed that it was just Diego’s apartment that had this problem, but when we first moved in, we learned that our neighbor’s boiler had broken. We’ve also heard of a couple of friends who have had to deal with broken boilers in the last few weeks. Seems to me that the hot water gods over here should rethink the whole boiler system.

Getting added onto Diego’s bank account has also been an ordeal. Even though I did manage to get added onto his existing bank account in early October, it took about another month to get the debit card. And while I’ve had a debit card for a couple of weeks now, I did not get the pin code for it until this past weekend. It’s pretty embarrassing to have to ask your husband for money every week, so you can imagine that I am relishing my newfound debit card freedom.

Mind you, I don’t think that everything should always be done in the most advanced, modern way. I think some things, like bread and certain wine-making methods, should not be modernized. But when it comes to plumbing and banking, I am a modern woman.

samedi 15 novembre 2008

Settling In

Diego and I are finally moved into our new apartment here in London. By a strange twist of fate, we are now living on the same street that Diego used to live in when he was in London. In the process of narrowing down neighborhoods, we visited Diego’s old stomping grounds, including the local pub he used to frequent back in the day. And, much to his surprise, one of his old friends from the neighborhood was also at the pub, seated on the same stool he always used to sit on when Diego first lived here about five years ago. It was then that we decided to stay in this area, and part of the nostalgia we both have about this neighborhood made us chose the apartment that happened to be located on his old street. I like to think that no matter how far our travels take us, we can find home just about anywhere.

So, last Friday, after spending a month in a hotel, the movers came and unloaded all our things at the new place. We still don’t have telephone or internet (not until December 12 anyway), but at least we have an address.

Those of you that know us personally have likely figured out that Diego and I seem to like making big life changes all in one go. Life would be so boring otherwise, don’t you think? Last year, for example, we got married and moved to Paris all within the span of two months. Every time I hear a bride-to-be complain about the logistics of wedding planning, I feel a smug sense of superiority, imagining that this not the sort of woman who could plan a cross-Atlantic move at the same time as she picked out what font to use on an invitation.

True to our pattern, we have now embarked on our second international move, this time with a little kiddie-to-be in tow. That’s right...I’m pregnant! We won’t know the gender until next month, but really, all we both care about now is that we have a healthy baby.

Luckily for us, we live in a country that, despite all the misconceptions Americans have about socialized health care, has great prenatal care, regardless of the mother-to-be’s economic or legal status. The first time I went to the doctor here, I could not provide the proof of address needed to register for the UK’s National Health Service. But, the doctor’s office found a way around that technicality by simply registering me as a temporary patient until I could provide proof of address (they did not even ask to see my visa). This meant that, even though we were still living in a hotel, I was still able to see a doctor and get referred to the prenatal clinic and midwives’ office at the local hospital. Throughout the entire process, no one asked to see any proof of NHS registration or of even my legal right to be in this country.

I love America, but health care is one area where it lags behind even third-world countries. Most people here simply cannot believe that there is no guaranteed health care coverage for Americans, and many ask me if the stories they hear about health care in the US are indeed true. Sad to say, they are true...and quite incomprehensible considering taxes for those earning a middle-class income in the UK are not that much higher than in the US. That said, I am hopeful that things will change in the near future, as we finally have a President that does not misunderestimate the concerns of the average American (and for those wondering, yes, we both voted, although Diego had to try about three times before he was able to do so...but I guess it’s not really all that surprising when you consider that we vote in Florida, where dead people’s votes count more than the votes of the living). Until that moment comes, I’ll just sit tight right where I am, drink my tea and have a crumpet. Cheers, mate.

lundi 13 octobre 2008

Welcome to the crunch

It's been a while since we've posted but that's because things have been very busy for us and our lives have been very unstable.

I started my new job in banking in the City of London on the 8th of September. Maki came and joined me a few weeks later. I went back to Paris the first few weekends (in spite of the fire in the channel tunnel: that's another story) to help with our move out. We finally moved out of our place in Paris at the end of September, after I had to disassemble and get rid of all the kitchen cabinets I bought when we moved in. All our stuff is now in storage until we move into our new place in London, which we won't be able to move into until the 28th of this month. In the meantime, we're staying in temporary accommodation.

2008 has been quite a roller-coaster of a year for us, as those of you who know us will be aware. Trust me to start a job in the banking sector the very week that global financial markets go into meltdown. It's been...interesting to say the least! Every day I'm hooked on the bloomberg watching everything crash and burn and wondering how much longer I'll still have a job.

On the upside, "the crunch" has brought with it all sorts of bargains. All the shops near my office are practically giving the nice men's suits away. Even the restaurants are now offering special "crunch lunches" as seen below.

I'm amazed that 6.50 is considered a bargain for lunch. Some crunch this is! I'm sticking to the 2.99 chickpea curry they sell at the place right inside Moorgate tube.

In tough times, however, not all consumption goes down. People will tend to spend more on the things that give them comfort. I'm happy to know that my street offers vice at a discount price. Now this really is crunch friendly:

mercredi 1 octobre 2008

A Nomadic Life

It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve posted on le blog, but it’s because we’ve been busy with preparing for our move to London. Diego already started his job there, and I’ve stayed behind in Paris to tie up some loose ends (read: do all the things I never got to do when I was a law firm drone). As I type this, the movers are taking out the last piece of furniture out of the apartment and into storage until we find an apartment in London.

You might wonder how people manage to move large furniture in and out of itty bitty Parisian apartments and buildings that often do not have elevators (and even when they do have elevators, they are barely big enough to fit two adults, let alone furniture). They do it by using a contraption like this one:

The movers place the elevator where it will reach a big window or door (in our case, the French doors on our balcony), and then load all the furniture and boxes onto it. The elevator then takes everything down to street level, and from there it gets loaded onto the moving truck.

Moving out meant we (hereinafter in this paragraph defined as Diego) had to undo a lot of the work we did when moving in, such as taking down the kitchen cabinets, curtain rods, and overhead lighting. Here is an action shot:

It’s strange to think that five men managed to wrap up our lives into 102 boxes in about eight hours. Although I feel like we have too many things, all the movers that came to survey our apartment seemed to think we do not have that much. I suppose that a lack of clutter is one advantage of moving frequently. Despite the advantage of a less cluttered life, however, I do not want to have to go through this again for quite a few years. Whatever its drawbacks might be, we’re staying put in London for a while (mind you, that’s what we said about Paris too!)

samedi 13 septembre 2008

5 frenchies à Miami

Diego went off to London last weekend and sadly cannot return this weekend because trains have been cancelled as a result of a fire in the Eurotunnel. This means that I spend my evenings watching TV, or, to be more specific, French TV.

If I was in the US or UK, an evening watching TV perhaps would not be so terrible (though even in the US, I often had the so-many-channels-so-little-to-watch feeling). But I have a very hard time following American or English programs that have been dubbed into French, so I am left watching original French productions. And original French programs can be quite bad. Some of them are so bad they are actually amusing.

One example of one of these bad-but-amusing shows is 5 frenchies à Miami, where five single men are sent to Miami - land of beautiful women and luxurious cars, according to the show - for 3 ½ days to see which one is worthy of the title le French lover de l’été. Why they use Frenglish is beyond me, but I assume that there is no French phrase that has the same connotation as the English phrase “French lover.” The contestant that manages to accumulate the most french kisses (also said in English with a French accent) is the winner.

To make this into more than just a hooking up contest, there’s an additional difficulty. The contestants do not have any money and must earn it at the rate of $5 per kiss. This means that they end up sleeping and showering on the beach and do not have access to basic toiletries like toothpaste and deodorant (which of course makes it harder to hook up with women) unless they earn money.

The contestants are also occasionally given certain challenges where the loser gets eliminated and/or the winner gets a prize, such as a toiletry item or a night in a hotel. The challenges involve things like pull-up contests on the beach, trying to kiss as many women as possible while wearing a Borat-style banana hammock, and having as many passersby as possible spank them on the street.

Since I am all alone and feeling a wee bit homesick (probably because we are rather rootless at the moment, what with being in between countries and all), it was a lot of fun to see five French people whose English is as bad a my French trying to navigate familiar places in Miami.

Here’s the promotional clip for the show as well as a clip of the banana hammock challenge, featuring the two finalists. Enjoy!

samedi 6 septembre 2008

Licensed to drive: the saga continues

Right as I am about to permanently leave France, the French bureaucracy has decided to give me one last gift of a humorous anecdote. Consider it the French state's contribution to this blog: it delays my having to come up with British-related humorous content.

You may recall my driver's license saga from a post on this blog back in April. If not, here is the link.

When I left you last time, I had been sent away to return with a high-school transcript proving that I was a resident of the State of Florida on an arbitrary date that I made up as being the date my first driving license was issued.

Fast forward a couple of months until sometime in June when I take yet another morning off work to go back to the "prefecture" with my transcript and five payslips proving I've been living in France for at least six months. The young lady looked through my documents and says "congratulations, you've been approved for a license but first you must go to a medical examination". She wanted to schedule me for an appointment in October, but I knew I'd have left by then so I come up with some story about how I'm going travelling for business for three months bla, bla, bla. Luckily, she had availability for Thursday the 4th of September (day before yesterday) early in the morning. She told me that as soon as I had the medical "ok" I could come straight back to her office and get my license.

On the 4th, I take the whole day off of work (mind you this was the day before my last day of work) so that I can go take care of this. I go in the morning to the medical office where I'm asked to strip down to my underwear and shoes and then walk into the doctors' office where there are various doctors and nurses of both genders hanging around. Quite intimidating. I get my medical certificate and hightail it back to the Prefecture to make the most of this day. As soon as I arrive at the driving license office I show the receptionist my medical certificate and he asks me : "why did you get a medical certificate? You don't need one of those." I tell him that I had been required to get one last time I was there and he looked puzzled. This was at 10:45 in the morning. He gives me a number and four hours pass before my number is called. In the meantime I strike up a conversation with a couple from Michigan who is there, like me, to exchange their license for a French one under reciprocity laws. It's their first visit. I tell them all my horror stories trying to convince them that they'll be sent home in search of their great-grandfather's death certificate. They seem all chipper and confident; and don't speak a word of French. I'm rubbing my palms together waiting for them to be fed to the sharks, but they get called before me, spend a few minutes at the counter, and walk off with a shiny new French driving license. As they leave, the guy gives me a thumbs up and says "I think they just don't like you here." A sensible conclusion!

But anyway, way past my lunchtime I finally get called to the desk. I see the man start preparing my license, putting it through the printer and attaching my photograph to it. As he's doing this he asks me for my passport. I give him my EU member state passport and he says "don't you have an American passport?" "Oh, no, here it comes!" thinks I. I explain that I do have one but not on me as I only brought the one that proves my legal right to work in France. He tells me that the reciprocity agreement only applies to citizens of the countries in question and he therefore cannot give me a license unless I prove that I am a US citizen. Mind you, at no point during any of my previous three visits did ANYBODY tell me that I had to be a US citizen nor did I ever show them, nor did they ever ask me to show them a US passport. I desperately dig through my documents trying to see what I can come up with. I find a Miami-Dade county voter's registration card. "Look!" I say "You can't vote in America if you aren't a citizen. It's even written in Haitian Creole which is almost like French so you can understand it!" "Sorry, only a passport will do."

At this point, I decide to do away with all the British stiff upper lip that I'd been working on developing and get a little South American on his ass. Roots, yo! My voice raises a few decibels and I start running through the whole sad saga from day one about how many visits I'd already made, how many hours I'd waited and how I didn't understand why nobody had bothered to inform me of this requirement. The man looked frightened. I thought he was about to press a button to call security. Instead he asks "Why are you yelling at me? You're leaving here with your license." "What? I am? So what's the problem, then?" "Oh, there is no problem I assure you, go to desk G and wait until you are called."

By now I'm convinced that this is all a ruse and that desk G is where the goon squad is going to come get me to eject me from the premises. But no, soon enough my name is called and I'm given this:

Success!! That phone call to Mr. Sakho really did pay off, I guess. Mind you, the document is so sloppy and amateurishly done (my details are filled in with a dot-matrix printer of the sort I haven't seen around since 1984) that I could easily have saved myself the trouble and made it at home with my ink jet. The most amusing part is that it states that this license was issued in substitution for Florida driver's license number XXX issued on the 29th of January, 1989. Yup, that's the date I made up off the top of my head.

Lessons to be learned from this:

1) The employees of the French DMV make up the rules as they go along. If you're refused the first time, come back again and speak to somebody else. The requirements will probably be completely different and you might just get lucky.

2) Based on the experience of the couple from Michigan: don't speak French. Ironically, and despite anything you may have heard, being a non-French speaker is actually an asset when dealing with French bureaucrats. I think they just get tired of having to deal with you so they just stamp you right through.

mardi 2 septembre 2008

Madmen and English Cows

You all know we're moving to England by now, so in my attempt to transition this blog from a French theme to an English theme, I 'll share an observation that somehow reflects on the relationship between the two countries.

I've noticed since being in Paris that most cafes and restaurants have signs up, like the one below, specifying the origin of the beef they serve.

I've never seen any similar sign disclosing the national origin of the vegetables or the chicken or the fish. No, it is beef that the restaurant patrons are concerned about. You might, as I did, wonder why this is so. Is this simply some patriotic marketing effort of the French cattleman's association trying to persuade the local public to buy local? While most places do seem to have French beef, there are usually plenty of other countries listed, as above. I have seen beef from as far afield as Brazil and Lithuania proudly listed on restaurant chalkboards.

To unravel this mystery, we need to focus not on the countries that ARE listed on the restaurant chalkboards but rather those that are NOT. The most glaring and obvious answer is Britain. They do have Irish beef, as can be seen above, so we know that this is not due to any hesitation about shipping cattle across the channel or anything like that.

You may remember the "mad cow" scare that took place in the UK, oh, about 10 years ago. At the time, France, along with many other countries banned the import of British beef. Eventually, years later, when it became clear that the affected cattle had been elimitated in Britain, most countries relented. Not France. Britain took the case up with the European Union, who said that member states could not refuse to accept British beef. The French, as they so often seem to do, ignored this directive.

As far as I know, now British beef can be and is imported into France, but the French still resist their neighbors' beef by proudly advertising that they don't serve any in their restaurants.

mardi 26 août 2008

Moving Away

Ok, so I noticed that August has been the slowest month yet this year on this blog. In an effort to up our August post count, I thought I’d put up a post explaining our personal situation at the moment. I can imagine that September might be an even slower month as Maki and I have a lot of things going on. Mainly, we’re moving.

For those of you who don’t know, a few months ago I accepted a job in London. Meanwhile Maki (thankfully) abandoned the world of big law and we are both headed up to warm and sunny England in September. For good. Or as “for good” as anything can be in our mad, nomadic lives.

Alas, we will be leaving Paris, a city we have both grown to love, and our neighborhood, which we love even more far too soon. Just as we were starting to settle in, make friends and understand the mysterious ways of the locals, we’re off.

But well, an exciting new life awaits us in the land of warm beer and crooked teeth. We will miss freshly baked baguettes and the fresh seasonal vegetables from our “Primeur”. But then again, we look forward to enjoying nice pints down the pub as well as good Indian food. The famously eccentric natives should also provide us with a few quirky anecdotes to share with you.

I start my new job early next month. We will keep our Paris apartment until the end of September as we have not yet found a place to live in London, and we cannot go look for the time being as Maki has not yet managed to get the proper visa to allow her to move to the UK (I’ll leave that story for her to tell). Hopefully, we expect to be settled in London by the end of September. I stress the world hopefully.

By then, we hope to keep updating the blog and sharing our lives with our friends and a few random people who seem to pop by here from time to time.

Obviously the theme of the blog will change, as it will no longer have a French or Parisian theme, but I’m sure we’ll think of something. We should probably change the name, too, since we’re no longer “à Paris”. We haven’t thought of a clever new name yet, though. Any suggestions?

vendredi 22 août 2008

Amerikanski Aeroflot

One of my closest friends got married in Puerto Rico this past weekend. While the wedding itself and all the festivities surrounding it were a lot of fun I got to catch up with friends I had not seen in a long time, getting to the wedding itself was an ordeal I hope never to repeat. Alas, I have no one to blame but myself for this travel horror story, as I opted not to pay extra money for a ticket from a real airline and instead decided to fly out on Amerikanski Aeroflot, aka American Airlines

Mind you, I refer here to the old Soviet Aeroflot because Diego has flown the post-Soviet Aeroflot and he assures me it is far superior to today’s American Airlines; to boot, they are not stingy with the vodka. I already expect a lesser standard of service from U.S. airlines, and I can do without the TV dinner and miniature alcoholic beverages if need be. But even if the skies are no longer as friendly as they used to be, at least I don’t expect them to become downright hostile.

The trouble started on the Paris – JFK portion of my trip. We were lucky enough to be served by some disgruntled flight attendants that make the stereotypically surly French waiter look like a perky TGIF waitress. One flight attendant in particular would sigh heavily anytime a passenger asked for something, or else would ignore requests altogether. For example, during one of the beverage services, she neglected to ask me if I wanted a drink, and forgot to deliver my seatmate’s requested tea. She also had a disgusting habit of chewing gum with her mouth open and scratching her head while serving the meals. And when faced with some of the French passengers whose English was not 100% correct, she would loudly call out to her fellow flight attendants and state that those passengers did not speak English. I’ve gotten better service from pimply teenagers at my local McDonald’s.

The real fun, however, started on the JKF-San Juan leg of the trip. Some of the Puerto Ricans at the wedding told me that the American Airlines flights from New York to Puerto Rico are dubbed la “gua gua voladora,” (the flying bus), and I can see why. First, the flight was delayed because of severe weather in New York. Although not even the flight crew knew when we would be able to depart, they decided to board the passengers after the plane was cleaned. Little did we know that we would be stuck on the runway for about three hours in a stuffy, unairconditioned cabin (in the middle of August) with nary a drop of water to drink (when the water did finally come, it was not from a bottle, but was instead served from a carafe and had an oddly sweet taste to it...I’m trying not to think too much about where it might have come from).

During our time on the runway, I was the first person to use the bathroom; although the plane has been supposedly cleaned before boarding, the toilet was lined with wet toilet paper. Not only that, but the bathroom itself was falling apart. As soon as I pulled on a piece of toilet paper from the wall dispenser, the wall opened up, scattering paper towels and toilet paper all over the tiny, dirty bathroom. Since I could not put the wall back up, I had to hold it up using the toilet seat for leverage as I peed. Good thing I’m bendy.

Worst of all, the plane staff was thoroughly unprepared to deal with frazzled passengers. At one point, some passengers began yelling and complaining loudly enough for the whole plane to hear, asking to either be let off or given a drink, yet it took about an hour before anyone from the cabin crew did anything about it. I have the slight suspicion that the mostly American staff was somehow scared by the rowdy Caribbean crowd, because it was a Puerto Rican flight attendant that bravely came forward to deal with the crowd. Although the passengers were not able to convince him to give them free alcoholic drinks, at least they calmed down afterwards.

After three agonizing hours, the pilot finally came on the speaker to announce, in his official pilot-speak, that we have been cleared for take-off and would be the third plane to take off. Immediately afterwards, the Puerto Rican flight attendant gets on the loudspeaker and his Spanish translation of the pilot’s message was very succinct: “¡Gente, nos vamos!” (translation: “People, we’re off!”)

The rest of the flight was calm and I mostly slept as I was jet-lagged. I did wake up shortly before landing because, while we were still up in the air, the passenger behind me starts making numerous calls on her cell phone! Turns out her mother’s JetBlue flight was also delayed, and her abuelita was getting worried about them. Good thing they all had cell phones to keep in touch mid-air.

Luckily, my flight back from Puerto Rico was much less eventful, although I was puzzled by some of the marketing speak bandied about by the flight crew. In particular, as the attendants stand up to showcase the snacks for sale (mind you, that an airline even has to charge for potato chips is pretty pathetic), they stated that they had “complimentary beverages and snacks for sale.” How can the items be complementary if they are for sale?

Note to self: next time, fly with a real airline!

mardi 19 août 2008


“Solidarity” is not a word one hears very often in the Anglophone world, perhaps due to its association with bolshy Socialist ideology. Growing up in Latin America, however, this word creeps into all sorts of discourse, not merely political. “Solidarity” is generally considered a good trait for a person to have, sort of like altruism, but associated less with “charity” given by the high-up to the lowly and more with doing for others what you’d like them to do for you in similar circumstances. It’s a more democratic and egalitarian sort of altruism.

The term is also quite popular here in France. Unsurprisingly, it is a term often bandied around by striking unions and activist political groups. Solidarity is what explains the peculiar tolerance that the average French person has for strikes in spite of the hassle and inconvenience that they cause. Most Parisians don’t raise an eyebrow at the idea of public transport being shut down for weeks due to a strike and having to walk long distances to and from work. While your average expat, like myself, becomes angry and impatient, the average French person tends to support the strikers. Their attitude seems to be that today it’s you having to fight for your job/wages/benefits, but tomorrow it might be me, so I’ll support you in the same way I hope you’ll support me.

The solidarity of the Parisians, however, is most touching at its smallest and most personal. For all the Parisians’ haughty and aloof reputation, I have witnessed some wonderful acts of collective kindness here which I would not expect to see in other large metropolises.

Some months ago I had made a comment here about a long line at my local supermarket willing to wait for an elderly woman to go back to the shelves to find her diabetic products. A few days ago, I had a similar experience on the metro.

I was waiting for the usually horrendously crowded line 4 and the trains were coming more packed than usual. So packed that I couldn’t even get on the first two that came. For the third train, I decided to go all the way to the very front of the platform since there often tends to be more space near the ends of the trains than in the middle. Indeed, I was able to squeeze in along with a few others. As I did so, I noticed that a woman who was sitting on a bench on the platform starts talking excitedly to the conductor, pointing towards the back of the train and saying something about a “pregnant woman”. The conductor got out of his “cockpit” and walked towards the back of the train. Soon, he showed up at the front door escorting the pregnant woman and asking the passengers crowded by the door to make room. Within seconds, people had cleared out, shifted to other parts of the carriage and several empty seats were offered to her. Meanwhile, the packed train was, of course, waiting on the platform. But there were no sighs or grumbles. If you were pregnant, you’d certainly hope to get the same treatment, so you don’t complain when it’s given to others.

vendredi 8 août 2008

Weekend in the Loire Valley

What do you get if you mix 600 kilometers, three castles and two cathedrals? Our weekend in the Loire Valley. Diego and I rented a gas-efficient Fiat (only ¾ of a tank for the whole trip, which mind you, still cost about 45€) and armed with a few guidebooks, headed to France’s equivalent of the heartland.

The trip got off to a slow start because without thinking about it, Diego and I planned our little road trip on the first Saturday in August. In France. We were competing for highway space not only with every French family headed south to the beach, but also with a great deal of Brits headed to Dordogne.

Our first stop was in Orléans, where Joan of Arc defeated the English in 1429, and which boasts a cathedral dating to the 13th century.

We then visited the extravagant Chambord castle, the largest of the Loire Valley castles.

We spent the night in Beaugency, a town that still feels like a small medieval village and which, as Diego said, “is high on the cuteness factor.” Take a look at this (the bridge was strategically important for France during the Hundred Years’ War):

On Sunday, we saw the castles at Blois and Chenonceau. My favorite castle was the Chenonceau castle because it looks like it came straight out of a fairy tale and is built right over the River Cher. I even felt like a princess as Diego rowed a boat around the river.

On our way back to Paris, we stopped at Chartres and visited the city’s stunning 12th century gothic cathedral, which contains a cloth that belonged to the Virgin Mary and the largest collection of medieval stained glass.

From Chartres, it was back home to Paris. Because we knew we would be getting in at around 10 pm, Diego and I started chanting in hopes of winning over the parking gods while we were on the road. We must have done something right because for once, parking in our neighborhood was plentiful, even on our street. Then again, it was the first weekend in August. But I like to think that the parking gods were thinking of us anyway.

lundi 28 juillet 2008

Weekend at Paris Plage, Strasbourg and Baden Baden

I decided to give myself a long weekend and take a day off from not doing much. So Friday I went to Paris Plage, now in its eighth year. Paris Plage is a two-mile long man-made beach on the banks of the Seine (this year it has been extended to other parts of Paris, but I just went to the one on the Seine) created by trucking in 1,800 tons of sand and almost 300 umbrellas. According to the city’s website, the sand used is no ordinary sand, and represents the perfect compromise of grading and comfort for visitors’ feet. (I am not making this up).

If lounging around soaking up sun on the banks of the Seine is not to your liking, there’s plenty of other things to do, like:

- taking a dip in the pool or cooling off in the “showers”

- playing petanque

- dancing

- and even practicing your fencing skills

There’s also concerts and a few cafes, but alas, I have no good pictures to share with you.

On Saturday we took the TGV to Strasbourg to visit some friends and their adorable baby. We had window seats and were able to enjoy the beautiful French countryside on our way, replete with rolling pastures, cute cows, and soft sheep (they looked soft at any rate!)

We spent the day touring the old part of the city, including the cathedral. The area has such strong Germanic influences that it is easy to forget you are in France. I took this opportunity to enjoy some wines, like gewurztraminer and riesling, that are not as widely available here. Our friends prepared a lovely dinner, which we enjoyed while sampling some local wines and chatting on the balcony (I do hope the nice dinner and the elaborate brunch our friends prepared has not spoiled my husband!).

Feeling very international, on Sunday we took a little road trip to nearby Baden Baden in Germany. We could tell we were in Germany not just because the town is in the middle of the Black Forest, but because our friend accidentally left his camera bag (which had his wallet) on a ledge, and it was still there when he went back to look for it 20 minutes later. I cannot imagine it would have still been there in Paris.

Diego and I used this trip to Baden Baden to buy rich coffee that smells almost like a dark 70% chocolate and enjoy a final ice cream before returning home.

vendredi 25 juillet 2008

Aromatic Europeans in the Summertime

One stereotype that Americans have about Europeans (and most especially the French) is that their personal hygiene leaves something to be desired. Many people assume that this is down to a lack of regular bathing or an aversion to deodorant. I can attest that every local person I know here does bathe or shower daily (or at least claims to) and that deodorant is, at the very least, widely available.

Yet now that the weather has got warm (well, sort of), I’m starting to notice some rather unpleasant odors around, especially on the metro. What is most alarming is that on some days these odors seem to follow me home…all the way home. On those days I notice that the source of the ponk is…ok, I’ll admit it…myself.

Now I know some of you think I’ve gone native and therefore imagine that I’ve stopped showering and/or using deodorant. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.

So what, then, is the cause of my malodorous condition, you ask? By unraveling this mystery, we can come one step closer to knowing why the natives reek.

Alas, the answer remains elusive to me. I can only speculate as to the cause of my fetor. First of all, I get the idea that our highly space, energy and water-efficient European front-loading washing machine doesn’t do a particularly good job of washing. This despite the many hours it takes to complete a cycle. I sometimes notice a bit of armpit-effluvium emanating from my shirts when I iron them. (Yes, I do iron. In fact, I iron my wife’s shirts. How’s that for a 21st century man?)

A second theory is that the deodorant here is simply not as powerful as the one back home. Why the likes of Procter & Gamble would sell weaker deodorant in France than in America I don’t know. Maybe there’s just a higher tolerance for B.O. over here, so they can afford to get cheap with the ingredients. I missed my chance to buy some Right Guard last time I was in Miami. I could have tested this theory.

In the meantime, the source of the notorious Eurofunk will remain shrouded in mystery. Truly a riddle for the ages.

mardi 22 juillet 2008

Weekend in the Park(s)

Diego and I spent another weekend biking around, trying to soak up as much of Paris as we can before we move. On Saturday, we biked to a park in the 15th called Parc André Citröen. This park blends industrial design elements – including a slanting cement waterfall, dancing fountains, and a giant helium balloon in the middle – with expansive green areas, two greenhouse pavilions, and smaller decorative flower gardens.

And although the dancing fountains had a sign prohibiting park visitors from playing in them, lots of kids were running around trying to catch streams of water. It was a cold day for this Miami girl, but the kids chasing after the dancing fountains looked like they were enjoying their urban water park.

After visiting the park, we biked along the river all the way past the center of Paris to Bastille, and from there made our way back home via the Canal St. Martin area, where naturally, we stopped to get our afternoon aperitif.

Our bike ride on Sunday was not nearly as long, but just as fun, as we had a picnic at Parc de la Villette. Once again, I found that the locals out-picnicked us. While we had what I consider a respectable picninc - an assortment of cheeses and charcuterie, wine, and chocolate for dessert - our neighbors not only had food, but included champagne and coffee in their picnic.

Parc de la Villette is probably my favorite park here, not necessarily because of the park itself but because of the atmosphere created by the people there. First, the people who go to this park all seem to know each other, and consolidate their picnics when they run into friends. Second, every time we go, there’s at least one group of people either performing or practicing dance and music. The first time we went, we stumbled on what appeared to be almost a hundred people playing with drums hanging around their necks, dancing to the rhythms they were creating.

This Sunday, we were lucky enough to catch the tail end of a concert by a Brazilian group that blended indian and eastern european sounds into music with a hip tribal beat.

We also saw a group of people playing African drum music, with lookers-on dancing along.

All in all, we had a fun and relaxing weekend. I’m sure Diego was sad to see the weekend end, as he had to go to work on Monday. But, hey, someone in this family needs to work!

jeudi 17 juillet 2008

Yo Hablo Miami Patois

Ok, after our return from our first trip back “home” since being in Paris, I thought I would share some quirky thoughts and observations about that weird and wonderful place called South Florida, also known as the Hong-Kong of the Caribbean, the Third-World Banana Republic and Cuba Libre.

The English language has been entirely forsaken in Miami-Dade County. Every time we were approached by random people, whether it was sales-assistants at shops or people who were angry in traffic, it was always in Spanish, or should I clarify and call it “Spanish”. Mind you, I’m a native Spanish speaker and not one of these linguistic jingoists, but it’s just a little too much; a little out of control already. I don’t like it when foreign tourists here in Paris blurt out in English without even asking whether their interlocutor speaks it, but those are just tourists: how much worse would it be if the majority of the resident population did that? Never mind: it would be Montreal.

This phenomenon would be mitigated to some extent if the Spanish being spoken was a true and correct representation of the language of Cervantes, but alas, it is not. It is a highly Anglicized mish-mash full of expressions like “Mira que nice”, “ese restaurant es muy fancy”, “Estoy vacumeando la carpeta”, “el avión está full”, “Ay, que cute”, etc. One of the funniest I ever heard was “deliberar groserías”, as in “to deliver groceries”, though in actual proper Spanish it means “to deliberate vulgarities”. As a result, I concluded that since most locals in Miami do not speak proper English OR Spanish, they are neither bilingual nor monolingual but in fact alingual. Did I just coin that phrase? If so, please mail me some royalties. So yes, a city full of alingual adults.

Alingual is one way of looking at it. The other way to look at it, from a Linguistic point of view, is that the local people in Miami speak their own pidgin dialect. I now officially christen this dialect Miami Patois. Again, don’t forget my royalties. I confess that I too start speaking it after spending a few days there. The problem with Miami Patois is it has no fixed rules or regularity. It’s only defining characteristic is that languages must be switched suddenly and frequently mid-sentence. The switch takes place depending on 1) whether it is shorter or easier in one language than the other, 2) whether the word pops into the conscious mind more quickly in one language than the other, for whatever reason and 3) generally whichever language’s version of the word or phrase requires the least effort. As such, it is a very individual dialect and every person’s version is a little bit different.

I’ll give an example from my recent trip. I walked into Publix looking for a cash machine, so I went up to one of the employees and, like a stupid tourist, asked the question “Where is the cash machine?” To this question, I received the predicable answer: “¿Que?” So I tried again: “¿Donde está el cajero automático?” Another puzzled expression, followed by “¿El que?” So I try to think like the local that I was not so long ago and ask a third time: “¿Donde está el eitiém? (A.T.M.)” to which I received a prompt and coherent reply.

mardi 15 juillet 2008

Welcome to Miami, Bienvenidos a Miami

As we mentioned in our earlier posts, Diego and I just got back from a two-week vacation in Miami. My sister got married and Diego had something of a family reunion (his niece is having her 15th birthday party, so his sisters were in Miami visiting from Uruguay). It was our first time back since moving to Paris, and both of us were sort of surprised at some of what we noticed.

First, the bread is just awful in the US. And, yes, I even mean the bread you get in the fancy bakery section of the supermarket, which is allegedly fresh-baked on the premises (don’t even get me started on the croissants!). My parents think that the best baguette in Miami comes from Sedano’s, but to me, it tasted like Frankprix baguette. What I don’t understand is how every single baguette looked exactly the same every day, even though it is supposed to be fresh-baked. My favorite local baker has some days where the bread comes out more cooked than others, so I have to ask for it pas trop cuit. But I figure that the small inconsistencies are the trade-off for getting locally fresh-baked goodness.

Second, the fruit is pretty awful too (except for the mangoes from my parents' backyard, which are deliciousness personified). Actually, "awful" is not the right word...tasteless is more like it. The fruit usually looks good, but it has no smell or flavor. I’ve been on a fig- and strawberry-eating frenzy since getting back, and I love how it makes our kitchen smell.

Lest you think the US has no culinary delights to offer, it was wonderful to have access to a large selection of international wines. It’s pretty hard to get a good selection of non-French wines here, so I lived it up by having wines from South America, California and Australia. The meat, too, was fantastic, especially our parents' asado. I think I ate enough meat to feed a small village.

Third, shopping, eating and drinking out, while cheap, is more expensive than it used to be. Sadly, this created a bit of a moral dilemma for me. I found a pair of very cute animal print shoes that were massively discounted and cost less than $70 (that’s about 45 euros!). While my inner animal rights activist felt guilty because of the materials used in the shoe, in the end, I simply could not bear to see them end up on someone else’s feet. And hey, women here wear entire coats made out of cute furry animals, so my one pair of shoes is a negligible environmental faux pas in comparison.

Last, being back in SoFla reminded me of how much I hate sitting in traffic. I missed biking, walking or metroing everywhere. I-95 with two lanes closed and half of the drivers talking on the cell phone is no fun (why, oh why, hasn’t Florida followed suit and banned cell phone use while driving, like the rest of the civilized and uncivilized world?)

Oddly, neither Diego nor I experienced our usual post-vacation sadness. Maybe it’s because we know we are leaving Paris soon, or (for me, anyway), the fact that I did not have to come back to a job I dislike. But, regardless, it felt good to be back.

mardi 8 juillet 2008

International Underwear Smuggler Busted at Paris Airport

Maki and I just got back from a trip back to Miami. Maki will have more interesting observations on that in the coming days. Naturally, while in Miami, we took advantage of the ridiculously cheap Bushlandian Dollar to do some shopping and update our wardrobe, so we hit the nerve center of the Miami-Caracas shuttle trade known as Dolphin Mall. I had actually wanted to buy some indentured servants and mail-order brides to bring back with us but Maki held me back reminding me that we wouldn’t have enough room for all that in our suitcase. So we were discreet and only bought a few shirts, handbags as well as the usual socks and underwear from Sam’s Club. Furthermore, a family friend (who shall remain nameless) gave us a bag full of clothes to bring to her son (who shall also remain nameless) who is a student here in Paris.

Well, when we arrive in Paris, we are about to leave the baggage hall when we are called back by customs agents. Customs???!!! I honestly didn’t even think they had such a thing here. I’d never even seen them before, neither at the airport nor on the chunnel. You may recall that when we first moved to Paris we arrived at the airport with a ridiculous amount of suitcases, cardboard boxes and even paintings and we breezed right out of the airport.

Anyway, the customs agents start asking us all sorts of questions about how much stuff we had bought, how much money we had spent, etc. (mental note: next time do NOT speak any French: might as well make their job more difficult. Advice to anybody else who gets pulled over by French customs: speak in the thickest Texas drawl/Cockney/Jamaican Patois you can muster. Chances are high they'll get bored of you and let you pass.) Obviously they didn’t find our answers very convincing, as they proceeded to open all our suitcases and rifle through all our clothing. One guy even opened a letter in my suitcase (it was my American Airlines AAdvantage statement) and started reading it. That part really made me livid: he seemed fascinated by it. I really felt like asking him whether I had enough miles for a trip to Cancun or not.

The story gets bizarre when the customs lady (three of them to go through our socks and underwear: it must have been a slow day at CDG) opens the bag sent by our family friend. There are some Calvin Klein underwear in it and she asks me: “are those real?” I shrug and answer “I sure hope so”. She replies “Well, I hope you didn’t pay too much money for them because they aren’t”. That’s right folks: fake underwear!!! It seems Miami is a hotbed of this activity, despite the fact that you can buy the real thing at Costco for $9.99 a dozen. Who would bother to fake them is beyond me, but hey, a French customs inspector can’t be wrong: can she?

The worst part is that as soon as she tells me this , I look up at the wall behind the customs lady and there is a poster with dire warnings about the stiff legal consequences of bringing fakes into the country. Apparently, being the home of Louis Vuitton, they’re quite sensitive about that kind of thing over here. So here I was, imagining that I was going to be thrown in the nick over some underwear that didn’t even belong to me. I figured they would at the very least confiscate them, but no, she let me through, undies and all. Like I said, it must have been a slow day at CDG. Oh, and a certain nameless young friend of ours in Paris will not have to go commando, but will be forever henceforth known as Calvin Fake.

mardi 1 juillet 2008

El portero eléctrico: Uruguay en la vanguardia de la tecnología.

Desde mi mas tierna infancia, o sea, los años 70, me acuerdo de haber vivido en apartamentos con portero eléctrico. Y esto en un país supuestamente subdesarrollado del tercer mundo.

Ahora que vivo en Francia, un país supuestamente desarrollado y del primer mundo, he descubierto que el humilde portero eléctrico es considerado un lujo descomunal y demasiado “jai-tec” para la mayoría de los habitantes. Lo que se tiene generalmente es un teclado al lado de la puerta donde hay que poner un código (27Q3, por ejemplo). En nuestra casa hay dos puertas, cada cual con su teclado y su código distinto. Hay que saberselo de memoria, sino no se puede entrar.

A este descubrimiento lleguè gracias a unas frustraciones vividas recientemente esperando un paquete con documentos muy importantes que me mandaron de Londres. Como no hay timbre desde la calle, DHL no puede entregar nada en mi edificio si no tienen los códigos de las dos puertas. Por supuesto que no los tenían o sea que no pudieron entregar. Llamé para dàrselos, pero los anotaron mal o sea que tampoco pudieron entregar al día siguiente. Al final tuve que dar toda clase de vueltas por la ciudad para ir a buscar el paquete y demoró más en llegarme que si lo hubiesen mandado por correo común y corriente (que si tiene los códigos y entrega en mi puerta todos los días).

¿Como hacen las visitas entonces? Cada vez que invitamos a alguien a casa: hay que darles los códigos, sino no hay manera que entren. Hoy en día que todo el mundo tiene celular, no es muy difícil el tema, ya que siempre pueden llamar nuestros amigos desde la puerta. Pero me imagino que en la época pre-celular, si uno perdía el código del edificio no podía ir a la fiesta. A nosotros ya nos paso una vez yendo a una fiesta en casa de unos amigos: perdimos el código y justo cuando Maki va a llamar desde el celular, se quedo sin batería. Nos pusimos a gritar desde la vereda y por suerte alguien nos escuchó.

¿Porqué tienen este sistema tan complicado acá? No lo se. En Uruguay con nuestros porteros eléctricos nos llegan nuestros paquetes y nuestros amigos.

mercredi 25 juin 2008

Fashionable Women

There are a lot of myths surrounding French women in the Anglo-saxon world, mostly centered on the notion that French women are the epitome of elegant beauty, feminine mystique, and sexual allure. But, as with many things, the reality is not the same as the myth.

Granted, women here are not walking around in white marshmallow sneakers and peacock-colored track suits. But neither are they wearing Chanel suits with Louis Vuitton handbags. The everyday French woman is somewhere in between, and her look typically reveals her financial status or profession. Younger women, who presumably have less disposable income, mostly look like they have come straight out of H&M, Zara, or La Redoute. Lots of them wear tunics or dresses over pants or leggings, Converse sneakers or brightly colored ballerinas, topped off with either a cell phone or an iPod. Older women are more likely to live up to the stereotype of the parisienne that is peddled abroad, wearing the same suits year after year, sometimes designer, sometimes not, regardless of the season (it does not get very hot here, so it is not unusual to need a jacket or blazer even after springtime is officially over).

Professional women fall somewhere in between these two extremes. And, unlike in the US, people who are well-off, but not necessarily rich, will indulge in some designer items. For example, in the US, most female lawyers of middle-class background like me would never think of buying designer clothing or accessories on a regular basis (unless it was at Filene’s!). But, women of my same background and profession here do shop at designer stores regularly. Of courses, this might have something to do with the fact that there are no Ann Taylor or Banana Republic shops in fancy office neighborhoods here. Instead, we have Bally’s, Celine, and Louis Vuitton. It made for fun window-shopping at least!

Now that I’m no longer a working girl and can spend rainy Saturday afternoons exploring cafes in quirky neighborhoods, I’m seeing a different type of parisienne, one who seems to fit in with her environment just as much as the professional women fit into theirs. For example, when I wrote this, Diego and I were in a bar called Culture Rapide in Belleville. It’s the kind of bar that has a huge Cuban flag draped on one wall, hosts poetry readings (and even gives you a free drink if you read a poem), and where many customers have dreadlocks. The girl seated next to us as I wrote this was wearing pinstriped pants, a striped blue and white shirt left open over a red undershirt, a black bowler hat, and converse sneakers. And as I sat observing her outfit, I noticed that, on the other side of the street, two kids, about 10 and 14 years old, were trying to steal a bike. And somehow, it all made sense.

dimanche 15 juin 2008

Your Ugly Face (book)

This post has nothing to do with life in France, but oh well. I mentioned in my last post that I sometimes spend a lot of time at work waiting for my colleagues to “relancer”. Back in the days when Macrui was in the gilded cage I also used to spend long evenings at home alone. What better way to pass the time than doing random things on the internet. When not writing witty posts for this blog, or watching domestic animals dance the “dutty wine” on YouTube, I like to commune with 75 of my nearest and dearest friends on Facebook.

You can tell I am too old for Facebook by the fact I only have 75 Facebook friends. My young sisters and cousins have upwards of 800. I don’t understand how somebody can actually know 800 people…if I had to make a list of 800 people I know, I’d probably have to include the cashier from Franprix and the guy who begs for change outside the Jules Joffrin metro.

Furthermore, I will confess that my 75 Facebook friends include at least 3 people I’ve never met before in my life, and probably a good 20 that I’ve only met once or twice (but I love you anyway, if you’re reading this). I’ve turned down friend requests from people whose names I didn’t even recognize. Maki apparently accepts them. I think that Nigerian guy who wants to wire me 60 million dollars is on her Facebook.

As a result, I have spent hours keeping up with the musical career of a girl I met at my step brother’s wedding (I’m not sure I actually remember her, but she seems to remember me and is a very fine singer).
I’ve stared awestruck at stunning pictures of Afghan villages taken by a friend of my cousin’s (that I’ve met three, maybe four times) who is now in the military in Afghanistan and is quite the photographer.
I’ve browsed the iTunes list of some girl I met at a party three months ago and haven’t seen or heard from since, but is into some pretty funky trance-house music.
I’ve received numerous requests, most of them from people I temped with seven years ago, to sign up for applications with names like “hug me”, “flirt with me” or “tell me how much you think I’m worth; buy me!”.

On the plus side, I have managed to find some long lost friends on Facebook and am now back in touch with people I knew in high school and college. I also get to see (and comment) on pictures posted by friends and share mine with them. Besides, the real lives, loves and travels of my almost-friends are frankly more interesting than most of what’s on television in this country.

mercredi 11 juin 2008

Relancer, Nickel and Yes.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed based on Maki’s last post, things have been a bit hectic chez Makietdiego lately, which explains why we’ve had other things on our minds than posting on the blog. I have my own “big news” brewing: or then again maybe not, so I’ll keep you in suspense for now. Apologies to our loyal readers and to the random people who get sent here from Google (no I don’t know how you dial a toll free number from a public telephone in France). Hopefully things will be back to calm and normal soon. Oh, and big up whoever is reading this in South Korea, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Google Analytics rules! You also realize that by reading this blog you are legally bound to let me crash on your couch when I visit your town/country/tropical island paradise. Just thought you should know. Please encourage all your friends who live in tropical island paradises to check out the blog.

But enough with the personal business: the purpose of today’s post is to teach you a few French expressions that I’ve picked up from my colleagues at work.

1) Relancer: Literally means to re-launch. The real meaning is more like pestering somebody to do something. I hear this one every day at work. See, I’m really not that busy. That’s not because I don’t have a good deal of work to do. It’s because I’m waiting for various of my colleagues to provide feedback/input/contributions to the projects, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. All my colleagues seem to be much busier than I am (never a good sign), or at least far to busy to get around to what I need them to do. Of course, I then have to pass the work on to other colleagues who are waiting for me. So whenever they ask me what the status is, and I answer “I’m waiting for Francois/Pierre/Claude to send me their documents”, they will tell me “il faut que tu relances”. In other words, you have to go pester Francois/Pierre/Claude or otherwise they’ll never get around to you. There seems to be an awful lot of relancer-ing going on in my office.

2) Nickel: A particular favorite of my immediate supervisor, this word means, in the slang sense, well done or perfect. When I do a good job, my supervisor tells me “c’est nickel” which is better than “who's a good boy?”, I suppose.

3) Yes?: You know this one. Actually I don’t hear this one so much at work, but pretty much everywhere else. Shopkeepers and waiters are especially fond of it. Notice the interrogatory mark at the end. This should make it clear that this word is not used here as an affirmative response to a question, but rather as a brief and grunted “what do you want?”. For example, you’ll walk into a shop and the person behind the counter will glance up at you, give you a look that asks “why are you interrupting my reading of this celebrity gossip tabloid?” and then say “yes?”. Why they say it in English, I have no idea. At first I thought they only said it to me because I looked foreign, but no, it’s said all the time to everyone. Maybe the French believe that monosyllabic grunts sound somehow classier in English than in French. To me, it sounds about as pretentious and ridiculous as the cashier at Publix/Safeway/Tesco* saying “oui?”

*note that this blog is multi-region friendly. If I knew the names of major supermarket chains in South Korea, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates I would include them, too, but alas I do not.

vendredi 6 juin 2008

Looking Ahead

I know that it seems like Diego writes most of the posts on this blog. That’s probably because, well, he does. The good news is that after next Friday, I’ll be joining the ranks of the chômeurs (unemployed) and will have lots of time to soak up Paris in the springtime and write. I’m not sure what I’ll do next professionally, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

On another bit of good news, I got my 10-year residency card yesterday, so I am no longer a sans papier. It feels very liberating to know we can stay here even if I am an unemployed bum. Diego, however, is concerned about the power dynamics in our relationship now that he can’t threaten to report me to la Migra. After all, isn’t the threat of deportation what every good marriage is based on? I’m sure that’s what kept gramps and grandma together for over 60 years.

Have a good weekend everyone!

dimanche 1 juin 2008

Just another day in the Village

To begin with, I lost my golden opportunity for a Sunday morning lie-in thanks to our next-door neighbor’s loud music at 10 a.m. The walls are so thin he may as well be playing it in our bedroom. In an earlier post, Maki mentioned how our neighbor was fond of playing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” repeatedly. Well, his taste in music has moved on, but alas, not his penchant for repetition. His fave is now song called “Merci, Merci” and we must have heard it five times this morning. I don’t know if those of you who don’t live in Europe realise how long the days are here now (and how short they are in winter). Right now, it’s light out around 6:30 a.m. and at 11 p.m it’s still dusk, but not dark. My biological clock rhythms have shifted completely as a result. Whereas a few months ago I struggled to get out of bed in time for work, I now find I’m wide awake long before the alarm sounds and I fear I’m not getting enough sleep, so I really appreciate any opportunity to still be in bed by 10 a.m. and am particularly vexed by the repeated renditions of “Merci, Merci”. I guess the sleep habits of our building are only as strong as the weakest link.

But anyway, this Sunday’s planned activity was our weekly shopping. Maki and I had decided to check out the open-air market at Barbés, the colourful multi-ethnic neighborhood I have mentioned before where the “juju men” hand out their fliers

According to a guidebook I have, the market is on Sundays. Maki checked on the Internet and also got the impression it was Sunday. Alas, we got there and no market. Turns out it’s only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can’t trust everything you read. So we decided to walk up to the usually open market area in “La Goutte d’Or”, certainly the most exotic part of the neighborhood: a chaotic street scene full of sketchy street hawkers, men in djellabas and women in multicolored African garb with babies slung across their backs -- a scene more reminiscent of Marrakech or Kinshasa than Paris. At one point, I rather forcefully (accidentally, of course) ran into one of the aforementioned African-garbed women. After offering profuse apologies, she begins to excitedly yell something to me about my “chemise” but I couldn’t quite understand through the accent. After I wandered off, I soon realised that there was a big, red, perfectly imprinted lip mark on my shoulder. This leads me to conclude that:
1) Girlfriend gotta lay of the lipstick. I mean, that’s just TOO much
2) Thank God Maki was there to witness the incident, otherwise I don’t know how I would have explained that perfectly shaped kiss on my shoulders.

It only took about 30 seconds for the next bit of weirdness to happen (do I attract this stuff or what?). I have already mentioned the sketchy street hawkers around this neighborhood. There were a bunch of them on this street (and by a bunch, I mean shoulder-to-shoulder) selling counterfeit Dolce & Gabbana belts and Prada sunglasses. Why they all sell the same thing instead of diversifying and finding niche markets is beyond me. Anyway, it was obviously too close for comfort because an altercation promptly broke out, voices were raised, fists started flying and soon there were small fragments of fake Prada all over the pavement. We probably witnessed our neighborhood’s version of a mob turf war. We walked into the “Ed” (“hard-discount” supermarket chain) for shelter from the affray. As we were waiting in line to pay for our Euro 1.35 bottles of wine, the elderly woman in front of us, who is having her items scanned, shows the cashier a little box of sugar cubes and asks her if they are (of all things) a special sweetener for diabetics. The cashier tells the old dear that no, it’s sugar and therefore definitely not a good idea: “go back to aisle 3 and look for your sweetener, don’t worry, we’ll wait for you and you won’t have to wait in line again”. The old dear was apprehensive because she didn’t want to slow down the line, at which point we heard a chorus of clucks and tisks behind us, with several people chiming in” “that’s OK, go get your sweetener, we don’t mind waiting.” “Go on, don’t be silly”. Then, even people who were in different lines chimed in: “the woman has diabetes, we’ll all wait. She should go get the sweetener.” Despite the entire supermarket’s sense of bonhomie, camaraderie and persuasion, there was no moving the old dear and she did not go back for the sweetener, instead looking very frazzled as she packed her groceries into her bag.

It’s moments like these, however, that allow us to feel the real fabric of our community and to make us appreciate living in a “village in the city”.

jeudi 29 mai 2008

Riding Bikes

Remember when you were a kid and discovered that riding your bike meant that you could see a whole lot more of your town than ever before? Suddenly, you could take your allowance and ride your bike to the nearest pizza parlor and order food in a restaurant like a real adult. Well, much the same thing happens here in Paris. Since the city is physically not very big, a bike can really take you places.

Of course, as with many things, the French don’t ride bikes the way Americans do.

In the US, when people ride their bikes, they put on helmets, athletic clothing, and are all geared out with water bottles, clip-on shoes, and bike repair kits. Here, riding a bike is just another mode of transport. And similar to how people in the US do all sorts of things in their cars, people here do all sorts of things on their bikes. I've seen people on their bikes:

(1) talk on the cell phone,
(2) write text messages,
(3) listen to their ipod,
(4) eat a sandwich or an ice cream,
(5) read a map,
(6) haul around large, bulky items, like paint buckets, potted flowers, and toys, and
(7) smoke a cigarette
(8) do two or more of the above at the same time

Here’s an example:

Although I’ve had the camera with me on many occasions, I rarely get to take the pictures of these daring riders, usually because I am on a bike myself. And unlike the French, I have a hard time riding a bike and doing something else at the same time.

The Velib system is amazing, too. Basically, 29 euros a year lets me use any a velib for ½ hour at a time without getting charged. It’s a great way to get to work, especially if you live on top of a big hill like we do, and only really care to ride downhill. Sadly, lots of people have this idea, and getting a bike in the mornings – especially on sunny days – is not always easy.

On the whole, though, I love riding my bike here in a way I didn’t in DC. I’m no longer afraid of cars, since most streets have bike lanes and cars generally know how to behave around cyclists. I no longer bemoan having to wear a hot, sweaty helmet, since I just don’t wear one. And I no longer worry about not being athletic enough to ride a bike, since it’s not really a sporty activity here. Basically, I feel like a kid on a bike, which feels as wonderfully freeing at the age of 34 as it did at the age of 12.

lundi 26 mai 2008

Prix Choc!!!!!!!

When I was in France as a student many, many years ago some of my American classmates remarked wryly that there was no French word for cheap. It’s true. If you want to say something doesn’t cost much in French, you say it’s “pas cher”, which means “not dear”. Even back in 1996, the greenback didn’t get you very far in France, but that’s not the point. The point was that the French are more or less accustomed to paying through the nose for things and the concept of “cheap” is not that ingrained here.

Maki and I have noticed that in shops around Paris they like to advertise items on sale by putting a label that says “prix choc”, usually followed by lots of exclamation points!!!!! So naturally I remarked that for the French, it is indeed shocking to not pay an arm and a leg for something. This last Saturday at our local Monoprix we saw lots of things with “prix choc” but I actually found them shockingly expensive. If these prices are considered low enough to be shocking, then I imagine that a French person would go into cardiac arrest when entering a place like, say, Wal Mart. Luckily for us there’s a Giga Store across the street, which likes to bill itself as “le paradis du pas cher”. Can you imagine that as a slogan: the paradise of the not dear?

OK, enough whingeing about how expensive everything is. It could be worse: it could be London. Besides, when I go back to Miami at the end of June with my Euros I'm sure I'll be living large.

jeudi 22 mai 2008

I Survived Operation Stack, Phase II

Forgive my relative inactivity lately, but I’ve been literally on the road.

I’ve spent most of this week away on a business trip: attending an event in England. Not in London (so don’t be offended if I didn’t call you) but in some tiny little village out in the middle of the proverbial bush. (It's more like flower filled springtime meadows than actual bush, but you catch my drift).

Since we had to carry a lot of heavy equipment back and forth, it was decided that my colleague and I should rent a minivan and drive there and back. ROADTRIP!!! Excellent! I felt like I was a college student all over again. Of course, in the great road trip tradition, my colleague and I stopped at an overpriced highway service area and stocked up on all sorts of greasy, salty and generally unhealthy road trip munchies. And Red Bull, of course. A roadtrip isn’t a roadtrip without Red Bull. They actually don’t have Red Bull in France, they have something called “Dark Dog” instead. To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, you can drink it but it tastes like shit. It does what it needs to do, however, which is keep me awake above the din of the bad music they play on provincial radio stations (I'm happy to report that the 80's are alive and well in Northern France and the English home counties. Austria and Germany, you're not alone!)

Being in England made me realize just what a snob France has turned me into. First thing was the food: I was turning my nose up at some of the microwaved stodge I was being fed (though I admit that I stocked up on yummy English bacon, farmhouse cheddar, Maynard’s wine gums and my secret guilty pleasure: Walker’s prawn cocktail crisps). The portions, too, were a little shocking. Much larger than the ones in France. I’m sure I must have added a few inches to my waistline this week. I can’t image what it will be like to go back to the USA. Cheesecake Factory would probably send me into fits right now. You could feed a French family for a week on a starter from that place.

The results of large portions can be seen, too. I was aghast at the number of overweight people in England. Seriously overweight. Remember, this wasn’t London, it was the provinces. The womenfolk seem fatter, on average, than the men. I think the only thin women I saw during the trip were the hotel’s Eastern European gästarbeiters, who compensate for their good looks with straight-outta-the-Soviet-Bloc surliness and indifference. Even asking for my coffee in Polish the fifth time around didn’t do the trick.

Ok, I know I’m no Adonis, but come on. Whenever you hear a Brit mocking Americans for being fat and eating junk food, rest assured that it’s the pot calling the kettle black.

The most interesting part of the trip, however, was the return journey. I was afraid we’d get stuck in traffic on the M25 (London’s equivalent of the Capital Beltway) but it was all smooth sailing until we got to the M20 headed towards the Channel Tunnel. About 30 miles out of Dover, the motorway turned into (quite literally) a parking lot. At one exit, only trucks were being allowed to stay on the motorway, while all car traffic was being diverted onto the local side roads. It was bumper to bumper on the winding country lanes of South Kent.

The radio was abuzz with news of a strike by French fishermen who had blockaded all the channel ports, keeping all the cross-channel ferries from sailing and causing gridlock in Kent. They repeatedly made it clear that all this botheration (it’s really, really bad out there. Stay at home if you can) was the fault of those dastardly frogs and their bolshy fishermen. At one point I was seriously afraid that our car’s French number plates would provoke some kind of primitive mob justice from all the frustrated motorists stuck on the road behind us.

Then suddenly, the radio DJ’s stopped mentioning the French fishermen and started blaming the traffic on “Operation Stack: Phase II”. None of them bothered explaining what this might be, but every radio station traffic update was going on about “Operation Stack, Phase II” causing “traffic chaos” all across the region. My colleague and I reached the conclusion that this term didn’t need to be explained because everybody in the world (or at least South Kent) except ourselves was already familiar with Operation Stack: Phase II. I was still harbouring a fear that this was some secret code for “Operation hunt down the Frenchies and club them to death like baby seals”.

I began to contemplate the great potential that Operation Stack : Phase II offered as a generic, cover-all excuse. I figured if Maki ever asks me why I didn’t vacuum or take out the garbage: sorry, it’s on account of Operation Stack: Phase II. Why didn’t I complete my assignments at work? Operation Stack: Phase II. Why didn’t I pay my taxes this year? Operation Stack: Phase II. Very hush-hush, you understand: on Her Majesty’s secret service and all that. Need-to-know basis. I could explain, but then I'd have to kill you.

Finally, a kindly radio DJ took pity on us and unveiled the mystery. It had everything to do with the striking French fishermen. Operation Stack is apparently the name given to the process of dealing with road traffic during Channel port closures. In order to avoid all the continent-bound trucks from clogging the ports, a segment of the M20 is closed off to traffic and turned into a giant truck parking lot. Traffic is diverted onto secondary roads for a few miles and then allowed back on the motorway. That way thousands of trucks can wait for their cross-channel ferries without wreaking havoc on the local traffic in Dover, Folkestone, etc. Apparently during long strikes or inclement weather, the trucks can sit there for weeks.

So we’ve already seen that the French deal with the uncertainties of life in their country by resorting to sorcery. The Brits, on the other hand, seem to have this shit down to a science. Cool as cucumbers, those Brits. You have to wonder, though, if there's any equivalent to Operation Stack in France. What do all the Britain-bound trucks do? I'm guessing probably not. That's probably just one of those things: strikes in France cause all kinds of problems in Britain while in France everybody just gets on with their business and hardly notices. The truck drivers probably go find some cafe somewhere and shrug their shoulders. It's kind of like the difference between snow in DC and snow in Chicago. DC gets an inch and shuts down. In Chicago nobody notices.

I still feel somewhat relieved to have survived intact, however. Let me tell you, the atmosphere on some of those roads on Wednesday night was tense, and we were getting some seriously evil looks from the other motorists. There's thousands of years of tribal hatred spanning the English Channel, going back at least as far as William the Conqueror. I don't want to be the spark that rekindles the fire.

mercredi 14 mai 2008

Rolling in my Smart Car

Last weekend we had yet another long weekend with spectacular weather. Maki and I decided to rent a car and take a trip to the countryside. Since we hadn’t made any hotel reservations, we were initially uncertain as to whether to take the whole weekend or to make two day trips, possibly inviting friends along on one of them.

Well, our hands were forced as far as inviting friends out with us because when I arrived at the car-rental agency I was given the keys to a nice-and-cozy Smart for two:

No idea what’s up with the Spanish number plates, but my hat’s off to whoever drove that thing over from Spain.

First observation: the car has pretty much everything it needs to have, but in miniature. Little a/c console, little radio, little glove box, little dashboard. Ironically, the only exception is the oversized ashtray, with cigarette lighter included:

You know you’re in Europe when…

Even the gearbox is tiny, and not very intuitive. Unusually for Europe, it has automatic transmission. I think they just couldn’t manage to fit a manual gearbox. The gearbox has only three settings: forward, neutral and reverse. Forward can be set to fully automatic or to “manual” automatic, which requires shifting gears by pushing the lever forward:

Unfortunately, the “manual” setting is default. To go into full automatic mode, you have to press a small button on the lever. I occasionally forgot and found myself driving around in first gear for prolonged periods. When on the fully automatic setting, I found that gear changes were very jerky.

Asides from that, the car drives fairly well. We got on the motorway and were driving at pretty good speeds, even passing some larger cars. It “feels” like a larger car when driving on the highway: unless the wind is blowing hard, in which case you have to struggle a little to keep it on course.

When we got back to Paris on Monday, we decided to drive out to the DIY store to buy some large pots and plants for our balcony. Amazingly we managed to fit our two selves plus a bunch of stuff in the little Smart. Too bad we didn’t take the camera with us, that would have been a funny picture.

By far and away the best thing about the Smart is that we didn’t have to search long for street parking in our neighborhood when we got back home (as we normally have to do when we drive) because you can easily fit into the tiniest of spaces left between parked cars. You can actually fit two smart cars into the space you would need for one “normal” car.

Well, that's my inner gearhead vented for a while now.

jeudi 8 mai 2008

Just what I need: Driver's License Juju!

Our arrondissement, the 18th, is known to be one of the most ethnically diverse in Paris. This is one of the things Maki and I most enjoy about it. There are really all kinds of people around and lots of cheap, good ethnic food. A few weekends ago we went out for a meal at a Cote d’Ivoirian restaurant, where I had a fish soup that came with the fish scales, head, eyeballs and everything. Very Indiana Jones. “Rootsy”, as a Trinidadian friend of ours would say (this is my official favorite word of the month. I’m managing to sneak it into every other sentence).

Particularly the area around the Barbes Rochechouart metro station has a very exotic feel to it. It has a bit of a seedy reputation, but I’ve never really felt threatened there at all. There’s lots of street life: hawkers of all sorts and you get the feeling that you’re in some sort of African bazaar. Among the “mealie ladies” flogging corn-on-the-cob “maïs, maïs, maïs”, and the sketchy looking dudes selling Marlboros and counterfeit Dolce Gabbana belts, there are a bunch of people handing out advertisements like the one below:

I’m starting to build a small collection of these.
Monsieur Sakho is what is known locally as a “marabout”. Those of you in Miami might recognize that as a “santero”. For the rest of you: a witch doctor or juju man. In this bold piece of advertising, Monsieur Sakho promises to “resolve all problems: don’t hesitate to contact me whatever your problem, there is always a solution. If you want to be loved or if your partner has left you for somebody else, that’s my specialty. You will be loved and your partner will come back to you. I will build a perfect understanding between you based on love. He or she will run after you like a dog behind its master.” Hmmm, like a dog behind its master, eh? Monsieur Sakho sounds like a kinky devil. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Even more interesting, below that he advertises his services in the fields of “marriage, luck, success, exams, contests, business, drivers license”. Did you catch that last one? Drivers licenses! You may recall from my post last week about how difficult it is to get drivers licenses over here that I’m having quite a hard time with it myself. Well, now I know that that whatever my problem, there is always a solution. I now understand how the local people manage to get around bureaucratic hassle in this country: sorcery! Instead of going to the US Embassy and calling my high school, I should have gone to see Monsieur Sakho. Next time, I’ll know. I wish I had known about Monsieur Sakho when I lived in DC, he might have got me out of paying some parking tickets.

lundi 5 mai 2008

The land that 1990 forgot

Last Thursday was a public holiday here in France (so is next Thursday and the Monday after that: it’s not really that we have so many, it’s that they come in bunches) and like many people here, we took Friday off as a “pont” (bridge) and took a quick trip out of town. We certainly needed a little change of scenery. We found a good deal with flights and hotel to Munich, so there we went.

First impressions: I have to say that Munich seems like a great “guys” destination: the sort of place you’d go for a stag weekend. The city is most famous for beer and cars. These last four days I have been eating a LOT of swine, drinking a LOT of beer and hauling a LOT of ass on the autobahn. (Well: as much ass as one can realistically haul in an Opel Corsa). My overgrown boy’s heart feels content. I fear karma for this trip will be that next long weekend we’ll go someplace like Milan where I’ll have to look at shoes and handbags all weekend.

On Friday we had a rental car and drove around the Tyrolean alps and visited Innsbruck as well as the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein (only saw it from the outside, though, as the lines were worse than Disneyland). The alpine scenery on a cloudless day really was so stunning that it was kitsch. There were even flowery springtime meadows serving as foreground to the snow capped peaks crowned by a deep blue sky. If you saw a picture of what we were seeing hanging on somebody’s living room wall, you’d cringe. I almost felt embarrassed taking pictures. See what I mean?

Throughout our trip, Maki began to notice and point out lots of people with real 1980’s style hairdos. Women with big puffy hairspray ‘dos and men with rawkin blond mullet-type thingies or whatever they’re called. As we drove around on Friday, I realized that it isn’t just the local hairstyles that are stuck in the 80’s, but the local radio stations, too. A scan of the airwaves gave one the choice between Spandau Ballet, the Culture Club, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, and even Debbie-flipping-Gibson (I don’t think I’ve even heard her name uttered since I was in high school) with the only variety offered by the occasional station playing the real “oldies” from the 1970’s. Can I say, they LOVE Boney M over in Deutschland. Yes, Boney M. Rah-rah Rasputin. I bet the mere mention of their name is as much of a blast from the past for you as it was for me. Oh, and I can inform you that Falco (Rock me Amadeus) is
firmly entrenched in the pantheon of Austria’s national heroes. He’s better known and loved over there than the Terminator Ah-nuld himself.

As if that wasn’t enough, I started to notice a truly 80’s flashback phenomenon everywhere: punks. No, I don’t mean Goths or Emos, I’m talking real-live actual punks, like with brightly colored Mohawks, leather jackets, Doc Martens and pierced noses. Yes, the sort of punks that used to roam the streets of London before 1989 or whenever it was that punks magically morphed into Goths and Emos (and relocated to suburban shopping malls) in the rest of the civilized world. The really interesting thing is that most of these punks were not aging bitter-enders trying to hold on to the remnants of their youthful rebellion. No, these were actually young kids: teenagers. Most of them probably weren’t even alive during punk’s heyday.

We didn’t get the impression that this was some kind of retro revival, either. Maki did a year abroad in Germany when she was a college student and she seems to recall a penchant for 1980’s fashion even back then. No, it’s more like the 80’s just never really ended in Germany and Austria. I can’t really explain this phenomenon. Maybe their civilization peaked sometime around 1987 and they’re trying to hold on to that vibe for as long as they can, kind of like those hippies in Berkeley who never quite came to terms with the passing of the 60’s. The end result of our trip is that I need to detox and diet for the next week or two, and I have a sudden urge to download random crappy music to my IPod (…I know this much is TRUE, oo-oo-oo-ooooooo)