Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Terminal Blues

I hate those couple of hours spent at foreign airport terminals before the boarding call.

It not only means I have oodles of time to kill thanks to hotel front desk staff who insist you leave four hours before your flight - time that's often spent unnecessarily spent at the Duty Free - but I also dreading going home.

Not that this trip's been all fun & games. Quite the contrary, if you've been reading up. And I miss my lady somethin' fierce, and can't wait to see her when I arrive in San Francisco.

But there's always the spectre of returning to the U.S. of A. I hate the feeling of dread knowing that in roughly 11 hours, I'll be greeted by some of the most unprofessional, uncouth immigration officers this side of the former Soviet Union. I sit here knowing that in half a day, I'll be completely incensed by the impatient, ill-mannered bastards who don't know how to stand around a baggage carrousel. And I can feel my sphincter tighten at the prospect of hearing nothing but "Presidential" this and "primary" that and "delegates" whoozawatsits for the next ten months.

If home is where the heart is, then I have one very hardened heart. (Probably more so now with last night's foie gras flowing through my bloodstream.) It's tough being in other countries and experiencing life at a different pace, with different values, and with a different perspective, only to come home to things to realize that all the people you love are surround by things you're starting to hate.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not some America-hater. But with every little footstep on foreign soil, I hate more and more what America's becoming. Impolite. Arrogant. Paranoid. I take criticism decently, so I don't feel offended by how my people and my country are handled by the foreign media. By taking a step back, I can see the ridicule heaped upon our once-great nation for championing liberty and democracy while leaning toward oligarchy and theocracy.

This isn't to say that Europe is perfect. France elected some Bush-lovin' righty in their most recent presidential election, and the previous president had to have a run-off with a freakin' Nazi. But in day to day life, everything is still imbued with a sense of politesse, that life is more than your job or your political party or your stock portfolio. That it matters more how your steak is cooked than which kook you voted for. That it matters more that you say "bonjour" to everyone you see than to call in the TIPS line because they look a bit dark.

Oh well - the grass is always greener on the other side. I should be thankful that I'm coming home to a wonderful woman, a loving family, awesome friends, great co-workers, and the best fucking city in all of America*. For whatever that's worth.

*San Francisco, for all you misinformed people who thought your hometown is better.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I Repeat, This Is NOT a Vacation

Sure, this trip has all the hallmarks of a vacation.

An all-expense paid trip to Paris, the luxury of WiFi, the feeling of pride when I successfully communicate in a foreign language...

But once again, it was nearly an 11-hour day in the office.

Sure, I got to take another leisurely lunch, this time finally going in for the kill on a plate of steak frites, washed down with a bottle of Badoit and some warm chocolate cake bathing in creme anglaise. And don't forget the obligatory coffee.

That may sound extravagant, but such fuel is a necessary evil. Meetings. Punctuated by a protracted product launch. More meetings.... get the picture? This is work, people! If you told me before this trip, "Have fun in Paris," and caught me rolling my eyes, surely now you can kind of sympathize.

I actually did make it out before 8:00 pm, in time to get to the pharmacy to pick up one of those wondrous only-in-Europe ointments for my mom. You know, the kind the FDA won't approve because it'd rip the bottom out of the market for the major players.

And that was about the highlight of my night. I got back to my hotel in time to put some mild fires out on the homefront, exchanging instant messages, shooting off emails, and updating servers like a madman. A product launch is a horrible time to be away from the desk. But things eventually calmed down, and my boss urged me via IM to try out the restaurant he'd recommended.

A Bonne Table. About 10-15 minutes' walk away, this place has anachronistic maritime decor - part old schooner, part ultralight yacht. I politely asked the lovely hostess/waitress/busser if it's ok to dine alone. My last trip having been to Japan, that's the norm. She looked at me like I was crazy for asking such a thing, but politely replied with, "Mais bien sur!" Or - "Of course we're willing to take your money, you poor bastard from a country whose economy is in recession, thus making any meal short of a kebab about equal to half a week's salary."

I sat down and made my selections, and the hostess recommended a delightfully smokey Saint-Véran. I sipped on it delicately as I ate my amuse-bouche of fried salted-cod potatoes, feeling extra self-conscious because I was dining solo. When you dine alone, it feels like everyone's eyes are on you. In fact, one of the other diners in the restaurant kept looking over at my table, wondering if my dining companion would ever show up. But who cares when you're eating little morsels of deep-fried fish-n-potato when they're being washed down with such an incredible wine? My appetizer sealed the deal, though - foie gras imbued with langoustine tails. It was a combo I'd never even imagined, and each forkful was made extra special with the variety of garnishes, each bringing out a different dimension of the fattened duck liver and mini-lobster tails before me.

I could hear my main course sizzling on the grill as - BZZZT BZZZT - my phone vibrated. It was the office. No matter. I'm in the middle of dinner. They can wait. BZZZT BZZZT. One new message. Whatever. BZZZT BZZZT. Incoming call - the office. I glanced up at the waitress and politely excused myself to the front vestibule.

"Hello. What's up?"

It was one of my coworkers.

"I think something's wrong with the installers."

"Umm, what? I'm in the middle of dinner here, but I'll be done soon. I can be back at the hotel pretty quickly."

*sound of the phone being handed off*

"Omid - we've got some customers screaming. Please get back to the hotel now!"

So much for my boss telling me to go to his favorite restaurant in this neck of the woods...

The waitress was kind enough to box up my dinner (amazing in a country where doggy bags are a sin punishable by flogging), and even put a plastic stopper in the remainder of my bottle of wine.

I felt so tacky. So gauche. So... American. I apologized for my sudden need to leave.

She apologized for my need to work.

So I've been back at my hotel, scrambling to see what's wrong, and things are calming down. In the meantime, I've eaten my dinner out of a box and drank my wine out of a tiny plastic cup. And the scary thing is - it's still really, really, amazingly good. The scallops are seared to perfection. The mashed artichoke hearts and fried artichoke leaves are like something from another planet. Planet Ecstasy. And I needed this wine now more than ever.

Somehow, despite consuming it out of plastic and skipping out on a proper dessert and coffee, I had a fantastic meal. One worthy of tonight's megadose of stress.

I need to get to bed now. I have to wake up at 6:00, catch a cab by 6:45, and be at the airport by 8:00. Luckily, there are no scheduled strikes. But traffic on the Périphérique can be a bitch, so I have to start at an ungodly hour.

Unfortunately, I may not be able to sleep. I just caught the story about Mike Huckabee wanting to put more God in the US Constitution. Hell no!!!! I'm gonna pray he can't do it. And yes, I realize the irony of that statement.

Thank you, good night, and God Bless... fancy French food.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Hard Day's Night

I should be sleeping like a log...

Actually, I will be soon. I didn't sleep all that well last night, largely due to the fact that I cranked the heater too much - this room's great at retaining heat. But it was too damn cold outside to open the windows and air it out. All groggy, I snoozed through my THREE freakin' alarms and ended up getting up an hour later than planned.

But I was motivated.

'Cuz dammit, there was more of that yogurt to be had down in the salle de petit dejeuner. Despite being on the verge of being late for my day at the Mothership, I sat and savored it. And the office is so close, I made it in at exactly 9:00 anyway. Note to self: set the alarm a bit later tonight.

I'm glad I had a good feed in the morning, because I was at the office until 8:00. As in P.M.

Whatever you've heard about the 35-hour work week in France, my company obviously hasn't heard of it. Either that or they only work three days a week. It struck me when I was told that I had one of my meetings scheduled at 6:00 that this is definitely a business trip.

But I have to say, the French know how to do business. When you're in meetings for an ungodly amount of time, languishing over a long lunch is fully justified. We hopped down to the local bistro (known as the official restaurant of my company's executive management - a handful of others showed up there) where I shared a charcuterie platter with our new marketing honcho. Next thing I knew, my mouth was full of tongue.

Umm, that'd be braised beef tongue. Opting yet again out of my usual steak frites, I went instead with the other special of the day: a French kiss from a bovine. Served up in an awesomely meaty gravy and a side of pureed potatoes, it was the perfect, hearty fuel for a cold day full of meetings.

Our Paris office is remarkably different than back in the Bay Area. Most notably in how quiet it is. While we spend a lot of time joking around and cranking silly songs, people have got their noses buried in their work here. Of course, here they take two hour lunches and 364 days of vacation and/or strike time. In the end, we all get our work done.

Of course, 8:00 didn't mark the end of the work day. Back at my hotel, I decided to check in with the office back home - as it's still early in the day there - and had more work to do. So once again, my chances at a decent dinner went up in smoke. Or up in a cup of convenience-store chocolate pudding I'd kept chilling on the windowsill. I tried once again to forage up some dinner at a late hour, but this is the suburbs, where fluorescent lighting and cheap formica tables rule. And at our horrendous exchange rate, I'm not about to pony up $30 for an Applebee's-level experience.

Yeah, this trip isn't as glamorous as it could be. I've yet to see the Seine or even be within clear viewing distance of the Eiffel Tower. I've snapped only a handful of photos, and I've become intimately familiar with the Canal+ cable programming lineup.

But I knew going in that this wasn't going to be a free vacation. No corporate junket here. And in the spirit of discovery, I'm getting a good, close look at everyday work life in another country - something you won't find in any guidebook. So take that, Lonely Planet.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Why I Love France

At home, when I flip over to Headline News to see what's going on, I see this:

For the last couple of days, I flip on the 24-hour headline news channel and I see this:

The conclusion: LCI's graphics packages are obviously less tacky than Headline News'.

Rockin' the Suburbs

I seem to have made a habit of this in Paris: Walking around at a late hour, trying to find someplace to eat, and repeatedly striking out.

Only I'm in Clichy, a suburb a few kilometers from the official border of Paris, so instead of this happening at midnight, it happened around 9:00 pm.

I finally started feeling hungry again, then realized it was 8:00. On a Sunday. I'd best get to walking around and hunting down some dinner. To my surprise, there were a good number of places open during my hour-long walk. Unfortunately, most of my choices seemed to be things under heat lamps, kept warm on steam tables, or presented by the enemy of gourmands everywhere: Menus in English. Mostly at crappy-looking hotels.

At one point, I approached the périphérique where the darkness of the suburbs started to give way, the glow of neon signs and open businesses luring me like the siren's call. But this trip's all about avoiding the obvious. (That and, umm, work.) So I headed back another way toward my hotel. Things looked ever more depressing as I trudged along. To quote an email from one of my co-workers here, "Don't stay all the week-end in Clichy ! (it's so sad)"

Well, it's not fully sad. The nearby Allée Léon Gambetta and the city hall are gorgeous when lit up at night, the trees covered in tiny white lights and casting long shadows across the boulevards of grass. But all the night time beauty in the world won't feed me.

An hour had gone by. I'd about given up when I noticed the Turkish kebab shop right by my hotel was still open. I went in and ordered a platter of shawarma to go - no sauce, no drink, the mixed salad, and a plastic fork, please - quite a feat when mixing my heavily accented French with the shockingly more accented French of the guy behind the counter.

This was the best decision I made all day. Being closing time, he hooked me up with all the meat remaining on the skewer. The rice had time to steep in whatever grease it sits in before being served. And he also gave me some extra bread. And it was all fan-frikkin'-tastic. A gorgeous meal, all wrapped up in a styro box to enjoy in my little hotel room. Now you might think, "What's the big deal? You got a kebab platter to go." You don't understand what a feat this is back at home. In San Francisco, there's plenty of good falafel. Something about a huge vegetarian hippie population. But you can barely find a decent kebab to save yourself. This shit is the domain of Europe, Australia, and most likely the Middle East.

Speaking of the Middle East, it's been entertaining watching the news here - something I've been doing a lot. It looks like Nicolas Sarkozy (a.k.a. Sarko l'Americain) is mimicking his hero Bush, as they're both doing little tours of the Middle East. While CNN here is full of sensationalistic reports about US sabre-rattling toward Iran after the patrol boat incident in the Strait of Hormuz, the European media is treating it with a bit more... let's say... incredulity.

Don't get me wrong - they skewer Sarkozy quite a bit. But it seems the hatred of the Bush administration is even greater now that it holds sway over France's current president. Obi-wan Kenobi once wisely said, "Who's the more foolish? The fool? Or the fool who follows?" Obviously, the French place more emphasis on the progenitor of the foolishness.

The French news is also blissfully devoid of hoopla about the US presidential campaigns. They make some mentions whenever actual news come out, and people here are following it closely, but I've yet to see a clip of Hillary crying like a bitch or Huckabee selling his evil-wrapped-in-a-nice-guy package.

Anyway, the ten o'clock hour is approaching, and it seems like a good time to get out and have a drink at a bar.

Only looking out the window, everything is closed.

What a difference 4 kilometers makes.

Across the Top of Paris

On the last trip, I dragged poor Alannah to cut a diagonal swath across Paris on foot. I promised her I wouldn't subject her to torture like that again, so now that I'm here on my own, I figured I'd continue my quest to carve up the City of Light on foot, like some sort of butcher's diagram.

If Paris is a pig facing left, then I started out in the ham, moved up and across the loin chops, and ended up in the shoulder. Ok, considering the number of halal butcher shops I walked by, maybe the pork allegory isn't appropriate. So here's a map:

It's Sunday, so I knew that other than the tourist spots and crazy department stores, there'd be little that's open. So I figured I'd look to an area where they don't consider Sunday a pesky day of rest: Belleville. Not only is it a huge ethnic enclave and home to Paris' second Chinatown, but it's probably the only area I hadn't visited before.

Most visitors don't wind up in Belleville, and it's a shame. Sure, there's no huge tower or Napoleonic arch or famous museum to speak of. But the bustling streets and overflowing shops are a sure reminder that Paris isn't just a romantic city founded on the artistic merits of Van Gogh and Baudelaire - it's also multicultural collage comprised of Chinese markets, Kosher delis, Arabic take-outs, and all manner of sights and smells.

Unfortunately, my first whiff of Belleville was courtesy of a skanky heroin junkie throwing herself at me when I got out of the Metro. "Please!" she begged. "I'll do anything for a little bit of money." You know, behind the two black eyes, track marked arms, and stink of a week without bathing, she was probably hot to trot. But not only am I faithful to my gal, I'm amazingly discriminating.

Except maybe when it comes to food. Passing by all the roast ducks in windows, freshly grilled meats, and tantalizing deep fried who-knows-what, I walked into... McDonald's.

I can't help it. I'm a total whore to advertising. Ever since I landed, I've been seeing these billboards for le P'tit Indien ("The Li'l Indian"), a new sandwich served under the golden arches of the American Embassy. The ad shows off a little pile of turmeric, some coriander leaves, and cinnamon sticks. And I'm of the firm belief that curry can make anything short of your Aunt Missy's Jell-O ambrosia taste great. And thus, le P'tit Indien is pretty good. Great? No. It's basically a McChicken laced with curry powder. But with a carton of hot fries and a cold Kronenbourg 1664, it's a totally respectable fast food meal. Ok, maybe not respectable. Acceptable, perhaps? Alright, I'm reaching. But I still believe in my curry theory.

Turning north, I walked alongside most of the length of the Canal St. Martin. It's placid and peaceful, lined with some newly trendy eating and drinking establishments. The whole quiet factor is increased manifold by the fact that it's closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays. As the sun came out, I was surrounded by people fishing in the canals, families strolling down the street, and all manner of pretty girls cruising by on their free Vélib rental bikes.

Vélib is amazing, and going by the number of empty dispenser stalls, it's a rousing success. It's a system where you go and check out a bike from one of 300 automated bike racks, and drop it off at any other one. The first 30 minutes of each rental are free, so as long as you drop off your bike as soon as you get to your next destination, you can pedal around the city totally free. Apparently, this program is a lifesaver during the many times the Parisian transit workers go on stirke. I can only wish we had something like this in the San Francisco, so I wouldn't ever have to get on the filthy Muni again. (For more info on Vélib and how it works - check it out here.)

Speaking of strikes, I have the TV on right now, and apparently CNN here plays a French edition of the Daily Show with an intro monologue that's more geared toward folks in France. Here's a bit from Jon Stewart's bit that just played: "As you may know, here in the US, the writers are on strike. Or as those of you in France would call it... EVERY DAY."

Despite it being a gloriously strike-free day, I continued along my march across Paris, following the tree-lined boulevards of La Chapelle, Rochechouart, Pigalle, and Clichy. And yes, that's the stretch that - if you've studied your guidebooks - is considered the seediest, most dangerous strip in Paris. I may have said it on the last trip, but if this is the worst part of Paris, those guidebook writers must be living in some sort of whitewashed ivory tower. Yeah, there's a sex shop or two or ten. Yeah, you've got a few thug types hanging around. But there are just as many parents rollerblading with their kids, old couples strolling hand-in-hand, and more of those pretty girls on bicycles. I don't know - maybe the authors out there are just scared of anything ethnic or a bit more risqué. I know shit's gone down in front of some of the bars and that some people get hassled walking around this area. But this is nothing compared to half the neighborhoods in San Francisco or New York or LA. Then again, maybe I'm just desensitized by America's love for thug life. Who knows?

Although I entertained the idea of walking the rest of the way, my feet were pretty beat by the time I got to Place de Clichy, so I hopped on the Metro and went four stops back to my hotel.

Maybe I should've walked.

The train was packed. Not so much with people, but with their things. What with the soldes going on, people are getting on board with rucksacks, duffel bags, and freakin' suitcases of marked down items they've bought from the department stores. At first I thought there was a sudden influx of tourists on good ol' Ligne 13, but no - I was being packed like a sardine in a tin can full of mass consumerism.

Oh well - at least they use public transit, huh?

Raymond K. Hessel

I'm in what's arguably the culinary capital of the world, and I skipped dinner.

Sure, there are a dozen places I could eat just within spitting distance of my hotel. Sure, even the cheapo traiteurs littering the side streets here are probably better than more expensive joints at home. And sure, I could probably even expense it. But I was too tired and - dare I say it - not that hungry.

Here I am surrounded by a nearly unlimited supply of foie gras, saucissons, entrecôte, moules, baguettes, and dodgy-but-delicious doner kebabs. And I opted out of it all.

So it was no surprise that I woke up this morning completely ravenous. I went to sleep last night dreaming of all of the above, salivating over fatty foods, fresh ingredients, and maybe a little bit over über-hottie Louise Monot. And thus, my complimentary hotel breakfast was fabulous.

Now I wouldn't go quoting Fight Club and say that this breakfast was "better than any meal you and I have ever tasted." I merely passed a night skipping a meal, not having a gun held to my head behind a liquor store. I didn't have a life-changing experience. Tyler Durden didn't convince me to continue my veterinary studies. But just my yogurt alone was worth the long flight over. The fact that I was sipping coffee and buttering my demi-baguette while looking out at a quaint little Parisian sidewalk made it more than worth waking up. Each sip and every bite was punctuated by a little taste of - okay, overbearing cliché time - life. And I haven't even set foot outside the hotel for 15 hours.

I've been a glutton on my travels. And I still think that eating and drinking a country dry is the way to go. But by scaling back my sensory indulgence, I think I'm going to get a whole new angle. Maybe.

Now to decide where I'll go for a walk today. No tourist sites. No crowds. I just want to walk.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

On the Road Again

The hotel's not very central, but nice. There's free WiFi. The bathroom is huge. It's clean as all hell. It's comfortable enough for me to get some rest before a couple of days of meetings.

And did I happen to mention that I'm in Paris?

Oui, mes amis, I'm in Paris again, although this time on business. I've got two days of meetings at my company's headquarters, so this is a brief sojourn, but I've got a weekend to kill ahead of the actual business part. And this time, it feels different. Besides the spectre of actually having to do work in an actual office while abroad (none of this desperately-seeking-WiFi stuff like in Japan), this is one of those cities that I've already touristed to death.

So despite it being a chilly 35ºF outside, I've got the windows wide open so I can hear the hubbub on busy Rue Général Leclerc below. The green grocer across the street is making some noise shuffling boxes of fruit and veg in front of his store. I can hear children talking their baby-talk as their parents go in and out of the boulangerie-pâtisserie at the corner. The calm of Saturday evening suburban humdrum is occasionally broken by somebody yelling, a siren wailing, or horns honking.

Indeed, it's Saturday night and I'm just sitting in my little hotel room, enjoying the ambience, and relaxing.

Not to say that it hasn't been a full day. After a comfortable but entirely sleepless 11-hour flight from San Francisco, my friend and colleague Julien - who just happened to be in Paris - picked me up and we went to drop my stuff off in the 17e. This is the neighborhood I stayed in last time, and I love it. Away from the touristy masses, but intoxicatingly Paris just the same.

We went toward l'Opera area (here's my favorite photo from that quartier the last trip) and met up with his cousin for lunch at Le Pain Quotidien. Yes, I actually voluntarily decided to forgo steak frites and other such artery-clogging French delights for a tropical shrimp salad at this organic/all-natural Belgian... *gulp* CHAIN. And it was good. Damn good. God, even the chains here are better than stuff at home.

That was followed by a jaunt to the crazy retail area (home to the Galleries Lafayette, etc.) to pick some stuff up for Alannah. And when I say crazy, I mean batshit, balls-to-the-wall insane. Right now is the time for soldes, the twice-annual sale period that makes America's Black Friday look like a walk in the park. You see, there are only two periods where stores can legally have a sale (this prevents back-handed markdown practices), and with savings up to 50%, people go nuts. Whacko. As in "I'd rather just stay inside than brave those crowds to bar any potential claustrophobia" crazy.

And I'm doing exactly that. I've checked into my hotel. I'm hanging out in my skivvies despite the freezing cold. And I'm taking it all in.