Friday, February 29, 2008

Coldstone It Ain't

Friday night.

People took off early from work.

Club flyers are plastered on the cars.

Well-dressed suburbanites are rushing to the metro for drinks, dancing, and god knows what else.

And here I am, in my hotel room, tapping away on my keyboard.

It's a sad existence, this living-in-a-suburban-hotel gig. But worthless American dollars be damned, I was on a mission to do something. So I walked the streets of Clichy, searching out a restaurant. It's payday after all, so I can afford to splurge a bit, n'est-ce pas?

I walked around in a huge circle, finding nothing but shitty faux Chinese traiteurs and the same dingy, fluorescent-lit brasseries I did last time around. For the umpteenth time, I walked by a place called Fire & Stone Grill, a place that - no matter how many times I saw it - I've avoided like the plague for the name alone. But this time, I went in. Drawn in by the fantastic smell of grilling steak and the reasonable menus, I couldn't help but be seduced by the prospect of meat.

The atmosphere was jovial, but it depressed me. Enveloped by the sound of my favorite kitschy 80's tunes, I felt much rather like dancing with someone I loved than sitting down to what might be a questionable meal. And by the looks of it, it was date night in Clichy. An old couple - apparently regulars - next to me. A middle-aged married couple who seemed to be having a make-up dinner across the dining room from me. A young, interracial couple - so obviously in love - across from me. With my place-setting for one.

I immediately ordered a bourbon. A big, fat tumbler of it to drown my sorrows.

As the distilled spirits made their way into my bloodstream, I looked around and smiled. It won't be long before my honey is here, and we can have date night every night. I hit the bottom of my glass and felt all warm and fuzzy. Then I ordered steak.

But first, the buffet. While not the most appealing spread ever, there were enough cold fish and meats and cheese to make any viking happy. I went straight for the vegetables.


In my scrimping and saving and scrounging, my stomach has shrank. And even though I stood before a Texas-sized spread of appetizers, I now have a French-sized appetite. I decorated my little plate with beets, lentil salad, tomato salad, some red radishes... all the hallmarks of some hippie vegan meal.

All the better. My meat arrived, a big, bloody hunk of rumpsteak, sitting atop a superheated marble-slab. Apparently, at Fire & Stone, your steak is always cooked to order. Because you cook it. I let it cook for about a minute on each side, and dove in. Nice and blue. A few minutes later, it was perfectly à point. Midway through, it was the American version of medium rare. Alas, I ate too slowly, enjoying my side of potatoes and abundant bread, and my last portion was criminally medium. But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The price? Not including the bourbon and obligatory after-dinner coffee, €15.50. For the first time in a week, this expression entered my mind: Tremendous value.

If I ever get my American-sized appetite back, I'm coming back here to lay waste to the buffet. They're open for dinner from seven 'til midnight, meaning I can sit and stuff my face for five hours solid. But in the meantime, having a reasonable portion was enough to fill the gaping void inside of me.

One Week

It's been exactly one week since I got to Paris, and this marks the end of my first full work week at the office.

At noon, I was brought downstairs to the conference room where they had flowing champagne, endless snacks, and even a few gifts.

Ok, so they were commemorating someone else's last day. And other than there being much more champagne and much less English spoken, it struck me that it's almost exactly like the office back home.

And after a week here, I'm glad to say that my initial impressions were wrong. When I last came here, I found the office to be much quieter, less social, and definitely less fun. I knew that in order to gain French quality of life, I'd probably be sacrificing the uniquely Californian quality of workplace.

Honestly, this is the part I was most nervous about. I've read countless times on expat web sites and god knows how many books about Paris that work is work, it's not nearly the social call that it is in the US, and that you shouldn't expect to make any friends there. That you should largely expect to be ignored, that people won't talk to you (often out of a self-conscious fear of the language barrier), and that there's a strong boundary between workplace and social life.

To some extent, it is quieter and not as much fun here. That much is true. No one's cranking music on their iTunes, and people don't huddle around a screen to watch the latest YouTube funny.

But I've found that it's no less social. People are friendly, genial, and so far have been really good about making me feel welcome. There's definitely water-cooler talk. It's not hard to get a group together for lunch. Hell, there's even an informal gathering of people who go swimming after work on some days. When people ask if I've found an apartment yet, they're quick to name their favorite quartiers along with the best restaurants and bars. And even though I'm now a married man, I've definitely taken the totally testosterone-fueled pleasure of pointing out cute girls walking by the break room window with my colleagues. (And yes, the women here do it, too.)

So to summarize: A week in, working in Paris has been more pleasurable than expected. Besides the fact that it's freakin' Paris, the people have largely broken the stereotypes, and I'm largely having a good time, even if the environment is a bit more reserved. Even Clichy, the lame suburb where I'm staying, is tolerable because it makes me look forward to going to the office.

The only miserable part? I miss my wife :(

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Petits Connards...!

I was sitting at my desk today, lamenting the fate of the ever-plunging US dollar against its trans-Atlantic cousin, the Euro.

Our CFO happened to be in on this conversation.

"In fact, this is very good for us," he said with obvious delight. "Here is your week's salary!"

He put a coin on the desk.

My new boss decided to join the chorus. "You've done a great job this week. We're doubling your salary!" And he slapped down another coin.

Who says the French are humorless? They're mean-spirited, evil bastards who prey on the feelings of someone on the edge of pauperdom, but they're funny.

Ahh, I remember when I could do that to my Canadian friends. Those were the days. Now we can't even afford a crappy, watered-down can of Molson's. Sorry, Canucks, your dollar may be worth more than ours, but your beer still sucks! And before you get all butt-hurt, you can revel in the fact that I can't afford even suckier, even more watered-down French beer.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I came "home" to my hotel and flipped on the news. The first graphic that came up on the screen:

€1 = $1.522

Curses! Foiled Again...

I know I promised to be more mindful of my spending here, especially when it comes to food. Ok, that's my only expense right now, so it should be easy, right? Wrong!

After coming back from my blissfully cheap lunch at the cantine yesterday, I ran into one of our longtime Dutch customers who just happened to be visiting the office here.

"Hi! Omid! Hey, do you have any dinner plans?"

Uh oh.

Now I like this guy. We typically see each other once a year at our annual worldwide conference. He's a nice guy, we get along, and I enjoy his company. But dammit, going to dinner with someone who's come from far away usually means one thing: $$$. Or rather, €€€.

He stopped by my office after the work day was over and we set out to find a place to eat. Mind you, this is Clichy, where the options are as limited as the sophistication. We settled on one of the many dreadful Italian places in town, largely because it was a more affordable option.

Now here's something weird about Paris. Despite France's proximity to Italy, I've never since I first visited over five years ago been able to find a remotely decent Italian meal in this city. And the prospect of having something they do so poorly in a suburb where they do almost everything more poorly made me cringe.

Bitch and moan as I may, though, my pizza "Paysanne" was surprisingly good, relatively affordable (if you don't think about it in dollars), and the company was great. When you're living in a hotel for a week, it's always worth the price of admission to have a dining companion. All told - after ice cream and a .5 litre pitcher of house red - I spent more than I'd like to, but it certainly beat sitting on my bed, watching a dubbed version of CSI and munching on an apple.

The benefit of trying to stay cheap is that the half litre of wine knocked my ass out shortly after I got home, so I slept like a baby for the first time in what seems like eons. Now I see why winos sleep so well.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Eatin' On the Cheap: Part Deux

My friend Ed commented in my posting about financial woes about his student days in Paris, eating baguettes, cheese, and jambon for a cheap meal. I've probably dispensed this advice a thousand times in the past, and not being a hypocrite, I've been doing it myself - albeit courtesy of the "breakfast buffet" at the otherwise nil-service Hotel Savoy.

I start each morning with aforementioned baguette, cheese, and ham, and maybe some coffee and orange juice and yogurt, to boot. This certainly beats the "contintental breakfast" made up of shitty coffee and Svenhard's shrink-wrapped Danishes at your run-of-the-mill Travelodge.

Today, my new boss introduced me to another cheap thrill: The company cafeteria.

I heretofore hadn't known we had a company cafeteria - or the cantine as it's called here. But apparently, my badge works as some sort of debit card at this wondrous oasis of cheap food. Cheap being the operative word, as everyone told me today. It's certainly no Tour d'Argent, but I'm not complaining: Endive salad, mustard-crusted ham, farafalle, ratatouille, and a drink for less than €5.

I have the sneaking suspicion that all this is subsidized by the government through some pinko commie program that represents a significant portion of the budget, alongside cheap public transit, fantastic parks, and hardly-any-copay healthcare. (As opposed to - you know - wars, faith-based initiatives, and congressional hookers.) In that case, viva la revolucion! I'll be in Montmartre's Place de Tertre buying a crappy painting of Che Guevara in no time!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Eatin' On the Cheap: Part I in a Series

Let's hope it's a long series.

So I decided to forgo having a sit-down meal, or even opting to hit the American Embassy (you know, the one with the golden arches) and went uber-cheap for dinner tonight. With a trip to the Casino.

No, no, not a gaming joint. Casino is a supermarket chain here. And while this goes against the whole über-European ideal of buying little things from the local bakery, cheesemonger, deli, etc., you have to keep in mind that until I find an apartment, I'm in Clichy.

Being in Paris while actually staying in Clichy is like... being in San Francisco while actually staying in Daily City. Without the awesome dim sum... Like being in Los Angeles while actually staying in Van Nuys. Without the killer Mexican food... Like being in New York City while actually staying in Jamaica/Queens. Without the cheap crack...

Ok, enough badmouthing Clichy. I did that on my last trip here, and one of these days after some gentrification and real estate speculation, I'm sure it'll be an affluent suburb with wonderful things like Outback Steakhouse, PF Changs, and Elephant Bar. Er.. maybe not.

Back to dinner. So I went to Casino and picked up some chips, a few apples, and a whole shitload of Badoit.

Badoit is my favorite mineral water. I blame the evil bitch waitress at San Francisco's Le Zinc for getting me hooked on it. At $9 a bottle, it may as well be a mild form of heroin. Lightly effervescent, smooth-tasting heroin. Then I started buying it for $3 a bottle at a French restaurant supply place in Brisbane. But you know how much it is here? Fifty mothaf***in' cents. Even at our godawful exchange rate, that's barely 75 US cents a bottle.

This is all due to the economies of scale. For as environmentally progressive as Europe is, Parisians drink a shitload of bottled water. And as you may well know, bottled water is one of the most evil things for the environment. The wasted bottling materials, the polluting transport, the billions wasted on marketing - all for stuff you can just get out of the tap and be hydrated just the same. But here, they drink it like it's going out of style. The bottled water consumption here makes those pony-tailed MILFs toting litres of Evian at LA gyms look like utter lightweights. France may be all about green transit, green construction, green spaces - but the ultimate institution here is the green of a bottle of Perrier.

But you know who the asshole is here? Me, that's who. Not because I should know better than to buy bottled water, but because tonight, I was that guy. The culturally unsavvy bastard who did the unthinkable: Hold up the grocery store line.

The checker rang up my armload of water, my chips, and then she got to my bag of apples. She machine-gunned something at me in French. I tried my hardest to answer the question. "Euhhh... les pommes? Elles sont les pommes.. uhhh.. Gala?" She shook her head, obviously not asking what kind of apples they were. She machine-gunned again. This time I caught something about a tag and the weight. Instead of dumping the apples, though, she was patient - despite the huge queue behind me - and allowed me to go back to the produce section to figure out exactly what I had to do.

So with a mob of frustrated Frenchmen behind me, I went looking for a scale. Or those little tags that you use at the bulk bins at hippie grocery stores. Neither were anywhere to be seen. Then I saw some contraption where you lay your produce, punch the button bearing the picture of what you're buying, and it spits out a little barcode ticket. I did a little victory dance and laughed as I slapped the ticket on my bag, oblivious to the fact that the line of Frenchmen was growing larger and ever more disgruntled. I came back all proud of myself, beaming that I'd somehow figured out how to buy a bag of apples in France.

The checker looked at me like the idiot that I am.

The apple I had for dinner was absolutely delicious, by the way. And blissfully cheap.

Money, Money, Money

I started this blog just over two years ago as a full-on backpacker.

Jumping from hostel to hostel with nothing but my backpack and digital camera in tow, making new friends and moving from place to place every couple of days.

Eventually I interspersed my backpacking with a bit of "flashpacking" - staying in hotels, the occasional condo, and sometimes an apartment rented for a week. With each further trip, I relied less and less on hostels and more and more on my laptop, no longer afraid to lug two grand worth of gear with me.

The evolution is complete: I'm now an expat.

I'm firing up the blog again on this, my fourth day in France, after my first day of work at my new job in Paris.

Yes, that's right, I've moved to Paris. And for those of you not keeping score, I got married the Friday before last. My beloved bride is not with me yet - she's still got loose ends to tie up in San Francisco before making the jump across the pond herself, and I could write pages and pages about just how much I miss her. But that's not why you read this.

I'm writing this to say that while I've evolved from penny-pinching backpacker to occasional luxury vacationer to lucky-prick-with-an-international-relocation-package, I feel like I'm back to square one. That is, flat broke.

Ok, that's not entirely accurate - I've got some money in the bank and my company has put me up in a hotel until I find an apartment (hopefully by the coming weekend), but have you checked the exchange rates lately?

The dollar. Fucking. Sucks.

At this very moment, it's sitting at $1.48 to the euro, meaning I'm losing nearly 50% on every transaction. Until I'm "official" and have my paperwork blessed by the French government, I'm still being paid in dollars, which may as well be pesos as far as I'm concerned.

Not to say that I haven't had some fantastic meals. A dinner like I had on Friday night at Le Clou is easily worth the €33 prix fixe for three courses. The three-course lunch I ate at boho haven Le Bouquin Affamé was well worth the €17.50 for the tarte du jour alone. But if you do the math, that's about $75 for two meals.

I know, I know, I can't be thinking in dollars over here, but I can't help it while I'm being paid in a devalued currency. So I beg you, Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve: Please stop printing money and lowering interest rates. You're not doing me any favors.

In the meantime, I have discovered at least one cheap little slice of heaven. As I walked yesterday from Bercy in the very southeast of Paris to near Montmartre in the northwest - yes, another one of my crazy urban hikes - I found a cheapo pan-Asian joint where I could tuck into a €6 bowl of Pho. Here, in the capital of foie gras, steak frites and escargot, I found some of the greatest pleasure in Vietnamese rice noodles in beef broth.

Not to say that it was the most authentic Pho I've ever had. In fact, despite France's colonial forays into Vietnam and Indochina and beyond, I've found little by way of good Asian food so far. The other night's lapse in judgement was a trip to Konichiwa in Clichy-la-Garenne. I should've known by the fact that the restaurant's name was slightly misspelled in hiragana on the menu that I wasn't in for the most authentic experience. But I soldiered on, going through a course of shrimp salad (which tasted nothing like I'd ever had in terms of Japanese food in my life), some middling sushi, and a surprisingly decent set of yakitori skewers. To give credit where due, the yakitori was more authentic than at home, grilled over charcoal and not swimming in teriyaki sauce.

But for the pleasure of below-average Japanese food, I paid €18.50.

That's $27.

So from tonight on, I vow to adopt what my buddy Vince called the "Immigrant Mentality." I've got to scrimp and save and resist the temptation of stuff that isn't good for me anyway, so that I can make a proper new life for myself and my *gulp* wife.

Hmm.. maybe being an expat newlywed isn't too different from being a backpacker after all.