Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Proud to be an American*

When Michelle Obama said it during the campaign, it was considered a gaffe and people seized upon it. I, however, say it with conviction:

Today, for the first time in my life, I'm proud to be an American.

That I didn't previously care shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. While at one point I was an idealist and wanted a life in the whirlwind of politics in Washington D.C. (that dream died after my first trip there and seeing how things really worked), I've never hidden the fact that I really only cared about getting US citizenship so I could have a passport unencumbered by visa requirements in most countries. Sure, the right to vote is pretty cool, but look what that got us in the past...

If anything, I'm the anti-patriot. I love the US Constitution, but I find that most people who wave a flag or sing the hymns are the first to want to trample upon the document. And that was before these last 7 years of post-9/11 jingoism, so you can imagine how I've felt more recently! ...If not, it goes something like this: Fuck your ugly, asymmetric flag, and learn to pronounce "nuclear" while you're at it! California should secede, and maybe bring some of the cool coastal cities with it, just to keep my tax dollars from supporting dumb fucks like you. Hell, I'm moving to France where they have a whole Socialist party and even some Communists just to spite you.

But I digress. Today isn't about vitriolic ranting. It's about celebrating.

And I'm celebrating the rebirth of the optimism that disappeared along with my youth. The optimism that sometimes the system - while definitely very flawed - can work. Optimism that the American people can take a bold step toward something new. Optimism that, one day, America can be the exemplary beacon of liberty and opportunity that it truly has not been since WWII.

Of course, it's easy to be optimistic about something when it's already happened. In just one November day, America proved to the world that the system worked, that it wasn't afraid to take a huge leap, and that it is still an inspiration for the rest of the world. Without a single life lost, battle fought, or vote allegedly stolen, America inspired people all over the world to repeat Barack Obama's mantra, "Yes we can."

Overnight, the world has once again bought into the American dream - the real one and not the fallacy that Reaganites and Neocons have pervertedly peddled, or more often than not, forced down the world's collective throat. People from Africa to Europe to southeast Asia believe the American dream that anyone who studies hard enough, works hard enough, and tries hard enough may well achieve what they set out to do.

Granted, I'm not an Obamaniac - or whatever you want to call his rabid supporters. I haven't drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. When I cast my vote for him, it was as much against the continuation of Reaganomics and the Bush Doctrine. It was against flag-waving and valuing ignorance over intellect. Against the Dubya-fication of politics. Against the beatification of egomaniacs who got shot down and captured in a losing war.

I find Obama to be flawed, and disagreed with many of his stances from the very outset, and found even more to dislike throughout the campaign.

But it's undeniable that he is charismatic. A natural leader. What many have now in a clichéed manner called a "transformational figure." Someone who brings out - as seen all around the world, and right here in my very mirror - the best in people. (Palin rally-goers notwithstanding.) With his eloquence, even-keeled manner, and ability to engage without antagonizing, he has brought back a term that hardly applies to any politician anymore: Statesman.

The fact that he's the son of an immigrant father, from a broken home, who's moved around from Kansas to Indonesia to Hawaii, who passed up the big bucks of law practice after putting himself through Harvard – even if he didn't make it to the presidency – show that he embodies the American dream. And in one election, he fully realized and went above and beyond that dream. For himself, and for African-Americans, immigrants, kids of divorcees, and just about everyone in the world who's been displaced over no choice of their own or told they don't have a chance.

The news has shown kids rejoicing, saying that when they grow up, they want to become leaders. Here in my new adopted home of France, black politicians are inspired. Africans and Afro-Caribbeans make up 10% of the population but have only one minister in the government; now they can hold President Nicolas Sarkozy accountable to his campaign promises of a more inclusive government. In my native country of Iran, a normally cynical youth population is (cautiously) optimistic about their own upcoming election, encouraged not only by the impeachment of the current nutbag president's close ally, but also by the possibility of a new dialogue with Americans.

If you're an American and didn't vote for Obama - whether you're afraid of paying taxes, don't want to pull out the troops from Iraq before the century's over, or are afraid of secret Muslims - know that even before he's taken the oath of office, you've benefited from his election. In one day, America's standing in the world is back on the upswing. For one day, no one's burning the stars and stripes. And for one day - and I hope for much longer - I'm proud of America.*

*On the other hand, for the first time ever, I'm ashamed to be a Californian. Fuck the 52% of you who voted for Proposition 8. Fuck Utah and the Church of Latter Day Saints. And mother fuck Howard Ahmanson and his daddy issues.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Italy: Post Mortem

Post mortem. That's Latin for "after death," commonly used - as you probably know - as a term for a debriefing, whether after a disastrous medical procedure gone wrong or a business project. Which are, in the end, often one in the same.

The original Latin might be more appropriate for me, as I woke up sore and stiff this morning and really dreaded getting up. My body was battered and beaten, my feet barely able to stand the cold kitchen tile, my back starting to look like Quasimodo's.

But the sun was shining, the Parisian streets seemed cheery and welcoming, and my office surprisingly warm. One normally doesn't relish coming home to Paris in months ending with "-ember," but trust me, it felt like summer after putting up with this:

Granted, that's Milan which – I found out after consulting the Lonely Planet we picked up three days into the trip – is considered "the London of Italy" when it comes to weather.

I wouldn't rank this trip at the top of my travel experience. Not because of the weather, but because the extent of study I did before the trip was limited to booking trains and hotels. That and trying to learn basic Italian in 10 days. I normally study the hell out of a place and its language before I go, but I've been a little preoccupied with adjusting to a new job, new wife, new country - hell, a new life altogether - for months. If anything, I hoped not planning anything would make for a great escape, a willy-nilly adventure into the unknown.

It turned out to be part family gathering. Part necessary escape from Paris. Part honeymoon. (Alannah and I never had a proper honeymoon, so we now consider every trip a mini-honeymoon in perpetuity.) As such, this trip was appropriately manic, with highs and lows. The lows all came from the rigors of travel: Delayed trains, lost bags, inclement weather, getting lost... The highs all came from people, whether spending time with loved ones or laughing it up with strangers. Sightseeing just happens to be a little bonus on the side.

The ladies are still in Italy, currently soaking up the proverbial Tuscan sun, which I'm assuming is hiding out... I mean, beyond the fact that it's night time at this moment. So this rundown covers my five days.

In five days, I had four journeys by train spanning a total of 19 hours. All four were delayed. Three journeys by bus. Six journeys by metro. Countless hours walking. Many of those in pouring rain. Three of those rain-soaked hours while hopelessly lost. While in transit, I lost a Bialetti espresso maker, a wheel of peccorino alla zafferona cheese, a box of Baci, a package of Kinder happy hippos, and half a bag of rosmarina crackers. I have in my jacket pocket the soggy remains of: one two-day metro pass for Milan, two Portofino area bus tickets, what used to be my US passport (currently an unidentified hunk of blue with ink-smeared pages), and a stack of crumpled receipts. One of those receipts proves that I bought myself some cock in Milan, at 10€ a go...

When not cursing the weather or the lateness of trains, I enjoyed a full ball of mozarella di buffala (and then some), at least a kilo of cured meats, five varieties of pasta, four kinds of pizza, the most fantastic cheese ever (said peccorino from Peck), the most godawful cheese ever (a slice of white Kraft singles from one of my aunts' oddball supermarket runs), McDonald's espresso, kopi luwak, prawns straight of the Ligurian sea, McDonald's fried prawns, some strange riff on taco salad, a tako salad (that'd be Japanese for "octopus"), and enough hazelnut and chocolate in bar/pastry/gelato form to choke a horse or two. All with a side of mostly crappy, spongey, bread, with a notable exception at establishments that baked their own. On top of all that, add enough zucchini flowers to turn my tummy into its own garden, a steak big enough to ensure that I'll never be regular again, and enough cuts of veal to make PETA freaks get naked to protest me. (Which is my goal in life...) And the best street food? Roasted chestnuts.

I took exactly 888 photos with my camera. Alannah took 312. 310 of which are from her newfound favorite "from-the-ground" perspective, which I love.

Yes, we even disgust ourselves sometimes.

Along the way, we saw tens of thousands of hideously dressed Milanese. (Two of 'em shown here!) Upon returning to Paris last night, I was reminded of the Parisian flair for dressing subtly, yet so well that even the homely can look dead sexy. The four-stop metro ride home reminded me of that over and over. Inversely, in Milan, metro rides remind you that even the hottest Italian bombshell stacked like a brick house will look like a Jersey girl when dressed like one. Unfortunately, there's no escaping the eye-searingly bad mode of dress. Flipping on the hotel TV puts more of it on display, in the form of variety shows...

I never cared much for Italian wine because - like French wine - only a limited selection is imported to the US, and other than high-priced luxury choices, most of it is crap. Having access to a wide variety of the stuff gave me a far better appreciation for Italian wines, and now I won't be so quick to judge.

In fact, after just a short time there, I found that to be the case with much of Italy for me. As a land of passionate people that pour said passion into everything they do, just about everything falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category. There's no middle ground. So while it seems there were a lot of things I complained about while in Italy, there was plenty to really love.

Which is why I vow to go back. Not because I haven't yet gotten to see amazing works like David or the Pietà or the Last Supper - stuff I studied and drew inspiration from as a student and still long to see in the flesh (or marble or plaster, as it would be...). Not because I need to pick up another wheel of that crazy opulent cheese. It's because of the manic, bipolar, crazy duality of the place. It rains, but you want to splash through the piazza. Your train is late, but that gives you time for another espresso. There are pickpockets everywhere, but you can enjoy the fact that they will have the living shit beat out of them. The fashion is jarring, but the forward-thinking design means you can find the occasional unforgettable gem that nobody back home will ever have.

Most of all, it's just a beautiful place, with gorgeous scenery and welcoming people as varied as can be for such a relatively small mass of land.

Thinking back to the last five days, I can see what it is about the country that inspires so much amore. The wife and I will definitely have to have another mini-honeymoon there, perhaps when the weather is nicer.

But in the meantime, I'm happiest knowing that being there put such a smile on these people's faces:

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I Sense a Theme Here...

One last backdated post... just got home a little while ago and now have internet.

I'm really glad I found the little rubber earpiece for my sound-blocking headphones before this trip. They're the part that make the sound-blocking part work. Were it not for these little babies, I'd be subject to the ridiculously loud mobile phone ramblings of the little shit down the car from me. In Italian, of course. I recall saying something about the Italian lack of voice modulation. It was in full force in the compartment on this morning's train, too, with a few strangers having an animated conversation about exactly how many minutes every train they've ever ridden on has been late. Despite the miserable guy visibly trying to sleep in the window seat.

Luckily, I have my trusty laptop as an outlet to write. And luckily, it's still functional. And with me.

In the string of overall rotten luck this trip (not mentioned before: one of my aunts had 100€ stolen out of her handbag her last day in Paris) I have been soaked again, this time after trekking around Torino for a few hours between trains.

The morning train arrived at the Porta Nuova station, where I checked in my backpack at left luggage. However, trusting such services as far as I can throw them, I transfered my laptop and SLR into my shoulder bag. When I travel, they do not leave my side, and they most certainly do not get checked in with anyone.

My load somewhat lightened, I made my way to the city center to do whatever it is that tourists to Torino do. Maybe do some shopping, have a hot chocolate, look at statues... that kind of stuff. I was about to start clicking my shutter at all sorts of neat things until the sky decided to open up. This, of course, meant that every historic seat at every historic café overlooking every historic plaza in Turin was suddenly taken by other tourists seeking shelter from the rain. And thus, I was left with the choice of hanging out in the covered arcades with all the enterprising umbrella salesmen from Africa and the Indian subcontinent, or taking refuge at the American embassy.

So off to McDonald's it was. Finally, I was handed the opportunity to fulfill my goal of poisoning myself at er... trying McDonald's in every country I visit. The menu didn't look very intriguing, so I almost made my way out of the non-line (the Italian disdain for orderly queueing apparently goes beyond bus and train boarding), until something caught my eye: Gamberi mariposi, 3 pezzi. That's right - McDonald's in Italy serves butterfly prawns the same way the corporation sells bits of processed chicken bits elsewhere. SOLD!

Unfortunately, the food is nowhere near as intriguing as it sounds. In fact, I dare say the gamberi were even oilier than at any grease schack in New Orleans... as in... the American South. Really. The rest of the food was just as craptacular as American McDonald's, too, only the beef in my burger was somewhat brown and not grey - a promising sign.

What my meal lacked in pleasure, it more than made up for with entertainment. As I exited McDonald's, a "gentleman" trying to look somewhat non-chalant as he carried a rather feminine-looking shoulder bag was grabbed on the same shoulder by one of those impeccably dressed, regal-looking Italian police officers. As he started to run, he was knocked down, then two more GQ-looking officers popped out from the other side of the sidewalk and picked him up so they could drag him somewhere more open for... god knows what. A crowd gathered and cheered as the resisting purse snatcher was finally shoved into the back of an official police Alfa Romeo. God damn! Even the cops are stylish in Italy. (And very pretty, in many cases...!)

I roamed around central Torino for a couple of hours overall, trying to find diversions and distractions, as well as shelter from the pissy weather. At this point, my shoes were starting to slosh around, and none of the open stores (it's Sunday, after all) sold either saffron cheese or Bialetti espresso makers, either of which I would have gladly snapped up to keep warm with retail therapy.

But I was miserable. Cold, wet, and missing my wife, I made my way back to Porta Nuova train station to collect my backpack. I figured with a few hours to go before my train to Paris, I had plenty of time to make it over to Porta Susa station. It didn't look that far on the map, and the directions aren't at all complicated - from one station to the other, it's simply north on a major street, then west. Forward and left. What could go wrong?

I'll tell you what can go wrong.

Italian street signs are second only to British ones in terms of illegibility. (Actually, British signs are easy to read - finding them is the challenge.)

Sure, it's classy (and classic!) to have them engraved into the sides of buildings in a serif typeface, and very small so as not to be garish and conspicuous. (Because, by god, no one here likes anything that's really visible, right??)

So I happened to miss not one, but TWO streets that lead directly to the station as I headed north, and kept going for, oh, probably 2 km more than I was supposed to. Normally, this would probably be fine since I'd left myself so much time to get to the station.

I knew something was amiss when it started looking less and less city center-like and slightly more suburban-business-area. I decided to make my left at that point, hoping to maybe triangulate upon the station, or at least see road signs pointing to it. (There were none, by the way...)

After a number of blocks of going west, that now oft-mentioned feeling of dread hit me.

Now normally, I have no issue walking through "bad" neighborhoods. I've hung out in South Central LA late at night, the "seedy" parts of Paris don't phase me, and my old neighborhood in San Francisco butted up to the projects where seeing a crackhead taking a dump on the sidewalk was no issue.

So walking through a downtrodden Torinese neighborhood with tons of hoodlums hanging out on the sidewalk isn't really a problem. I'm a big boy and can handle myself.

The thing is, I generally don't walk through these neighborhoods carrying a backpack, a shoulder bag, and a bright red shopping bag. If sharks can smell blood from a mile away, hoodlums can smell "tourist," at least from 20 metres. Now normally, I don't think this way. Hardly ever, in fact. I know the "law of the jungle," and there's generally no reason for anyone to rough me up. That and I'm about twice as wide as your average western European, and much scarier looking. Except for the fact that within three minutes I'd already witnessed two guys getting beat up... and on the same side of the street I was walking, at that!

As luck would have it, the next person I ran into was a young nun walking out of some church-y looking building. "Scusi!" I approached. She started to cower away, until I removed my beanie to show her I was a respectful, god-fearing (ha!) person. "Dov'è Stazionne Porta Susa, per favori?" I asked. The trouble with asking for directions in a language you minimally understand is that you get the answer in that language.

Following are the words I understood: Normally; you; keep; straight; but; left; but; bad; bad; bad; evil neighborhood; leave this street; future tense of "to be"; more safe.

I tried to say "Thank you, thank you very very much, I appreciate it" as I walked off but in my lousy Italian, I could've been saying, "Now can I see what's under your habit?" I think I got it right, though, because despite the storm above, I wasn't struck by lighting, and despite the thuggins around me, I wasn't mugged. And after stopping to orient myself a few times - and ask a few more puzzled passers-by if I could look under their clothes or whatnot - found the station.

Now I find myself less than an hour from Paris, likely developing a case of pneumonia considering how cold and wet it was at the Torino station and that the AC on this train was on for four hours of its nearly six hour run time.

I'm coming home with a likely pulmonary disorder, soggy shoes, much more weight, and far fewer euros. Worst of all, I'm doing it alone. Right now, all I can think about is drawing a bath, then crawling into bed. My big, empty, not-quite-warm-enough-on-the-right-side bed.

But I'm writing with a slight smile on my face. My wife, my mom, and my aunts don't have their last day for another week, and the weather forecast looks good. After all, I'm fairly certain I used up all of their bad travel karma.

A Family Affair

I knew my cousin's a bit of a celeb around these parts, but I didn't know to what extent.

He couldn't magically make our train arrive on time, but our ocean-view digs at Rapallo on the coast by Portofino more than make up for it. And the magnificent sunshine and summery temperatures? Somehow I don't think he's got connections with God or Mother Nature or whomever you believe is in charge of such things, but it's certainly an antidote to the miserable weather in Milan.

He also arranged a fabulous lunch at Rêve, the ultra-posh, shabby chic, French-inspired restaurant-cum-antique-shop. I'm not sure what I loved more: The squid ink ravioli, the gnocchi in octopus sauce, the Asian-inspired pasta in langoustine tails (and some whole ones for good measure), the warm octopus salad, the fresh porcini mushrooms with potatoes, the stunningly crisp local white wine... Or the tear-jerkingly sweet part, the lovely owner giving my aunt (i.e. my cousin's mom) a gigantic bouquet of white roses to welcome her.

I suppose it pays to be the best (and possibly only real Japanese) sushi chef in the region. Considering his restaurant is the upstairs of a funky, cool, but nowhere-near-fancy bar in Santa Margherita, it's gotta be all about his skill with the knife and his penchant for fresh fish (he goes marketing at the docks early in the morning, just like the guys do at Tsukiji in Tokyo). That and he's a genuinely cool guy, and it was awesome to see how everyone in town really likes him.

He used to work his magic at a chic, glamorous Japanese restaurant in central Milan (which we went and checked out - very schwanky!) but to me, it's obvious he made the right move to the coast. I may be a big city dweller, but there's no way to resist the charm and beauty of the Ligurian coast. The colorful houses with their trompe l'oeil facades, the gorgeous blue sea, the windy roads, the sheer cliffs and green mountains... and a near absence of English-speaking tourists. At least, in the off-season.

While the Portofino area is a playground for the international jetset in the summer, early November seemed to be blissfully... blissful. After four days, it finally felt as though I was on vacation, able to totally relax, and kick back as it was time for someone else (my cousin!) to lead the way.

Unfortunately, it was only to be for a day.

Last night was my last night in Italy. Which in and of itself is bad enough. I always hate the end of a good trip - even one involving getting soaked to the bone in rain and losing a bag of expensive goodies. But it's far worse knowing that I'm on this train alone.

By now, Alannah's with the rest of my family in Cinque Terre for the day - our trains left Rapallo at roughly the same time - and I'm on my way to Torino, where I'll hang out for a bit before catching the high-speed train to Paris in the evening.

If I were a daredevil, I'd have headed down to Cinque Terre for a bit to squeeze out the last bit of time with my wife and family before hopping a train to Torino, but I want a big cushion. Not only do I have to get across Torino to catch the Paris train, but this current train is already half an hour behind schedule.

My sense of utter non-surprise is outweighed only by a silly, juvenile sadness. My wife (and my mom and aunts) will be back in Paris in just a week, but I have this nasty, queasy feeling gnawing at my stomach.

Of course, it could just be all the goddamn food I've been eating.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Mamma Mia!

Another backdated post thanks to craptacular internet access...

Train delays suck.

They suck even more when you're really looking forward to seeing your cousin (and hopefully some of that elusive Italian sunshine) on the other end.

They really suck when you're dehydrated, have a nasty headache, and a body that feels as though it's just been put through a meat grinder.

No, I'm not hung over. I'm jotting down my thoughts in a train compartment with my traveling troupe, who got to the station well before I did. I, on the other hand, had to sprint across the north of Milan with my bags in tow. Without my morning espresso.

Here's how it worked out. We all got up nice and early. Showered, brushed our teeth, packed. I was so efficient, that I got all of my shopping packed into one bag - the really pretty paper Bialetti bag that the espresso maker came in - and then into a plastic bag - the big one that the hunk of luxurious Peck cheese came in - just in case the crazy rain followed us to the station.

We went to the nearest metro station, waited a little bit for the train, switched lines at the next station, then rode it out a few stops to Milano Centrale train station. So far so good, right?

Well, do you remember that trip-ruining feeling of dread I mentioned in my last entry? As we got off the metro at Centrale, it hit me. My expertly packed shopping bag was no longer in my hands. I mentally retraced - the last time it was out of my hands was back at the station by our hotel, when I put it down on the bench next to my aunt.

I looked at my watch. There was enough time for me to head back to the Lima station and - if it's still there - retrieve my shopping bag. I told the ladies to find the platform, and that I'd be back before they know it, hopefully with a fancy coffee maker and fancier cheese in hand. Hopefully.

I hopped back on the Metro and got off at the station to switch lines. Coming out, the station looked nothing like it had just minutes ago. There were construction barricades and caution tape all around. Disoriented, I went back down to the platform, made sure I came up the right exit, and looked again. Same barricades and tape. At that time, an old couple was trying to get to the same platform as I, and I had enough Italian down to figure out what he said: The station is now closed in this direction for scheduled construction, and in order to go south, one must go north one stop, switch directions, and go back south.

When time is of the essence, there's one thing you can absolutely count on: Italian transit's utter indifference to the clock.

I went through the motions, knowing that the ten minutes lost meant the difference between a future full of saffron cheese and crema-topped espressos after dinner and one filled with heartbreaking loss. I finally arrived at Lima station, went to the bench where I'm certain the bag was last, and had to settle for the latter.

The station chief was very nice and actually reviewed his security screens to see if he could find someone picking it up and throwing it away, but no luck. No chance - in a place where just about every vending machine, ATM, and ticket machine reminds you to "beware of pickpockets," there's no way my very conspicuous goodie bag would have been left alone.

But I had no time to feel sorry for myself. I had a train to catch in 20 minutes, with the station a 10 minute dash away. Or an 18 minute limp after leg cramps start forming at the 6 minute mark.

Now, with the train stuck between stations and operating on Italian time, I have plenty of time to feel sorry for myself.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Mangia! Mangia! Mangia!

Backdated post due to wonky internet access in Italy...

I've been proud of my successful weight loss for a little while now, but a day in Milan has pretty much blown my waistline back to its former proportions. I don't think I've eaten this much on a trip since the infamous month of eating Japan, and that was a lot.

The thing is, that's who I am and it's what I do. Other people travel to see landmarks and museums and great works of art - which I certainly love. But my preference, first and foremost, is to soak up the culture. And the best way to do it - if you ask me - is via food and drink.

Sure, I've been called the F-word before (uh, that'd be "foodie"), but I'm not a high-falutin' Michelin guide-totin' snob. In fact, while hunting for the elusive internet café this morning, we started the day with a coffee at McDonald's. Yes, in the land of cafés at every corner, we went to McDonald's. Really, it was in hopes of finding some Wi-Fi. In Japan, it was the only reliable place to get online, so I was hoping that might be the case here. No luck. And it was too early for lunch, so there'd be no trying out the Italian version of the menu. And for the record, their espresso was not bad at all.

If you're not too disgusted and have continued reading, you can learn about our next bit of masochism. While doing a little shopping (I finally found the ideal Bialetti espresso maker!) and heading back to our hotel to unload, Alannah and I passed by Caballo Loco which is, you guessed it, a Mexican restaurant!

Now, getting decent Mexican food in Europe is like finding a needle in a haystack - a very dull, rusty needle in a flavorless haystack. But after seeing that their menu included tacos with "prosciutto e formaggio," we knew we had to throw down. We also knew we weren't going to get anything close to Mexican food as a couple of taqueria-veteran Californians would know it. So we were pleasantly surprised by the colorful but not over-the-top atmosphere, complete with cheesedick Latin pop music... not to mention the good tortilla chips and *gasp* hot salsa that didn't taste like ketchup! So the tacos did disappoint - I had the aforementioned prosciutto and cheese and Alannah the chili con carne, both just wrapped in a soft tortilla and nuked with a slice of Kraft cheese on top. On the other hand, the shaved fennel salad on the side (WTF!?) went surprisingly well with guacamole and sour cream.

Having dredged the low end, we headed back toward the Duomo in the center of town and located Peck, the gourmet food hall associated with the Michelin-starred Cracco-Peck restaurant. Having not yet found a way to digest food and shit out money, we decided to just drool over the amazing collection of cheeses, cured meats, luxury goods, and high-end prepared foods to go. I was hoping to find (and try!) a traditional Milanese fritto misto that includes little bits like lamb's lung and whatnot, but no such luck. I'd have to gross out Alannah some other time. We wanted to eat every bit of every thing on display, from the gigantic French-style escargot to the saffron-infused peccorino cheese to the hideously overpriced vegetable flans. I felt completely out of my spending league, but wanted to order one of each. Unfortunately, Peck doesn't offer free samples, so we went upstairs to the tea room to splurge on a "light snack."

The two of us had Peck's signature cocktail - a bitter and tart blend of Campari, aranciata, various liquors, and some awesome little tomatillo-like tropical fruit we keep encountering at European markets. Some day I'll figure it out what it is. The cocktail miraculously paired magnificently with our cheese plate, loaded up with seven types of cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses. The hands down favorite: The very peccorino alla zafferana we'd seen earlier. Ensnared in their trap, it wasn't a difficult decision to go buy a kilo of the ridiculously opulent cheese on the way out.

I further proved my inability to control my gustatory spending by ordering a 14€ kopi luwak coffee to cap off our afternoon tea. Considering they sell the stuff for 457€/kg, I figured having one demi-tasse of the stuff would make me not feel like a complete pauper walking out of the place. "I just bought your saffron cheese AND your coffee whose beans have been shit out by Indonesian pandas," I could say as they sneered at my well-worn jeans, snowboarding jacket, and hiking shoes. But they were actually very nice, and I wasn't followed by security even once.

I rang up my mom, and it turned out she and my aunts were just a few minutes away, so we met up in front of the Duomo before heading back to the hotel. We reviewed what we'd done thus far, and I told my mom about having just had some of the most amazing cheese ever... Now, she loves cheese - probably more than she does myself and my sister. So I knew I could make her happy by promising her a bit of the prize that she loves more than her own flesh and blood. "We bought a kilo of the stuff! We'll totally have some when we get back to Paris!" I think it may have been one of the few moments I've seen my mom pleased with my poorly-formed spending habits.

Back at the hotel, Alannah and I tried to figure where we'd have dinner. It was just the two of us tonight, so I was hoping we might be able to have a romantic evening, providing we find the right venue. I pulled out my trusty maitre d's knife (no European should leave home without it!) and pulled open a bottle of Barolo I'd picked up earlier at the market.


"Damn, that uncorked like champagne. I hope it's still good," I said as I poured a couple of glasses of the stuff. "Is it just me or is it fizzy?"

Alannah tasted it. "It says frizzante on the bottle. It's supposed to be sparkling."

Now, I've heard of sparkling reds before, but had never bothered to try, figuring it'd be like red wine flavored soda. And for once in my life, I can say I was right. Of course, swinging from low end to high, gravity had to pull us back, and we drank it up.

If red wine soda was an unexpectedly oddball way of starting off our romantic evening together, it was a harbinger of things to come. We hopped on the dodgy Metro line 2 to go to the opposite end of Milan, the canal district near Porto Genova. Because nothing says "romantic" like graffiti-infested subways and dried out canals. But we had a destination in mind: Le Vigne restaurant, a highly-recommended practitioner of Slow Food with an old school Italian atmosphere. What's not to like?

The answer to that question: My navigational skills. Despite having studied the map and pinpointing the location and committing it to memory before leaving, we got to the canals and found nothing. I went to the very roundabout whose shape and orientation I had memorized to the point that I could recognize it through the driving rain - and still, nothing. As the rain grew heavier, we searched the area, and searched, and searched. The more futile our search seemed to become, the more rain-soaked our shoes most certainly became. My once waterproof snowboarding jacket was nearly saturated (and with it the passport in my chest pocket, which now resembles an overcooked blue sheet of lasagne). Things grew even worse when we threw in the towel, headed back to the Metro station and then realized - wait - this isn't the way to the Metro! I started to get the feeling of dread that when traveling can mean a ruined trip. I sensed Alannah becoming frustrated. I knew I'd just fucked up our night, bigtime.

And as I decided to admit that not only would we never find the restaurant, but that we might have to throw the Metro into that same category of despair, we walked right by it. Le Vigne. Nowhere near the point I'd memorized on the map. The warm room and warm hostess welcomed our sorry, rain-drenched asses, and we decided to abandon our earlier plan to just order light starters and a glass of wine - to save money and our waistlines.

In the classic but none too chi-chi atmosphere (hell, there was a big screen in the back room with Sky Tele-Giornale on showing the latest Obama/McCain numbers) we laid waste to a platter of fiore di zucca stuffed with some of the most fantastic riccota cheese to grace the face of the earth. We used our bread - manners be damned - to sop up the freshest pesto this side of Genova. We dove into zucchini wrapped with angler fish wrapped with pancetta sitting in a grape reduction. Some fantastic Milanese rice cake. And, deciding to throw reason out the window, a giant ribeye steak - delightfully bloody and not-so-delightfully priced al'otte (by the 100g). Oh well, at least the local wine we were guzzling was a ridiculous bargain.

Earlier in the day, Alannah and I were a little bummed that we were spending Halloween not doing anything Halloweeny. Sure, there were some youth running around in ghostface "Scream" masks and tons of places had pumpkin decor in their windows, but we lamented not going to any costume parties.

As we ambled toward the Metro (only 50m away, it turned out) after our post-dinner espressos, we forgot about Halloween. Hell, we were in Italy and just ate an insanely amazing dinner. And - as it turns out - a romantic one, at that.

Anyway, it's about midnight and we have to catch a morning train to Liguria. Time for bed!

No, really, to sleep. I've eaten too much today to think about anything else.

Milanese Three-Way

It's not what you'd think.

It seems public internet access is controled tightly by the neo-fascist party in charge of Italy: I haven't seen a single place with Wi-Fi, not even McDonald's, and the janky, slow internet cafe I'm currently using requires that they scan your passport according to anti-terrorism laws. Thanks very much to The War Against Terror. (TWAT) I feel safe, don't you?

So here you go, three posts rolled into one, which I'm copying by hand from my laptop, because I can't even use my USB key.

Greasy Italian
Thursday, 9:30 am

I just dropped my MacBook on the laminate floor of my hotel room. My grip slipped and "SMACK!" there was the sound of plastic and metal and whatever else is inside these contraptions hitting the floor.

It's not that I'm careless. It's just that after one night and only one "light" meal in Milan, every pore of my body is seeping grease.

Luckily, my trusty laptop is OK, and so far, so am I.

A little puzzled, but OK.

We (that'd be me, the wife, my mom who is visiting from the US, and my two aunts visiting from Japan) arrived from Paris by train yesterday afternoon. You'd think rolling across the continent by train with a gaggle of ladies is glamourous, but really, itàs filled with knitting, iPod Italian lessons, Japanese picnic food, and teaching little French girls origami. The latter involves my aunt explaining her technique, my mom explaining it to me in English, and me trying to explain it all to a bemused family in French. (Long story, never mind...)

Back to being puzzled.

After resting up, we decided to roam the streets of Milan, sans guidebook or map. This strategy usually works for me, as I'm pretty good at sniffing out cool neighborhoods and finding nice holes in the wall to invade. Unfortunately, the Italians seem to have jammed my radar. All but the most wannabe upscale café/bars (i.e. with big gaudy displays of Belvedere vodka and Moet champagne) were open. My aunts wanted to eat, but nary a restaurant was open save for the same nasty kebab shops and faux Japanese joints that are all over Paris. Don't Italians like to eat???

We eventually located what seemed like a tourist trap bar/café/restaurant near the central business district. I had no desire to eat at such a place, but I figured since the aunties were hungry, Alannah and I could have something light to hold us over until the real restaurants open later. Oh well, at least the prices were cheap!

So we ordered a round of simple pizzas, spaghetti (no, really, my aunt ordered spaghetti!), and what appeared to be the lightest item on the paltry menu: A caprese type salad of mozarella, tomatoes, and some Parma ham. The elder ladies could load up on their stereotypical carbs, whlie Alannah and I would share a light pizza and salad before taking on the true Milanese cuisine.

Now, I've often heard from fellow American travelers that they like the food in Italy best. Me, I'm partial to the miserly-portioned richness of French chuisine, or the utter simplicity and variety of Spanish food. But now I see the appeal of eating in Italy. In fast food terms, Italian food is the Super-Sized Extra Value Meal of European eating. And - hey - we Americans love to buy in bulk.

What I thought would be a light holdover snack turned out to be a virtual Costco run on cheese, bread, and cured meats. There was an orgy of whole balls of mozarella di buffala, baskets of tomatoes, kilo servings of ham... and that was just my plate! Hell, the plates were so heavy, the waiter had to make four trips to our table to serve us.

Needless to say, I didnàt need any further dinner afterward.

But I did want a drink. or several. After mom and the aunties retired for the night, the lady and I decided to go out on the town. Maybe get ourselves some gelato, and definitely start quaffing some wine.

One problem. Still, nothing was open. Again, a few of the upscale restaurants near hotels, and one or two horrendously well-lit bars (i.e. creepy fluorescent lights), and otherwise... nothing!

"Well, it is a Catholic country and they have Wednesday night mass," Alannah explained.

She's always been the smart one, so her explanation made sense. After all, if our crazy huge dinner was composed of what people consider starters here, people are going to need more than just Sunday to confess for their sins. And that's just taking Glutton yinto account.

Speaking of which, as I write this entry (and hopefully find an Internet café to send it in...) Alannah has run off to a nearby bakery. She'll hopefully come back with an armload of zeppele.

Going to Extremes
Thursday, 8:21 pm

We just got back to the hotel aftr downing a couple of birre and a glass of vino rosso at one of the overly well-lit neighborhood bars. Grand total? 5€50. That's what I'd pay for one drink in Paris. I'm starting to see the pull of Italy. If Milan is one of its most expensive cities, I can't wait to see the drink prices further south.

And I'm going to need the drinks.

I've mentioned time and again how I don't particularly enjoy traveling in groups. When it's my mom and her sisters, that goes tenfold. Not that they're not nice, very gracious and often very entertaining people. But group decision-making is at its absolute worst with this bunch. Deciding when and where to eat goes from being a thrice-daily decision that should take no more than a few minutes to a dramatic production that'd be too big for even the famous La Scala theatre. Which we saw, by the way, and for such a famous place, it's tiny.

On the other hand, the Duomo - Milan's biggest tourist attraction - is huge. Enormous. Bigger than the Milanese misplaced sense of fashion. It's ironic that all around one of the most stunningly beautiful cathedrals I've laid eyes upon are some of the worst dressed people in the world.

I'm not talking about the tourists here. North Face jackets and Keen sandals are functionally unfashionable, but somewhat understandable. What I don't get is this supposed fashion capital's penchant for piling on the brand names. Patent leather stilettos are paired with neon green leggings, then further "matched" with a Louis Vuitton belt, Diesel shirt, trendy all-over print hoodie, and a Prada shoulder bag.

And that's just the men.

If you think Italian cars are conspicuous, the fashion makes "bling bling" sound like an understatement. I can't walk five minutes down a Milan street without the term "ghetto fabulous" coming to mind.

And the noise. I suppose growing up in giant Catholic families, you compete for attention. So not only do you pile on clashing colors and sparkly bits and baubles, but you have to speak at volumes generally reserved for guitar amps and emergency vehicles. Riding the metro or standing in front of a café is an exercise in restraint, largely with me gritting my teeth and praying I don't act upon my urges to sock the mouth of each person that feels it appropriate to hold their conversations at 140 decibels.

But not all blanket generalizations are as harsh as that. And this is where I'll hurl a complement. The local penchant for overdoing it also applies to the friendliness and warmth of every waiter, every barman, and - well - every person you might converse with. Not once have I been tut-tutted or tisk-tisked for my m angling of the Italian language. In fact, no one seems put out by the fact that I always try to learn a new vocabulary word with each transaction. My Italian lessons have been helpful, but entirely too formal. So it's been up to my waiters and bartenders to tell me the normal way to ask for the bill, or how the locals ask for another beer.

And another complement: The food. Sure, the portions are enough to kill me with my now Frenchified appetite, but I can't fault the quality. It seems the simpler a food item gets, the better and more "real" it tastes. From my strippe ddown eggplant panino to the slow food chocolate gelato to last night's ridiculously huge ball of mozarella di bufala, everything has benefited from being stripped down to the simplest recipe. Each and every espresso has been "one of the best espressos I've ever had" you even if it was purchased right in front of some hideously crowded tourist attraction.

But I can see why all the tourists flock here. In fact, as much as I love my new home in Paris - and vastly prefer it - so far I think I'm going to have to hop the train to Italy more often. Just not to do any clothes shopping. I'll stick to Parisian all black, grazie.

Sleep When I'm Dead
Friday, 9:49 am

I had that new Cure song on my mind when stepping out last night. Alannah and I were going out on the town (or trying, again=, and sleep was not a priority. The plan: Eat a ginormous multi-course Italian meal full of local specialties, then bar hop our way through a good chunk of Milan. We'd rest when the eventual food/wine coma set in.

Well, at least the first half of the plan worked.

We ate at a restaurant near our hotel, consuming ridiculous portions of fried zucchini flowers wrapped in ham, saffron-infused risotto, napalm-hot lasagne, amazingly tender osso bucco, and a sublime veal milanese. It was all washed down with a a bottle each of local minearl water and red wine. So far, so good.

Now that wead eaten Milan out (har har), it was time to drink her dry.

Only one problem: Even more bars were closed last night than the night before. WTF!?

So it was toward the Stazione Centrale, where I knew for sure - with the glut of big hotels - that at least one bar would be open. And there was - go figure - only one. The wannabe-swanky champagne-and-Belvedere joint we had previously passed up was open for business. So in we went to the very chain-looking, yuppie-magnet Metropolis.

And despite being as hopelessly superficial as feared - down to the not-hot-enough-to-be-such-a-bitch cashier - it was pretty nice. The friendly bartender was more than happy to pour what would be the most enormous glasses of rum I've seen at a retail establishment, and it was my beloved Brugal rum from the Dominican Republic - a treat very rarely found back home in San Francisco, and never found in Paris. Sure, it may have been 10€ a pop, but considering we got poured nearly a quarter bottle each, I wasn't about to complain. Except about the cashier's unwarranted bitchiness.

With each sip of the rum, the douche-yness of the contemporary-urban-fashionista bar melted away, and by the time we got to the bottom of our respective glasses, we were ready to call it a night.

This morning, feeling well rested, we're going to do our pub crawl by day. Only we're going to hit up cafés and drink espressos and eat pastries in a serial fashion. And, ok, maybe some wine... and Fernet... and more wine.

Something's gotta help warm us up in this nonstop rain.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Little Brit o' That...

I was having fun sending little Twitter updates from my phone on Saturday, gloating about my glamorous life. I found a last-minute deal on Eurostar for a daytrip to London, and thought, "Why the hell not? That's why we moved to Europe." Well, that and getting away from the festering pile of decay that is the political/economic atmosphere in the US - though that doesn't matter much in a globalized economy where we're all screwed anyway.

But I digress. While Joe Sixpack and Caribou Barbie are concerned about their insolvent banks and soon-to-be-foreclosed homes, we were living it up, sipping champagne and quaffing Scotch, hurtling toward London at some respectable fraction of the speed of sound.

We were on a First Class car full of Welsh pensioners on their way back from a coach tour of Switzerland, a jovial group averaging about 126 years in age. Give or take a few years. As the youngest people in the car, we apparently warranted a huge round of applause for our young newlywed status - or perhaps for our ability to withstand cold weather. Asked where we were from, we told them that we were Californians but now lived here. "What's wrong with you!?" one demanded. "It's too sunny in the States," we snarked back. "Skin cancer, you know."

"We love Florida," one of them said.

"I know," I wanted to say, "Old Brits love Florida more than George Michael loves anonymous sex and crack cocaine." But considering the company, I had to lie. "Oh, it's wonderful there. Orlando's brilliant any time of year!" I pandered to the couple who'd be sitting across the aisle from me for the next couple of hours.

To be honest, I don't blame them for loving Florida. All my memories of the place are fond. Gorgeous beaches, gorgeous women, gorgeous sunshine, more gorgeous women. Like me, they probably think "Beaches, binge drinking, and bikinis," and their subsequent perpetual boners, as opposed to "The Florida Gators, Katherine Harris, and Jeb Bush," which are enough to make anyone permanently flaccid. Florida is like Viagra - fun for the young who indulge in it, a last grasp at life for the aged, and a huge contributor to our fucked up system. How appropriate that it's shaped like the hanging schlong of America.

If Florida is America's cock, then London is Europe's pussy - or at least the loose-moraled hussy that keeps letting America fuck it. I'm not sure what the "special relationship" that Bush and Blair consummated is, exactly, but it doesn't seem like Gordon Brown has done anything to clean up the wet spot it left. Like its fellow sputtering empire, Britain is all commerical freewheeling and part police state.

Peppered amongst the 9,587 adverts flung at you every minute are stark reminders from the state. I don't mind being told to "Mind the Gap" on the Tube, but I get a bit uncomfortable being told, "Your town, your street, your home - it's all in the database." Or, "To find out what an illegal minicab can cost you, ask a rape victim." Or, "Think your belongings are safe? Think again."

Fear, fear, fear, and more fear!

Luckily, London is full of beer, beer, beer, and more beer!

Between rounds of shopping in the hipster-clogged new markets in the East End and the tourist-clogged high street shops of the West End, we downed some much-needed hand-pumped cask ale. Sure, you can get beer with a little bit of color in France, but even a pint of the crappy stuff costs an arm and a leg. After drinking beer (or attempting to, at least) in Paris, I somehow didn't mind putting down £3.30 ($5.80) for a pint of real ale. After all, you pay roughly $9 (with today's strong Dollar/Euro exchange rate, at that), for a single pint on the continent. Who knew that drinking in London could ever be considered cheap!?

The fact that a full pint of the good stuff costs less in London than a happy hour-priced pint of the yellow swill in Paris makes the trip worthwhile. Even if much of that trip is spent battling the morons of the London Underground.

I swear, I was about this close [gesturing with pinched fingers] to taking the head off of the next person who stood in the middle of a walkway, shoved me as I was moving faster than traffic as it was, or dragged their wheelie luggage across my foot with the 500-page hardcover tome on Ferran Adria I picked up at the bookstore.

That'd be the English-language bookstore. In England. Where the English books don't have to be imported. And subsequently don't cost as much as a mortgage or small vehicle, as they do in Paris.

Which has me thinking... Maybe more countries should dive into the downward spiral of financial mayhem. It makes for great bargain shopping. Anyone fancy a trip to Asia? I hear their markets are screwed, too.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In Defense of Arby's

In the past, I've slammed Arby's. Despite my friend Ed's insistence that their roast beef is worthy of sleeping with (or in, as he often says), I find their food to be nothing short of disgusting. While there was a time when I liked their 5-for-$5 special out of fiscal necessity, I would never say that I loved their food. I have, however, been able to tolerate their Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich, if only because it's one of the few items not made from their iridescent green sheets of "roast beef."

Alas, today I had a revelatory dining experience that proved that Arby's Chicken Cordon Bleu is - believe it or not - the real deal.

At the company cafeteria, I lined up at the first hot plat (not entrée) station and ordered myself the aforementioned poulet Cordon Bleu, along with a side of mashed potatoes and ratatouille. Not because I was particular craving any of those, but because it was the cheap option (2€50) that I've come to appreciate, what with France's rapidly rising food prices.

I've probably written about it before: The cafeteria food is actually not bad at all. I'll actually eat the andouillete (tripe sausage) and ultra-rare meats on offer just as easily I would at a decent restaurant. While my ethnic palate demands regular doctoring with Tabasco, chili pepper flakes, or garlic powder, the quality is at least pretty good.

Taking that into consideration, I was a bit shocked that my Chicken Cordon Bleu tasted exactly as it has at countless banquet dinners in American hotel ballrooms, dinners at friends' houses in Middle America, and... you guessed it... Arby's.

So while my company cafeteria isn't the paragon of fine dining, they at least get the French dishes right (and the Mexican and Asian dishes sooooo wrong), so if the Cordon Bleu here tastes the way it does, then - by golly - there's one dish out there that my star-spangled countrymen are actually enjoying as it was meant to be.

Now maybe I should run over to a cafeteria in the Ukraine to see if "Chicken Kiev" is all it's cracked up to be.

(Note: I'm well aware that Chicken Kieve is not actually Ukrainian.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

We Gonna Rock Down To... Electric Avenue

I was on the Métro on the way to work this morning when the lighting blinked out and with that movie-like "powering down" hum, the electrically-powered train came to a grinding halt. This is sadly quite normal on the infamous Ligne 13 (reputedly the worst line in an otherwise great transit system), but I couldn't help but think, "Hmm, maybe somebody accidentally drilled into a power cable!"

Because that's what I did yesterday.

As if hitting myself with a nice jolt of lightning-juice while installing a medicine cabinet last week wasn't lesson enough, I went back for another taste of 240V goodness. Luckily, this time, I was saved from any pain by the sturdy construction of the trusty Ryobi cordless drill. In fact, the drill transmitted no shock and just kept on going, despite the shower of sparks produced by piercing through the plaster wall and striking gold copper wire.

The metallic-smelling electrical smoke wafted through the now-darkened air (after all, I'd knocked out the power by, you know, drilling right into it) and I heard a commotion down on the street below us. I feared for the worst: That I'd knocked out power for our whole block (which is populated by a gazillion popular restaurants), or at least our whole building, which is home to a popular bar downstairs. Soon the crowds would be rallying, wielding pitchforks and torches and readying the National Razor for my arrival. Does the mandatory renter's insurance cover decapitation by reason of power outage?

By the time I made it down to the ground floor, though, I heard music from below and discovered I'd just tripped the circuit breaker. All was still well in Bricolage-land, aside from me being a little rattled, and Alannah being very rattled on my behalf. (Thank you, honey, for having the useful, self-preserving sense of danger that I apparently lack.)

I immediately made my 9th trip to Leroy-Merlin in 3 days to pick up something I should've bought much sooner: A stud/wiring detector. Unfortunately, the only one they carry is some cheap made-in-China piece of shit that has to be held at a precise angle in proper alignment with the sun while the Atlantic coast is at low tide, but it worked, and we were able to finish putting up our kitchen cabinet.

Yes, all this drama was for a kitchen cabinet. But dammit, it looks gooooooood.

Besides, I needed a little excitement in my day. In lieu of work, my Monday was spent with my ass planted in a back-breaking classroom chair in the craptacular suburb of Nanterre for eight hours, learning all about my rights and responsibilities as a resident of France. It was mildly entertaining at best, and wouldn't have been tolerable if the instructor wasn't so damn pretty.

And with that, I now have a certificate saying I've completed my formation civique, meaning I have completed the last step of French residency paperwork.

Now if only I can get certified in not getting myself electrocuted.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Our House, In the Middle of the Street

It's been over two weeks since the last update: That's about how long I've been in our new place, and about how long I've been without my own internet connection... apologies for the delay.

It's with absolutely no sadness that we moved out from our last (and final) temporary apartment. Sure, we'll miss how utterly colorful it is, how friendly the shopkeepers around us always were, and the easy access to cheap ethnic food. But we won't miss the five flights of stairs, the utter lack of space, and what we've decided should be called The Worst Sofa Bed in the World. As in a proper noun. Because it won that title handily.

If we do feel like taking a stroll down Memory Lane, however, the old 'hood is only about five minutes away... This made moving in very simple. So did the fact that we had very little to bring with us. Which meant that our poor little new apartment was very, very empty.

On the upside, we live in what should be is known as The Coolest Neighborhood in Paris. Just north of the dead center of town is the 2nd arrondissement - the city's smallest - much of it cris-crossed by pedestrianized streets made of cobblestone. The neighborhood oozes the kind of charm you'd typically only see in movies, but thankfully isn't infested by tourists and loud-talking expats like the nearby Marais, where trendy, overpaid Americans are gentrifying a formerly charming, traditionally Jewish/gay neighborhood.  In fact, the relocation guides and expat survival manuals don't even mention our neighborhood, unless it's to mention that it's dead and nothing goes on here, instead directing them straight to the Marais.  Either they're trying to keep things cool, or the expat community here is as unhip as I've always suspected...

No matter. I avoid hanging out with fellow Yanks as much as possible. Except for the one I'm married to, of course. After seven months of marriage, we finally have what we can consider our own home. We're renters, mind you, but we co-habitated maybe a grand total of 12 days before tying the knot, then started the cycle of moving from temporary to temporary like a pair of well-heeled vagabonds. Actually having our own place and making it ours is a new adventure.

The apartment is a triplex, which means it's a three-story unit. Of course, it's a very tiny three-story place (officially only 30 sq.m or 320 sq.ft), with each floor being almost half the typical height (just over six feet), sets of stairs on either side of the place, and tall windows running up along the front of it.  We decided immediately to name it... The Antfarm!

After sleeping on The Worst Sofa Bed in the World for 3.5 weeks, the prospect of sleeping on the wooden floor of the bedroom didn't sound very appealing. We'd already ordered a bed weeks before, but delivery wouldn't happen for a couple more days.  Fortunately, I'd budgeted a huge amount of money for furnishing the place (we sold most of ours in the US), so I was ready to throw down a good chunk for a sofa bed for the living room. We could sleep on that for a few days, no problem...  Even more fortunately, before we were internet-challenged, Alannah had found the sofa I fell in love with at Habitat for over 1000€ less on Craigslist...  

And most fortunate of all, I had a buddy in town on business who was so bored, he helped us move it!  Six flights of stairs (four down, two up), a few crushed appendages, six blocks of pushing an upright couch on a furniture dolly through Parisian traffic, and about five hundred confused-onlooker stares later, we were the proud owners of a couch The Heaviest Sofa Bed in the World. Josh and his wife are now permanently invited to come stay with us anytime they want to come to Paris.

With no idea when our furnitureless shipment of belongings will finally be delivered, an empty apartment, and a lot of time on her hands, Alannah has gotten really good at something: Shopping.

I kid. And I want to make it crystal clear that Alannah's not some shopping-machine housewife, joining some "Ladies Who Lunch" club and spending our single income into oblivion. If anything, she's much more sensible than I am when it comes to the household finances, and she's only been buying what we've agreed is necessary. Or awesome.

I've joked around that she's following the footsteps of Julia Child - marrying, moving to France because of her husband's job, getting to know the same places - and sometimes it really does seem to be the case. As Ms. Child did many years ago, Alannah has now befriended the staff at nearby E. Dehillerin, Paris' ultimate restaurant/cooking store. Every time we walk by there, I ask her, "Do you want to go see your dealer?" referring to the stacks and stacks of culinary goodness within. But as much as she loves kitchen implements (as do I) she has been remarkably restrained, and only purchased a few things. Luckily, I'm at the office all day when these magical cooking places of the old Les Halles area are open, for I'd probably be bankrupting us on copper-core pots and whiz-bang gadgets. 

Besides high-quality kitchen goodies, she's (we've) found another addiction: Power tools.  

The French term bricolage refers to do-it-yourself, and a DIY junkie is called a bricoleur. Paris is chock-full of bricoleurs. In a city with sky-high rents, you'd think apartments would come equipped... but they don't. They're typically just a shell waiting to be filled, improved, renovated, and - by the end of your three year lease - made livable. 

Knowing that we'd be doing a lot of bricolage, Alannah started bringing home power tools as though adopting puppies to save them from being put to sleep. And I love her all the more for it.  A Dremel, a cordless drill, a cordless sander, a cordless jigsaw... She's indulging my fantasy of being a younger, better-looking Bob Villa, and our place is rapidly becoming a home because of it.

We've now spent a small fortune at Leroy-Merlin (the European equivalent of Home Depot) and BHV (the glitzy Right Bank department store that happens to have the most amazing hardware selection in the world), rationalizing that with a shit-ton of tools and hardware, we can build anything. Instead of buying everything, we'll do much better in the long run being able to make things ourselves. "Teach a man to fish..." You get the picture.

And thus began our first weekend of bricolage. Project I: Mounting the TV.

Huh? What TV? Considering the insane amount of money we saved by buying our sofa via Craigslist, I determined there was room enough in our budget to buy a big TV. And big TVs need to be mounted on walls.

So, as opposed to partying the night away, Saturday evening was spent firing up the drill, marking up the wall above the mantle, and putting up a TV wall mount. I hope the TV outlives its extended warranty, because this sucker ain't moving. I was wondering, when I bought my box full of drill bits, why each set comes with more masonry bits than anything else. That's because Parisian walls are generally either stone or plaster, with the occasional petrified beam of wood that's older than the United States. For example, our building dates back to at least the 18th Century, and is on a street named after a baker... in the 14th Century. This pretty much guarantees that I will almost never be dealing with drywall or 2x4s ever again. Anyway, a building so old and beautiful deserves a TV as elegant and timeless in design. Needless to say, we'll be eating macaroni and cheese for dinner for the rest of the month. Or really cheap noodles in Japantown, which is how we rewarded ourselves for a job well done that night.

Sunday morning called for an early rise, so we could run over to Galeries Lafayette's "Maison" store to beat the crowds and get a jump on the rare sale prices on designer household goods there. The object of my desire: A Miele vacuum cleaner, marked down to less than the price of a sucktacular (pun intended) Hoover.

The lady and I have joked about it many times - that like Will Ferrell in Old School, marriage has emasculated me. To quote the film "Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we're going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed Bath and Beyond... I don't know if we'll have enough time." Habitual readers of this blog will probably agree. "Where's all the fun stuff about being abroad?" you may ask. "What happened to partying all night with Latinas and a liquid breakfast with Scandinavian blondes?"

To which I say... things are still hotter abroad. Especially the electricity.

Unlike the pussy-ass US and Japan and much of the "New World," electricity runs at 240V here, double the voltage in the aforementioned nations of wussdom. It's enough to stop your heart with a single, well-placed jolt, so it's extremely important to be extra judicious with any electrical projects.

Take, for example, the installation of a lighted medicine cabinet (which itself has an auxiliary power outlet for plugging in appliances like hair dryers or curling irons - if you're into that sort of thing). This is the next task we undertook on Sunday, hoping to fill the ugly, empty area that was heretofore occupied by our travel toiletries bags. At first, this was not unlike mounting the TV the night before. Some measuring, drilling of supports... In fact, this was much easier, because instead of drilling into solid rock, it was only several centimeters of plaster. After all, there's a bunch of electrical wiring running behind there. Needless to say, we shut off the circuit breaker while doing this work. The tricky part was the wiring itself. Stripping and stretching ancient wiring is no fun to begin with. And trying to screw it into a small junction box is still a bit stressful, even knowing full well that the power is shut off. Overall, though, it wasn't too difficult, and everything was hooked up and on the up-and-up for the final mounting. We proved this by turning the circuit breaker back on and lighting the puppy up. I started preparing to lift and mount the medicine cabinet by checking the wall mounts, the mounts on the cabinet itself, and the positioning of the electrical junc---BZZZZZZZZT! Fuck! God dammit! Ahh! Alannah dropped what she was doing to see if I was still alive. Somehow, despite pressing down on one of the metal contacts of the still very much open junction box, I wasn't dead, nor even knocked out.

"Actually, it's a cleaner burn than 110V," I told Alannah, assuring her that I'm ok. "It's a hell of a lot stronger, but it's... cleaner. My finger's not even burned." I theorized that it's like cutting yourself with a super sharp knife as opposed to an average knife - the cut is so powerful, it's cleaner and less painful.

Luckily, the circuit breaker did its job and popped, saving me from electrocution, and making the rest of the mounting process shock free. Undeterred by electric shock - and more encouraged by success - we moved on to the next project of this home improvement weekend.

Alannah and I both love to cook. The trouble with a French apartment kitchen, however, is that there's barely ever room for two people to cook together. Alannah had hatched up this grand dream - probably the day we first looked at the apartment back in July - for us to build a second countertop on the railing around our second-floor kitchen, hanging over the living room.

The logistics are a bit insane. The railing only provides two sides upon which we could rest a four-sided counter, one heavy enough to withstand rapid-fire chopping of vegetables, the pounding of cutlets, and the kneading of dough. We went through almost every little fastener and bracket in the hardware store, trying to figure out how to best mount this thing. Eventually, we figured out an elaborate rigging system that would require a bit of engineering and physics and steel cable suspension (no, really), and the purchase of a big, heavy piece of solid wood.

But sometimes things are just serendipitous. The other night, while taking one of our late walks, Alannah noticed a huge abandoned piece of butcher block, about the same size as her dream countertop. This is the benefit of living on a street with no less than 22 restaurants. Occasionally, one gets rid of its stuff. When activity died down on the street, we went into scavenger mode and procured this wondrous piece of wood. It had a few stains here and there, but nothing that couldn't be removed with a bit of refinishing.

Having had enough of me monopolizing the new power tools, Alannah went at it with the orbital sander, making the surface almost smooth and shiny as new. I used a jigsaw and the Dremel to create the notch that would tightly fit around the corner finial of the railing the counter would be resting upon. I planned on drilling holes to create eyelets for the suspension cable (which would then be fastened to the petrified wood beams of the ceiling) to keep the floating corner... floating. But once we did a test fitting, everything rested so perfectly - and the wood is so solid - that the suspension would amount to unnecessary gimmickry. It would look cool and post-modern, but it would really serve no purpose. So the only work left to be done would be to put lips around the edges (so things don't roll off into the living room below) and screw the countertop into the custom supports we devised from beneath... Et voila! An extra 11 square feet of counter space.

I woke up this morning in pain. My shoulders aching, my back wrenched, and my hands feeling as though I'd actually done an honest day's work. It was rewarding. Oddly enough, we woke up late Saturday morning feeling much the same way, before any of this work had actually begun. Then I remembered that on Friday night, we loaded up on many caipirinhas at the bar downstairs (who host a hoppin' transvestite night, by the way) polished off a couple of bottles of red back at ours upstairs, and while getting ready to go see Miss Kittin, I realized there's no way I'd be able to stay vertical the entire four block walk to the club.

See, kids, I've still got it. I may be a bit more focused on procuring power tools and building tables than chasing thrills in far-off lands, but I can still get smashed in a tranny bar and live to tell about it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Excès à l'Americain

This weekend marks six months since I moved to France.

(For those keeping score, that makes it six months and one week since I got married. Pretty cool honeymoon, eh?)

I decided last night that even though eating out in Paris is almost always a ridiculously expensive proposition (kebab shops and cheap Indian restos excepted), we should go out to celebrate. But where to go? We have a couple of favorite spots already, but I'm keeping them in the quiver until one of my buddies comes for a visit next week...

In the meantime, Alannah has gotten into the swing of using iCal and has been filling out a calendar full of fun cultural events we could attend. In her research, she discovered that there's a huge community of "Far West"-philes here. They're into rockabilly, folk music, rodeos, and - above all - country music. D'you think I'm kidding? Check out this link to Country-France. We scrolled through their events (actually, the rockabilly nights - even though they're out at Disneyland - sound kinda cool) and found most of them to be sponsored by Buffalo Grill.

Buffalo Grill is a chain that's proudly proclaiming how it's broken the 300-restaurant mark this year. Not only are they all over France, but they've invaded Spain, Luxembourg and now Switzerland as well. Considering the French take on American food has been, umm, worth a few laughs at best, we decided this is where we'd go for the celebratory dinner. After all, it would either be good enough to remind us of our homeland... Or be bad enough to remind us why we left. That and I really wanted some onion rings.

And to our surprise, while the place is a mixed bag, they largely get it right. Hell, they even serve actual buffalo! (Or Canadian bison, to be exact...) The onion rings are good. The portions are almost American-sized, but thank goodness they're not quite... we could barely finish our larger-than-French dishes. The quality of meat is excellent for a chain restaurant. And the chili con carne actually had some heat in it, which is unfathomable here.

Of course, there are some things they do get wrong. Horribly wrong. Their "Buffalo wings" come with barbecue sauce. Someone should tell them that the "Buffalo" in wings refers to the city in New York, not the wild west. My Texane platter (aforementioned chili, tender glazed bbq ribs, buffalo wings, a delicately baked potato, and... spring salad!?) - cited by the menu as "exactly like real cowboys eat!" - would probably cause more outrage in the cowboy community than Brokeback Mountain did. And worst of all was the godawful country/western music playing in the background. I'd be fine with some Hank or Johnny or Patsy, but some disjointed mix of Toby Keith-style neocountry horseshit? Hell, I'd take that chump Hank Jr. over the lunch-losing chorus of Chely Wright's "Bumper of my SUV". (Click the video link. I double dog dare you.)

Despite the song selection making me throw up in my mouth a little, our meal was enjoyable and succeeded in satisfying some of our longings for the You-Ess-of-Ay. Hell, even downing a cold 33cl bottle of "Bud" (it doesn't go by "Budweiser" here, as the original Czech brew owns the trademark in Europe) hit the spot.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fatty Fatty Deux-par-Quatre

Couldn't get through the bathroom... what rhymes with "quatre?"

Unfortunately, my French isn't good enough to come up with silly little rhymes.

However, it is good enough that I don't need to take government-ordered French classes. In fact, I passed my little immigration interview yesterday with flying colors. Not that I knew I had one coming my way.

I took off from work midday to go to Montrouge, just south of Paris, so I could have my controle médicale (a.k.a. a physical), a standard requirement for getting my Carte de Séjour (essentially the equivalent of a U.S. green card, but only good for one year at a time, after which it must be renewed). Typically, this would be a humdrum affair where I'd get the routine run-through, turn my head, cough, and be given a clean bill of health.

Alas, since Sarkozy has taken the reins of the République Française, immigration has become a bit more stringent. Little did I know that this was going to be an all-day affair.

I was ushered - along with around 20 other people, one white, the rest brown like me - into a room with tons of pamphlets on the tables, stern-sounding warnings about how one must be integrated, blah blah blah. I started having flashbacks to my trips to the US INS twenty years ago, going through a procession of government lackeys who knew less about American history and the English language than my 13 year-old immigrant ass did, all of them holding sway over whether I could stay in the country. (God only knows what US immigration is like now, under the deft touch of Homeland Security.)

Here I was again, about to be inspected, admonished, and possibly browbeaten into being a good immigrant. The door flung open, but I didn't see anyone. Then I looked downward and noticed a casually dressed, cute little pixie of a girl come in, who in a very soft, welcoming voice greeted us and told us that we would be watching a film about becoming a French resident. She spoke softly and clearly so that everyone would understand. I could hardly believe she was a government worker.

The big flat-screen came on and I braced for the slickly produced, overly-patriotic propaganda film expounding what a privilege it was to be in France, how honored we must be to pay huge taxes, and how to salute the Mighty Sarko... Instead, it was a very lighthearted - and sometimes even sappy - welcome, talking a little bit about the French values of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité, with a fourth one that seems to have been added recently, Laïcité (secularity). In addition, it advertised the avenues by which one can become functionally integrated into French society, talking about their language classes, employment services, and professional development. Instead of feeling browbeaten, I was impressed.

Then another functionary entered the room and told us about all of the language/civic/professional training options available to us as immigrants. It was all friendly, too friendly.

This all changed, of course, once I went to the medical section for my examination.

The area is set up in stations, and examinees go from point to point undergoing various examinations. I suddenly felt more like a conscript in the army.

Station 1 - Check in with a passport and be given a small medical dossier.

Station 2 - Remove shoes, drop personal belongings, get weighed and have heigh measured.

Station 3 - Eye examination from a longer distance than I've ever had, with smaller eye charts.

Station 4 - Blood test.

Station 5 - Remove shirt, press torso against cold plastic surface, be showered with X-rays.

Station 6 - Remove shirt (again), have vitals checked. Proceed with medical consultation.

I'm shocked there wasn't a de-lousing involved.

The humiliating part was Station 6. I was told by the doctor that I'm in fantastic health, with excellent blood sugar levels, good blood pressure, immaculate lungs, blah blah blah. Except that I'm grotesquely overweight. That in itself isn't so bad - I know I'm larger than I should be, and I know for sure that I'm enormous by French standards. But to be told almost every other sentence that I'm a fatty is a bit cruel and unusual. I acknowledged that I'm well aware of this. That after ballooning up from May through June, I've lost considerable belly fat. I told her I'm active. That I climb flights and flights of stairs without getting winded. I wanted to tell her that I even went to Diesel - yes, freaking we-only-make-clothes-for-heroin-addicts Diesel - and bought their skinniest pair of jeans just the other day.

But in the end, sitting in her office shirtless, it was plain as day that I am a grotesque fat-ass.

Oh well, I still passed and got my health certificate and can finally qualify for a Carte de Séjour.

And after waiting the rest of the day for my interview, I walked out beaming with pride, having gotten my French language proficiency certificate without having to take a single DILF (kind of like ESL, but for French) class. (If I didn't, I'd still have a whole year to learn...!)

Unfortunately, I still have to take my formation civique (civil training) class, which will take a full day sometime in September. But even my cynical (fat)ass agrees that learning the laws and general civil procedures about the country I'm now making my home is pretty damn important.

In fact - as much as I dislike him as a person - I applaud Sarkozy for this more rigorous immigration procedure. While it eats up time and on the surface appears to be a means of keeping people out, I think it's vital that people moving to a new country learn the language, know the laws, understand their rights, and adopt (or at least accept) the basic values. Doing so is a very important concession to the country that's taking them in, offering them its benefits, and allowing them the opportunity to start life anew, away from their quasi-fascist or deteriorating or dysfunctional country of origin.

I only hope that those 20 other people feel the same way.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


I just had Indian food for the third time in a week.

For the last week or so, I've been fully appreciating our new (temporary) digs on rue du Faubourg de Saint-Denis on the southwestern edge of the 10th arrondisement. It's just up the block from the rue Saint-Denis, the derelict street full of sex shops and aging hookers about whom I'd mused recently. In honor of that, I've nicknamed our apartment the real estate shorthand for "Two steps from the old prostitutes." The tiny flat is also mere steps from the Passage Brady, so reasonably priced Indian food is plentiful. And less likely to result in a trip to the clinic.

Overall, it's just so nice to be back in civilization. The tiny flat (ours for the rest of August) is on a relatively quiet courtyard - miles and miles from the speedway that was boulevard Péreire - where the only annoyance is the hunger I feel from the savory smells of the kebab shop below. That and the six-story climb up, but I'm getting over it.

The neighborhood is certainly interesting. "Colorful," most people would probably euphemize. Other than London-Heathrow airport, I don't think I've ever been in one place where I've heard so many languages from East Asia, the Asian subcontinent, Subsaharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East at the same time. The melange of cultures sometimes leads to very loud misunderstandings, but more so to crazy good smells.

Turkish kebab shops share the same air with Pakistani takeouts, Kurdish sandwich shops, Indian buffets, and my favorite Middle Eastern street food - corn on the cob roasted over coals in misappropriated shopping carts. If not for those five flights of stairs, I'd be a lard-ass by now.

Of course, all the delicious food is offset by the fact that the main street surface in this neighborhood is not made of cobblestone, but cigarette butts and pigeon feathers. It's all very filthy, nothing like the cloistered, lawyer/accountant/consultant-inhabited streets of the stodgy 17th.

I highly recommend it.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

City of Lightning

Paris is flooding.

Oh, don't worry. It happens every day.

Alannah and I go for a lot of walks, being that you do that in Paris: Walk. And every once in a while, we'd quizzically look at each other wondering why the hell the streets are aflow with tons of water. "It's like a miniature flood on the street... EVERY DAY!" she'd keep saying. Some days, we'd have to alter our course to get around the gushing water on a street corner.

Surely there couldn't be this many people washing their cars. And there aren't any lawns to over-water. Where was all this coming from?

It turns out that it's part of the whole street cleaning plan in Paris. The city spends billions each year just on cleaning. The sidewalks are swept every day. Dog crap is vacuumed up. And the gutters are flooded with (luckily plentiful) water to wash all the detritus away. I'm not sure where it all ends up, but considering how progressive they are about these things here, I'm sure it's being handled pretty responsibly.

In fact, you'll often see Parisians littering, as it's encouraged by the city. So proud are they of their oddball gutter-flooding technique, that they actually tell you to throw things in the gutter if you can't find a trash bin nearby.

This morning, those trash bins were full of water.

I had a hard time sleeping last night, thanks to the unbelievable heat and humidity. Not long after I finally did manage to fall asleep, I was awakened by a loud rumbling sound and the entire apartment building shaking.

The bright flashes of light outside really got my attention. It looked like the start of one of my favorite phenomena, a summer thunderstorm. I sat up in bed and looked out the big windows in anticipation of a light show. It may have been 4:00 in the morning, but there was no way I could've gone back to sleep.

Within moments, the torrential downpour started, and rain was pouring sideways into the apartment. I moved things away from the windows so they wouldn't get soaked, keeping them open long enough to capture some of it on camera. The amount of thunder, lightning, and - above all - rain was biblical. The water running down the street appeared to be a foot deep, gushing down like a miniature river along the Boulevard Péreire. The giant, heavy drops were beautifully illuminated by the sodium glow of the street lamps. And every time the lightning flashed through the sky, you could see the beautiful silhouette of the old Parisian rooftops, craggy with chimneys and antennae and angled slate chien-assis gables.

I got it on video and strung it together without any real editing or voiceover or sound. Alannah got some more of it as the storm continued much later, at 4 in the afternoon today. It's not much, but it'll be on the record to remind me of one of the most awesome, non-destructive storms I've experienced*.

* Sadly, the storm did take the life of a young girl out camping in the country. In fact, much of the region is on "Orange Alert," due to the intense nature of this storm, as well as some hurricane-force winds. Ahh, summertime in Paris...