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)