Monday, July 28, 2008

Wind Beneath My Jeans

Yesterday I went to watch the Tour de France, which should have me in some sort of cyclist afterglow.

Today I went and had a very positive meeting with a real estate agent regarding getting our dream apartment, about which I should be ecstatic.

But you know what's really got me stoked?

The lady and I bought our first appliance tonight. Five and a half months of marriage, and we finally bought our first piece of motorized housewares.

We were slogging through the thick, heavy central Paris air, my freshly adorned pair of pants (I changed from shorts to a pair of pants in order to look like a respectable apartment-seeker) already soaked through with sweat. With humidity and temperatures in the 80's (Fahrenheit, of course), it's often been feeling like a Manhattan summer, without the scent of garbage juice in the air.

I was about to suggest going to some open house we saw listed in the Marais (the prospect of which sounds utterly dull after locating our dream pad in the far less American-colonized 2nd Arrondissement) when Alannah suggested - nay, instructed - that we go to the Darty electronics/appliance megastore and buy a fan. "We NEED a fan," she insisted.

Fair enough. It was not only hot as hell last night, but I slept barely two hours, royally pissed off that I was being constantly eaten by mosquitoes. And mosquitoes hate moving air. And even more so, I really hate mosquitoes.

Inside the Darty near our pad, we found the appliance section and found a number of people clustered around the selection of fans. Nobody was very willing to move or make a selection, basking instead in front of the wall of cool air. This could be because there is no such thing as a reasonably priced fan here, so the best thing to do is camp out.

Personally, I hate sweating even more than mosquitoes. I rarely used to sweat without a workout or a police chase as the cause, but in this sort of humidity, I'm wetter than Ann Coulter at a GOP fundraiser. And I'll do anything to not be likened to Ann Coulter nor the GOP.

So I started looking at the air displacement capacity of the fans. 1.5 m3/min.... 4 m3/min... Ooh, what do we have here? 24.1 m3/min! And when it comes to not being sweaty, preventing mosquitoes, not being like Republican shitfucks, and making my lady happy - all in one go - well, then, money is no object.

I'm proud to say that we now own a Rowenta upright oscillating fan that's got better displacement than Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove swan diving into a bathtub full of sulfuric acid. And is almost as pleasurable.

The author enjoying his new hardware, in his underwear. Expect to find him like this every day for the rest of summer.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

This'll Be the Last Time (I think I said that last time...)

This is my last big, touristy, holy-shit-I-can't-find-a-bathroom of an event for this season. In fact, I hope not to have to set foot on the Champs-Élysées again for the rest of the year.

Fat chance, considering I live right by it, but a guy can always dream, right?

After another week of overwork and apartment-hunting, we figured we'd be good little newcomers-to-France and get up really early this morning, pack ourselves a picnic, stake out a spot on the Champs-Élysées, and wait at least five hours to catch a glimpse of Carlos Sastre and others triumphantly blow by on their bicycles, wrapping up the 2008 Tour de France. I read that the crowds would be three or four times bigger than on Bastille Day. That the weather would be hotter and more humid. That the tourists are estimated to be an order of magnitude more obnoxious. (Something about an Aussie rider doing really well... I kid!)

So as we went to bed last night, Alannah asked, "Is your alarm set?"

"Fuck it," I declared. "Let's just wake up when we wake up and play it by ear. We'll go with the flow. And if we don't catch the Tour, there's always next year."

I think Alannah silently thanked god for finally knocking some sense into me. I don't want to tell her that I was just exhausted.

It was just past noon when I finally woke up.

"Heh. Guess we won't be hanging out with the early birds on the Champs," I said. "Want a cocktail?"

And thus started my day-drinking.

I flipped on the TV. "You know," I said, tipping back my drink. "They say if you're actually interested in the race, it's better to watch it on TV - where you can see."

My brain surrendered to the thought of just sitting around and drinking all day. I made another drink.

Eventually, perhaps after I got a buzz going, we decided it'd be worthwhile to venture down to try and catch the Tour in person. After all, it's just down the street. And if there's one thing I love about big events with lots of tourists, it's that I can roll in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers - without being judged as a tourist who goes to big events.

The other cool things about these things is that - unlike the supposedly liberated San Francisco - drinking in public is totally legal in Paris. So we stopped to pick up beers.

The thing that blows about these things is that you just sit around and wait. And all the booze in the world doesn't make it any quicker. Despite the fact that we arrived many hours after everyone else (yet still managed to get a sweet spot, not far from the turn-around at the Arc de Triomphe) we still had to wait, and wait, and wait for any sort of action.

You knew something was about to happen when the crowd would start to get increasingly louder from the east end of the Avenue, with motorcycles and support cars zipping by. And then, as the excitement of the announcer's voice crescendoes over the loudspeakers, so does the crowd. If you're hearing impaired, you can tell this moment from everyone going apeshit to train their cameras on the approaching peleton.

This is because the only way to actually see anything is to grab it as a photo/video and watch it later when you can zoom in, freeze-frame, retouch or whatnot. Actually trying to witness anything live will require you to focus in like a laser for the 15 or so seconds of glory as the cyclists rush by at around 53km/h.

In fact, without a good SLR with a fast shutter, you won't even be able to make the cyclists out as anything but a blur.

Even at a good 1/320th of a second, these little bastards move too fast. It took me a few laps (which seem like an eternity of waiting in between) before I could fire off an acceptable shot.

The other problem is that - say you grab a good shot - trying to spot the yellow jersey is like playing Where's Waldo? Yellow is the official color of the tour, so everyone wearing a 10€ yellow shirt/cap/souvenir rain poncho in the background makes it tough to pick out the leader.

So it wasn't until well after the peleton had gone by that I reviewed my pictures and said, "Oh, hey! I managed to get Carlos Sastre!" Honestly, I didn't know who or what I was shooting.

The polka-dot jersey (worn the best climber of the field) is slightly easier to spot, if only because it's even more obnoxious than the yellow jersey.

Eventually, I gave up on trying to figure out which rider was which, which team they rode on, which country they rode for - and appreciated the big blur of color that would mind-bogglingly whiz by every so often. And wouldn't you know it, it was after I'd just given up to go with the flow that I spotted Sastre as he rode by in front of us.

Sated, we got out of the crowd a few laps before the end, hoofing it down to the Concorde end of the Champs-Élysées in time for the award ceremony. Thankfully, they put up a giant video screen for you to watch it, since the tiny stage is damn near impossible to see. Whether that's because the stage is barely higher than street-level, or because I was writhing around doing the pee-pee dance after a half day of drinking and standing around is yet to be determined.

The ceremony itself is rather understated. As the winners are handed a bouquet, they're flanked by two extremely hot girls. Besides the fact that you get to see these amazing specimens of the female form, you can also marvel in the extremely French way that their dresses are coordinated with the cyclists' jerseys. Leader's yellow jersey? Yellow sundresses. Climber's red polka dot jersey? White A-line dresses with a polka dot sash. Speedster's green jersey? Guess...

In the end, it was seeing those pretty girls in the coordinated dresses that got me smiling. There was a certain understated kitschiness to it (if such a thing can exist, the French are on top of it), going along with the understated announcing, and the understated speech by the winner - the Spaniard Carlos Sastre - who spoke softly and gently after a grueling 22 days that concluded with a sprint up and down the Champs-Élysées. There was no pumping techno music, no heads of corporations handing out giant novelty-size checks (although corporate sponsorship is the one thing that fuels the Tour more than performance-enhancing drugs), nor any sort of over-the-top craziness you'd normally expect at the conclusion of a major sporting event.

Maybe it's because it's cycling, but the crowd was - for the most part - polite and civilized. Drunk as hell, perhaps, but well behaved. Even the Aussies. And surprisingly, for as much beer as was being consumed, there was no pissing on the sidewalks. (Though I believe I slowly wet myself drop by drop over the course of the day. It was so humid, I can't tell.) Overall, it was the most surprisingly pleasant mass sporting event I've ever attended.

We've started to take these things for granted.

Late last night and then this morning, we blew off the race, figuring we could just walk down the street if we want to watch it, and that it happens every year. Then we go, we think, "Yeah, this is pretty cool," and then the bipolarity kicks in.

"Holy shit! We just saw the ending of the Tour de France!"

Then we think, "Yeah, but I could've done without the big crowds, not being able to pee, or the potential heat stroke." And we walk home and get an ice cream bar on the way, capping off another languid Sunday, thinking "Ok, I guess that was better than staying at home."

And this is representative, I think, of living in Paris. Alannah and I often go for late night walks after dinner. You walk along and think, "Oh, hey, it's that damn Arc de Triomphe again," or "Honey, do you want to cross the Pont des Arts or Pont Neuf tonight?" or "Maybe it'd be nice to walk near the Louvre." And once in a while, it just hits both of us. "I don't care how touristy it is - it's still beautiful!" or "It's so weird living by all these awesome monuments!" or "I just went to go buy bread... by the f***ing [FILL IN MONUMENT NAME]!"

So yes, watching the finale of the Tour de France in person was great. But at the same time, I really have no desire to put up with the masses of people, the tourist-oriented shops and kiosks, the overpriced everything, or the general lunacy of being one amongst several hundred thousand people packed into one street. And that's just the Champs-Élysées on a normal day.

Unfortunately, I'll probably have to do this every time we have visitors in late July. For those of you thinking about it, I've conveniently distilled a typical six-hour day of watching (or rather, waiting to watch) the Tour de France into six minutes.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Vengeance is Mine

I have a new hobby.

Alannah laughs when I partake in it, seeing how much joy it gives me, but I'm sure she's actually thinking to herself, "Why did I marry this guy?"

Our current (and thankfully temporary) apartment, while in a very nice, prestigious 17th Arrondissement neighborhood is not ideal. Sure, it's one of those rare corner gems that gets a lot of sunlight, particularly because two of the huge windows overlook a wide boulevard. It also has no air conditioning nor fans, so we need to sleep with the windows open (at risk of being eaten by mosquitoes) on these recently hot, very humid nights.

I've lately been awakening to magnificently orange-yellow sunrises with light pouring in the windows in some sort of celestial fashion, often making me wonder if I'm dead... or merely hung over.

I've also been awakened in the middle of the night by the rat bastards who use the major thoroughfare below. Yelling drunkards. Singing drunkards. Driving drunkards - sporting loud stereos or loud exhausts.

I've taken to keeping a big bottle of water next to the bed. First off to stay hydrated on these hot nights. Secondly for my new hobby: Splashing water at the fools who dare interrupt (or prevent) my slumber.

My first successful hit was like crack. I was awakened by the jolt of really, really, really bad hip-hop, being cranked out of a really, really, really bad stereo. I went to the window and looked down, and it was a small convertible with the offending 2:30am noise pollution. With a flick of my wrist, I launched half a litre of water and hit the car squarely in the interior. The stereo was promptly turned off.

Now, I'm positively addicted to doling out the punishment. Just moments ago, a couple of drunks stumbled by, singing "Stand By Me" at the top of their lungs. Badly. I prepped my water, instinctively walked to the window and -- shit, it's pouring rain. There's no point soaking those who are already wet. Mother nature has staged an intervention.

Perhaps I'm a dick, but I figured I'd bring my own brand of Justice to Paris. (Music nerds, give me half a point for that one if you groaned...) People here are ridiculously non-confrontational. There's rarely a tut-tut if someone doesn't pick up after their dog shitting on the sidewalk. God forbid you tell a crazy drunk who's aggressively yelling at people on the Métro to fuck off. Nope, just read your book or text away on your portable and give up your right to have a little peace and quiet.

Just the other night, there was some sort of loud party going on down the street. On a weeknight. Going 'til 4:30am.

If people can do shit like that with impunity, then I'm entitled to throw a bit of H2O out the window.

Anyway, here's a sample of the random noise we get here at Rue Guersant and Boulevard Péreire. Alannah says he shows up on a fairly regular basis. This makes me glad I spend so much time at the office.

What I don't get is this: Half the time he's not even playing anything. It's just the little stereo rigged up on his trolley.

What I really don't get is this: That woman actually gave him money.

I'm starting to think there's such a thing as too much tolerance.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bastille Day Pt. III: Best. Fireworks. EVER.

I apologize for some of the garbled audio during the transitions... I'm still trying to reconcile audio codecs between the Sony Cybershot camera's MPEG format and iMovie's DV format after demuxing.

You probably don't care what any of that means.

All that matters is that these fireworks were SO worth camping out five hours for.

It cost 400,000€ (USD $634,000) to put on. And it was worth every god damn penny. (Or centime.) And worth all 10-minutes of video time. And worth not being able to get on the metro and walking home at nearly 2 in the morning after getting up at 6:30 the previous morning.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bastille Day Pt. II: Nuls on Parade

nul - (pej.) hopeless; useless

We got up reallyfuckingearly, on the advice of numerous web sites that purported to have the best info on getting a good spot for the Bastille Day military parade down the Champs Élysées. We were aided in our wake-up efforts by the fact that, by virtue of being three blocks from the staging area for the parade, the sound of tank treads crunching down the street filled our apartment at dawn.

Now before my American compatriots go on making jokes about white flags, Maginot lines and "surrender monkeys," remember that the French helped us in the Revolutionary War, still sport the fearsome Foreign Legion, and - oh yeah - haven't gone and started numerous losing war campaigns in the last 50 years.

That said, I really don't care about military dick-swinging of any sort, but by all accounts, this is something you have to see. And living mere moments from the Arc de Triomphe, we thought to ourselves, "Pourquoi pas?"

We grabbed a sweet spot up near the aforementioned Arc, advised by several web "experts" that this is the place to be. It's where the parade route begins, they say, and where the président de la république inspects the troops before they proceed down the Champs Élysées to the Concorde. Granted, I think President Sarkozy can eat a proverbial dick, but it still would be cool to see him in person. There were a ton of personnel carriers, tanks, and other vehicles lined up in front of us. Disappointingly, there were no giant intercontinental ballistic missiles like in the old Soviet May Day parades.

Figuring we were in the most awesome of spots, a cop came over and started shooing people off, telling them to go further up the street if they want to see anything. "This is just parking," he said. "If you want to see the soldiers, the president, or any of the actual parade, you'll have to move down."

Well, gee, thanks Monsieur Gendarme Nul. At least a thousand people have been lined up on this end of the street - behind parade/event barricade - for at least three or four hours before the start of the event. Now, just moments before, you come to tell us we can't see anything from here? Brilliant.

We went up and down the giant avenue, grumbling, until we found a decent spot in one of the 40 or so secured, barricaded areas. By secured, it means they won't let you bring in bottled beverages with a cap on 'em... But take the cap off, and it's absolutely fine! (Note to self: Next year, take extra bottle caps to thumb nose at system.)

I spotted an open park bench on which I could perch and get a good angle to take photos. After all, I've seen people doing this the whole parade route. Not a minute went by before a cop came by and told me to get down. Once the little pen filled with people five minutes later, there were at least a dozen people standing on the bench, the cop's authority apparently intimidated out of him by numbers. (Note to self: Next year, roll with a posse.)

Festivities eventually began, as various companies of various branches of military - including the aforementioned Foreign Legion - stood at attention, held their rifles and bayonets and did general military parade-y things. The biggest applause came for the very hung-over looking Pompiers (many Parisian firefighters are actually part of the military), whom thousands cheered, applauded, and thanked for the previous night's raging firehouse parties.

Then, it happened. I got my opportunity. To shoot Sarkozy.

And I did, unloading all my digital SLR armory. (What did you think I meant!?)

Unfortunately, the little piss-ant sped by on top of a jeep before I could lock a good focus on him. Typical slippery politician...

While seeing tanks and armored vehicles of all stripes (including two whitewashed UN peacekeeping units, as Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon was the guest of honor) was pretty cool and all, I couldn't help but think how traumatizing it must feel for old WWII veterans/survivors who watched and heard the same loud, groaning drone of German tanks rolling into the city. You'd think there'd be some crazy cases of PTSD every 14th of July...

The coolest part, by far though, was the annual flyover by the armée de l'air. As much as I think that air shows are a waste of money, create noise pollution, and use up precious fuel pointlessly... they're still reallyfuckingcool.

Unfortunately, no matter what's going on, the Champs Élysées is a big tourist hellhole. No, wait, make that a big tourist fuckinghellholeIcan'tstandtobearound. Figuring we'd beat the crowd by leaving the parade early, we got trapped for at least 30 minutes in a bottleneck of human traffic. It was like a rugby scrum, only with even uglier, more uncouth people. Walking a typical Paris sidewalk is bad enough. It gets worse when you're on the Champs Élysées. Worse, then, is a crowded metro entrance/exit on the same street. People simply forget to keep right. And when you add a national holiday, people from all over the place, and about five times the usual crowd, what you have is a clusterfuck.

Imagine roughly 800 people trying to get by all at once through one short stretch of sidewalk, blocked by parade barricade on one side, and construction walls on the other. (You know, those big facades that go up when they're remodeling a building...) And then imagine none of these people keeping right. We were jammed in, not moving at all, even the nul cops unable to do anything about the nul tourists, probably for fear that they'd get crushed, too.

Finally, Alannah and I decided, "Fuck it, if it's a rugby scrum, we'll play rugby," and forcibly shoved the crowd 'til it moved. Even once we were past the bottleneck, it was still a clusterfuck by any measure. My temper had been tested long enough, and I was fueled by the testosterone from the artful shoving just moments before. "Fucking idiots!" I yelled out. "Keep right! Tenez la droite! Go! Move! Forward! Allez! Bougez! Avancez! Keep moving and keep right! ¡Andale, cabrones!"

The people comfortably sitting at tables at a nearby café laughed. A number of people behind me said, "Thank god someone said something." But overall, people moved. I'm not a big guy, but I'm pretty scary when I'm pissed off, and I yell loud enough to fill an arena.

And I can do it in 8 languages.

(Note to self: Don't bother coming back next year.)

Rise and Shine

The view from my bedroom window at about 6:30 this morning, just past sunrise.

Bastille Day Pt. I: Playing With Fire

My wife had a French fireman's sausage in her mouth tonight, while I scoped out some hoochied-out hotties.

Ok, ok, ok... umm, that sounds bad. It was a dark brown merguez, which she enjoyed with gusto as I got tipsy with the firefighters and their admirers.

No, she wasn't granting a favor to a north African firefighter, and there was no infidelity involved. We were at the local fire station gorging on 2€ sausage sandwiches and 2€ beers, while the gals were all dolled up trying to get the attention of the men in uniform.

Huh!? Here's the deal. Every year for Bastille Day (or as it's called here, la Fête Nationale, since it definitely lasts for more than a day), many of the local firefighting battalions in Paris put on a huge party. Some do it on the 13th, some do it on the 14th (which is Bastille Day proper), and some - like our neighborhood company - do it on both.

So we decided to hit up the 5th fire battalion's garrison a few blocks from our place to see what's up. For a voluntary donation (or none at all if you're cheap or broke), you get to go to a massive fire station and party with a bunch of men in uniform. I know that sounds supremely gay, but it's a good time.

Like everywhere else in the world, Paris firefighters are good-looking, muscular hunks of beefcake. I know that - again - sounds supremely gay (not that there's anything wrong with it), but I'm getting at something here. If you're a single girl, there is no better place to meet good-looking, muscular hunks of beefcake. With French accents. If you're a single guy, there is no better place to meet the girls that love them. And there are lots of them. And there are only so many pompiers to go around. So eventually, once the beer and champagne have stopped flowing, there will be some hooking up. So if you're single and in Paris around Bastille Day, now you know where to go.

And that concludes the "International Playboy" portion of this piece.

Our neighborhood's pompiers hosted their party in the massive courtyard (actually, two courtyards) of the firehouse at Place Jules Renard, with bars set up at the perimeter of each, a stage for live music in the larger one, and a stage with a DJ in the second. And it was just mad... in a good way.

As what seemed to be the only Americans there, Alannah and I couldn't help but notice the massive differences between an event like this here, and one back in the States. We seemed to start every other sentence with, "If this were in America..."

  • the age range of the attendees would've been about 24-35

  • the video screens would've been festooned with waving American flags and sooty faces and "FDNY" tributes with the word "hero" splashed on for good measure every 96 frames

  • the alcohol would have cost three times as much

  • drinking of said alcohol would have been cordoned off to barricaded areas, only enterable with wristbands

  • champagne would most certainly not have been served in glass bottles

Instead, we were treated to what felt like a true community celebration, attended by people ranging from 8 months to 85 years of age. But that didn't stop them from showing video clips of a realistic day in the life of a firefighter. From cooking tons of food (again, another universal firehouse thing, which translated well into the barbecue stand where we got our merguez), to daily workouts, to the bloody and sometimes downright gory imagery of pulling people out of fires and wrecks. Sanitized for general audiences, this was not. And neither are the firefighters. They may be partying in uniform, but they're still partying - having drinks, dancing on the bar, and all the while being incredibly cordial, polite hosts.

It was hard for us to believe that a massive, free party in a major city could be so... civilized. To be sure, it's far from a sober affair. Beers are only 2€50, champagne is 5€, the music is pumping, and by midnight, the place is jam packed. Despite all the bottles of champagne going around, none of them are being broken over people's heads. The fact that you can even buy glass bottles of champagne was astounding to us, escapees from Litigious Society.

So we whooped it up with the local firefighters, watched a couple of bands, checked out the sardinesque (my made-up expression for seriously packed) DJ area, and drank champagne.

Oh, and there were midnight fireworks, of course. Curiously set to the theme from Blade Runner. WTF?

The bal des pompiers parties go 'til about 5am, but we called it a night and walked home by 1. We don't want to spend our first Bastille Day nursing wicked hangovers. That'll have to wait until the 15th.

Oh, and for the record - the lady firefighters are hotties, too.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mission (partially) Accomplished

I walked down to the corner store to pick up a top-up card for Alannah's cell phone, and along the way was, umm, "greeted" by a staggering drunk, holding up a boombox cranking hip-hop tinged dance music, challenging me to dance. I couldn't figure out if it was just someone out of his gourd, or one of those tektonik kids. Then again, it's hard to tell the difference.

Yup, I'm back in Paris. After a mercifully short trip back to the US, I now have a permanent work visa to France. This is such a big deal that our return to France is being marked with all-night parties and fireworks and general drunkenness this weekend, on par - once again - with a national holiday or something. Who knew we were so important?

All kidding aside (it's Bastille Day on Monday, kids...) we're only celebrating half-heartedly. Not only out of my natural aversion to patriotism and nationalism of any sort, but also because we're only half legal.

You see, thanks to some missteps in the glorious French bureaucracy, I have my visa... and Alannah doesn't.

Leaving some details out, the day of our trip to the French consulate in San Francisco was comprised of tense optimism and anticipation, followed by some held-back tears, stunned disbelief, and a number of extremely pissed off emails back to my company in France, who is supposed to be taking care of this stuff.

Four and a half months of rushed wedding planning, transatlantic moving, living out of suitcases in hotels and temporary apartments, travel back-and-forth to make consulate appointments, hundreds upon hundreds of dollars in legal document translations and overnight couriers to transport them... and we're still not done. Because somebody forgot to file a piece of paperwork.

Words cannot describe the anger and disappointment that such a tiny screw-up has caused, but we had no choice but to take our flight back to Paris, as we have no idea when Alannah's visa will be ready. Of course, we'll have to go back to the US one more time to do this.

In the meantime, my passport is adorned with a French work visa (with no expiration date!), which I was told needed to be accompanied by all sorts of legal paperwork, my work contract, etc. so that I could get back into the country. The passport control officer spent all of 4 nanoseconds looking at it before waving me through.

But it's not the physical visa that counts. What matters is that I am now official here.

And that I'm married to an illegal alien. Sweet!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Dogshit, Kebabs, and Heatstroke: Bienvenue Chez Midi

We'd just been to the northern coast of France for Alannah's birthday a couple of weeks beforehand, so why not go all the way south?

Our friend Alice had come from San Francisco to attend a drawing course in the village of Moux, in the Languedoc region in France's southwest (aka the MIdi), and she had a free weekend. I'd been working 50-60 hour weeks (this whole notion of a lazy, idyllic 35-hour French workweek is utter bullshit, by the way) so I felt I deserved a long weekend. And we really wanted to see Alice.

We chose to meet up in Montpellier. Or rather, I chose it, simply because there's a direct TGV high-speed rail connection from Paris, and after too many 12-hour work days, I just wanted a simple transit day - the quickest getaway possible.

Alannah had done a fantastic job of tracking down hotels, hostels, pensions - ANYTHING, on a weekend where there were apparently 1,597 conferences and events going on - and got us a room for three at the Hotel Colisée Verdun for just over 50€ a night. It was small, hot, and incredibly noisy at night, but only 150 metres from the train station.

This is important, because when you get off of an air-conditioned train in Montpellier in the summer, you start to melt. You have approximately ten minutes to make it into the shade before you're turned into a liquefied puddle of your former hair, skin, and organs. You think I'm kidding, but I saw these little puddles of biomatter everywhere.

Or maybe they're just dogshit. If the Hollywood Walk of Fame represent a whole galaxy of stars in Los Angeles, then the sidewalks of Montpellier represent a whole universe of dogs. Or dog owners who don't give (nor pick up) a shit. It is said that if you were to put together all of the dogshit in Montpellier, you'd have enough fertilizer to turn the Sahara into arable land and grow enough crops to feed the world ten times over. Hell, Dogshit is so prevalent here, it's up for sainthood:

Ok, maybe I made that part up, but what I'm saying is that the streets of Paris look like you could eat off of them in comparison.

About the only thing more prevalent than dogshit in Montpellier is the ubiquitous kebab shop. Being in the south and near the Mediterranean, the city has a huge North African and Arab immigrant population. This is much to the chagrin of the racist Nationalist Party right-wingers, but much to the benefit of the 65,000+ students who make up 1/3 of the population. Thousands of kebab shops mean tight competition, upping the quality and lowering the prices.

Of course, kebabs aren't the only kind of ethnic culture to be found at Montpellier. Beating the heat on the gorgeous patio of the trendy Welcomedia bar/restaurant/tapas place, we sipped on pastis, Perrier, and frozen drinks overlooking the main plaza, the Place de la Comedie. There was some ruckus coming from around the corner - what sounded like muted car horns played in a syncopated beat, maybe in three notes. "Are those cars?" Alice asked. "I think it may be the world's most atonal marching band," I joked.

The noise grew louder and, sure enough, it was the world's most tone-deaf marching band. Actually, it was an African performance troupe of some sort, blowing traditional horns and banging on small drums and dancing and being generally awesome. It was so mindblowingly random it was incredible.

There we were, sitting and drinking in sweltering heat under the mid-afternoon sun, suddenly surrounded by dozens of bright yellow-clad musicians who just turned up from out of the blue. And as quickly as they appeared, they moved on and disappeared. It was an interesting welcome to Montpellier, and we wondered if we'd ever see these guys again. (We never did.)

We poked around the Comedie a bit, but the wide-open, paved over, treeless plaza was entirely too hot and sunny, so we cooled off in the shade of the trees and market stalls lining the Esplanade. It wasn't long before our umpteenth break for refreshments. We decided on the Jardin de Glaces (Garden of Ice Cream), where Alice broke out some sketching materials, Alannah busted out with the camera, and my non-artistic ass ordered a Feu d'Artifice (fireworks) sundae for us to share, a schizophrenic concoction of merengue, five flavors of fruity sorbet, vanilla ice cream, coffee ice cream, whipped cream, candied fruits... It tasted like Christmas and the Fourth of July had a gangbang and finished in your mouth. An explosion of Frapuccino and Jamba Juice and pavlova and fruitcake and... Oh, who cares? It was ice cold and we were hot. And a bit stupid from heatstroke. At least there wasn't dogshit in it.

If anything, the sundae was perfectly representative of the disjointed nature of Montpellier. The city is a mashup of cultures, of social scenes, of architecture, of... everything. Other than brutal summertime heat, there seemed to be no common thread to anything. No consistency.

Dinner time came along and after exploring the very charming old center of town, we happened upon a small, reasonably priced restaurant called La Ferme (the farm), specializing in the terroir products of the region. Best of all, we were able to snag an outdoor seat on this balmy evening without a reservation. It's small, cute, and charming, with a touch of class belied by the fact that everything is obviously from Ikea. It's atmospheric and almost romantic, offset by pretty but pungent citronella candles (!) on the table and drunk college students throwing shit from the apartment windows above.

As for the food? If you ever find yourself in Montpellier and stumble upon La Ferme, stick to the appetizers. This region is known for its foie gras and other waterfowl products, and the restaurant's signature salad represents them all. Some of the most delicious, rich, creamy foie gras I've ever had, alongside the most tender gésiers (goose gizzards), on top of brilliant smoked magret (duck breast) and those details like, oh, lettuce and tomato that make it all qualify as a "salad." Between that and the tomato tart, we were having mouthgasms that made us vow to come back here for every meal. The so-so main dishes (confit de canard, piéce de boucher, etc.) didn't inspire as much oohing and ahhing, and the desserts - ugh, pre-fab and sub-par. But the salad? I'll never forget it. Having my first bite of local foie gras was like having my first real Cuban cigar ($125) or first "reserve" bottle of wine ($300). Only this salad will only set you back 12€.

Saltwater and Couscous
We awoke somewhat early the next morning to try and get out before the midday sun. For only 2€ a person, we got full-day bicycle rentals from Velo M'agg (the Montpellier version of Velib, only less technologically advanced). We packed some emergency food (having learned from my last bike rental in France that it's essential to bring food and water when venturing away from cities) and set off on the 11km bike path from Montpellier to the beach at Palavas.

As every web site, book, and tourst information office employee will tell you, this path is flat. What they fail to tell you is that 80% of it is not paved. This is the type of information that's nice to know before you head out on a 35-pound cruiser with no suspension and a frame geometry just short of a Penny Farthing.

Of course, none of this matters once you arrive at the beach, taking in the blue of the Mediterranean, rewarding yourself for the hot ride with ice cold beers alongside the beach. The sunshine, the sand, and that gorgeous expanse of sea help you forget that your servers have bad prison tattoos, foul mouths (one barman likened his shaking of Alannah's Orangina bottle to "what girls should do" with a wink and a nod... hah!), and that you're basically surrounded by the local equivalent of trailer trash.

But really, who can really complain when you're shortly going to find yourself a quiet chunk of beach, kicking around white sand, and swimming in calm, temperate seas?

The three of us floated in the Mediterranean, occasionally realizing, "Dude! We're floating in the Mediterranean!" Naturally, Alannah and I had to rub it into Alice that, "The crazy part is... we live a few hours away from here!"

A few hours. That's what the less-than-one-hour ride back to Montpellier felt like. Our brilliant plan to start early to avoid the peak sun was foiled by the fact that, well, you get peak sun from early morning 'til late at night around here. After spending a good chunk of the day swimming or just lying in the sun, the ride back was just brutal. At least there was no dog shit on the trail.

After cooling off a bit, it was time to forage for dinner. One of the regional specialties is seafood, but we were hard pressed to find any. There are tons of tourist traps. Shit-tons of the aforementioned kebab shops. Dodgy Chinese and Thai like one would see in Paris. We'd already had a full day, so even deciding on a place to eat seemed a Herculean task. We decided on Le Petit Valat, a small Moroccan place on a side street around the corner from our hotel. The place was tiny, looked incredibly charming, and was absolutely dead. We went there partially out of the knowledge that African cuisine in town is purportedly very good, and partially out of pity. Located on a nearly abandoned street, we felt bad that such a charmingly quaint place had just about no business. And, selfishly, that the three of us could have the restaurant to ourselves.

And we did. We had run of the place, and of the menu, delighting the owner by ordering just about everything we could. A salad of eggs and potatoes coated in rich virgin olive oil. A tangy purée of eggplant. The house "Valat" salad that contained pretty much everything all of their other salads did. Pichets of chilled rosé. A tagine of merguez sausage and eggplant. Another tagine of lamb and prunes and almonds. And a Pacha (royal) couscous with more of the aforementioned merguez and lamb, along with chicken and mechoui and kefta. The owner marveled that this small group of foreigners not only knew his cuisine, but fully appreciated it. Not to mention we ordered enough in one sitting to make his little venture profitable for the month. He was even further delighted when - instead of the usual coffee - we asked for the traditional mint tea. So delighted, in fact, that he brought us shots of chilled vodka, and further made us stay for what seemed to be another hour by repeatedly refilling our tea glasses.

Oftentimes it's those simple things that really make your experience. We'd chosen, instead of going to one of the bustling restaurants along the Place de la Comedie or in the old town centre, to visit a quiet, overlooked place without a hostess, without a waiter, without... much of anything really. And walked away with a fantastic experience.

Between that and swimming in the ocean, I found serious relief after a stressful month of long hours, six-day work weeks, and not knowing where to live. There's a lot of solace to be found in seawater and semoule.

Our night was capped off with a cheap pitcher of beer at the Rockstore, a music venue/bar oddly reminiscent of divey rocker bars in California, only without focus on a particular crowd. Music videos ranging from Hard-Fi to Metallica on the TVs, posters for upcoming electronica/DJ events, and the tail end of an old pink Impala or Malibu or whatnot crashed into the front facade of the building... yet another mash-up of styles so common to Montpellier, a town still searching for identity.

Comédie of Errors
Some days, you shouldn't bother getting out of bed.

Alice's free weekend was coming to an end, so she had to take the train back to Carcasonne in the afternoon. We had decided we'd seen enough of Montpellier, so we'd join her and check out the old medieval city for a few hours.

But first, some lunch. Although it's not a regional thing, we opted to eat at a crêperie as it's usually a quick and cheap favorite. Not so when you're in the tourist trap Place de la Comedie. Our tab for an adequate meal of salad and savory and sweet crêpes? 50% more than any other meal we'd had this trip. And that's after catching a 4€ overcharge on the bill. What's worse is that halfway back to our hotel, the waiter chased after us. I'd accidentally shorted him a 20€ bill. Oops!

We hit the sweltering train station to catch our train to Carcassonne, where the nearly enclosed platform was about twice as hot as the already ridiculous outside world, its stuffy atmosphere enhanced with the diesel exhaust of idling, older trains. The body heat from the mass of humanity was of no help, with what seemed to be thousands of people going home to Toulouse or thereabouts after the weekend. So bad was the heat that one girl collapsed just before the train arrived, revived just in time to board.

We didn't have assigned seats, and neither did anyone else for that matter. Seating (what little of it was available) was a free-for-all. We kept moving forward through the train cars until we realized - this one hour ride would be a standing room only affair. I started to suspect that the girl passing out on the platform was suspiciously timed just before the train arrived... as she was given space and seated right away.

No matter. After two stops, we were stuck. At a station (at least) in the middle of nowhere. With no air conditioning. I chugged at my water like a madman to no avail. It neither cooled me off, nor helped the train get moving. A TGV train headed to Perpignan (the same we'd taken in from Paris just the other day) pulled up on the other platform. They kindly invited all passengers headed in the direction of Perpignan (i.e. not us) to board the TGV, while the others should wait for our train to be fixed. The TGV is air conditioned. Bastards.

Another ten or fifteen minutes passed. They then invited passengers who are headed to Perpignan or Narbonne.

And then, they told us our train would not be fixed, and that everyone should get on the TGV. It wasn't going to Carcassonne, but it was air conditioned. I'm in. Somehow, I explained to the locals on the train - heading home to Toulouse or Carcassonne themselves - that it'd be ok, that we can transfer at Narbonne. Why I knew we could do this and they didn't is beyond me. I guess southerners fit the stereotype no matter what country you're in...

The TGV was blissfully cool inside. Unfortunately, the train runs very fast, so we were in Narbonne in no time. There, we would transfer to another train going on to our destination.. "Hi, I just came in on the TGV from the Toulouse-bound train that broke down," I explained at the ticket window. "Which train do I need to catch to Carcassonne?" "The one coming next," the man replied. "The same one you were scheduled for."

Yes! We went back out onto the hot platform for our imminent train... which showed up to a roar of applause... an hour and a half later.

What was supposed to be a nice half-day of exploring the medieval city became a quick, less-than-one-hour jaunt to walk around and snap a few photos.

But really, can you really complain when you walk a little ways from the station and see this?

We also happened upon a lot of military hardware and people in uniforms and helicopters flying everywhere. Apparently, there was some kind of huge French army expo/show going on in town. As we made our way through the newer city center to get to the old walled city, we heard what seemed like hundreds of sirens, coming from police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks racing down the main streets of town. "Wow," we thought. "They really like to include the first responders in their military parades here!"

It wasn't until I was having lunch with co-workers on Tuesday that I found out that in one of the military demonstrations... they accidentally used live ammo... and 17 people were mowed down by gunfire...

Oooh! That explains all the commotion and sirens and people looking at me funny for snapping photos like a dumb tourist. It also gives a ton of ammo (no pun intended) to people who like to make fun of the French military... as well as to President Sarkozy, who got rid of a political enemy with the subsequent resignation of the army's general.

Alannah and I returned to Montpellier, now free to have a little quiet time together. We opted to stay in, take it easy, avoid the heat, and enjoy a little (Euro 2008 soccer final) action. We did absolutely nothing but lie in bed, watch le foot, and decide that going to sleep at 11:00 pm - despite being something old people do on holiday - sounded like a good idea.

Of course, Southwest France may as well be northwest Spain. And in the Euro 2008 championship that night, Spain beat Germany. So in a sense, via shared history and close proximity, Southwest France felt like it beat Germany. And if you think southerners are loud when they're not celebrating, well, let me tell you - we had the kind of hot, sleepless night we didn't have in mind.

I Don't Know. What Do YOU Want to Do?
We had breakfast on Monday morning and then tried to figure out what to do for the next eight hours, as our train home wasn't until 7:30 at night.

Being that when I booked the tickets, I didn't yet have a French credit card (we just got one last week). French credit cards, unlike American credit cards, have these little IC chips in them for security. The ticket machines at train stations only accept those newfangle chipped cards for purchase/online order pickup. Otherwise you wait in line for an hour to get to a human being who'll mostly go on lunch break when you finally get to the window. However, they have this thing called IDTGV, where you can buy your tickets online, then print them out at home. No waiting in line at the station. No chip required. Which is excellent for someone who's still using his American cards.

And that's how we had so much time to kill on Monday: The only IDTGV train back to Paris was in the evening.

I don't think I'd ever been so lacking for anything to do while on holiday. We decided to check out a couple of the sites we hadn't yet seen. That killed an hour. Tops.

We had a little mini-picnic on a shaded park bench in the Esplanade, watching cute little kids playing in the cutest, most awesome Dr. Seuss-inspired playground, where every play object also happens to be some sort of sound-based, musical art installation. That killed 45 minutes.

We went down to Antigone, this annex of the town we'd briefly seen by bicycle the other day. Montpellier, being the only major city in southern France that wasn't founded or occupied by the Romans, apparently has some sort of classics envy and has built a gleaming new neighborhood in shiny new faux-Greco-Roman architecture. Doric columns (or are they Ionic?), those triangular archway top thingamabobs, fountains, statues... It all smacks of desperation or an inferiority complex. "Come! Look! We have old Mediterranean culture, too!" That killed maybe a half hour.

We went to the mall. Yes, the mall. We had smoothies. We looked at cheap accessories. Don't make fun of me. We achieved our major objective: We reveled in air conditioning. And killed two hours.

We decided to go on a random hike. Interestingly enough, the French word for hike is randonnée. We ended up in a rather grubby, ugly part of town, then discovered a gorgeous enclosed plaza with a funky café where Alannah had an incredible smoothie/sorbet float. I had a mauresque, which is pastis with orgeat syrup. We watched a crazy guy bathe in a small fountain, then yell at the fountain, then start a fight with (as in throwing punches at) the fountain. He then started a fight with another crazy guy, whom I believed considered the fountain his turf.

That killed... god knows how long. Watching crazy people must be the top pastime in Montpellier. After watching out for dogshit, of course. There's no shortage of either here. Something about hot climates brings out the indigent/vagrant/perpetually-drunk types. It's easier to sleep in a doorway or on a park bench when you don't have to worry about freezing to death, I suppose. You just have to worry about being shit on.

We capped our trip off by finally indulging one of the numerous kebab shops (verdict: not bad) and enjoyed the smooth, air-conditioned ride home. By the time we'd made it back to our flat in the 17th, we were appreciating how much better people dress; how much more quietly people speak; how much more classy and refined everything is. But just as in colorful climes with colorful people anywhere else in the world, we realized how warm, welcoming, and markedly friendly the people were down south. And ultimately, we realized that we've already become Parisian snobs.

Planes Trains & Automobiles

We arrived in San Francisco last night and hadn't realized how much this country had missed us.

As we wound our way down the Peninsula on CalTrain, a professional fireworks display would go off every few miles, a display of pyrotechnics usually saved for national holidays and Super Bowls.

Thanks for the warm welcome, U.S.A., but no thanks - we're just here to get our visas and get the F back out. For real this time.

Don't take it personally. But you know shit stinks when going through US customs and immigration is a better experience... in Canada. We've flown home via Montreal, one of many Canadian ports of entry where you actually go through US customs and passport control, and the experience was sublime. Professional passport screeners who don't feel the need to ask 400 questions. Polite security personnel manning the X-rays and the conveyer belts. None of the "baggage cart rage" I usually feel when going through the process at SFO or LAX or JFK or whatever... So Zen.

Which is necessary during a week like this. Right now, Alannah and I are at San Jose (CA) airport, waiting for our flight to Seattle, after which we will hop on another flight to Spokane.

This is after waking up at 6:30 in the morning to drive my parents' barely-roadworthy car with bald-ass tires to the airport. After arriving on CalTrain at 10:30 the night before. Which we caught after the BART ride from SFO to San Bruno and back to Millbrae.

Before BART, there was the five hour flight aboard an Air Canada Boeing 737 from Montreal. Two hours before that was the long 767 haul from Paris. To get to Paris, I had to drag a gigantic, 27-kilo case through one Métro and one RER line.

Only three days earlier, we had taken the high-speed TGV train back to Paris from Montpellier, where we'd ridden Velo M'agg bikes, taken shitty local trains (TER) and nice regional trains (Corail Téoz). About the only modes of transport we haven't used in the last seven days are a) the TAM tramway in Montpellier; b) taxis; c) horses and/or camels.

Oh yeah, that whole Montpellier thing. It was pretty awesome. I suppose I'll have to make a retroactive post about it, as I was blissfully away from the internet for a long weekend. Maybe I'll work on some pics and write it up on one of the next flights...