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.