Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Score: England vs. France

This isn't a post about the Rugby World Cup. In fact, as they're not in the same pool and playing in a mediocre fashion, they'll be lucky if they get to meet each other later on.

No, this is the traditional wrap-up post, being written as I eat a shitty Subway sandwich for dinner, sitting at work - the result of going on vacation just before a big midnight product launch. But for now, I get to take a few moments to recount some holiday bliss.

Long known for boiled "meat and two veg," England has come a long way culinarily. London is one of the most international cities in the world, and now hosts some of the finest restaurants in the world. And while all the kebabs and Indian food and fusion cuisine have really elevated the status of food in Britain, all the competition has made even the stalwart pub meals become that much better. Whether it's chicken tikka masala, shawarma, or a full English breakfast in front of you, it's hard not to get a fresh, satisfying meal just about anywhere in the UK.

That said, a simple slab of cheese from the corner store, a pastry bought at the train station, or a coffee just about anywhere in France will make anyone lament even their finest food choices at home. While I enjoyed every meal in England and consumed it with gusto, not once did I curl my toes and roll my eyes back into my head as much as I did with any French meal. The fact that I'm putting a Subway sandwich into my digestive tract while a Parisian côte de boeuf is still lodged somewhere further along is probably insulting to the French people and their way of life. Because I think food is life there.

Points Awarded to: France

Winemaking may be sacred in France, and it'd be astonishing - perhaps even illegal - to get a poor house red for just a few euros, but even the biggest wine snob has to admit that we have a greater variety and range in California alone. Don't get me wrong - the Imperial sampling I had at Moët & Chandon was about the best sparkling wine I've ever had, and the Côtes du Provence I had with one dinner was a brilliant suggestion on the waiter's part.

But England... damn, bring on the beer! Just the fact that every pub has real ale on cask makes it worth a trip across the pond alone. And while a couple of my favorite beers are French (Kronenbourg 1664 and their Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs white... yes, that's a beer), very few French drinking experiences hold a candle to sitting in a warm pub and enjoying a few pints in good company.

Points Awarded to: England

I found it damn near impossible to go anywhere of interest either in London or Paris that wasn't crawling with tourists. I still cringe at my mental soundbites of hideous American accents exclaiming, "We sure ain't in Kansas anymore!" or "Wow, that building's gotta be over a hundred years old!" (Try over 800, jackass.) But there's a reason people in shorts, sandals, and tube socks swarm all over Europe. It's because as Eddie Izzard says, it's where the history comes from. And it's all very breathtaking.

When you take into account that the cathedral you're staring at is from the 1100's, that the romantic bridge you're strolling across affords a brilliant view on either side of the river, or that the building before you is one of the great architectural marvels of the modern age, you can't begrudge anyone else for going to check it out. Even if it spoils your perfect little experience.

And for all these things - history, beauty, and architecture - both England and France are winners. And they both get demerits for the irksome number of irritating chavs, bothersome con artists, and general scumbags hanging around. But for the first time on a trip, I've factored in another variable: Romance. Being that this was my first big trip with a significant other, I found myself constantly thinking, "Wow, this place certainly is romantic." Most of the time in France.

Points awarded to: France

Getting Around
Laugh all you want about Socialism, but London and Paris have both benefited largely by having mayors of such persuasion. Since my last visit to either, both are criss-crossed by an impressive number of dedicated bike lanes, and as such, more bicyclists. This has eased congestion greatly in the metropolitan centers and has made it easy to get places while enjoying the great views on tap. And in smaller places - like Exeter and Epernay - biking is already commonplace and easy to do. Largely because the areas are so small to begin with. This alone makes Europe heaven for a regular cyclist as myself, whereas in California, we're persectued by the authorities. (See recent LAist stories about incidents in my former stomping grounds of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

The metro systems in both capitals are also legendary. They get you around with ease, usually with little delay, and if you do it right (i.e. getting a transit card like the locals do), cheaply. Sure, both are prone to the occasional transit strike, but I'll take that over gridlock any day of the year. I'd have to say, though, that London has an edge because of its more straightforward metro layout and hilarious station names. (I'm talking to you, Cockfosters.)

Points awarded to: England - by a slight margin

Paris has this certain... I hate to say it... je ne sais quoi that envelops you everywhere you go. Despite longstanding rumors to the contrary, the people are friendly, every other corner looks charming, and as mentioned before, it's just f'ing romantic - as if frozen in time. London, even with all its history and pagaentry, is downright modern and dynamic. There's an energy about the city that spreads to the rest of the country (with beer prices dissipating as the radius grows) and it's infectious. Both are at the forefront of style and fashion, not unlike an American metropolis like New York, but have a crazy amount of history and tradition behind them that dusts anything on our side of the Atlantic.

And both England and France have played host to once-in-a-lifetime memories for me. Whether it was attending a culturally unique wedding ceremony, shouting along at a Rugby World Cup match, cycling through vineyards, or having an extravagant snack in the lap of luxury, I've had some amazingly memorable experiences in both countries on this trip alone - nevermind past sojourns to either.


Ok, call it a cop-out, but it's really hard to choose between these two great countries. Every time I start thinking, "Damn, France was really something," I remember something about England that was equally as cool. And although I'm partial to England, having lived there as a child and still consider it "home" in a way, there are things about it that irk me beyond belief. As the immigration officer at Heathrow said as she opened my passport to stamp it - "Been here a few times, have we?" But as much as I've done England to death, I still haven't done it all, and would just as eagerly book a flight there as I would to France.

Hell - I salivate at any opportunity to leave the country.

And although I've really enjoyed my years as a lone wolf traveler, and even the group trips, I'm looking forward to all the future opportunities with my true love.


Er, I mean Alannah.

(Don't give me that look! She wouldn't be with me if she didn't love my jerkwad comments.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Eating My Words

Regular readers might remember my tirade on Virgin Atlantic from my last trip across the pond back in January.

I take it back.

This time around, the check-in staff were great. If a bit slow and anal retentive. Hell, they acknowledged that because I'm a well-coiffed, attractive, intelligent man that I deserved a better seat. That and I got there nice and early.

Before the upgrade, they kept my chosen seat assignment, even though I didn't get to online check-in right when it opened.

And god bless their flight attendants. Especially the two who swooned when I told them I wanted to surprise Alannah with a delivery of a chilled half bottle Moët & Chandon imperial rosé to her seat. Hot chicks swooning at my actions will guarantee my travel dollars. Unfortunately, they didn't have any as the in-flight gift option is only available for pre-orders (duly noted!), but they were profusely apologetic.

And while I may sing the praises of VA's hot flight attendants on a regular basis, there is no gal hotter than my gal... whom it turns out also wanted to surprise me with a bottle of champagne onboard.

She's also the hotness because she puts up with my ridiculous on-board text messages.

Still, there's one part of my Virgin rant from earlier in the year that I won't take back.
Fuck them for lowering their prices and filling their planes. What was once a cool flying experience is now déclassé and cramped. Whereas VA was a refuge for the travel savvy, it's now full of the same space-taking, inconsiderate mouthbreathers you find on every other airline. You know who I'm talking about.

And this time I'm talking about the fat, burnt out, pseudo-hippy whore in the velveteen dress with the Mona Lisa (I shit you not) printed across her huge, pendulous, and frankly disgusting breasts. Before you squeeze into such an abomination of an outfit, think of the innocent eyes that might have to gaze upon it. Before you wear a sleeveless number, consider the utter lack of aesthetic value of your cheap, prison-quality tattoos. Before you constantly open the shade on the window in our row - the coveted exit row for which we arrive early and pay extra - consider the fact that we are sleeping or watching movies and don't need that bright light shined in our faces just so you can get a view of the wing - the very same view you have from your own window. Before you do a series of stretches and exercises tantamount to a peep show at the Lusty Lady, consider that no one wants to see you bending over, stretching, lunging, or touching your toes while your fat ass is squeezed like so much ground pork into a velveteen sausage casing - and particularly not for extended periods of time. While people are welcome to hang out, stretch, and take a breather in the exit rows and next to the galleys, it is not for you or your horrid little harpie friends to take up my coveted space, rub your disgusting asscheek against my head, nor repeatedly step on my feet thinking that saying, "Oh, sorry!" will make it alright. If you meant it, you wouldn't keep doing it, you disgusting fucking wretch. Your uncouth behavior and generally fetid appearance made dealing with US immigration and customs relatively pleasing. That's how disgusting you are.

Great, now that I've gotten that out of the way, an overall thumbs-up to Virgin Atlantic. Even with the aforementioned miserable fat wretch whore bitch, it's still a far classier airline than any US-run P.O.S.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hangin' in Heathrow

Our flight seems to be a bit late, but that's OK. You can do worse than being stuck in other airports. Although it's shite for check-in and security, Heathrow is heaven for duty free shopping and decent dining.

Although we couldn't quite sit down for a last round of smoked salmon and caviar - we didn't know when our gate would be called - we were able to pick up lots of goodies. I think I bought half a warehouse full of Ted Baker personal care goods, Alannah bought some knicknacks to take home, and I got to try my hand at looking like a London cop.

The other good thing about Heathrow is that they seem to be on contract with BBC. That means whilst waiting in the departure gate room, you watch a big flatscreen TV with BBC news. Not the horridly sensationalistic, Fox News-owned Sky News that many other places have on tap. You don't know how refreshing it is to hear real news instead of crap about missing "Maddy's" parents or the "Brit and Run" incident with Ms. Spears.

I won't miss that.

Anyway, it's about time to board. I'm going to enjoy my ridiculous amount of legroom, about five feedings, on-demand movies, and some red wine. Ciao.

Second Thoughts

So I might have to dump Alannah.

After I spend a bajillion dollars on oysters and champagne last night, and hook us up with First Class on the train to Heathrow, she doesn't wanna spend £379 ea. to upgrade us to Premium Economy on our Virgin Atlantic flight home.

Pfft. I thought what goes around would come around. Hmph. Never mind that you could probably get a round trip fare for almost that much. I just want some reciprocation here...

But she did agree when the nice lady offered us to upgrade to a nice, roomy exit row (6' of legroom!). So maybe we're not quite on the rocks yet.

One Long Day

It's been at least a 12-hour day. My feet hurt. I'm tired. I feel like my stomach's about to burst - but it's all worth it. For today was our last full day of vacation. We're getting ready to pack and I'm about to do online check-in for our flight home, the least fun part of any vacation.

Just before mid-day we went for a full English breakfast at the Cafe la Ville in London's "Little Venice" neighborhood just north of our hotel. It's beautiful, it's peaceful, and above all, largely devoid of tourists.

Attempting to burn off the 32 million calories contained in a full English, we made our way along the Regents Canal toward Camden, a relaxing, quiet stroll occasionally punctuated by cyclists whizzing by or strange noises from the nearby London Zoo.

We walked up to the Camden Lock and it was like setting foot through some sort of magical portal. We went from a dimension of peace and quiet and idyllic sunshine into a world of tourist mobs, pushy vendors, and even more mobs. But then, that's Saturday at Camden Market for you and to be expected. One should also expect creepy guys selling dolls to little girls, ethnic food that's actually ethnic (i.e. not catering to the English palate), and - of course -the biggest f'ing paella in the world.

There's no point in trekking across London without stopping for beer, which is precisely what we did after blowing through the Camden Market crowd. Now Camden is also home to London's goths and metalheads, and that's a bit of the crowd I got to stare at at the World's End, which bills itself as "Possibly the largest pub in the world." I'm not sure about that, but it was big enough to accommodate the stalward beer-drinking crowd, the rugby-watching crowd, and dudes dressed like Captain Jack Sparrow listening to industrial metal crowd.

We chugged our beers and caught the tube down to the Tower Bridge... Our mission: To hit up M Manze, purportedly the oldest and best pie-and-mash (or jellied eels-and-mash) place in all of London. After our walk, we were hungry again, so even the three minute delay in the tube seemed like an eternity.

Eventually we made it to Manze and... they were closing up. Missed it by a minute. DAMN YOU, LONDON UNDERGROUND!!

So we went and consoled ourselves with more beer at Hartley's pub. A modern but cosy place - with free board games and Wi-Fi if you're ever in the neighborhood.

Of course, a day out in London can't be all about consuming beer and walking it off. Sometimes you have to pay homage to your own profession. (I am not a professional drunk, believe it or not.) Back toward the Tower Bridge, we checked out the Design Museum. At £7, it's more expensive than most museums in London - being that the others are generally, umm, free. But the quality of the work on display is well beyond any price tag. It's inspiring, well-presented, and almost makes me look forward to going back to work in a couple of days. Almost.

Speaking of returning to work, this is the last day of a vacation. Why not do it right and, say, do some shopping? And maybe have some champagne and oysters? What the hell! Let's do it! But wait, where can you do both of those things?

That's right. We went shopping and had champagne and oysters at Harrod's.

You see, this is why my gal loves me. This is why she tolerates my checking out other girls. This is why she tolerates my farting in her presence. This is why she tolerates... well, everything about me. Because I take her to do shit like this.

Of course, I'm shooting myself in the foot because she'll probably always expect this now, but she's grounded as well.

How do I know this? Because despite having champagne and motherfucking oysters at Harrod's, she was perfectly happy to cap the night off with a pint, fish & chips, and bringing some beer and multi-flavored crisps back to the hotel room.

Next time I'm going to suggest we bring beer, multi-flavored crisps, and Elizabeth Hurley back to the hotel room. But for the time being, baby steps... baby steps...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Things I Hate About London

It's full of tourists. I know this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but fuck me if this place weren't full of so many clueless, annoying, loud tourists. Even the most hideously touristed parts of Paris weren't as teeming with bigmouthed, spacially unaware American dipshits as just about every part of London I've walked through today.

Pubs close at 11:00. That should be an "enough said," but I'm sure some would point out that there are plenty of bars open later. But still, not being able to get a beer at one that actually looks quiet and quaint because they're traditional, well... some traditions suck.

You can no longer smoke in bars. This is, in theory, a very good thing. In practice, it's horrendous, and I'd rather come out of a bar smelling like a well-worn ashtray than put up with the bullshit Londoners now have to deal with. Now that you can't smoke in restaurants (yay!) or pubs (umm...) everyone goes outside to do it. Good, right? The problem is, I literally mean everyone. So you have pubs with more than their usual capacity trying to get beers, because there are just as many people outside of the establishment puffing away. This blocks the sidewalk. It spills out over the sidewalks and blocks traffic, even on busy streets. And it makes the once enjoyable task of pubcrawling more like the salmon's upstream swim.

Oh well. At least I get to come home to this...

Gettin' Wonky

So we got all dressed up in all our hippest finery, figuring we'd go hit a hot club night in the East End after dinner... I put on my tie. Alannah put on a slinky number and heels. We wielded our Oyster cards for the Underground and got ourselves to hoppin' Soho for a fine dinner.

At the cheapest, rudest Chinese restaurant in town.

Wong Kei - at the tail end of Chinatown - is reputed to be the rudest and least hospitable restaurants in all of London. I've read tale after hilarious tale of people getting kicked out, ordered around, yelled at - you name it. If there's a transgression out there a restaurant's waitstaff can commit upon its patrons, the folks at Wong Kei have probably done it.

No matter. £12 a person for a prix fixe meal featuring a whole mess of things is a good deal. Especially when one of those things is the London Chinese specialty crispy aromatic duck. I'd pay the equivalent of US$25 for just the duck alone. No wonder people put up with the awful seating and lack of atmosphere...

Then again, our service was pretty good - no better or worse than you'd encounter at authentic Chinese spots back home.

Maybe Londoners have different standards of service. Or maybe it just pays to look sharp.

Things I Love About London

Cask ale.

Sitting alongside the River Thames.

World class peoplewatching.

The Tate Modern.

The Tate Modern.

The Tate Modern.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Eat Your Heart Out

So the overconsumption of amazingly good food didn't end when we left Paris.

To the contrary, London is home to some of the finest cuisine around. Yes, British cuisine. But even more so, ethnic cuisine. Take, for example, Patogh - easily my favorite Persian restaurant of all time. And conveniently located exactly three blocks from our hotel.

Now normally I would consider it sacrilegious to have a proper Iranian kebab without rice. But at Patogh, you have to go for the bread. The huge, house made, delicious bread, where one serving is twice as big as your own head.

As the old adage goes, this picture is worth a thousand words. And about 4,000 calories.

Across the Channel

Ah, so we're back in the UK. I'll skip my schpiel on London - my love/hate relationship with the town is well-documented in this blog, and I'm not going to say too much as my travel companion this time is a London newbie. Perhaps this time I can see it with a fresh set of eyes as well.

The trip over was smooth, as is expected to be on Eurostar. And it made me thankful that I got this handy dandy little digital SLR. Why? Because this picture was captured whilst shooting through the northern French countryside at 186 miles/hour.

Checking in at the London Hilton Metropole was also smooth. And after smiling and being polite with the receptionist, I was bumped up to a view room. Not a bad way to spend the last couple of days of a vacation...

Last Tango in Paris

It's our last night in Paris.

I wanted to go and do a last bit of sightseeing - in über-touristy Montmartre - but late at night, when the tourists aren't out and about. Alannah wanted to try eating at Chez Toinette, a highly heralded, small, family-run restaurant with very few tables.

Luckily, Chez Toinette is in Montmartre, and for the price, mindblowingly good.

Smoked duck breast salad, housemade duck foie gras, roasted duck breast, and (breaking the pattern here...) roasted rabbit with figs were the order of the day. Washed down with a fabulously fruity Côte de Provence red, this was a fantastic meal. Not too fancy. Not too simple. Just right. And well priced. So we hit up a cheese platter and prunes soaked in Armagnac for dessert. And the waiter liked us so much, he hooked us up with more wine on the house. Truly a brilliant dining experience.

The only lagging part of the meal were the irritatingly loud Americans seated near us, but once they left and the place filled with French diners - right around 11:30, of course - the atmosphere was nothing short of charming.

Somehow - probably with the help of the coffee and assorted sweets we were, again, hooked up with - we were able to hike our way up Montmartre in a roundabout fashion. After stopping at some cheesedick bar (the last one open) about midway to refresh with an overpriced beer served by sadly uniformed waiters, we made it up to the bright white basilicas of Sacré Coeur. Never mind the church, though. It's all about taking it all in from the steps there. With a couple hundred of your closest local and backpacker friends singing, playing guitar, and generally whooping it up.

It's amazing that the neighbors there don't complain, but when you have views like this, why would you bother?

I Said I'd Write a Letter, But I Didn't Have the Time

The last handful of blog entries are backdated, as I've had no Wi-Fi at the hotel, and have had far better things to do than find an internet cafe. So scroll down if you want to see what I've deemed more important than you, gentle reader.

I am now sitting at the Lush Bar next to our hotel, enjoying Depeche Mode's "Photographic," one of my favorite songs from my favorite band.

How awesome is this?

And Wi-Fi... glorious Wi-Fi!!!

Autour de Paris - l'Encore

Today's the mellow day. Or really, shopping day. Shopping. Shopping. Shopping.

Stop for a drink.

Shopping. Shopping. Shopping.

I really wanted some cool Rugby World Cup stuff, but couldn't find anything to my liking or size. Most of the men's stuff is in Large or larger, which makes me look like a little kid in daddy's clothing. Alannah, on the other hand, has picked up a wealth of stuff. Including a cute little hat I got her. I just have to have her pose for a photo. Something that usually requires several drinks:

Yes, that's at Harry's New York Bar. Yes, I know that's a total English-speaking, American expat hangout. But the Bloody Mary at the place that supposedly invented it is pretty f'in excellent.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Room to Match My Bag

Due to the citywide room reservation clusterfuck caused by the Rugby World Cup, we had to change to another room in the hotel today. It totally matches my brown and orange manbag.

Food Comas by Denise

It isn't very often that you make dinner reservations for 1:00 am. But then, it isn't very often that you're in the presence of the simple, wholesome culinary greatness known as Chez Denise.

We first saw the restaurant on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and fell in love with it before we ever even booked our tickets to Europe, and have been anticipating going there ever since.

Of course, we had time to kill until the magic hour, so we went around and took in Paris by night - easily the best time to appreciate the so-called (and rightly so) City of Lights.

After checking out the Louvre pyramids lit up from beneath and the glowing lights along the Seine, we made it to Chez Denise. And what can we say? It's as solid as advertised. And as vegetarian-unfriendly as any place endorsed by Bourdain.

A round of escargot, a litre of the brilliant house Brouilly, and ginormous côte de boeuf for two, and we had a one-way ticket to Food Coma Town. It didn't help that we finished dinner at around 3:00 am.

Of course, we used the caffeine and sugar rush of a couple of coffees and a fabulous rhum baba to give us just enough fuel to make it into a cab and up the stairs to our hotel room.

La Campagne de Champagne & Parc de Princes

"Merde! Merde merde merde merde MERDE!" (As you can see, I am now thinking - and swearing - in French!) I slept through my alarm. Despite a voicemail and text messages coming in early in the morning, I was an immovable object. We missed our morning train to Epernay - in the heart of the Champagne region - throwing off my one day with a planned timetable horribly.

No matter. It meant getting to the Gare de l'Est train station a couple of hours before the next train, and killing time eating pastries while overlooking the Canal St. Martin.

If that looks familiar, it's because you probably watched Amelie Poulain skipping rocks there in the eponymous movie. Sweet.

When we finally did get to Epernay, it took us a while to find the bike rental center, and we wound up getting the last two bikes they had. What luck.

It was an arduous, hilly ride along a small highway - nearly getting sideswiped by trucks and miniature eurocars - as we made our way to the village of Chouilly. And it was so worth it.

I mean, how often do you get to ride a bicycle through the actual vineyards where the grapes for the world's finest sparkling wines are grown?

Of course, a long, sweaty bike ride through Champagne region should be awarded with a refreshing beverage. What better than to have it than in the caves of Moët and Chandon?

Despite the highly un-classy pose in one of the classiest cellars in the world, we did go whole hog and do the über-classy Imperial tasting. Worth every penny to have the finest vintage Champagnes ever to grace this earth.

We rushed back to Paris to get to our hotel, have a quick change, and take in another facet of European culture: A rugby match at Parc de Princes. Not just any rugby match, but one in the Rugby World Cup.

I can't describe how awesome it was to be at such an international sporting event. The pageantry. The craziness. The sheer enormity of it all. The NFL has nothing on this. People wave flags. People wear crazy outfits. People bring their own band and play national songs. People smoke. Everyone's having a grand time.

And there's nothing better than watching nearly 40,000 people boo Italy.

While we were attending a relatively meaningless match between Italy and Portugal, the largely French crowd of onlookers was there to cheer against the dirty bastards who robbed them of the FIFA world cup last year. And while the Ities wound up pounding the hell out of Portugal, it was a spectacle nonetheless. And Portugal's one and only try of the game happened directly in front of us.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Paris à Pied

We cut a swath across Paris today, from our new neighborhood of Les Batignolles in the northwest, down to the Bastille in the east-central part of town. Quite a ways, if you know Paris - but not as daunting as it sounds.

A quick stroll down Rue de Clichy started our day out right. Alannah made a necessary stop at Sephora. A brief stop in the Opera neighborhood gave us a quick dose of culture... and the feeling of impending doom of dark clouds above.

The wetness started to build up, but we take no prisoners here. So it was to Place Vendome for shopping that neither of us could afford without selling a kidney. Let's just say we checked out a lot of windows.

Admittedly, the cold was getting to us. This made for the perfect excuse to hit up the oft-touristed but also highly revered Angelina. A tea room and cafe on the pricey stretch of the Rue de Rivoli, it's the best place to get one thing, and one thing only: Hot chocolate. As in the best hot chocolate you will ever frickin' have in your life.

We then cut east over to my old neighborhood around the Louvre.

Ok, so I never lived in Paris. But I did stay here for a week and this neighborhood sort of became mine. I know the local bakeries, laundromat, pharmacies - that one week was a crazy microcosm of life, and afterward I felt like I owned the place. Like the narrator/main character in L'auberge Espagnole said, after a while, these funny metro station names, odd streets, etc. start to become yours. And that's how I feel about Paris. I like the funky streets. I love the stink of the Metro. and I love all the weirdos.

And hell, I like the way it brings out my gal's natural beauty.

Alright, so I'm kissing ass because I'm spending valuable romantic Paris time writing in this electronic diary... but she is purdy, ain't she? Besides, why go out and do touristy shit, when it's more fun to observe the tourists? Notre Dame, for example, is prime hunting ground. Next time you're there, ignore the gigantic gothic cathedral, and watch the people around you instead.

The other fun activity around here is cock hunting. Umm, I'll explain. Le coq - the rooster - is France's national animal. And with the Rugby World Cup in town, there are painted up rooster statues around town. They're pretty funky and cool. And there are also monumental statues adorned in French rugby jerseys. Serious.

After our requisite tourist and cock shots, we went after the Jews and the gays.

Umm, ok, that sounds wrong. We went to the Marais, a very hip neighborhood that is traditionally the Jewish quarter and more recently the gay part of town. I'm not quite sure how that goes hand in hand, but it's the way it is. And it's a gorgeous part of the city - old, charming, and home to the beautiful Place de Vosges.

Ok, history and beauty are just an excuse to go bar hopping at some of the loveliest bars in town. While waiting for the awesomely decorated Leche Vin to open (whose every square meter is about covered with Catholic iconography), we sucked down drinks at the über-hip Megalo Bar.

We then cheated and took the Metro north a bit, struck out trying to go to a highly recommended restaurant on Rue Petrelle (tiny, needs reservations), and wound up walking the seedy Pigalle route back toward our hotel.

Honestly, I don't mind at all the sleaze factor around Pigalle. The sex shops, the touts, the hookers - whatever. A red light district is a red light district. What does suck are the hordes of loud American tourists ruining the subtle, dirty vibe with their own drunken hooting and hollering. Yeah, that's right, you're in front of the big neon windmill of the Moulin rouge. Isn't it beautiful? Now shut the fuck up before you give the rest of us a bad name. Oh, wait, too late.

Anyway, if you're in the neighborhood and want the exact opposite of Ugly American tourist hordes, hit up restaurant "Au 24" at, you guessed it, #24 Rue Biot. A French gentleman cooks up classic French and Antillais specialties in the kitchen, while one of the warmest women serves it up, attending perfectly to each table. With only eight tables and very little space in between them, it's the perfect quiet, cozy, and cheap place to enjoy a practically home cooked meal with all the trimmings.

Time to let the food coma go to work and hit the sack. Tomorrow will be an early - and long - day.