mercredi 30 avril 2008

Bush, the French DMV,my grades in high school and how all these things are connected

I graduated high school in 1990. I remember needing my high school transcript to gain admission into college that same year, but to the best of my recollection, that is the last time I ever needed it. Well, skip forward 18 years and I’ve needed it once again: this time to be allowed to drive in France. Logically, we wouldn’t want to have any high school dropouts on the roads over here: it’s well known that dumbasses cause accidents, after all.

I should start off by saying that I don’t really need a driver’s license over here since I don’t own a car. On the rare occasions when I rent one, my US license will do. But ever since I found out that Florida and France have a license reciprocity scheme, I figured I might as well get one, knowing that European drivers’ licenses are notoriously difficult and expensive to obtain. Getting a drivers license here involves paying many hundreds of euros for many hours of drivers’ training, and I’ve met many a foreigner who has been driving in their own country for ages who has failed the driving test over here. The testers here apparently get an almost sexual thrill from flunking foreigners. According to a friend of mine, it’s all a racket to feed more business to the “auto-ècoles”.

So the idea that I could just trade my Florida license (which a properly trained pomeranian could probably obtain without too much difficulty) for one of these precious and pricey items instinctively seemed like a good deal.

The adventure begins when I go down to the “prefecture” (same place we go to for our immigration papers: this is a highly centralized country), wait for a while in line and explain my situation to the clerk. This was back in February. He then gives me an appointment to come back in April and gives me a list of all the papers I will need to bring with me. This list includes all the usual “attestations”, including, of course, my electric bill. That’s all standard stuff. The more complicated part was that I needed: a certified translation of my US license as well as an “attestation” stating when I obtained my first license in the state of Florida. (the date my current license was issued is irrelevant). The man told me I could get this “attestation” from the US embassy. I tried to explain to him that the US embassy, a part of the federal US government, was unlikely to be able to certify licenses issued by the government of the state of Florida, which is, for all intents and purposes, just as administratively “foreign” as the Kingdom of Tonga. Here in France, of course, everything is centralized so the gummint is the gummint is the gummint.

So I call the US embassy to see what kind of stamped, official-looking document I can get from them. I’m of the theory that any document that looks official and has lots of stamps on it will do the trick with the French bureaucrats. The US embassy tells me the best they can do is have me write a sworn affidavit and notarize it for me. Good enough, thinks I, so I take a morning off of work and go stand in line with all the Haitian visa seekers, empty my pockets, hand over my cellphone to the biggest, meanest looking Filipino I’ve seen in my life, go through metal detectors, assure everybody that I’m not Osama bin Laden and I don’t have a bomb so I can then sit in a room with a third-world dictatorship-esque picture of El Presidente Bush staring down at me from the wall. It wouldn’t be so creepy if there wasn’t another one of Cheney right next to it. His eyes follow you around the room just like the Mona Lisa’s.

It turns out that the US embassy actually has a special form for this purpose (wish they had told me that on the phone). Basically I get to translate my own drivers license into French and the kind State Department officials will put a little stamp with an eagle on it, all for the low, low price of 30 euros (note to self: nice gig if you can get it). Among the fields to fill on the form is: date of issue of initial license. Now like I said, I don’t know the date of issue of my first license and it doesn’t say it anywhere on my current license, but oh well, I assume it was sometime near my 16th birthday, so I pick a random date in 1989. Voila, the date I just pulled out of my backside is officially Bushisized and I’ve got my translation and my attestation all in one shot.

I take another late morning from work to go to my appointment at the prefecture. I hand over all my prized documents and the lady shakes her head and says “non, non, non”. In a World War II movie, this is the bit where I would hear “Ihre Sokumenten sind nicht in Ordnung” and I’d be dragged away by goons. “How can you prove that you’ve actually been in the country for more than six months?” she queried. I point to my six month old electric bill. “Yes, but that only proves that you’ve had an apartment here, not that you’ve been living here. You could just be keeping an apartment here while living elsewhere.” Of course: doesn’t everybody summer in Paris and winter in Mustique? And then the rather more curious “how can you prove that you were living in Florida on the date that you obtained your first license?” (yes, remember? The date I made up) I didn’t dare ask what relevance this has to anything. Maybe I just popped by the Florida DMV during a layover between Mustique and St. Tropez. The conclusion is that I need to come back with: six months’ worth of payslips proving that I’ve been working in France and proof that I was a resident of the state of Florida on February 2, 1989 in the form of a high school transcript. Kafka would be having a field day right about now. You couldn’t make this shit up if you tried.

Since I’ve only been at my job for two months, this means I’ll have to wait four months until my next visit. On the plus side, I called up my high school and had an official transcript in my mailbox three days later. Thank you Gulliver Prep and the United States Postal Service. Maki decided to get her transcript, too, just in case, but she went to (gasp!) public school so she had to mail them a dollar bill (I’m 100% serious) and still hasn’t heard anything back. My parents will be glad to know that they got their money’s worth sending me to the Junior Colombian Cartel Country Club.

dimanche 27 avril 2008

R.I.P. Trixie Q.E.P.D

I was going to post something funny today, but we're both a bit bummed.

For those who knew and loved Trixie, we're sorry to inform you that he died this past Saturday.
May his soul fly free.

Para aquellos que conocieron a Trixie:

Lamentamos informarles que murió el sábado pasado. Maki y yo estamos tristes :-(

Que su alma vuele libre.

jeudi 24 avril 2008


Como podrán darse cuenta, últimamente nuestros mensajes de blog tienen mucha foto linda y poco texto. ¿Quien quiere ponerse a bloguear estando los días tan lindos? Mucho más vale salir a caminar, a andar en bicicleta o a visitar los jardines de Monet. Desde que los días están mejorándose, Maki y yo estamos en plena vida deportiva y social. Hemos florecido con la primavera. Sentimos como que estamos en una luna de miel con nuestra vida en Paris. Tan así es la cosa que a veces los lunes, despues de haber tenido un fin de semana lleno de actividades divertidas, sentimos los dos una especie de bajón como el que se siente típicamente al volver de las vacaciones.

En mi caso particular (Diego), se amplifica esta mejora en la calidad de vida con el hecho de que encontré trabajo. Si bien esto quiere decir que no tengo el tiempo para pasear por la ciudad como tenía antes, ahora no siento la presión que sentía antes entonces siento que puedo aprovechar más tranquilamente el tiempo que tengo. El romance con Paris es total por estos momentos. Me imagino que ya pasará, pero a veces camino por las calles y pienso: "En que belleza de ciudad me tocó vivir".

Hoy te tarde tuve uno de esos momentos. Tengo un viaje bastante largo desde mi trabajo a casa. Como quería hacer un poco de ejercicio, me bajé en Place de la Republique y me fui caminando hasta casa desde allí. Decidí tomar por un camino nuevo que no conocía. Al pasar un rato, llego a esta iglesia que ven aquí, detrás de ese jardín divino con las flores blancas de los cerezos (creo que son cerezos).

Me puse a pensar: en cualquier otra ciudad del mundo, esta iglesia sería un monumento conocidísimo. Todo el mundo sabría cual iglesia es y seguro que vendrían turistas a verla. Aquí en Paris, es una iglesia más: totalmente anónima. Yo, por lo menos, no tenía la menor idea como se llamaba la iglesia. Me fijé en mi "indispensable" (libro de mapas de la ciudad) y descubrí que se trata de St. Vincent de Paul. A mi no me suena (el santo sí, la iglesia no). ¿A ustedes? Seguro que la mayoría de los Parisinos que no viven en el barrio no deben tener idea que está allí y dudo que la visiten muchos turistas. Cuando se vive rodeado de tanta belleza, nadie se fija en una iglesia más.

dimanche 20 avril 2008


We spent yesterday in a town about 40 km away from Paris called Giverny. Abby, Flavia, and Jamie went with us (actually, Flavia organized the trip, so we owe her a big thanks for the wonderful day!).

We took the train to the nearest town, Vernon, and there rented bicycles to get to Giverny, which is a pleasant 5 km ride away.

We first visited Monet’s house and the gardens. Monet lived in Giverny for over 40 years and his gardens there were a source of inspiration for his paintings.

See if you recognize this one:

Fancying myself a bit of a cross between Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe, I took a lot of pictures of the flowers in Monet’s gardens. Here are a few of them:

After touring Monet’s house, we decided to bike around the town and along the river.

Because it was raining around the time that we got hungry, we had our picnic underneath an ancient bridge on the banks of the Seine. One of the local specialties is cider, and Diego seemed to think it was quite tasty:

It was so nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of Paris and have a country get-away. As you can see, even the locals are friendlier once you leave the big city.

mercredi 16 avril 2008

Biking and jazz last weekend

We keep meaning to make our blog more photo-ey, since, you know, a picture is worth a thousand words and writing is like, hard work.

But we're not really the photographer types and we nearly always forget to take our camera when we go do fun things.

 This last weekend we remembered to take a few, however.

It was a great weekend.  The weather was lovely.  Saturday we did a grand tour of Paris by bicycle, starting off at the Musee d'Orsay, where we saw some impressionist paintings and had lunch at the very impressive looking restaurant, where this cute picture was taken by the nice Japanese tourists in the next table:

Then on Sunday night, we went to a jazz concert to see a friend of a friend of ours from New York who sings jazz.  Her name is Aimee Allen and she has a great voice. We had already seen her in concert (at the very same place) back in November.  Check out her website.  And here is a picture of Aimee singing, yes I know the quality is not great, but I had no Japanese tourists to outsource the job to this time:

mardi 15 avril 2008

Le boulot

I've been at my new job since the beginning of March, so that's nearly a month and a half already.  Now given the stories about people who get sacked for blogging about their job, I'm not going to put any revealing information about the company or my colleagues, but, being the only non-native francophone in the office, there's a few interesting cultural observations I can make:

First of all, following on my earlier blog post about the protesters in front of the building: they're still at it. Yes, they've been going at it for a month and a half...non-stop, more or less. They aren't there every single day, but most days they're there. Sometimes it's a huge crowd making lots of noise and hanging around for many hours (they suddenly show up in a huge band, I've even seen the riot squad following them) sometimes it's just a modest little group that barely can get a chant together for an hour or two. Anyway, they obviously haven't got what they want, but one must admire their stamina.

Second: I get so many paid holidays it's sick. I'm not going to say how many because if I did, you'd hate me.

Third: I had heard that offices weren't "sociable" here in the way that they are in the U.S. It's true that my colleagues don't really do happy hours or socialize much with each other outside of work, but we do all go have lunch together (not the whole company, but at least my department does, occasionally with some of the people from other departments). We usually go to the little cafe across the street where we have a proper sit-down meal. We nearly always have the special of the day, which will typically be something like a quarter chicken with green beans and rice. My French is, naturally, improving dramatically. The "boys" (yes, we're mostly male in my department) like to talk about the usual things guys talk about over lunch: sports, girls and off-color jokes. It's still a bit of a challenge to follow it all, and I still tend to tune out for most of it, but I'm now managing the occasional bit of non-faked laughter.  We also tend to meet and have a little chat in the office kitchen for our morning and afternoon coffee breaks, but asides from that, people don't really chat by the water coolers or hang out in each other's offices. There's not a lot of long meetings, either (which is a relief). The rest of the day, people are pretty much sitting at their desks and working (or maybe playing Tetris for all I know, but they're definitely not chit-chatting).

Fourth: Every morning when people get to work, they go around the whole office and greet everybody. I'm not just talking about waving and saying "bonjour" as they walk by. No, they walk into every individual office and/or cubicle and shake the hand of the occupant, saying "bonjour" and occasionally "ca va?" . At first it struck me as weird and I didn't do it. I asked one of my colleagues and he told me: you don't really have to, but it gives a good impression if you do. So now I, like the others, do a little morning tour of the office, greeting everybody along the way, including Zebigboss himself.

Fifth: We're not at a cubicle farm, there's proper offices. Some of them individual, some of them shared between two people. The windows open, and it seems everybody likes to leave them open a crack to let the air circulate. I think that's a fine habit, but there's no need to do it when it's freezing cold outside. Also, it seems people don't like to turn their lights on. Most of my colleagues like to work in the relative dark...only late in the day when it's getting darker outside do they turn on the lighting in their offices.

Sixth: The 35 hour workweek is a bit of a myth. My hours are fairly normal (9:30 to six), but still more than 35 hours and I know that my colleagues do occasionally stay in the office reasonably late. I've stayed till 8 o'clock once or twice and there were still people there. I think that's part of the reason why I get so many holidays: the company gets around the 35 hour restrictions by offering us a few extra holidays (and the standard here is quite generous by US standards).

Seventh: What I pay in taxes here is not much more than what I used to pay in the US, roughly the same if you figure DC local taxes, but here I get free good health care and lots of other benefits. Nice, isn't it?

vendredi 11 avril 2008

So what do you do?

I've noticed that the types of careers that people have here are different than in the US. For example, when discussing Carla Bruni's past exploits, the public and the press bring up her affair with the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone described as a philosopher in the US. Instead, someone like Enthoven would probably be described as a philosophy professor. In the US, in other words, Enthoven would be defined by his occupation, teaching students. In France, however, the philosopher is defined by his role in society.

Maybe the French are just really into their philosophy. Bernard-Henri Lévy, for example, is something of a pop star. And while lots of metro riders are reading the latest Harlan Coben bestseller, a not insignificant number can be seen with books by Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Diego thinks that the metro riders brushing up on their philosophy are posers trying to look smart, but I'm not so sure. Let's just say that I was definitely a little self-conscious when I pulled out a romance novel on the metro one morning (at least I was reading it in French!). I started to wonder whether my fellow commuters were also half-expecting me to pull a Big Mac out of my purse. Oh well, at least I wasn't, like one fellow commuter, reading the Marquis de Sade's finest!

dimanche 6 avril 2008

Velo & chocolat

Here's one for the quirky local commerce file: we recently visited this bicycle shop/hot chocolate bar. Those two things go together like a horse and carriage.

As the weather has started to get nicer (on some days more than others: it's freezing and hailing as I type this), Maki and I have taken out our bikes, which came with our move from DC. Unfortunately the bikes suffered some minor damage on the way out (the tires needed to be replaced) so we found this bike shop not too far from our place, on the bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement. That area used to be quite run-down and seedy, but is in the process of gentrification (yuppies are known in this country as bobos - bourgeois bohemians, and these are the kind of people who pay inflated rents to live in the ghetto over here just like they do in DC, although the chances of gettin' a cap busted in yo' ass are probably statistically lower here than in Logan Circle). The bassin is a body of water that is an extension of the canal St. Martin (a canal that runs through the center of paris and still carries some barges and tour boats) and on weekends one sees rowing crews racing on it and small children sailing little remote-control boats. There's a cinema and a couple of nice cafes along the side of it and it's quite pleasant.

But anyway, back to Velo & Chocolat, they sell bikes, hot chocolate, organic crunchy granola type of fruit juices and most important, they also have a bicycle repairman, so it's very handy. His rates are very reasonable, but the work ethic is relaxed to say the least, which is where the hot chocolate comes in handy - you'll probably have to drink quite a few before they get around to you. If they let you, that is. Yesterday I went back to get something else fixed on my bike. When I got there, the entire staff of two was sitting down to lunch. After a few minutes of hanging around, one of them deigned to lift his head and ask me what I wanted. He then told me it would take a while for them to get around to it. I told him that's ok, I'll wait. He clearly didn't like that idea: way too much pressure to have the customer looking at you while you have your lunch, eat your dessert, drink your coffee, smoke your cigarette, etc. He told me to go away and come back in an hour, so I went to have a greasy doner kebab. But hey, the total bill came to 5 Euros, so who's complaining?

The best part of the day, though, was when I got the bike back to my house and chained it to one of the bike racks down the street. I was having a hard time removing the front wheel, so a "committee" of the patrons from the bar across the street (who were, of course, outside having a cigarette) started yelling technical advice to me (did you disconnect the brakes? The nut is too tight, you've got to loosen it) and one guy even came over to have a go at it himself. Next time my bike needs repairs maybe I'll just take it down to the bar, they've obviously got expertise.

jeudi 3 avril 2008

Sunday Dinner with Jim Haynes

A few weeks ago we went to a Sunday dinner at Jim Haynes' studio in the 14th arrondissement. For the uninitiated, Haynes is one of those rare people who lived and loved in the 60s and 70s and who did not afterwards buy a station wagon and a ranch home in the 'burbs. Instead, he spent his time doing more important things, like meeting beautiful lovers while globe-trotting, creating a World Passport issued by a World Government that a friend used to get out prison in Bangkok, and writing his manifesto, Workers of the World, Unite and Stop Working: A Reply to Marxism.

Every Sunday, Haynes hosts dinner for 50 – 80 people, not necessarily his closest friends, making sure that all the guests feel included and are having a good time meeting others. The concept is simple: call or email for a reservation and arrive promptly at 8 pm. Please do not bring wine or flowers, although a donation of 25 euros is requested (more is okay too, but so is less).

The night we went, Diego and I met an Irish journalist, a couple of American expats living in Spain but traveling through France, long-term British expats, a couple of writers (including an erotica writer from Miami and a Finnish writer attending the book fair), a few students, and some native Parisians.

In DC, Diego and I often attended events where we did not know the other guests, but these events were typically full of lawyer-lobbyist-politico-diplomats. In contrast, at Haynes' dinner and in Paris generally, we meet lots of people who don't spend the evening dropping names that are supposed to sound impressive, who don't ask about your job when they first meet you, and who like to talk about ideas and experiences unrelated to their careers.

Now that we've been here a while, I find it jarring to meet other Americans and have them ask me the quintessential cocktail question, "So, what do you do?" It's a question that really will only elicit an uninspired response on my part, and is often followed by unimaginative barbs about my profession. My all-time favorite is "But you seem too nice to be a lawyer!" As if being nice is necessarily a good thing! Besides, if we get a paper cut, do we not bleed too? I think from now on, I'll start using answering that question with "Nothing too dodgy," a response Diego used when he first moved back to the US.

At any rate, I've totally digressed from the point of this post. Basically, if you are looking for an interesting adventure next Sunday night in Paris and don't want to have to answer typical networking cocktail questions, give Jim Haynes a call.