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.