Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Expat Bars, or "One of the Many Signs That I'm Getting Older and More Boring"

I woke up and looked at my watch. 11:45. Not bad for being up 'til 5:00AM.

Only it was actually 12:45, thanks to Daylight Savings Time kicking in overnight. This not only officially made me wake up in the early afternoon again (a psychological phenomenon that makes me feel I've wasted the day), but also stymied my travel plans last night. Although I caught my first leg of the Métro trip home from Odéon before the 2:15AM cut off, by the time I was to transfer at Châtelet, it was technically 3:00AM, and woe be to anyone who thinks that a Métro driver will work one minute beyond their posted time.

So I had a nice walk home, occasionally shoving through a crowd of Paris Saint-Germain supporters out celebrating their team's win in the French Ligue championship cup. (Thank you, Ronan, for the correction!)

Of course, I had a different championship on my mind. I'd spent the evening holed up at The Moosehead, a Canadian bar in the 5th arrondissement that has NASN (North American Sports Network), and hence, the NCAA basketball tournament. Over the course of three miserable hours, I got to watch the pre-game show, the same commercials over and over (just like back home!), and UCLA handily beat Xavier for a berth in the Final Four.

Why miserable?

Because I hate expat bars.

Don't get me wrong. They're great places to get otherwise unattainable food (buffalo wings here, black pudding in the US, etc.), drink giant import beers on tap, and watch sports that are a big deal in their home countries. Were it not for expat bars, I wouldn't have been able to catch a previous NCAA Final Four in London, the last FIFA World Cup in the surprisingly soccer-averse Dominican Republic, or any of the Rugby World Cup back at home in San Francisco.

But come weekends, expat bars serve as unabashed meat markets. Back in the States, a club night known as French Tuesday is a popular haunt for Gaullic expats with international business cred... and the gold-digging women who love them. The craic at a good Irish pub is destroyed on Friday and Saturday nights by guys and gals doing Irish car bombs with their ears perked for any hint of a seductive brogue to take home and notch another flag in the bedpost. Here, you'll have groups of local dudes leering and seeking out the first jolie anglo-saxonne on the verge of a tequila blackout.

Again, I don't really have a problem with this. It's a worldwide tradition, and I myself can't deny the pleasures of a drunken snog with a veritable United Nations of girls met in foreigner-strewn bars in Sydney, Dublin, Barcelona, Prague, Costa Rica – you get the picture. If you're young and single - or just acting like it - there are few better places to hook up with others of the same mindset. Shoot a shot. Down a beer. Rinse and repeat 'til you've got your "I'm actually here on a diplomatic mission..." spiel down.

And as much as I appreciate this interpersonal dynamic, I'm older and married now. Not that I'm opposed to huge draft beers (I got drunk for less than 20€! YES!), hot drunk co-eds dancing on the table when "Billie Jean" comes on, or the ego-boost of hearing "Ooh, that guys' cute. And he's alone." But like millions of men around the world... I just want to watch the game.

And that's precisely what I did. I sampled The Moosehead's various beers, kept my eye on the flatscreen, and read the English-language classifieds in FUSAC magazine during all those insufferable media timeouts, ensuring that no popped collar, Hollister-sporting exchange student would "Hey bro!" me. And with the same workman-like efficiency of Coach Ben Howland's defense, I got up, put on my coat, and walked out as the final buzzer sounded. UCLA 76-57 Xavier.

I came home a little after 3:00 to find that my 30-something neighbors were having a party. Until 5:00, the music was still cranking, guests were still coming in and out, and the scent of booze, cigarettes, and various fried hors d'oeuvres were in the air.

Once college basketball is over, I'm gonna have to see if I can get in on that scene.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Caffeine Crisis

In the 1970's, people queued for hours at gas stations all across the US just to get a few gallons of Regular to fuel their behemoth Chevys and Pontiacs and other pieces of Detroit Shit Steel.

In the 1980's, people queued for hours at shops all over the USSR just to get some lousy bread that was probably inedible anyway.

In the 1990's, people queued for hours in front of banks all over Argentina, trying to get their money out before the economy collapsed and English club kids swarmed the place for £1 hits of ecstasy.

Now, in the 2000's, France is facing a crisis: There is no coffee.

Ok, maybe not all of France. Maybe it's just in my vicinity.

I was out of coffee this morning. Few people can replicate the look of horror and sinking feeling deep within when I opened the can in which I keep my bag of Lavazza espresso. Like the bread incident the other week, I couldn't fathom what my morning would be like without coffee.

Luckily, I had the remainder of the 1.5L bottle of Pepsi from last weekend's ill-advised KFC mission, and I chugged that before making my way to the Métro station.

"I will survive," I thought. "I'll just double up on my morning coffee dosage at the office!"

For the last month, I've been dosing myself almost every hour with an unremarkable yet effective 30-cent instant espresso from the coffee/tea/cocoa vending machine in our break room. The coffee's not great by any means, but it sure beats falling asleep at my desk. And this morning I'd be counting on it that much more.

Lo and behold, the vending machine is no more.

Pony up the 80 cents for a can of soda? Nope. That machine's a goner, too.

It turns out our contract through the vending machine company ran out yesterday, and we're supposed to get all new machines on Monday. That's all fine and dandy, but it's three days from Monday, and I spent all of last night watching NCAA basketball. My eyes look as puffy and misshapen as Hillary Clinton's jowly cheeks, and dark as Dick Cheney's soul. I'm a bit sleepy, a bit irate, and not having had anything since I left the house this morning, my mouth tastes like a combo of Listerine (cool mint), toothpaste, and Pepsi.

As for all those wonderful Parisian sidewalk cafes serving up hot little demitasses of espresso day-in, day-out? Oh, they're there. But I'm in f'ing Clichy.

Espressos are 39 cents at the cantine. But they won't be open 'til noon. That's over an hour from now. Consider this my final transmission.

Update 11:34AM: Catastrophe Averted

Management has put out carafes of extra-super-strong coffee in the break room. The infusion into my bloodstream has begun.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Play an Accordion, Go to Jail

That old bumper sticker, which I'm sure was meant to be funny, always kind of bugged me.

Probably because I've always secretly liked the accordion. Sure, in unskilled hands, it's one of the few sounds in the world that makes a continuous loop of Air Supply and Christopher Cross seem like a refreshing alternative. But like its fellow air-and-finger-driven instrument the bagpipe, in the right hands it can make some of the most beautiful, traditional music out there, able to stir up emotion and bygone memories and imagery of the days of yore.

Or sometimes total ire, to the point that you wish accordion players would, indeed, be jailed.

I was squished on to the exceptionally crowded Métro ligne 9 last night trying to listen to Kanye drop some knowledge, when at some point I heard what I thought was an unfamiliar sample. "What the hell? Is that musette?" I know Mr. West recently sampled from the French by cribbing some Daft Punk for "Stronger," but what the hell was this dissonant accordion sample?

Turns out the accordion I was hearing wasn't from my iPod, but some guy at the other end of the car, playing for a hopeful (but rarely ever materializing) handful of change.

I normally don't mind this. Busking, I feel, is a fine tradition, earning a bit of spare change by entertaining passers by, showing off a bit of light in an otherwise cruel, dark world. I often throw a few centimes to sidewalk buskers in Paris or pence to the ones in the tube stations in London - a lot of whom are damn good.

But when you invade the enclosed capsule of hard working people's commutes, you're crossing the line. Already in close quarters with people sporting various levels of BO, booze breath, week-old-ashtray breath and worse, the last thing any commuter needs is someone taking up twice as much space and making ten times as much noise. It's simply poor form to try and have a captive audience like that.

I don't care how good you are at the accordion. If you're busking on a Métro car, all you're getting from me is a dirty look, and possibly the finger if I have enough room around me to raise my arm.

This is a much gentler response than I would have given five years ago. On an early morning RER train, my Australian buddies and I were headed to Versailles. I wasn't happy to be up that early. One of them had a screaming hangover. But the train ride was comfortable and smooth, smooth enough to nap (or in Tony's case, sleep it off). Until some bastard with an accordion and a little paper cup had to get on.

After five minutes, I couldn't take it. I stood up, started yelling at the guy - yelling things that at the time I didn't think were racist (but were). Somehow, my French got really convincing when I was angry and yelling, "Get the fuck out of here, you dirty Gyppo. Why don't you go get a real job instead of bothering these poor people? Go on now! Fuck off!"

I immediately felt bad after saying that, especially when he skulked off at the next stop shortly following my outburst. But I felt excused because the RER passengers broke out in applause. Feeling OK about that, I wound up doing the same thing to an accordion-playing boy somewhere around the Queensway stop in London the following week. He was probably no more than 11 years old, but - again - that didn't stop me from yelling at him, and the other passengers from cheering.

I'm older, and I think wiser now. Being relatively broke on the US dollar in a euro world, I can't imagine how rough it might be for someone who doesn't even have a proper job, working papers, et cetera. And while I think they are crossing the boundaries of respect by trying to peddle their music onboard the Métro, I have to take the high road and not get in their faces about it.

But until then, I have my outlet, and I can at least write about one of the greatest scourges of the Paris commute: The accordion-wielding GypsyRomani.

Still beats the hell out of driving, though.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hey Look! Photos!

Good news: I've put up a bunch of new photos.

Bad news: They're from my trip to Japan last November.

I've stayed up a bit past my self-imposed bed time (I simply can NOT get enough sleep!) the last couple of nights to work on a couple of new photo sets. It's part of my promise to myself to work on one day's worth of photos from past trips each night.

Unfortunately, these two new sets only get me to about the midway point of my Japan trip, and I have a lot more photos to go through. Still, it's better than going out and spending euros I don't have. Although I'm sure progress will halt once again when college hoops action starts up again on Thursday night.

At any rate, the fruits of labor can be seen in the last couple of sets in my Eating Japan photo collection.

You know, between that trip and the previous trip to Europe in September, I packed on a shit-ton of weight. Probably because both trips involved non-stop eating.

Oddly enough, fort his last month I've been eating just as much and almost as often, yet the last couple of days I've really noticed that I look like I'm wasting away. Ok, not wasting away, but definitely slimming down. I think that so-called "French Paradox" is finally at work, with the magical ingredients in red wine and coffee making all that foie gras, butter, and unpasteurized cheese just flush right through me.

Tonight's dinner: 1/3 of a fresh baguette, a huge slab of salmon (sautéed in butter), a cup of flageolet beans swimming in butter and cream, and my leftover potatoes Dauphinoise, also steeped in butter and cream. Mind you, I eat like this ever day. Except when I'm stupid enough to buy a bucket of KFC. Which will likely never happen again.

And despite all that, I've lost around 15 pounds, feel lighter and more fit than I have in a couple of years, and am more fleet of foot going up and down stairs, hauling groceries, and jaywalking through the insane six-way intersections.

Vive la France!

Monday, March 24, 2008

On the Conspicuous Lack of Photos of Late

My stomach settled itself nicely, and despite the ever-present threat of rain, I figured I could recover nicely by going for one of my long walks. There's no better way to take in Paris than to simply walk... and walk... and maybe stop at a cafe for a coffee or a glass of wine.

And so I did, this time going in a new direction, northward on my street. Well, what do you know? I'm just blocks away from the Pere Lachaise cemetery, resting place of the likes of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and countless other expats whom tourists flock to see post-mortem.

I'd been here before on my first trip to Paris, five years ago, and thought then as I do now that it's not a morbid place. It's not a depressing place. But just a very serene, scenic place to take a walk. Judging by the number of locals doing the same (and ignoring the tourists trying to find Jim Morrison), I think I'm spot on.

This picture was taken on the first trip, but being a cemetery, nothing's changed, really. A few people have inquired about the lack of photos so far on this trip. Well, first things first: It's not a trip. All this travel and exploration has become my regular life. And while I wouldn't mind documenting it and sharing it with everyone (besides in writing), it's simply impractical at this point. I only have with me my unwieldy digital SLR, which screams in alternating cries, "I'm a tourist!" and "Rob me!" And with the unsettled weather, taking it out requires that I take along my weather-proof but oversized camera bag.

I know, I know. "Where is your dedication to the art?" you may ask. And to that I say, hey! Let me enjoy my life unfettered by several grand of photo gear and a big bag that increases exponentially my likelihood of being mugged!

Besides that, I still have a backlog of photos from my adventures in Japan (last November!) and then some, which I have yet to complete. In fact, it's such a dreary day out that I might just get to the work of doing that. After all, nothing says "artist" like toiling away in a dark room on a day that looks like doom outside.

As I rounded the corner of rue de Faubourg Saint-Antoine via the Bastille and on to rue de la Roquette, it started to rain that icy, cold variety of rain. The kind that isn't all that heavy, and not all that wet, but that threatens, "I'm going to give you a cold. A nagging, debilitating cold." I buttoned up my coat and picked up the pace a bit, thinking I will come home and work on photos. Yes, that entire thought process above was actually on my mind for much of the walk, interspersed by thoughts of "Ooh, hey, that place is open on holidays," and "Jesus H. Christ, give it up already."

The latter is in reference to the numerous goth/punk kids that all gather at the south end of rue de la Roquette, trying to be different by all looking like they shop at Hot Topic. (There is no Hot Topic in France, as far as I know, but there are many little shops that may as well be the same melange of mass-produced counterculture commodity.)

It's not that I have any disdain for various alternative subcultures. (Except for filthy, dreadlocked hippies.) As a kid in London, we'd see the seminal punks on Oxford Street, and like Rusty in National Lampoon's European Vacation, I'd tell my parents "That's it! That's how I want my hair cut!" When I lived in Los Angeles, you could find me clad in vinyl or leather every weekend doing the rivethead stomp to Front 242 or Nitzer Ebb at places called Stigmata or Helter Skelter. A bunch of friends and I even held a Goth Night in the Marina last year, poking fun not at the fringe culture but at the homogenous sameness of San Francisco's premiere yuppie neighborhood. I still look upon those days fondly.

But my sensibilities are simply offended by these neophyte kids who are less Skinny Puppy and more Evanescence. Less Bauhaus and more Good Charlotte. And ultimately, less Harajuku and more... Kansas City. When I see these kids gathered up in throngs near the Bastille, I don't see the spirit of originality and the embracing of a dark aesthetic like one does in gothic-lolita Tokyo or cyberpunk Hollywood or vampire New Orleans. I see a shopping mall food court, minus the shopping mall and the food court.

And I think this all irks me not because I'm an old curmudgeon who "was there" in the heyday, but because it shatters my long-held, imagined romantic vision of Paris. Where grey skies and cobblestone streets are multiplied in atmosphere by the ringing of cathedral bells. Where dandies clad all in some variant of stripes smoke Gauloises and sip absinthe under the watchful eye of nearby gargoyles. Where the serious-looking guy in a long, black overcoat, sweeping aside his long, black locks from his eyes, sipping a long, black coffee as he writes in his journal may well be planting the seeds for a magnum opus of writings on society, the world, and how life is lived within it.

Well, I've finished my coffee. My overcoat is hung up with care. And I'll be putting away this electronic journal to work on photos.

Maybe I can recapture that sense of philosopher-artist I always imagined seeing in Paris by doing it myself.

Buckets and Buckets

My tummy has a problem.

Last night, before it got too dark and cold (and before Sunday's 2nd round NCAA games started), I went for a walk. This seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do on Easter Sunday. The streets would be empty, the atmosphere serene, and I would own my little corner of Paris, with all the usual denizens off in church or with their families or otherwise not in my way.

Apparently, everyone else had the same idea. It was not unpleasant, though, with families and couples and other solos out for a petite promenade. Without any work to go to, without any bakery to buy bread from, without any school to attend, everyone was going along at that leisurely pace to nowhere in particular.

I made my way up the Boulevard de Voltaire. Along the way I passed many of the clothing wholesalers who make clothes in gros and demi-gros sizes ("fat" and "half fat"), which always give me a chuckle. The French do not mince words.

I passed by a store window filled from top to bottom with gold-wrapped chocolate bunnies. Having lamented the fact that you only see chocolate bells here - and not bunnies - I was elated and wanted some, if only for sentimental reasons. But, of course, the store was closed.

There were some businesses open, though. Approaching the din of tour bus engines and cameras snapping and English being spoken, I knew I was coming up on the Place de la République. For some reason, all the Places in Paris - giant six-way intersections with a towering monument in the center - are littered with shrines to the American lifestyle. Not that I'm complaining - the fact that all of these places are open on Sundays have been a lifesaver. But as a non-tourist, it's a disappointment to find that almost every Place has been homogenized by the presence of a Buffalo Grill, Indiana Cafe, Pizza Pino, and McDonald's. Hell, even the Place de Léon Blum by my place has a Mickey D's (or as they'd say here "MacDo") casting a shadow upon it.

So in the French tradition of surrender, I waved my white flag and walked into... KFC.

Ok, so this move was premeditated. First off, I have this morbid curiosity of trying fast food places in other countries. (You can see a video of my foray into a Japanese KFC, if you like.) Secondly, in my utter loneliness and desperation to capture a little piece of home, I figured I'd use this weekend to take me back all the way to my college days. Where I could watch basketball all day and eat either an entire pizza or an entire carton of Shakey's fried chicken & "Mojo" potatoes, and still be ready for a liquid dinner later that night.

The shock of the French KFC to the American diner isn't what's on the menu, but rather what's not. There are no mashed potatoes. No gravy. No potato wedges. And... wait for it... NO BISCUITS! The only sides offered are fries, the corn cobette, and a caprese style salad of tomato, mozzerella, and basil. They also seem to be having some sort of promotion right now where they're offering baked beans. Not barbecue baked beans, mind you, but Heinz-style English baked beans.

All that aside, I was here for the chicken. Like I said, not for the quality, but to sentimentally recreate my college glory days. And so I ordered the 10-piece bucket combo (which includes four orders of fries and a 1.5l soda) called "Tasty Friends." Partially because I wanted a big bucket o' chicken. Partially because I found the name so morbidly cruel and funny. I just imagined a bunch of our avian friends - all friendly and jovial - being sent to their slaughter to end up in my bucket. Not unlike the classic SNL Cluckin' Chicken commercial. (By ridiculously tight-fisted copyright laws, that video link only works on US IP addresses. Spoof if you must...)

Back to where we were... Ah, yes. I proudly walked down the boulveard with my big bag of KFC, with the proud poise of De Gaulle coming back to Paris. I marched up my building's stairway with purpose, turned on the ol' March Madness on Demand, and prepared for my bacchanal of basketball and fried chicken and enough soda to keep me wired through the night.

And then something went wrong.

No, not Davidson beating Georgetown. As many brackets as that busted, that's one of those things that's terribly right about the tournament.

No, no, I'm referring to my beloved bucket of chicken. As I lifted a third piece of crunchy, greasy, life-curtailing goodness to my mouth, I took pause, thought for a moment, and put it down. Whereas in the glory days of my youth in the 90's, I could've easily put away an entire bucket of chicken without even looking to see exactly what I was even eating, I couldn't even get past the second one. My gustatory life had suddenly become one with the stories of Georgetown and Duke - former powerhouses that are now just another story of two-and-out.

In the 90's, that bucket would've been cleaned out by the time Western Kentucky and San Diego played their improbable game, and everyone who'd penciled the Hoyas or the Blue Devils or even the UConn Huskies in their bracket would still have a good shot at the office pool's $60 jackpot.

My unfinished bucket, however, isn't a sign of the decline of the Big East or ACC. It's a sign that my body is becoming more French. After just four weeks here, I'm no longer able to eat like an American. My portions have become more controlled. I'm much more finicky about the quality of what Im' eating. I already saw this happening from one week in, but my body's rejection of the Colonel's secret blend of 11 herbs and spices was the proof.

I spent much of last night reading. Because that's what I do when I'm doubled over on the toilet. I spent much of this morning... reading. In fact, my stomach didn't stop bothering me until - in the course of writing this entry - I had my morning coffee, yogurt, confiture and baguette. Then all of a sudden, everything seemed right.

My gut has surrendered. To the French. How's that for irony?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Les Jeux Sont Faits

It's the best five euros I've ever spent.

Last week I was going through the menus on my oh-so-French mobile phone: The Sagem my411v, a purchase I made to see if this heretofore unfamiliar brand's products are worthwhile. I was disappointed to find that, other than the crappy MP3 player, everything in the Games & Entertainment menu is merely a 30-second demo. You have the option to buy games like Tetris, Pac-Man, etc. I figured, "What the hell?" and downloaded an old favorite, Puzzle Bobble.

Since then, this is the most familiar sight to me:

It rouses me in the morning as I get on the Métro all bleary-eyed, helping to pass the 14 or so stops to work. It helps me ignore the masses on the train on the evening ride home. It even helps me save money by keeping me occupied on those rainy nights when I'd typically be out at a bar or cafe.

Hell, today - on an Easter Sunday where only the pricey tourist traps are open - I opted to play the game and within an hour broke the 30,000 point mark. A personal record!

And (late, late) last night, as I was watching UCLA vs. Texas A&M in the NCAA basketball tournament, I whiled away that long period of time where my Bruins were trailing by playing some more Puzzle Bobble. Like the stereotypical government employee filing her nails and chatting, I nonchalantly kept tabs on the basketball game from the corner of my eye, racking up points of my own on an even smaller screen. I knew eventually, after trailing by as many as 10 points, that my boys in blue would turn it on and put the Aggies away. In fact, it was then - and only then - that I pressed pause on my phone and actually started watching the game.

*yawn* Just another late night in Paris, just another narrow UCLA victory in the second round... Well, maybe not. Those six and a half minutes at the end were sheer ecstasy, even if it was nearly dawn and my thumbs were cramped up. Watch for yourself:

Ah, what better way to spend a Saturday night than with a six-pack of Stella, Puzzle Bobble, and eight games of college basketball streamed to my computer...?

Ok, so I'm a lonely, lonely man right now.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Chocolate Bunnies Bells

This afternoon, my team was rounded up and told to go downstairs.

"What for?" I asked. There's no way they were going to have a staff meeting on Friday before a holiday weekend. No way they'll foist new financials or managerial directives or... whatever. Would they? "What's going on?"

The CEO matter-of-factly replied, "Chocolates."

And to many cheers of "Joyeuses Pâques" (Happy Easter), we feasted on dark chocolate, milk chocolate, double-milk chocolate... you get the picture. There's no shame in it here. We had Easter chocolates. And on Monday, we have a day off for Easter. These weren't "seasonal chocolates." We're not getting a "spring holiday."

To be honest, as a non-Christian heathen, this doesn't bother me one bit. As someone who was raised Muslim, I'm not deeply offended. I'm not crying foul to HR and saying, "But today's also Norooz!" (That's Iranian New Year, wherein we also dye eggs and give baskets with a bunch of fake grass and hideously sweet sweets in 'em.) It's Easter here, and no one seems to be too bothered by it.

But that's not what some folks back home would want you to believe. It's not what the AM radio-listenin', Fox News-believin' contingent would have you think. These same people who honestly believe that there's a "War on Christmas" somehow want you to think that it's "even worse" here in Europe.

I spend a lot of time on internet discussion forums. (I know it's bad for my sanity and general well-being, but my wife's not here yet, so I have a lot of time on my hands. ) Often times, these discussions turn to politics. And whenever we start veering into issues of social welfare - like nationalized healthcare, for example - a few of us looney lefties will point out countries like England and France as an example of where it's in place and... by god... it works! Some of us even have the numbers and *gasp* first-hand experience to back it up.

But of course, one of the aforementioned Michael Savage/Sean Hannity/Bill O'Reilly-worshipping halfwits has to take exception. Instead of arguing the point, they'll without fail say something completely irrelevant to the argument like, "But France is being taken over by the Muslims, who are implementing Sharia law!"

Sure, there are a lot of Muslims here. Newsflash: France colonized North Africa and in the process, made the populations of those colonies - primarily Muslim - citizens. Newsflash 2: Islam is the largest religion on Earth, so a representative sample does not constitute a "takeover." Last I checked, France is still widely regarded as a Catholic country, and nobody's demanding that all streets named after saints (of which there are approximately 96 million) be redubbed for imams.

But noooo... supposedly the long-held tradition of a Catholic culture and secular government are being replaced by radical Islamist Sharia law.

Uh huh. That's why almost everywhere I go, I wind up having to choose either ham, bacon, or roasted pork as one of my courses. And that's why I enjoy litres and litres of wine with government-regulated low prices every week. And that's why my mouth is full of company-sanctioned, bell-shaped Easter chocolates right now, and I'm relishing the fact that I'm getting a legally-mandated three-day weekend to mark the occasion.

Consider that whole NeoCon line of thinking debunked.

Although this whole chocolate thing does worry me a bit. I haven't seen a single chocolate bunny, but plenty of chocolate bells. Which means this year, I won't have the perverse pleasure of brazenly biting the head off of a defenseless confectionary rodent.

Oh no... I just realized something... Those filthy PETA radicals are taking over France and implementing vegetarian law!!!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Some South In My Mouth

I was planning on going to London this evening.

Leave work, hit the Chunnel, arrive in Old Blighty and catch the Cure's only UK show this year at Wembley... Just another day in highly interconnected Europe, right?

I'd followed some bad web site advice and waited 'til the day-of to purchase my Eurostar tickets across the Channel, completely forgetting that it's Easter weekend. Discount fares? Not to be found. And accommodations almost as scarce. Fuck.

I sulked my way through the morning and decided to hit the ol' cantine for lunch. One of the stations had a sign up: "BBQ."

"No way," I thought. "There's no way you're fooling me into getting some sort of foreign food when it's really just some lamb in brown sauce."

But I got a whiff and was surprised. "That smells like... BARBECUE SAUCE!"

I got a half rack of ribs, with some egg salad, green beans, and wedge-cut potatoes on the side. There was no peach cobbler (I grabbed a Nutella crepe for dessert instead, for shame!) and washed it all down with a soda.

Whatever weight I may have lost in the 3+ weeks I've been in France, I probably gained back today. By the time I get home to watch some NCAA tournament action (online) tonight, I'll probably be filling out my jeans and have a gut flopping over my waistband again.

But sometimes after a major disappointment, nothing's better than the comfort - and salt and grease and tangy sweet sauce - of home.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go load up some Lynyrd Skynyrd and wave around a 2x4 like "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Weather Report

After brilliant midday and early afternoon sunshine and blue skies...


There's freakin' ice falling out of the sky.

[passage of a few minutes]

It's lightened up into a coarse snow, that's beginning to collect on the window sills and on the cars parked below.


Thank goodness I remembered my beanie today.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Joyeux Jour de St.-Patrick!

Or however you say it.

While it's understandable that March 17th is huge in the US due to the great number of Irish immigrants, it could be said that the French should be even more into St. Patrick's Day, considering France and Ireland's common religion and their common Celtic roots.

And it looks like the forces of marketing have taken note of that, in an attempt to make St. Patty's - like Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter - an American-style bacchanal of consumption.

For the last week, there have been billboards everywhere. Most notably for "Paddy" brand Irish whisky. (In the US, it's marketed under the far more politically correct name, "Mick Juice.")

Bars have signs up advertising St. Patrick's specials. (Such as a tiny glass of Guinness only costing your half a week's salary.)

On Friday, the City of Paris even held its annual official St. Patrick's Day extravaganza at the Palais Omnisport de Bercy arena, celebrating their shared ancestry with literary recitals, dance, and the harmonious sounds of those Celtic musical legends... The Red Hot Chili Peppers. (No, really.)

Even my company cafeteria got into the spirit today, advertising a special "Menu Saint-Patrick."

Sadly, there was no Guinness beef stew. No corned beef & cabbage. There was, instead, "Irish lamb stew," which looked and smelled exactly like - you guessed it - last week's "Mexican lamb stew." Only I think they Irished it up with a flat can of Kronenbourg.

I'm sure it was up to snuff. After all, Irish culinary excellence isn't exactly recognized worldwide. In fact, after my first day in Dublin several years back, I rushed to an internet cafe to send my Irish boss a special message: "Your food sucks."


Either way, I played it safe and ordered the salmon. Which, considering most of the frozen Atlantic salmon here is from Ireland, was probably the more appropriate choice.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Don't Wake Me I Plan On Sleeping In

Some lessons learned in one morning early afternoon:

  • After braising beets and meats the night before, don't leave the living room window open to air the place out overnight. Unless you enjoy walking into a meat locker when you wake up.

  • Scrubbing melted cheese out of a pot is very difficult once it's hardened by the morning day after.

  • Don't leave that 3/4 baguette sitting on the counter. What was once food is now an excellent billy club. An excellent, inedible billy club.

  • Staying up past 4:30am listening to a UCLA basketball game may be the ultimate show of your Bruin pride, but it will make you miss the morning market on a rare winter day when it's not raining.

  • The USC Trojans still suck.

Ok, so the last one isn't a lesson learned - it's a historical truth. But I ruined what could've been a glorious Saturday morning by overindulging the night before. Not with the drink, but with cooking a decadent meal and then staying huddled over my laptop for hours, glued to a barely acceptable facsimile of American college basketball 'til nearly dawn.

And this isn't the first time. When I was here in January, I spent a Saturday night hunkered down in front of my laptop. And a couple of Final Fours ago, I was at a bar in London 'til well after sunrise watching my team, my travel companions all falling asleep around me.

For this year, I've tracked down the ONE bar in Paris that shows March Madness. So starting next week, I'll probably be living at said bar. Please direct all inquiries to: The M--- wait, I'm not revealing where it is. Not until I can scope out whether I can get a seat to comfortably watch the games, or fight through a crowd of frat boys and exchange students who act like... frat boys and exchange students.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I have it on good authority that there are two supposedly authentic Mexican restaurants in town.

My company cafeteria is not one of them.

Now you'd think that's pretty damn obvious, and that I'd be a complete fool to go for the "Mexican lamb stew" on the menu today. "Omid, you idiot," you may say. "When was the last time you saw lamb on a Mexican menu?"

That's a totally valid question, considering I've eaten goat at real Mexican places more often than lamb... But there are lamb dishes south of the border for damn sure. Still, you don't see it on most menus Stateside, so to see a Mexican lamb dish in Paris?

Hey, maybe they're tapped into something I didn't know about!

With the above argument in mind, I went ahead and ordered it.

It didn't look Mexican. It didn't smell Mexican. And after a couple of bites, I could verify that it sure as hell didn't taste Mexican.

In fact, I think I determined why they bother to call this otherwise fine-tasting stew Mexican: It's brown.

Next thing you know, they're going to serve me "Chinese chicken," turned yellow by tons of saffron, right?

All political incorrectness aside, it's probably an honest mistake. The executive chef of our company cantine (if there even is one) probably heard about - or maybe even saw at some point - mole. The spicy, rich, chocolate-infused sauce that is not only tasty in its own right, but when prepared well can make even the gamiest of meats palatable.

But being French, this chef de cuisine probably thought, "Impossible! Nobody dares to eat chocolat wiz... MEAT!" And thus, he concocted a dark brown sauce that looks somewhat chocolatey but tastes like... any other brown, broth-based sauce. That flour-thickened middle ground between jus and gravy. Plain. Old. Sauce.

I know that culinary musings about the company cafeteria are pretty much pointless. It's the working stiff's equivalent of a pig's trough, for fuck's sake! Never mind that our building was built by Gustave Eiffel's firm, with the cafeteria's curved girders and thousands of rivets meant to be reminiscent of the eponymous Tower everyone so romanticizes. You still eat your food off of a tray under so many rows of industrial-strength fluorescent lights.

I write about it, though, to illustrate my daily battle. That despite how good the French food is in France, I have to try really hard to find that bowl of pho. That I have to wait in line to eat a decent bowl of ramen. That I'll probably not have a decent burrito until the next time Air France flight 84 touches down at SFO. And this saddens me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Poppin' Fresh

You see it pretty often every day.

People walking down the street, holding a baguette with a little square of paper, fresh from the boulangerie.

Occasionally, you'll see that the baguette has the end torn off, or a bite taken out of it.

"How uncouth!" I always think. "Couldn't they just wait 'til they got home? Or wherever?" The French are typically not eat-on-the-go types, so seeing this always made me wonder what was up.

After work tonight, I went to a nearby photo booth to get some passport pictures taken. One of the infinite number of things I need for my government dossier. I never thought I'd have my own dossier. It sounds so... James Bond. In it will be certified translated versions of my birth certificate, marriage certificate, Bachelor's degree in anthropology, US naturalization certificate, curriculum vitae (that's Latin for the French word resumé) in English and in French. And probably some records of me having downloaded a Moby album on Napster back in the 90's. Soon, the French government will have a dossier folder full of my life's milestones. And several horribly-lit, unflattering digital prints of me with a big zit drying up on the bridge of my nose.

It's all very important, official stuff. Without jumping through all these hoops, I won't be able to get a Carte de Sejour, and without that, I won't be able to have a bank account, a phone line in my name, and - most importantly - a paycheck in Euros.

But with the photos in hand, this was all secondary on my mind. After all, it's close to dinner time, which means I need bread.

I went to the nearest boulangerie, which I've determined of the three less than a minute from my apartment, is the absolute best. The line out the door, I believe, proved me right. Not getting too creative, I simply ordered a baguette, ponied up my 90 cents, and awaited my big stick of daily nourishment.

The lady went through the motions and proceeded to hand me one that was fresh from the oven. Hot, crunchy on the outside, but oh so soft and supple under the most gentle squeeze. I held in my hands the freshest baguette I've had yet.

And as I walked the half block back to my house, felt the immediate compulsion to tear off one end and munch it.


Monday, March 10, 2008


I'm just finishing off my post-dessert coffee (yes, I'm back to dining French style), hearing quite the ruckus outside. When it started, I could've sworn someone was out there powerwashing my windows. Then I realized - it's the wind.

Hurricane force winds are battering the English Channel right now. For those of you who went to high school in the US, that's the body of water between England and France.

They've been at it all day, sending lamp posts outside my office window swinging, and rattling the roll-up blinds, also outside my window. These blinds are a pretty widespread phenomenon here, one that I don't quite get. Instead of having blinds on the inside, many buildings have rubber or fabric window coverings that are raised or lowered by a mechanical crank inside. Storm shutters or louvers being on the outside I understand. But what amounts to very heavy curtains? When the wind whips up, these things bang and rattle against the window, making a racket that irritates pretty much anyone who still has their hearing.

Of course, this usually isn't a problem. It's only since I've been here that the weather's been so... unsettled.

The same goes for the ground.

Less than a week after arrived, an earthquake rocked England, only a few hours from where I am.

Just a little gift from the west coast, kids.

And from my Cajun basket of goodies, I followed the earthquake with Hurricane Emma, which rocked England, the Czech Republic, and everything in between.

Despite being totally unprepared, despite causing billions of Euros in destruction (that'd be brazilians of dollars in Bush parlance) and despite the loss of lives, it hasn't been a humanitarian disaster. But nobody's bothered to tell the Minister of Holy-Shit-This-is-Fucked - or whatever the head of the FEMA-equivalent here is called - that they're doing "a heckuva job." European ministers are looking at the aftermath as largely a financial and administrative burden, so no one's asked Sean Penn to come over with a film crew to fix things. If the lack of media outcry is any indication, things are actually moving along fairly well.

Apparently, I'm not doing a good enough job of importing American-style disasters to Europe.

I need to step up my game.

Unless the French bureaucracy hurries up and gives me my Carte de Sejour, I'm calling in the tornadoes.

The Neighbors' Revenge...

I was just falling alseep, when all of a sudden I was mortified by the distinct sound of copulation upstairs.

I'm guessing this was payback for my breakfast atrocities early in the morning.

I learned two things tonight:

1) The walls here are kinda thin.
2) Homeboy upstairs is a 6-pump chump.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Gloom, Interrupted

I was so satisfied with my book and my copious amounts of coffee. So much so that I took time out to write about my day. Yadda yadda yadda. So after going back to my book and coffee, I hardly noticed that my living room had started to become brighter.

"No!" I thought. "The new bulbs!"

I had just had the super-expensive light bulbs in my living room replaced. The first round was on the rental agency, being that everything was supposed to be in working order when I moved in. But as soon as I noticed the room getting intensely brighter, I was gripped with the fear that my brand-new halogens were already burning out, and that I'd be out 20€ a pop in new bulbs.

Then I realized the lights are fine. It was... THE SUN!

Not only was the sky lighting up, but it was a beautiful, vibrant blue. Warm rays of sunshine came in through the windows. To me, this screamed "Walk!" So I scrambled to put on my shoes and a hoodie. As I was lacing up, I could hear doors slamming and the stampede-like rumble of feet running down the wooden stairwell of my apartment building. Apparently, everyone had the same idea. One bit of sunshine, and it was a mass exodus out on to the street.

It was like one of those scenes out of a melodramatic sci-fi movie. The drab people, living their drab existence, are liberated from the evil overlord and his evil weather machine. Cast off into a pit of fire by the triumphant hero, his weather machine is shut down, the clouds part, and people walk outside, holding small childern and staring in awe, at that thing called "the sun" that they hadn't seen since childhood... or ever.

There are those caught unaware. Those who refuse to believe something good when it's happening to them. Still walking in their overcoats and mufflers, cursing the cold, not realizing that the rays of light are real, and life-affirmingly beneficial. In fact, it's uniquely Parisian (ok, maybe Soviet, as well) to be in denial of these things. You can just read on these scarf-wrapped faces, the wrinkles of their scowls saying, "Yeah. You keep wearing that hoodie. You'll be sorry when the gloom comes back. You'll freeze to death." There's a pessimism and resignation when it comes to the weather here.

But today, in my day of bucking Paris-ness, I wasn't buying it. I was in my San Francisco uniform (hoodie, jeans, sneakers, sunglasses) and eating up this 180 in the weather for all it was worth.

I explored some streets in my neighborhood I hadn't checked out yet. Scoped out what stores and bakeries and bars might be on them. I made random circles around various blocks. I made my way toward the crowds of the Place Bastille and enjoyed the wide-open vista of the sky. I made my way back home, unconcerned with the slowpokes on the narrow footpaths, or the morons still walking with their umbrellas open, or -- anything, really.

I came home, once again recharged, all upbeat on Paris and everything it has to offer.

Then it started to rain again.


I need to apologize to my neighbors.

My kitchen windows don't have curtains, so anyone across the courtyard can see in. This morning, I did some things so offensive to French sensibilities, that I'm sure they're contacting my landlords to draw up the eviction papers.

You see, this morning, I not only fried eggs for breakfast, I not only sliced a baguette lengthwise to stick it in a toaster, but I microwaved some coffee left over from the night before.

In other words, I had the most horrifically un-French breakfast short of chicken fried steak & eggs, in full view of anyone who wanted to see the repugnant morning unfold.

Eggs might be forgivable. Toasting a baguette probably isn't that bad. But microwaving coffee? I think I even offended myself.

I then spent a leisurely morning catching up on the news, reading up on UCLA's heart-attack basketball victories for the week, and generally feeling good to not sleep half the day away.

So I decided to put on the ol' coat and trailrunners to go on a nice walk, with a destination I'd had in mind for some time. I ran down the stairs and stepped outside and... it was bitter cold and pissing rain.


Although this stymied my plans to hit up the outdoor markets on Boulveard Richard Lenoir on the way, it made it an even better time to go into the bowels of the 13th Arrondissement and fill my tummy with a hot bowl of pho. The real stuff. With basil and oxtail broth and... tripe! Or so I hoped.

I'd heard about the place - Pho Banh Cuon 14 - a number of times in the last week, while researching authentic Asian food in Paris. While I'm sure, with this being the mainstream choice, that there are even better Vietnamese noodle joints to be found, this one did absolutely fine. (Read my review, in English or French.)

I had so much fun slurping my meal, that I think my joy was contagious. The previously apprehensive looking French couple next to me saw the way I was diving into my noodles (real Asian style with chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other) and attacked theirs with a bit more gusto. A pair of ladies wound up sitting next to me, obviously new friends with a major language gap, and I bridged their various broken languages to make some recommendations and decipher the menu.

For once, it felt OK - nay, excellent - to be a foreigner here. In an otherwise insular society, I felt like the hero of the day, slurping noodles like a real Asian, confidently ordering what the restaurant does best, and bringing others along for the joyride. Instead of feeling like that odd-looking ethnic fella with the weird accent who sits at a table for one, I felt like... Me.

I walked out of the restaurant with a bit of a spring in my step. Despite being in a wondrously beautiful, vibrant city, I'd been feeling the doldrums a bit. Largely from missing Alannah for sure, but also because other than beginning to make some contact with locals, I haven't really had anyone to share all these things. Sure, there's the blog, and numerous phone calls home, and obligatory quips on Facebook and other social networking sites. And of course, all my great coworkers during the week. But sometimes you see something cool on a Saturday night or Sunday morning walk, and you want to turn to someone and point it out. "Hey, check that out!" But you can't. At least, not without looking like a crazy person who's had too much absinthe in the Bastille. And believe me, there are a lot of those.

So it was nice to have this victory, albeit tiny, to feel something and share it with people, even if they're strangers.

I started my walk home, and then I realized... Crap! I didn't bring my iPod. Much of the time, I like walking without music. It allows me to take in the sights and the sounds of Paris. A city this alive has a soundtrack all its own. But it's Sunday, and I was about to make a trek through some of the deadest neighborhoods in town.

I decided to save myself the boredom and just hop on the metro at Place d'Italie, a mere five stops from Bastille.

Big mistake.

There are times that you just need your iPod. Or earplugs. Or pills that will provide you with the sensory deprivation necessary to put up with the not-so-charming aspects of Parisian life. Like the insanely irritating hum of a stationary metro train, sitting at the terminus for a solid ten minutes before taking off. Or the crazy man at one end of the car, yelling at his invisible friend through the four teeth remaining in his mouth. Or at the opposite end of the car, the wheezing of an old lady's sick terrier, obviously too unhealthy to still be up and about, miserably dying - ever so slowly - on the end of Madame Denial's leash. Or in the set of seats across from you, Madame Tracheotomy, who ironically speaks about 700 words a minute in this odd whisper/whistle, sounding disturbingly like one of many intergalactic freaks in the Star Wars cantina. Only I didn't have C-3PO to translate whatever obviously vitriolic hatred she was spewing.

There is a beauty, a music, a rhythm to traveling underground in Paris. And other times it's a cacophony of the ugliest, most hideous things in the world, personified in the people who just happen to be crammed on every side of you.

The narrow sidewalks are eternally romantic, forcing you to walk closely with your companion. At the same time they're the bane of your existence, making you want to take the slow-walker or zig-zagger in front of you and toss them into an oncoming Citroën.

Paris, being an enormous, multifaceted city, can rightfully seduce you with its charms, then turn around and pummel you with its frustrations: The constant wet and cold. The confusing intersections. The cloying tourists. The unavoidable nuggets of dog shit.

Sometimes it requires a symbolic detachment. A virtual middle finger to the things you hate in the place you love. Today, I did it via my food. An American breakfast. A Vietnamese lunch. Followed by the unheard of amongst the unheard of, sitting down with a good book to limitless refills of coffee.

Ok, this wasn't at some idyllic sidewalk café. I did this at my place. I made a big pot of coffee, curled up with my book, and leisurely drank and read and drank some more. I lavished every moment of this, this bucking of Parisian convention.

After all, having refills of coffee is almost as unthinkable as microwaving it.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Getting Settled

I've hit the two week mark now. One week that I've been in my apartment. Things are starting to fall into place.

I can pretty much do my commute half asleep now. Which is good, considering I have a knack for nodding off on trains.

I know where to go for almost everything I need. Case in point: The pharmacy. Unlike the US, I can't just stroll into the grocery store to buy two of my bathroom staples: Listerine & Neosporin. Despite my anti-antibacterial stance (I'm squarely in the camp that blames so-called "superbugs" on an overuse of antibacterial products from wipes to hand cleaners to dish soap), I cannot live without the two aforementioned products. The first to keep my mouth clean, the second for everything from cuts to pimples to aftershave. Yes, that's right, I use Neosporin as aftershave. So what of it?

These two products do pose a bit of a problem here. A tiny bottle of Listerine costs 5€90. After the conversion, that's about $1 short of ridiculous. And Neosporin? Non-existent. Luckily, I was able to squeeze out just enough French to tell the pharmacist that I want a cream or ointment for cuts. He rang up - without telling me the price - a box of "wound cream," or at least, that's how I translated it. 6€20 for what turned out to be a little box with tiny little packets of first aid ointment...

I brought it home and tried it out. It's less gooey than Neosporin, and doesn't leave the areas shiny. That's a plus. We'll see if my jawline breaks out tomorrow, but so far I've done the math and realized that - for once - gram for gram, this stuff costs a lot less than antiseptic ointments at home. SCORE!!

I also finally got my Métro pass in order. It took a while, but I finally found a photo booth that actually wanted to accept my money, as well as had the right amount in more-or-less correct change to feed one of the few automated ticket booths that accepts cash. Long story short, I now have a Carte Orange Mensuelle loaded up on my Carte Navigo, and will no longer look like a bumbling tourist looking for my Métro tickets when I get on the train. Instead, I just swipe my card over the sensor and off I go! I've got one of these bad boys (called "Oyster") for London, as well. Why the hell is the US lagging so far behind in these affairs?

Last but not least, I walked over to an SFR store. While I'm not a big fan of UK's Vodafone (who own SFR, and half of the bow-down-to-the-Bush-administration Verizon in the US), their pre-paid phones and plans seemed a much better value than those offered by France Telecom's Orange. Though I usually do my political voting with my pocketbook, I'm still in scrimp n' save mode, which means I occasionally have to sacrifice my principles.

And scrimp and save, I shall. Despite going for the cheaper option, I'll only marginally be saving money over my overseas roaming rate on my US cell phone... the big savings come in SMS messages, which thankfully have caught on like wildfire back home in the last year or two. So unlike everyone else in Paris, I will not be walking around yakking on my mobile anytime I'm not eating, drinking, or heatedly "discussing" politics. Nay, I'll be the cheapskate guarding his airtime, actually looking up to take in the beauty, sights, and sounds of the city.

Dress Like a Parisian: Wear a Scarf

I had an impromptu visit from one of my US coworkers yesterday, a social call at the office as he was on the starting end of a vacation in France. I'm not homesick (yet), but I do miss my family, friends, and of course officemates, so it was a pleasure having him stop by for a part of the day.

As we were at lunch, my coworker made the observation that "everybody here wears scarves!"

"It's true," I said. "It's part of a layering strategy that allows you to un-layer on the steamin' metro, be warm enough in your office, be able to strip off easily if the sun decides to come out, and to bulk it all back on for the sub-zero wind chill."

"Is the weather really that crazy?" he asked.

Had I had an iPhone, I would've shown him my last blog entry.

(Appeal to faithful readers everywhere: Pool your money together and get me an iPhone! Even an old 4-gig model would be fine...)

Had I had some sort of holographic memory recording device implanted in my brain, I would've shown him the conversation Alannah and I had recently. Upon being presented with a lovely Celine scarf, she panicked thinking, "Oh my god! How am I going to tie it and make it look good? Those women in Paris have, like, a million ways to tie scarves, and look GREAT! How am I supposed to do it!?"

Hmm... I guess you had to be there. (She ties it beautifully now, by the way.)

So only hours after this discussion, I decided to spend my evening running errands. Not so exciting for a Friday night, but one of them included stopping by the local for a drink - you know, to make myself familiar to the bartenders. Figuring that everything was only within a few blocks of my apartment, I decided to do so... without a scarf!

"No big deal," I thought. "I'll just button my coat up all the way if I get cold."

Hah! Take that, Parisian fashionistas!

Fast forward to this morning, when I woke up with a small but highly nagging chest cold. I had to down cough medicine like crazy and sleep it off, thereby wasting an otherwise lovely Saturday.

Lesson learned: Wear a scarf!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Forecast for Today...

44º(F), sunny, with scattered snow showers.

Yes, it's snowing outside my window.

No, I don't get it either.

I had one of those inevitable discussions about the weather with my coworker on Monday, saying, "Yeah, according to my Mac OS X weather widget, it's going to snow on Wednesday."

"That's wrong," he said. "They need to start using a new source."

"Yeah, I suppose you're right. I'm not exactly how it's going to snow at this elevation [or lack thereof] when it's going to be well above freezing," I said, my hopes of seeing snow dashed.

Well all I have to say now is: HAH!!! THE WIDGET WAS RIGHT!!! YOU WERE WRONG!!!

And the loser is... ME. I'm screwed. I thought I had mastered inclement weather in San Francisco. Over years of being a powderhound (as in snowboarder, not as a cokehead), I learned weather patterns in quirky, miroclimate-riddled Northern California so well that I could apply my knowledge practically anywhere and have a good handle on the weather.

Not here. Whereas in San Francisco we were privy to four seasons in a day (most of the day being winter), Paris gets four seasons about every fifteen minutes. For instance, the snow outside my window has given way to blue skies and brilliant sunshine, prompting me to lower the blinds so as not to bake nor get sunburned. The light is that intense right now. Moments ago, the windshields of the cars parked below were starting to get a dusting of white probably last seen under some club kid's nose.

The unpredictability of weather here is awesome in some ways. You see Paris in every shade of light possible as you walk through it, then you see the lit-up version at night. It's all good. But it also means that you get on the stuffy Métro with your bottom layer, a middle layer, and a heavy coat, all to be able to deal with whatever mother nature throws at you. Wear too much, and you'll suffocate while you're underground. Wear too little, and you'll die of hypothermia when you come up out of the station.

This is the kind of stuff that toughens you up. Or as a certain American presidential candidate would call it, "vetted."

Air Raid, Bitches!!!

I just heard the unmistakable klaxon, the distinctive wail, the banshee's scream of an air raid siren.

My co-worker noticed me looking out the window, a bit puzzled.

"Do you know what that is?"

"Umm, I'm guessing Ze Germans are bombing us?" I quipped.

"Haha! It's from the war..." he explained.

"Yeah, I figured as much. But..."

"But now they use it to alert firefighters, etc., if there's a big disaster."

"So is Paris on fire?" My mind raced to remember whether or not I'd turned off the stove after making coffee this morning.

"No, they test it the first Wednesday of every month at noon."

How anticlimactic. But comforting to know that San Franciscans and Parisians, we ain't so different after all. Besides our love for dogs, not bearing children, and avoiding the suburbs, we share the Noon Siren. Only in Frisco, we do it every Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


I've been here in France for a week and a half now. While I'll never be French, my uncanny ability to adapt, acculturate, and eventually assimilate is starting to rear its ugly head. At least, in my dining habits. Not only have I started to visibly lose weight (Soon I'll be thin enough to wear a horizontally striped shirt! Or not...) but my way of eating is becoming noticeably more French. So I present to you...

Top 10 Signs You're Becoming French - For Better or Worse
10. You're not in a rush anymore. Deadlines at work still exist, of course... in name.
9. You can't imagine not starting the day with coffee. Nor not having one as soon as you get to work. Nor not having one at lunch. Nor not having one after dinner - you know, just before bedtime.
8. Things like foie gras, sweetbreads, and tripe sausage sound delightful. The thought of a mocha at Starbucks makes you want to gag.
7. You now find it perfectly acceptable to have a cocktail or aperitif before dinner, a glass or two of wine with dinner, and maybe even a digestif afterward. This is on top of your after-work beer. Every night. (Oh, who am I fooling? I always thought that was fine.)
6. Before answering a question, you do that pffffffffbrrrr puff thing with your mouth. (For reference, watch L'Auberge Espagnole)
5. You can clean off a rack of ribs with a knife and fork, tines always down.
4. You don't think "Socialism" is a dirty word.
3. You only start thinking about what's for dinner after 8:00pm.
2. Once you do start thinking about it, you feel that an omelette is a perfectly acceptable dinner.
1. You get the things out to make that omelette, and you go into a complete state of panic over the fact that you have no bread.

Numbers 3, 2, and 1 happened to me tonight. I happily thought, "Yes! I will make a delicious, light, thin omelette, perfectly accompanied by a Côtes du Rhône, and... HOLY HELL! I DON'T HAVE BREAD!!!" The horrific thought of having dinner without bread invaded my mind. The even more horrific thought of not having any for breakfast nearly stunned me. I looked at the clock: 8:12. The boulangerie I've been going to is most certainly closed. My only choice is probably stuff that may as well be a week old from Monoprix. Good god, what do I do? What do I do?

I quickly put on my coat, hat and boots and ran down two flights of stairs as though the building was on fire. "Maybe that one other bakery," I thought, "the one that's closing shop whenever I walk by. Maybe if I tap on the window they'll sell me something." Within about 3 seconds, I was in front of the boulangerie, and what do you know? The sign says they don't close 'til 21h00! (That's 9:00pm for you people not down with the 24-hour clock.)

I threw down a coin and got the very last baguette, much to the chagrin of the people behind me. If they wanted it, they'd have to fight me for it. And I may not be tall, but I'm about twice as wide as most Parisians. BRING IT ON!

Luckily, no one wanted to wrassle for my baguette, even though revolutions have been started and kings beheaded over them. Or so the story goes. So vital and important is the cylindrical loaf of bread that the price of a standard-length/width piece is regulated by the government. It is, with its crunchy outside and soft chewy inside, the flour-based fabric of polite French society.

Considering my own reaction to being breadless, I can't imagine what sort of popular revolt would come about if there was a massive bread shortage. If Dr. Atkins (he of the low-carb diet "revolution") had his own island, France would be perpetually at war with it. But that old quack is dead anyway, and here, bread is victorious. Vive la baguette!

Disturbing Trends

Marcel Marceau may be six feet (1.8m) under, but apparently his spirit lives on in a new generation of irritating French street urchins who consider their annoyance "art."

The indespensible Gridskipper is reporting on the horrific Parsian trend of Tektonik, wherein young hipsters are dancing solo - or battling it out - in the streets.

I think it's time for the Mairie de Paris to hand down a Footloose-style ban on street dancing. Or at least keep the practice confined to the hipper-than-thou nightclubs I wouldn't visit anyway.

All kidding aside, French pop culture is endlessly fascinating. It seems they always take something that originated in the States (in this case, skinny-pants hipsterism and You Got Served-style battles), add to it some unabashedly cheesy European flair for not giving a fuck, and then every kid who wants to be different starts doing the same thing.

Other trends we can scoff at include Euro-mullets, mass rollerblading, and juice bars. It's enough to make your eyes roll permanently back into your skull.

On the other hand, it's heartening to see that the French now have rhythm. I believe I've noted before that on my first trip to France so long ago, a friend had observed that the people here can't dance. It was proven to me one night at Wax, a "DJ Bar" in the Bastille (which apparently is still going strong). I was a few cocktails in, chatting with some fellow Yanks, when all of a sudden, I put a halt to the conversation. "Guys, check it out!" "What?" "No one can keep a damn rhythm!" We all agreed, and despite the fact that I dance worse than Bill Cosby in the opening credits of The Cosby Show, I was able to stay on beat, to the point that the locals were cheering me on. What... the... F...?

So despite my initial irritation, I'm proud of this new generation of French kids who can not only keep up a rhythm, but apparently enjoy themselves and turn into cult heroes on YouTube. There's got to be some serious bliss in the ignorance of the fact that Napoleon Dynamite is SO 2004.

Hmm, maybe I should whip out a "Vote for Pedro" shirt and be the hip guy in my neighborhood.

Maybe not.

Lost in Translation

Chugging along, work going great, being very productive - then I checked my email.

The translation agency I'm working with to get my birth certificate French government-ready told me I need to come back so they can get my original birth certificate. The one that they told me they needed. The one I had sent FedEx overnight from California. The one that held up my getting my translation done. The one that, once I went to the office, they told me they didn't need, and that a photocopy would be fine. The one that I now had to leave with them, and HOPE that they still get the translated version back to me by Friday.


But hey, what can I do? I can only take these things one step at a time. If there's one rule to staying sane while dealing with bureaucracy is to just laugh it off and take the slings and arrows with grace.

Their offices are on the Champs Elysées. If you live in Paris, this is a place you generally avoid more than picking up dog poop, putting ketchup on your fries, and bathing. It's an upmarket tourist hellhole, and I'm guessing that the only reason this translation agency is there is because most of the new expats decide they want to live around here, the nearby 7th Arrondissement (by the Eiffel Tower), or come here to do all their shopping anyway. It gets something like 3/4 of a million visitors EACH DAY. Which is easily reason enough to avoid it. As if the proliferation of McDonald's and other big chains doesn't do it for ya.

But going to the agency here is a trip. And I don't mean the 15 minutes spent on the cruddy Ligne 13, which every time it slowed down, I hoped and prayed it was because it was approaching a station. The agency perfectly illustrates the duality of appearances in Paris. Whereas my apartment is a pretty sweet, nicely decorated pad in an otherwise non-descript, working class neighborhood, the agency's office flies in the face of über-posh Champs Elysées by being one of the most run-down, depressing, claustrophobic offices into which I've ever set foot. It's like something out of a 1940's film noir detective agency, only with iMacs and scanners and photocopiers. Otherwise, it looks like nothing's been updated since the days of the Maltese Falcon et al. I'm imagining all their funds are going to paying the rent.

Taking care of my work here, unfortunately, put me on the business end of the evening rush hour commute on the Ligne 1 - an exercise in madness that I'd so recently experienced. So I surveyed my surroundings. The sun was shining, I had my trailrunners on, and - dammit - I live in THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY IN THE WORLD.

Once again, I decided, it was time for one of my urban hikes. 3.6 miles - not too bad - running from the Champs Elysées, through the Place de la Concorde, down the Jardin des Tuilleries, through the Louvre courtyard, down Rue de Rivoli, through the hip & trendy Marais, up through the Bastille, and on to my place.

I had to plow through crowds of tourists. I had to jump over or skip around massive puddles left by the earlier thunderstorm. It rained on me a bit once I got to the Marais, but nothing I couldn't slog through comfortably, and I took refuge toward the finish line with a happy hour beer at my new local.

Now I have to catch up on the work I missed in doing all this, but that's fine. I just spent a sunny late afternoon walking through THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY IN THE WORLD. And I had a beer. Score!

Morning Rush II

I got into work half an hour later than usual this morning...

Partially because I had to buy a new carnet of Métro tickets (I still have to hunt down a station where I can buy a non-French credit card holder monthly pass) and couldn't find a ticket window. I eventually found a machine that accepts notes and was on my way... but then the good ol' Ligne 13 got stuck in the tubes not once, not twice, but THREE times.

Following my theme of finding pleasure in the typically displeasurable, though, let's just say the view across from me was absolutely magnifique.

Crap, I think my wife reads this blog...

Monday, March 03, 2008

Morning Rush

Long have I longed for a real transit system. My former commute from San Francisco to San Jose and back on CalTrain was - despite its comfort - long and inconvenient. Within San Francisco, the only smooth part of the commute was the underground portion of the Muni Metro, running beneath Market Street, only to resurface and deal with traffic for most of its route.

With every trip overseas (except maybe Costa Rica, where nothing but freight moves by rail), I was green with envy at the big cities' transit systems. London's tube. Sydney's train. Barcelona's metro. Tokyo's subway. Even Prague's trams. And of course, the Paris Métro.

I romanticized these systems, looking even at other US cities like DC, Portland and New York City with emerald eyes, pining for days where a car - or even a bicycle - would not be necessary. I was puzzled why such progressive cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles couldn't, despite billions of dollars spent, put together a halfway decent transit system that ran regularly and - god forbid - on time.

The question is, now that I live in one of these fabled cities with good public transit, would I actually appreciate it during that most magic (or tragic) of times... Rush hour!

I'm a bit of a sado-masochist when it comes to creating test cases - blame it on the years I spent doing Quality Assurance engineering - so with my morning toast, I had no fewer than 3 cups of coffee. I'd just chugged the third before walking down about five minutes to the Bastille Métro station.

Bastille's a bit out of the way - Voltaire is much closer to me - but it's on the Ligne 1, which means it has newer, faster cars, meaning I can make it to my correspondance with the hideously slow and clunky Ligne 13 a little bit more smoothly and comfortably, right?


Ligne 1 westbound happens to terminate at La Défense, the massive "business suburb" occupied by the skyscrapers and headquarters of many a multi-national corporation. Unfortunately (for me) about half of Paris proper's 2 million inhabitants work there. Or so it seems from my experience getting on the Métro this morning, crammed tightly in... not quite akin to Tokyo's legendary subway stuffing, but tight enough that when the train takes off from each stop, you can still stay upright without hanging on to a handrail.

Fortunately, I start my commute a few stops further east than the biggest portion of people on the Ligne 1, business-types who work in La Défense (read: overpaid expats who live in the Marais or around the Champs Elysées). So at least I get on the train. I may be packed in like one of many black-coated sardines (it's a requirement for the morning commute in Paris to be wearing a black coat, no matter your line of work) but I can look out with extreme glee - nay, schadenfreude - at the MBAs who live and work in America Lite™, left behind on the platform to wait for the next train.

By the time I make my correspondance to Ligne 13 - arguably Paris' worst Métro line - the shoddy, slower, older cars are actually a breath of fresh air. There's room to sit, put down my bag, and actually tap my foot to the beat on the iPod.

And make it to work without my bladder bursting and leaking 3 cups of coffee all over RATP property.

Through my commute I've learned that the Métro is reflective of Paris itself. It's not always the newest, most modern, or slickest things that hold the most appeal. A lot of times, it's the battered, run down, worse-for-the-wear parts that end up being preferable.

That said, I still wish they'd replace the Ligne 13 cars with the newer ones. Or ones that don't smell quite so much.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

C'est Comment Nous le Faisons, Bébé

Translation: This is how we do it, baby.

Buzzed. That's how I felt after a couple of drinks down at Ye Olde Happy Hour. This is one of the supreme benefits of not eating much (I skipped lunch, without any qualms). The downside is that thoughts enter your head like, "Ooh, that looks like a good place to get steak frites," or "Hey! I could totally go for a cassoulet."

As good as the latter sounds on a chilly, mildly rainy night, I had enough sense to just come home and make dinner. A big bowl of spaghetti, pomodoro/basilico sauce with lardons fumés, plenty of fresh bread. And yes, that is a micro-mini bottle of Heineken. I even had the wherewithal to serve myself dessert: A tiny chocolate pastry from a local patisserie, followed by the requisite demi-tasse of coffee.

All to the tune of about €3 in raw materials, and not too much time in the kitchen. Oh, how glorious it is not to be in a hotel anymore!

Let's see how this goes when I get home all tired from work this week...

Storming the Bastille

For 24 hours now, I've been living in my apartment.

Instead of being crammed into a 10 square meter room, I've got a separate bedroom, a bathroom, and - praise the culinary gods - a kitchen!

Allow me to give you a tour.

Climbing to the third floor (2nd floor in European parlance) of an unassuming building in the 11th Arrondisement, you open the doors to this small but tasteful living room. Personally, I dig the fireplace (even though I don't think I'm allowed to use it), and the fact that is has a futon, meaning I can have guests!

The bedroom is surprisingly larger than it looked in the rental agency's pictures, with yet another decorative fireplace. In the other half of the room (not shown) is a desk, a window out on to the building's courtyard (not much of a view, sadly), and a big ol' closet.

The kitchen isn't a gourmet's dream... in fact, it's more like an Ikeaphile's dream. But it's got just about everything I'd need, including a cool 4-burner stove that not only has an oven, but beneath the oven a built-in... dishwasher!? Crazy. The crockery and cutlery kind of suck, but hey, it's a temporary rental. I can always buy my own.

Note the baguette on the counter. Yes, I just bought that, nice and fresh! The miniature below-the-counter European fridge is small, but not inadequate. My only complaint is that I have to squat down on my knees to get anything. Not unlike dealing with the French government.

But as much as I love finally having a kitchen (eliminating the need to spend $84 on dinner every time I get hungry at night) the real piéce de résistance is the bathroom. You have to understand something about me. There are two parts of the house that really, truly matter to me. The kitchen and the bathroom. I need both cleanliness and style in the places where I create my food, and where I ultimately get rid of it. So needless to say, I'm pretty happy with these designer digs:

Awww, yeah. Curved corner bath tub, one of those cool washbasins, and surprisingly cool pink decor throughout. All I'm missing now are my bitchez & Kristal wife and dog.

The neighborhood is pretty damn cool, too. Despite its newfound hipster (ugh) leanings a bit northwest around Oberkampf, the 11th maintains a working-class budget but boasts plenty of style. Perhaps not in the look of the neighborhood - there are a handful of crazies and drunks that make it somewhat reminiscent of San Francisco - but at what's behind the facade. The atmosphere at the local businesses tends to be less tourist and more local. Less chi-chi and more affordable.

There's a halal butcher shop just downstairs. An awesome bakery at the nearby corner. A huge supermarket should I choose to do my shopping around 9:30pm. A great fishmonger. And if I head south to the more rowdy part of the Bastille neighborhood, about 2,465 bars, a couple of which have been longtime Parisian favorites of mine. Oh, and there are no less than two Absinthe bars within 2 blocks of me in either direction on my street.

Ok, so I'm too poor to go bar-hopping every night. And hell, I'm getting older and I'm more responsible. But it's great to know that all this is just a stone's throw away.

Speaking of which, it's happy hour at the local goth/metal/industrial bar. That's got my name all over it. See ya!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Feels Like Home

I'm sitting at an outdoor table at Au Petit Poucet in the 17th, alongside Place de Clichy, site of a blog entry from last year. I'm sipping an espresso, looking at the same theatre across the way, and using the same "Wistro" Wi-Fi password the waitress had so graciously given me last time around. (I remembered it!)

I came to see what's up with our favorite little hole in the wall in the neighborhood, Au 24 on Rue Biot, only to find it indefinitely closed. I came to pick up a copy of FUSAC (a local English-language classifieds magazine) at Lush bar, only it's not open yet.

I'm also chasing a little something else: It was in this neighborhood that Alannah and I had first thought, "We could live here."

Alas, she's 6000 miles away, but being at the same café in which we shared an omelette and coffee before any talk of marriage or moving or anything materialized, it's like I'm sharing the moment with her.

As you can see, I'm easily drawn to emotion by free Wi-Fi.

Within the hour, I'll be back in Clichy.

To pick up my luggage and move out. YES!!

The Honeymoon is Over

No, not with my beloved.

No, not with Paris.

I mean that infernal Fire & Stone restaurant.

Good price be damned, it just isn't worth the minimum six times I've sat on the crapper since singing the praises of such a cheap steak dinner.

Lesson learned: You get what you pay for.

Thank goodness the hotel has extra rolls of toilet paper...