Sunday, August 24, 2008

Excès à l'Americain

This weekend marks six months since I moved to France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fatty Fatty Deux-par-Quatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Station 4 - Blood test.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

I highly recommend it.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

City of Lightning

Paris is flooding.

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

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

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

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

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

This morning, those trash bins were full of water.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Not-So-Haute Cuisine: Burger in a Box

Not long ago, my friend Arnold reviewed a not-so-excellent German-made canned cheeseburger on his excellent food blog, Inuyaki. I told him about its French counterpart - a microwaveable boxed cheeseburger - and promised him that, once I found the gumption to eat a microwaveable boxed cheeseburger, I'd review it.

In the weekend's utter boredom I found the time and motivation to engage this culinary aberration.

You would think that in a country known for its multitude of open-air markets, near-nationalistic zealotry for food, and strict agricultural and food processing laws that a microwaveable cheeseburger-in-a-box would be illegal, or at the very least, unpopular.

Au contraire, mon frère, I discovered it's somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon:

Video courtesy of

The burger's made by Charal, a company that apparently specializes in packaged meat products, not unlike Hormel in the US. If you go to the supermarket, there's almost always a Charal section in the reefer case, filled with vacuum-packed ground beef, steaks, pre-marinated meats, etc. It's about the furthest thing from going to a proper boucherie to get meat, but even food-snobby France can't resist modern convenience anymore.

Not opting for the whole family-pack of microwaveable cheeseburgers, I opted to pick up the single package, cleverly made to look like a fast food carton. It promises cheeseburger goodness in just 40 seconds in the microwave.

I read the instructions carefully, knowing this would likely be the only time I try something like this, and as such, I must do it right. The little "BAP!" exclamation next to the illustration of the microwave made me curious. "What does that mean?"

The directions call for 40 seconds in a 1000W microwave, but being that the tiny little Bosch in my tiny little kitchen only does 800W max, I adjusted the time up a bit. Not that this matters, because the timing mechanism isn't exactly a timepiece of Swiss-made accuracy.

After about 10 seconds, I learned what the "BAP!" was. It was a small explosion in the microwave.

I fully expected a blown-up mess of cheese and grey meat upon opening the package. Instead, I found a perfectly shaped burger with a perfectly shaped bun, sandwiched between two little metallic reflectors, which I assume help generate "proper," less microwavey heat.

The burger actually came out looking really good. At least, compared to a typical berguére from MacDo or Quick. The meat almost looked real, the cheese wasn't a gloppy mess, and there were actual slices of pickles!

I plated it and served it up with a fine bottle of 2008 Coca Cola, the kind with real sugar (as opposed to the awful vintages with high fructose corn syrup).

The verdict?

Not bad for something prepared in less time than it takes for me to pay for it.

But not particularly good, either. In fact, it tastes exactly like a White Castle burger. Which, if you're named Harold or Kumar or Billybob, I'm sure would suit you just fine. Personally, I like my burgers to taste more like actual beef and cheese. The bun is surprisingly decent, though, and the fact that I didn't feel like I was eating a microwave meal is a big bonus.

Would I do it again? Hell no. For the same price, I can go to the butcher and pick up a confit de canard thigh/leg, throw it in a skillet for a few minutes, and have a much better snack. But I have to admit, the sheer novelty was kinda cool.

I Love (doing) Rien

Oh how glorious it is to sleep in.

I eventually got up out of bed some time after noon, deciding by early afternoon that it was a good day to ditch our digs in the 17th - being careful not to step on the tumbleweeds blowing through its streets as we headed out.

A Métro ride and a brisk walk later, we were on the rue de Faubourg de Saint-Denis, its crowded, animated and (most notably) open shops bustling with people of all skin colors speaking all languages. It was a welcome relief from our yuppified, sanitized, chain-store dominated neighborhood.

We cut a right into the Passage Brady, one of the covered market arcades hidden all around Paris. It's filled primarily with Pakistani and Indian shops, spilling over with fragrant spices, fragrant rices, and all manner of peppers. There are a number of questionable-looking restaurants offering dirt cheap menus, and we sat down at La Reine de Kashmir, lured by its low prices and "outdoor" seating.

Feasting on a delightful Thali Rani (a set lunch composed of a couple of curries, basmati rice, samosa, tandoori chicken, and naan), we clinked our glasses of mango lassi and beer and took it all in. Men and women were getting 6€ haircuts at the hair salons across the way (which is to say, about 2 metres from us), Arabs covered in hijab squeezed by pasty, bare-legged, but off-the-beaten-path German tourists, people yelled in their mobile phones in Urdu (or was it Hindi?), older women tut-tutted their grandkids in an African tongue I'd never heard before, pigeons swooped down to pick up dropped garbage. It seemed positively third-world... and fantastic.

Sated by our meal, we went for a walk down the Faubourg du and then Rue Saint-Denis, snickering at the well-past-their-prime prostitutes hawking their, umm, wares in the afternoon heat. "See, I told you they're for real!" I exclaimed to Alannah. "So is this form of prostitution legal here?" she asked, referring to the wretchedly dolled up street-walkers leaning against the wall. I didn't know the answer. I guess if anyone in their 50's wants to do it, they've earned the right.

Oddly enough, this street is about a block from the Quartier Piéton de Montorgueil - m2 for m2 the most expensive neighborhood in Paris. Maybe that's how you pay the rent.

We wound our way south to the Les Halles area, checking out an incredible spice shop along the way, then did some browsing on the last day of soldes at the giant, labyrinthine BHV department store, along with some other home stores until closing time. Then we headed back to Montorgueil for some ice cold smoothies and retiring back to the sleepy old 17th.

This morning called for some more sleeping in, and wasting much of the day by watching TV. I caught an old 1986 episode of Diffr'nt Strokes dubbed into French - wherein whomever does Gary Coleman's voiceover overacts as much as the original. Brilliant! Just as Arnold was making some quip about the snobby, prissy Lisa, I heard the microwave DING!

"Whatcha makin?" I asked Alannah.

"Oh, just heating up some wax."

Realizing that I've got to do more with my weekend, I came up with a brilliant idea. "Ooh, do me! Do me! I've never been waxed before."

Alannah isn't someone to stop an idiot from trying out his idiotic ideas. I took my shirt off and let her smear a patch of wax on a tuft of wiry, black Middle Eastern hair on my shoulder. As the wax cooled a bit, I started getting excited. Anticipating a world of searing pain, I grabbed the heel of a stale baguette and bit down on it.

She counted down. 3... 2... 1...


"That's it?"

It was fairly painless, and overall very anticlimactic. But my left shoulder is now smoother than a Brazilian swimsuit model's junk.

Now I had to come up with more ways to fill up my Sunday.

But this boredom is brilliant. It's magnificent. It's what I would consider at this point an ideal weekend. Because for the first time in god knows how long, we didn't have to go to any open houses. We didn't have to meet up with any real estate agents. We didn't have to make photocopies of our dossier.

Because just the other day, we signed the lease on our brand new long-term apartment.

And go figure, it's in the aforementioned Montorgueil neighborhood. You know, that crazy expensive one. But I love it. And more importantly, the wife loves it.

I'll probably have to don a wig and sell my ass on Rue Saint-Denis to pay the rent, but at least that'll give me something to do besides getting waxed. Which will probably help sales, anyway.