Tuesday, December 15, 2009


While for me I don't feel that writing about France is so much writing about being in a foreign country anymore as it is about writing about what I now consider my home, there are times that I feel like I'm in an alien land.

Take this last weekend's SantaCon, for example.  Santa Sparkle and I prefer to Frenchify it and call it "SantaConnerie." Not because we're calling for the sainthood of Sean Connery. He's already a knight, for crying out loud... but the French word derived from con, meaning "idiot," and its inherited form connerie, meaning "shit only a goddamn idiot would do." Because, to us, SantaCon is about going out en masse and getting stupid. While fueled on liquor. And, well, there was plenty of that. But there were also plenty of those alienating things that you'd think I'd be used to by now.

Let's rewind to last year, SantaCon Paris 2008. Here are some pictures. Really tame, right? It was mellow, and we Yanks were the only ones to show up with flasks, but it was pleasant – we really did roam around Paris spreading holiday cheer. It was almost naïve and innocent, and while not at all what we expected, we liked this nicety-nice version of SantaCon. Even if it wasn't the booze-fueled anarchic mayhem we're accustomed to.

So it was nice to see earlier promotion this year, and more people showing interest, with the Facebook page gathering more "Will Attends" in the first month than we had in total last year.  And suddenly it really grew. With a new flyer design and a few promotional videos (ummm, okay) there were hundreds interested in joining the fun. Was this going to be the Naughty version we'd left in our beloved San Francisco? Or was it going to be like last year's Nice version we'd come to like, only on a larger scale?

So once you get past the cheesy ending (sorry, sometimes I can't help myself, but I wanted an excuse to use some slappin' bass), did you see anything else wrong with the picture?

Let's start with the Santa pageant. Or whatever the fuck that was. While Santas participating in SantaCon are encouraged to come up with a Santa "persona," and there were certainly some admirably creative ones, it's meant to be a group movement. In no past SantaCon have we highlighted individuals, but celebrated our coming together en masse to delight, surprise, and sometimes disgust passersby. The eventual winner of "Miss SantaCon" had invited Sparkle to come out and participate, but she refused on principle. As she kept asking me during the whole timefuck, "When are we going to start drinking?"

Luckily that was a rhetorical question. Santa Black and Santa Sparkle, like all good bad Santas, came equipped with flasks. Again, we were the only ones, but I'll chalk that up to something Paris does better: There's no open container law here, so you don't have to hide your hooch... Still, a flask (or two or three) is SantaCon tradition, god dammit.

What was wrong in the beverage department was the Red Bull. While I'm not opposed to the taurine-powered mixer (it is a MIXER, not a drink on its own), I was appalled to see two women in Red Bull jackets carrying a portable Red Bull-branded cooler, handing out the little silver cylinders of energy drink. Last I remember, Santarchy began as a cheeky rebellion against commercialization. Here, people were glad to suck the corporate dick 60ml can.

The over-organized march was fine. While extremely lacking in drink stops, it brought a distinctly French flavor to SantaCon: That of the grève, or strike, if you will. Striking is ingrained into French culture, and it was actually a ton of fun turning typical strike chants into Santa-related mockery. Liberez les sapins !  Liberez les lutins !  Liberez [whatever we happened to be passing by]!  Taking over a Left Bank boulevard was pretty awesome, too. But would anyone have had the cojones to do it if we didn't have a police escort?

When we finally did stop at a bar – one of many same-ol' same-ol' Anglo-Saxon themed pubs throughout Paris – at least there was a drink special on hand, helping the lightweights around us get wasted.

We got moving again, on to the crescendo that was Notre Dame, and in all spent a couple of hours dicking around before the second and (what... the... fuck...) last bar stop. Worse off, at another English pub (ok, the first was Scottish) in our very own neighborhood that Sparkle and I don't particularly like.  We'd been there before for the Couchsurfing pub quiz on Monday nights and decided that we hate The Lions. The bartenders are slow, don't know how to manage a crowd, and spend more time chatting with their buddies than doing their job.

"Wait," you might say if you're familiar with SantaCon. "Why did you go there? Why didn't you just storm another bar?"

Well, Sparkle and I did (the much more locals-oriented Le Tambour down the street), and didn't look back. The real trouble with the Lions wasn't the Lions itself: It's shitty, but it's roomy. No, it became clear that we were led to a Couchsurfing spot, by Couchsurfing people, catering to a Couchsurfing crowd.

Let me iterate, I like Couchsurfing. It's a good organization (despite some dickheads trying to turn it into a for-profit venture a while back) and makes for fantastic networking. But to be led at the end of the evening to their shit hangout to get shit service at shit prices... What. The. Fuck.

You may as well have hung up a Couchsurfing banner over Place Monge where we met up. Oh, what? Someone was wearing one as a cape? You don't say...

The trouble here is that SantaCon isn't supposed to be owned, sponsored, or cater particularly to anyone. It was born of an anarchic spirit of self-expression and anti-commercialization, to bring joie de vivre back to the now long fucked-over holidays. How that's expressed is entirely up to the city and the crowd participating in it, but for the love of Saint Nick, do it as differently as you want, but remember what it's all about.

Now I'm not claiming San Francisco's superiority. While I'll stand by the statement that we are the world champions of drinking, SantaCon SF started to lose its way a few years ago, starting with its advertising of the event (again, WTF!?) on a douchebag nightlife web site. I won't mention any names, but it rhymes with ViteNibe. There are now three official routes, and many official bars. Can I say "WTF!?" again?

Back in my day, there was a starting point, a rough ending point, and every bar along the (not particularly rigid) route was ripe for an unannounced invasion. Some bartenders didn't like it. Some welcomed the opportunity to do a week's worth of business in less than an hour.

But don't take this as a curmudgeonly gripe. My crankiness comes from nothing more than misplaced hope. I was hoping that with SantaCon Paris being a relative toddler on the global scene, it could bring back some of the anarchic, free-for-all spirit of the old days. Channeling the soixante-huitards and Théatre de l'Absurde into one glorious day. A haven for the slightly surly but loving Santa in all of us, who's both a mean drunk and a genuinely fun person to be around.

In the process of editing the video above, I received a friendly note from one of the organizers, who's got no problem with my gripes. This rundown is a bit more developed than my Tweets and status updates to which he was responding, and potentially more inflammatory.  (Just in case it isn't inflammatory enough: FUCK YOUR LIONS PUB.)

BUT... We'll be back again, flasks in hand, regardless of how over-organized or over-commercialized it may get. No one can crush these two Santas' spirits. After all, we'll full of 'em.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Please Help Me Get Back to New York

No, I'm not throwing in the towel on France. In fact, things are rolling rather smoothly on the otherwise-maddening-bureaucracy side. And despite less ethnic food, shorter opening hours, and overpriced cocktails, I still like Paris better than New York.

But hot damn, I want to be on Air France's inaugural Airbus A380 flight between Paris and New York. Firstly because it'll give me some serious travel geek cred. Secondly, because New York and I still have some unfinished business. (Three days simply wasn't enough.)

Sure, tickets went on sale for the first "official" A380 flights a while back, and many people who already had flights on AF001 and AF002 between CDG and JFK were surprised to have been bumped to the new supermegajumbo. But I wanna be on the maiden voyage. They give you cool shit on these things. And yes, I know that they are auctioning seats for this particular flight, but I'm too poor for that.

That said, I still want to take my wife on a brief trip to New York, and it's still going to happen.

How? Because you are going to watch the video below over, and over, and over again.

Why? Because you're generally a nice person, and you can't wait to hear about what it's like to fly the A380.

No really, how and why would watching this video do anything? Because Air France is holding a "lipdub" (lipsync) video contest, and three winners get on that coveted flight.

So without any further ado...

If you wanna be really awesome, click on the video above to go to the YouTube page and give me a 5-star rating. And if you wanna join me on this flight (if I win) leave a comment. In French. (Those are the rules.) Because according to said rules, people who leave the most "fun" comments will win a New York/Paris ticket. Not bad, huh?

Stuff people are asking
Beyond wanting to know how watching a video will get me on a flight to New York, people have been asking a ton of questions. Here are the answers.

No, I am not singing, nor playing any instruments. The song itself was commissioned by Air France and is performed by French artist PV Nova. I selected the "electro" style. "Rock" and "Hip Hop" were also options, but I wanted to stay true to my geeky genre of choice.

The lyrics are pretty simple but optimistic. If there's enough demand, I'll provide a translation. In the meantime, here's the original PDF of the words.

The video will be judged by a jury, but another factor is how many views it gets on YouTube. So please, view view view view!

Also, I've been alerted that I've broken the rule about how the video is supposed to be one continuous shot, and not edited. This seems not to have bothered them, as they accepted it and put it up on their YouTube channel along with many others, so I guess I'm not DQed.

This was shot in Paris, New York, and on an Air France plane over the Atlantic. I found out about the contest just before my Atlanta/New York trip, during which I had to shoot a ton of video anyway. So I grabbed some footage in New York (some with the help of my friend Julien), a tiny bit of cell phone video on the plane back to Paris, and the rest was shot in Paris over the couple of weeks after my return. Poor Alannah had to bear most of the burden of holding the dinky camera steady while I shouted out director orders, much of the time in freezing conditions.

I hadn't previously tried out the HD camera I got for work, so I took some test shots at the airport when - Eureka! - I realized I could start making a video for this contest. While a little of that footage is from said Sony HD camcorder, the majority is made on the Sony Webbie, a cheap, toy-like HD camera I picked up in the States. The on-plane shots were taken with my iPhone, since I was in a window seat and couldn't easily go get either HD cameras out of the overhead.

The video was mostly edited in Final Cut, taking up probably 12-14 hours of my evenings and a weekend, primarily while sick, not including all the rendering time between edits. Don't I deserve to win?

Ever since the rousing success of my YouTube videos from Japan, I've been amassing a collection of video footage of all sorts of stuff. Not in a creepy way like that neighbor kid in American Beauty but like most people take photos. I continue to take tons of still photos, but video has really caught my attention - especially with how cheap and accessible HD is.

That said, in two years, I've edited together maybe 3 personal videos, none longer than two minutes. And it's hellaciously time consuming. I'm not sure if the results are worth it.

If you think otherwise, then please, click the ever-loving shit out of this video, rate it high, leave your comments, and help me win this thing. Then I'll know it's time to make more videos.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Back from a Land I Thought I Knew

This is my first post in quite some time, as I haven't really been traveling to new lands to write about. I know, I know... I'm right here in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, with high speed train tracks radiating like the oft-compared bicycle spokes to all points in Europe. I'm within transit distance of two international airports, and if I lose any semblance of sanity and want to fly RyanAir, there's a third airport within reasonable distance. I should be populating this blog with all sorts of stories that scream, appropriately, "Omid Abroad!"

The thing is, I have a job. My wife does not, and by the good graces of labrynthine French immigration policy, can not. This means that not only do I not have time to fly/train off to various parts of Europe - as close as it may all be - we're also flat on our ass much of the time. So anyone who thinks we're living a glamourous life in Paris should check themselves. The cost of living is higher, our combined income has been cut in half, and I'm too damn tired to do anything in my free time anyway.

Enough bitching, though. To be honest, we have traveled. We spent our year's leisure allowance on a trip to California and Washington this summer. Sure, that's exciting for some people, but other than the pleasure of seeing our family and friends (and attend weddings and see new babies), it's like a Thanksgiving trip home, not a vacation. "Travel" is only a functional part of a trip like this. Even when road-tripping the entire west coast of the United States, it's all familiar territory. Nothing to write home (nor blog) about.

Why, then, am I now bothering to write about my more recent trip to the US? Particularly one mostly mandated by and covered by work? One where the lack of sleep and aching fatigue at the end is due more to nights spent actually working than hedonistic overindulgence?

Because in less than two year's time, the United States of America has become a foreign land to me. After 21 months of living in France, I find myself as bewildered and bedazzled in America as the poor saps who have to be finger-printed and retina-scanned when they arrive in the country.

Of course, this could be because I went to Atlanta.

I made friends with another American in Paris this summer, and when I told him my next trip back would be to "the ATL" (as the rappers locals call it), his words of advice on his old stomping grounds were, "Vaya con dios." Not very encouraging. I chalked it up as perhaps some deep-seeded resentment against one's old home, much as I dislike the suburban wasteland surrounding San Francisco, and thought to myself "It can't be that bad."

It can.

From the moment one lands in Atlanta, it feels as back-assward and fuck-tarded as possible. That's because once you arrive at the airport, you pick up your baggage, cruise down the concourse and... Check your bag again. Then you exit the baggage claim area... And go through security. Mind you, this is on the way OUT of the airport.


After waiting at the carousel to pick up my luggage (a second time), I managed to find a shuttle to get to my hotel for the week...

The W Midtown Atlanta Hotel, like other W hotels, is nice. The rooms are well-appointed. Service is adequate for business. And the decor is modern chic. They call it "Techno-Glam." My US colleagues better summed it up as "Ghetto Fabulous."

As shiny and new as everything seems, it's all of cheap build quality: Made more to look good than perform well. Like all the Chrysler 300Ms and similar cheap luxury cruisers pulling up out front, there's a lot of flash but not a whole lot of substance. The parallel was sadly true with Atlanta itself.

There's only one downtown Atlanta, but three "centers" with glimmering highrise buildings and public thoroughfares. Going by my cursory rounds through them, many of these buildings are half (and some fully) empty. On our first jaunt out - on a Sunday - some colleagues theorized that being in the Bible Belt, it was unsurprising that things would be closed on the so-called day of rest. But this is capitalist America, I reminded them. Someone's always up for makin' some money. Apparently, that someone is whomever hung up all the "FOR LEASE" signs on all these buildings. Religious observation, my ass...

Certainly, though, there is some charm to the whole Bible Belt thing. I don't mean the whole quaint closed-on-Sundays thing. We have that in France and I actually do appreciate having one day a week that's not all work and commerce. I mean the earnestness of outwardly religious folk, especially in the South. I mean, where else would you see the Je-bus? Hellfire coming from the front wheels and all!

In an economically depressed and/or disadvantaged area, sometimes religion is the only light that shines for people. And if it helps them keep their chin up and stay motivated, then more power to them. It's oddly comforting that the force keeping a Downtown Atlanta crackhead from attacking you is the Bible-thumper intervening to teach him the Word. Divine intervention? Maybe.

The other interesting thing in areas with an economically lower stratum: Public transit! While in world metropolises, underground and elevated trains are how the masses get around without the hassle of car ownership or traffic, in sprawly American places like Atlanta (or Los Angeles) they're the domain of people who can't afford cars to get to their jobs serving the upper strata.

MARTA - Atlanta's transit system - is somewhat limited, the subway stops are pretty far in between, and your chances of being accosted by a crackhead at the station is pretty high. On the other hand, it runs smoothly, moves fairly quickly, and the cars are spotless. In fact, MARTA puts the San Francisco Bay Area's BART to shame in terms of cleanliness. Although the cars are practically identical, MARTA uses shiny plastic seats and linoleum floors - surfaces that can easily be kept clean. BART for some reason uses bum piss-absorbent cloth upholstery and shit-absorbent carpeting.

It's while riding the MARTA train between fancypants neighborhoods like Midtown and Buckhead that the economic disparity starts to get in your face. (Sometimes literally.) One of the things I love about Paris (and loved about San Francisco) is that the glam and the grit are interwoven, within mere meters of each other. Sure, both have their wealthy enclaves far from the seedier districts, but in general there is much more of a mixture. I didn't feel this in Atlanta. Between the wealthy, well-to-do "islands," I found run-down tracts and many have-nots hanging out in them. I wondered how often they're run off by the doormen and valets of the highrises in thenicer areas, surrounded by manicured greenery. I felt a true sense of segregation. The only thing they really share is that there are shit-tons of parking lots. More parking spaces than people.

While I find this sort of extreme stratification a bit depressing, I still think it's terribly fascinating. More so than the CNN or Coca-Cola tours some of my colleagues were happy to indulge in. Why didn't I bother with those? Well, I'm not partial to lousy sensationalized news nor high fructose corn syrup-based soft drinks, so why would I want to see the PR version of how they work? That'd be like me taking visiting vegan friends to a French foie gras farm.

Also, I worked too much to go sightseeing. Night and day. It's what I do at these company events, and why I get sent thousands of miles and get to stay at (somewhat) fancy hotels and order room service. I sleep a couple of hours a night, and mostly stay confined to the event. As such, one might think that I'm not qualified to judge Atlanta since I spent the better part of the week cloistered in my "Techno-Glam" surroundings. But I'm pretty seasoned at this stuff and I had seen enough.

As the BET Hip Hop Awards rolled into town at the end of the week - and with it all the rappers and their entourages in their 300Ms (and sometimes real luxury cars) - I got an even better glimpse at Atlanta. In the elevator with Big Someone and Li'l Someone-Else, one said to the other, "Man, it's all rappers in this hotel this weekend." The other replied, "It's all rappers in the ATL all the time. Everyone in Atlanta's a rapper."

The elevator door opened to the smell of insanely huge amounts of unsmoked weed. By the time evening rolled around, the entire hotel floor (or several of them) smelled like a Rastafarian wedding. And can you blame them? If I had to live in the 404, I'd want my reality to be as blunted as possible, too.

I've been to numerous places around the world. And numerous places around America. Yet I'd never been so happy to get on a plane and get out of a town as I boarded a Delta flight at Atlanta airport that Saturday.

I tweeted that day, "On the way back to civilization." (Gotta love in-flight Wi-Fi!) A few people mistook me to mean that I was on my way back to Europe. I was actually on the way to New York. My father-in-law then joked "Atlanta must be bad if you call NYC civilization???" Hey, I needed to decompress before coming back to Paris, and flying via New York actually cost less anyway.

But New York City? Civilization? My in-laws weren't the only ones questioning my sanity.

Despite my love for farms, mountains, and the great outdoors, I'm a city boy. Words cannot express how much I dislike suburbs, suburban sprawl, and big parking lots. I love the city and will counter anyone who says city life is awful. Anyone who tells me that you can't breathe in the big city obviously hasn't heard of this word: Rooftops.

Or parks. Or playgrounds. Or well-planned public spaces. Efficient transit. Bars. Restaurants. Amazing ethnic joints.

Certainly, you can get these things in suburban-sprawl-land, but not in the sort of concentration that a place like New York offers. When I wasn't sleeping (which is what I do after working without pause for a week), I breathed in, drank up, and - mostly - ate whatever NYC could offer. To me, my brief jaunt to New York was a chance to rest, catch up with friends, and partake in a three-day orgy of food and drink.

Of course, one can't live on halal street carts and trendy ramen alone. I walked up and down Manhattan, strolled through various parks, and got introduced to the community gardens of Alphabet City. One of them even has a bit of urban beekeeping going on!

Here, I was, in one of the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods around the East Village. As my friend explained about Alphabet City when we made our way to his Avenue D apartment, "Avenue A, you're alright. B, you're brave. C, you're crazy. D, you're dead." Yet somewhere between Avenues C and D, I was in a tranquil garden, enjoying the harmonious buzzing of honeybees.

Take that, Atlanta!

The final night of my sojourn in New York, we went by one of the Lower East Side hipster hangouts, the Cake Shop (which actually does serve cake), to drink some beers and catch some live music. On the bill, they had four bands. None of whom I'd never heard of, none of whose songs I knew, but any of whom could probably hold their own at any of the crazy overpriced venues of Paris.

Admission was only four dollars.

Of course, this is probably because for every rapper in Atlanta, there are ten indie-rockers in New York. It's the economics of things, and New York has more than enough supply to meet demand.

I've spent much of the time here trading in blanket generalizations. And maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps rich and poor hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" as they stroll through some amazingly cool parts of Atlanta. And I'm sure there are folks in Jersey or Long Island living a much more fulfilling life than they ever would in Manhattan.

Frankly, I'd love to find out more about that.

Yes, I can easily cross one of the surrounding borders and then write and write and write about different lands and funny customs and show you how to use the odd contraptions therein.

But sometimes it's going on a business trip to a land I once thought I knew that raises the most questions.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lost in Luxembourg

I've been back from a short trip to Luxembourg for a couple of days now, but it's taken me a while to recover enough to write about it. I've been wearing my baggiest pants, hiking socks, and some highly unfashionable sandals while I recuperate, looking so hideous that I don't want to venture outside for fear of being deported. I'm tired. I'm bloated. My feet are destroyed.

Our mission was twofold: To meet up with my friend and fellow fan Alex – who now lives in Germany with her husband Thomas – so we can go see the very first stop of Depeche Mode's "Tour of the Universe"... And to drink beer. We were successful on both counts.

While in my hardcore-fan-for-whom-nothing-is-ever-good-enough, the concert was fairly decent (I was hoping for better for Alannah's first!) and just to be at the first show of the tour at a smaller venue was a distinct pleasure. Tickets had sold out in mere seconds, so we knew we were among the privileged few at Luxembourg's Rockhal.

In this same venue, home to Luxembourg's biggest concerts, the beers - as in big drafts in pint cups - were only 2 euro each. I'll say it again: Pints of real (i.e. Luxembourgish pilsner, not Bud or Miller) beer for only 2 euro.

Luxembourg, being a world financial capital, is one of the most affluent places on Earth. Yet we found that - like at the Rockhal - everything is cheap. Not just beer.

With it being Octave, the Luxembourgish Catholic period observed after Easter, the Place Guillaume II was turned into a special fair, with stands featuring everything from cotton candy to nougat to carnival games. And, of course, plentiful beer and food on the cheap.

One thing we've missed since moving to France is street food. As much as people may mention kebabs and crêpes, there really is no street food in Paris. Occasionally, you can buy a grilled ear of corn from a Pakistani immigrant roasting it over a can full of charcoal in a shopping cart – and believe me, it's some seriously sublime stuff – but in general, you're unlikely to see Parisians munching on the street.

Scratch that for Luxembourg. Even at 10:30 in the morning, it wasn't unusual to see a local tucking into a giant sausage sandwich and several beers. Personally, I opted for the speck/lard sammich to go with my brews.

We also sampled grompere kichelcher (potato pancakes, German style) with apfelmüs, Luxringer (barbecued bratwurst), Currywurst, and anything else they'd hand us for just a few euro coins at the stands.

Vegetables seemed to be few and far in between, so in order to stay regular, we figured we'd try the uniquely Luxembourgish specialty of gezwickelte beer. This is an unfiltered brew available exclusively at Mousel's Cantine, downhill from Luxembourg City in the Clausen/Grund area, and well worth the hike. I complemented our waiter on the simple but remarkably delicious, smooth beer (I was expecting something more hoppy, tangy, or even gritty) and he proudly boasted that this is the only place you can get it - because they make it out back. (The big Mousel brewery itself has long moved to another city.)

After putting down litres of the stuff (4 euro a Stein, not bad), we thought it might be a good idea to find our way back toward our hotel and get some dinner before Alex and Thomas arrived in the evening.

Easier said than done.

Much of Luxembourg is – thanks to the Pétrusse river cutting a winding swath through it – hilly and zig-zaggy. There are very few straight lines from one place to another. So although we had followed our waiter's instructions to get back, we wound up somewhere in an ancient neighborhood in the Grund, without much of an idea where we really were. Not a big deal, considering the area is really quite charming and cute.

"Hey, there's a bar!" Alannah said, noticing the skulls in the window of the Aula Cafe. "Let's go inside," I replied.

And that's how we ended up having a liquid dinner.

We'd intended to have a quick beer and a pee-break and make our way to a restaurant for our first proper meal, but the Bofferdings went down too smoothly and the bartender and locals were too friendly. We ended up camping out for several hours, downing the aforementioned beers, as well as house specialties of honey and banana liqueurs. They even put on a ton of Depeche Mode on the sound system when they found out we were in town for the show. Class all the way.

Finally peeling ourselves off the barstools, we again took directions and made our way toward what we thought was the center of town. Somehow we ended up walking alongside what seemed like a highway. Night had fallen, and I went into a service station to ask for directions. They seemed a bit taken aback that we were on foot, telling me we had to go two kilometers in the direction from which we'd just come. Shit!

That one wrong turn cost us our intended dinner. We'd made it to the restaurant just as they'd decided to stop serving, the smell of steak and what had to be the best garlic sauce ever wafting through the air. I grumbled all the way back to the Gare part of town. At least the timing was right and we were able to meet up with our friends who'd just gotten in from Germany.

Luxembourg, despite speaking French and having a lot in common with France, does not keep French dining hours. So our only choice for dinner was... McDonald's. This isn't so awful, as I have this weird quirk about wanting to try the Golden Arches in every country I visit. (Verdict: Nothing to write home about.) But also because this was the same McDonald's that Alannah had come to on her very first trip to Europe. In fact, at this McDonald's, oh so many years ago, she had eaten her very first meal in Europe.

I'm still laughing at her about that.

But I shouldn't. I fully understand. After all, she could've arrived after 9-freakin-P.M.

At bedtime, we both realized that - despite it having been only a year since leaving the US - we've already become French. Dinner before 10:00pm just seems sort of... abnormal.

The Agony of Da-Feet
I awoke early the next morning. Not because I was excited to see my favorite band at an exclusive show in a small-ish venue. But because of serious pain in my right foot. All the hiking, climbing, and generally being lost had taken its toll – I'd either strained or hyperextended my foot. And the steady diet of fat, nitrites, and beer probably didn't help.

So we made it the morning's goal to hit the farmer's market, to see if this country does actually consume anything that grows on plants that wasn't once a hop or barley.

After a nice sit-down petit déjeuner of coffee, croissants, and orange juice (4€ as opposed to 9€ in Paris), I painfully soldiered on to the market, which had been displaced farther away from the center of town because of the Octave fair.

It was sorely disappointing, with few stands and most of them selling the same stuff as you'd find at the more run-of-the-mill Parisian markets. Alannah did find, however, some treviso, a particular kind of radicchio she'd picked up and fell in love with in Italy last year.

The four of us marched back toward the old town to hit up the Octave fair once again for some munchies, loading up once again on sausage-type-goods. If you can't beat 'em...

As midday approached, we headed back toward the train station to make our way to Oberkorn, just a few stops past where the evening's concert would be. There's no reason for any person to go to Oberkorn unless A) you live there, or B) you're a Depeche Mode fan.

The band played their only other Luxembourg show there back in 1982 or so, and wound up naming a B-side after it - "Oberkorn (It's a Small Town)"

It is, indeed, a small town. The train station is maybe about 50 metres long, has no gates or fences or anything to keep you from just walking across the tracks to get to the other "platform" (read: sidewalk), and their claim to fame appears to be a community swimming pool that has a waterslide.

On the other hand, their gleaming, modern local buses put most public transit in the US to shame. (Not that it takes much.) And they have the most perfect pavements on the face of the Earth. No joke. I wonder how much beers cost here...

Our incredibly trivial, deadhead-like pilgrimage over and done with, we got back on the train to go to Rockhal. (Their tickets are good for all public transit in the country of Luxembourg on the day of shows. Sweet.) We were among the handful that had arrived insanely early to be the first ones in, wanting to be right up front, after all.

Unfortunately, I had to return to Luxembourg to put my photography gear away at the hotel (the No-Cameras rule applies only to SLRs, apparently) which meant coming back later with a bigger crowd to find the others and regain my position in line. This meant a lot of "Excuse me," "Pardonnez-moi," and other niceties while stepping on the toes of people who surely thought we were just trying to cut in line.

And that was the case - not because I wasn't polite, nor that I couldn't say in several languages that I'd been there earlier and was rejoining my friends... But because there was the (I hate to say typical, but that's how it is at these shows) Eastern European contingent who had indeed cut in line to go be at the front. In fact, one fine example of such post-Iron Curtain louts was right in front of Alex and Thomas, a gargantuan couple who had absolutely no consideration for anyone else.

As luck would have it, when we made our way to the front of the stage once the gates opened, so did these two jackholes, who despite being in a great spot right by us, had to make a show of trying to push even farther. (As though they could get through the one person and steel bars separating them and the stage.) Further into the evening, there were a few more denizens of countries-that-should-never-have-been-let-into-the-EU trying to shove and muscle their way to the front, earning a few elbows in the ribs from yours-truly.

I finally understood why so many European fans - despite the wide availability of general admission floor tickets - prefer to buy seats a bit off the floor. While the crowds here are generally incredibly polite and respectful of personal space, there are always a brutish few who try to take advantage of the politesse and forcefully jockey for better position. I noticed at a show in Paris - in a much similar situation - that Alannah and I were among the few who resisted and fought back.

Make your own WWII analogies.

The show itself was pretty good. It had its high highs (some decades-old songs being dusted off, Martin Gore giving the performance of a lifetime), its low lows ("Peace" is the worst live Depeche Mode song ever, Dave Gahan still tries too hard on stage, Peter Gordeno should simply be hanged until dead), and as-expected parts (can we drop certain "standards" from the setlist yet, guys?). But again, it was the privilege of being there, and taking Alannah to her first DM show, that made it worthwhile.

Despite the irritating dickhead quotient.

Best of all, despite continuing to be on my feet non-stop since early in the morning (and with exception for time spent on the train), my right foot did not fall off. In fact, by the night's end, I couldn't even feel my feet anymore.

This was our third train trip outside of the country since moving to France. But for me, at least, the trip home actually, really, truly felt like we were going home. Back to our city. To our neighborhood. To our apartment. Our little nest. Where we actually, honest to god think of when we say "our home."

The night before leaving on this trip, I booked us our tickets to go back to the US for vacation this summer.

And for the first time in ages, I'm not looking forward to it.

Don't get me wrong.

I want to see my friends. My family. My old colleagues.

I want to have a hoppy Seattle microbrew, California wine, and Crunchy Cheetos.

I want to see the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Mountains, and the Puget Sound.

You know - all those things people vacationing on the West Coast get to do. Before going home.

Entire photo set at Flickr

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Foreigners Who Don't Drive Me Batty

Anyone familiar with me (or this blog) knows that I don't have a great love for most of my fellow American expats in Paris.

If meeting at an Irish pub and speaking exclusively in English about how much you hate overpaying for Oreos while sipping overpriced, past-its-date Guinness is your thing, fine. Go do it. Just don't do it in my company. And preferably nowhere near my charming little neighborhood. I didn't move here to hang out with the Marina choads who work in the Fi-Di, thankyouverymuch. (That'd be a San Francisco reference to the vile popped-collar scum who undeservedly get the most overseas working opportunities.)

So it was with a little apprehension that I finally gave in and went to my first Polyglot event. The wife and I have both been meaning to hit up one of these language exchange meet-ups held at a local bar, but having been turned off by the douchebaggery at most other conglomerations of étrangers à Paris, we balked. Self-hatred? A desire to break free of our former lives? No. As Alannah pointed out over lunch today, we consider ourselves - rather unlike the type we keep away from - immigrants. Not expats. Not foreign workers. Not a couple on extended vacation. But a couple of people who have moved to another country - most probably for good - who would like to integrate a bit and make local friends.

That's a tough gig in a socially insular place like Paris, but I think we've found a gathering that's just our style. For the people who sign up for a group like Polyglot seem to have a genuine interest in learning other languages and cultures. Sure, there are plenty of other 'Murrikans who show up – but they've come to improve their French. Or Spanish. Or Japanese. And it's not just Americans and French. There are Chinese, Iranian, Australian... to name a few.

Over the course of a few hours I had conversations in many of the languages I know (or would like to know), taught and learned various turns of phrase, and - OMGWTF - met actual Parisians who were as interested in what others had to say as they were with grabbing their next verre. In fact, more so.

If anything, I felt like the town drunk having two big steins of beer. But as I said, I was a bit timid about this whole affair at first.

While there's definitely some emphasis on socializing and having a little glass of something as social lubricant, it was refreshing to be around people interested in sharing. Not business networking. Not getting laid. Not whining about how no one at the market speaks English. (Although I'm certain a little bit of all that takes place as well...)

Although neither of us were social butterflies making the rounds, we met a fistful of cool, interesting people... And even made new friends. In fact, when a couple of guys found out we're really into food and cooking, they insisted on having a dinner party to introduce us to their "real home cooking."

The revelation isn't from previously thinking that such people didn't exist... Through the friends that we've already made we know damn well that there are friendly, welcoming Parisians who are as happy to lend you a hand as they are to go party with you. It's just that - even as locals will tell you - the social life here can be a very tough nut to crack. And thanks to a community of the linguistically curious, we've just started to tap a few more fissures into the shell. Tap tap tap...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Des Américains à Paris

Looking through the New York Times web site before the weekend, I found an article about an American festival in Paris. Figuring Sunday was set to be a gorgeous day, I proposed the idea of hitting up the festival to Alannah, who then told another American friend about it, who then brought a couple of her visiting American friends. What better place for a bunch of Americans in Paris to gravitate that, well, a festival called "Americans in Paris?"

Upon arriving at the Jardin d'Acclimatation - the part of the massive Bois de Boulogne where the festival was held - we were greeted by a gigantic poster of Uncle Sam, complete with a stars-n-stripes mushroom cloud behind him. And on his lapel, a button with the same mushroom cloud figure. "WE [NUKE] YOU" ???

All joking aside, it's actually the Jardin d'Acclimatation's oak tree logo, and their slogan is "WE [OAK TREE] YOU." Alannah had noticed this in the event program before we even went. But one has to admit, the whole mushroom cloud seems much more appropriate for the finger-wagging Uncle Sam.

We entered the park grounds, passing a small jazz quartet along the way (jazz is heavily acquainted with America here, and why not?), went through the ticket booths (a whopping 2€70 admission), and came upon what I could only call Main Street U.S.A. Only without the Main Street Electrical Parade. And instead, a shit-ton of non-sensical highway signs. In French eyes, this is what the great American open road looks like: A clusterfuck of signage, yellow cabs, and yellow school buses. And surprisingly, no other Americans.

Despite the fact that the Jardin borders Neuilly-sur-Seine, the America-lovin', expat-filled suburb nicknamed Sarkoville after President Nicolas "Sarko the Américain" Sarkozy - I didn't hear any other brassy-accented, flat-voweled English other than our little group's.

Alannah and I looked around in awe at what Parisians consider typical American. For the most part, they're dead on. Stands selling stuff you can't typically get here, like bagels, pancakes, brownies, and dirty-water hot dogs. (Most hot dogs here are baked into a bun, kind of like a baguettey bagel dog.)

There were tee-pees, because even though we've swept the indigenous population under the rug with a bottle of firewater and a trinket industry for company, American Indian imagery still weighs heavily on this side of the ocean as part of what America "is." Although they often misapply it in that National Geographic speculative anthropology kind of way that is respectfully interested but horribly off-base. The popular Indiana Café chain, for example, boasts a Cherokee headdress logo, serves Tex-Mex food, and - well - is freakin' called Indiana. Three things that have nothing to do with each other. Then there's the Buffalo Grill chain, which romanticizes the Wild West and Buffalo Bill, who happily sits side-by-side with figures of the very people he was out to terminate. But I digress...

Our first stop was to get a souvenir photo of Alannah inside a cutout of the signature American cultural export: Coca-Cola. This act epitomized exactly why we came: Seriously cheese-dick fun. Despite the fact that we're both food freaks who abhor high fructose corn syrup, we've become enamored with Coke since moving here. Not for nostalgia's sake, but because like Mexican Coke, it's made with real sugar here. It's sad when the American stuff abroad is more authentic than the American stuff in America, n'est-ce pas? (We've also come to appreciate *shiver* McDonald's, but perhaps because it's the only place you can get a burger for less than 10€.)

Looking around further, there wasn't much American stuff that I've been longing for. The pecan pie on display at one booth looked terrible. There were no chili dogs, fried chicken, or funnel cakes to be found. In fact, if you're an American in Paris missing food from back home, this festival had to be about the lamest place.

Despite the disappointed tummy, however, there was plenty to amuse.

We spent a good amount of time watching a local acrobatic basketball team called Crazy Dunkers. Because nothing says America like getting above the rim and dunking over some little kid. I mean, literally...

There were all the rides and zoo animals that make the Jardin d'Acclimatation a fun place for the family even when it hasn't been invaded by an American festival. ESPN America (which is the European version of ESPN... whaaa?) had set up batting cages. Little French kids donned American football helmets and did their best to knock down a tackling dummy.

And, of course, there was something to remind me that even I bleed a little bit of Red, White, and Blue: Cheerleaders. Or as they're called here in France, "Pom-Pom Girls." (Which, sadly, doesn't acknowledge the growing number of male cheerleaders, whom I don't personally find as aesthetically pleasing, but equally important in the college sports scene.) At any rate, instead of hearing me muse about gender equality in sports and spirit activities, I'm sure there's more interest in a picture, huh?

Overall, it was great fun, seriously aided by the gorgeous spring weather. I would've liked there to have been more stuff representing the America I know. I mean, besides a Marines recruiter preying on GED candidates or Toby fuckin' Keith. I mean things like California wines. Texas BBQ. Pacific Northwest beer. Humboldt county blue-haired bud. Ok, maybe that's pushing it. But instead of the stereotypes and booths from mediocre local expat businesses who are nothing but the colloquial "epic fail," I'd love to see bits of "real" American goods and culture. I'm sure most Parisians know that the USA is more than hot dogs, bagels, and Barack Obama posters by street artists. (Although all of those are A-OK by me.) Just as France isn't all baguettes, wine, cheese and nudie flicks (although there's plenty of that to go around), America is more than junk food and compensatory projection of military power.

Then again, witnessing the massive (in both ways) American family in front of us on the Métro Ligne 1 between the Bois du Boulogne and our neighborhood, dressed like they just ransacked a Super Wal-Mart, barely able to talk without spitting bits of unchewed food, and unable to stand on the train without knocking people over with their kielbasa-fingered fists... Perhaps many French rightly have a lousy impression of us.

50 more photos available in this Flickr set... yes, including more cheerleader photos.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Back in the Saddle

I haven't written in months.

At first I thought it was from the old theory that there's no better way to rob the joy out of what you love doing than... doing it for a living. After all, I'm primarily a writer now, and I spend all day looking at words. Either my own half-formed ones, or those of others - trying to find inspiration. If I'm focused on spinning words into digestible (or, rather, marketable) fluff for the tech masses, I probably don't want to come home and stare at my notebook or blinking cursor.

But then I realized, no, that's not the case. I still spend plenty of time writing invective against right-wing blowhards and musing about music and food on various social media sites. And more and more often in French!

In fact, come to think of it, I've been writing plenty. Just not here. Because back in 2005, I set this up to write about my travels. And since moving to Paris a year ago, I haven't really been traveling. One year in a continent where different languages, cultures, and food and drink are within a couple of hours by train or plane... and I've only been to Italy and England. Oh, and Montpellier, which might as well be another country.

To be honest, it's been a bit frustrating. One of the draws of moving here was this ability to go in any direction and wind up practicing my Spanish or German or Dutch or... you get the picture. But the reality is, despite having a lot of expenses covered and some cash saved up, moving overseas has hit the pocketbook hard. We moved a good amount of stuff, but once we finally found an apartment, had to buy even more. Also, things are just generally more expensive here. Books. Clothes. Dinners out. Drinks. A show at a small club. Then there's the pesky fact that we're now a couple on a single income.

The quality of life is high in Paris. Unfortunately, so is the cost.

I have, however, found a way around it all. And it's not in any Europe-On-a-Shoestring or Paris-pas-Cher guidebook. Nope. It's about something you can't find on a bookshelf or any web site. It's called... mojo.

That's right, baby, I've got my mojo back. Those who've known me for a long time know that I'm a fucking winner. As in, I have this uncanny knack for winning contests. It's not skill. It's not timing. I just win stuff. And there is a lot of shit to win in Paris.

A few weeks ago, I got a call on my mobile while I was at work. "Is this Omid?" asked the woman's voice on the other end. "If you're free on the 17th of March, you've won two tickets for the Tina Turner concert at Bercy."

Now, I wouldn't be picked out of the crowd as a big Tina Turner fan. I know her catalogue, I respect her as an artist, and no self-respecting Child of the 80's would deny having bopped his/her feathered head to her music as a youngin'. And hell, I actually was interested when I saw the poster advertising the show... Until I saw the €136 pricetag on the tickets. That's PER ticket. Convert that to dollars, and we're talking Madonna or Barbra Streisand-like extortion.

But for free? Hell yes!

So there we were, a poor-ass, single-income couple of unsophisticated 'Merkins, sitting amongst Parisian celebrities in what must've been the VIP area, with the hoi polloi occasionally coming up to snap pictures of the stars I couldn't even begin to recognize. Ok, I think one guy hosts a TV show, and another one was a French rock star, but honestly, I simply haven't assimilated enough to know. Then Tina came out, shimmying around the stage and belting out hit after hit. Call me an old bastard, but I fully enjoyed it. The old songs; the costume changes; the Mad Max set; the ridiculous Goldeneye set; explosions; the intermission where, out by the bar and toilets, I saw the largest gathering of middle-aged gay men since my old co-worker's Tony Awards party. All just three metro stops away... and after the quick ride home, Alannah and I said to each other, "We've got to win more contests."

And so we did. Last week, Alannah got an email from the folks at the recently opened Forum des Images saying that she'd won an invitation to the "Toi & Moi" party. Come as a pair, dressed as your favorite movie couple, be photographed red carpet-style, blah, blah, win prizes, blah, blah, chocolates to snack on, blah, blah, open bar. Open bar? Why didn't they say that earlier?

And thus we went, dressed up as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction. Not super creative, but I have long hair and John Travolta's paunch, and getting the necessary hair dye, fake pistol, and bola tie fit our miniscule budget.

Yes, I know they weren't a couple, but there was plenty of sexual tension, OK? Besides, a lot of other couples came as completely incongruent stuff - like Darth Vader and Catwoman. Or Wayne and Garth. (Last I checked, neither of those pairs were havin' relations...)

Through the course of the night, we consumed well over a bottle's worth of whiskey each. Which broke down Alannah's language barrier a bit, since she pretty much wound up talking to everyone, despite her minimal French. And making out with the hot bartender. (Girl bartender, that is.)

And she's not one to do that type of thing. [Mental note: Buy more whiskey.]

Alannah claims that the bartender was the aggressor, but the pics tell me otherwise. (Sorry, she hasn't posted them to Flickr yet.) While I wasn't up to quite the same shenanigans, my Vincent did find his Jules. And no, we did not play tonsil hockey.

We were well beyond crusty the day after. But I survived my day at work. And Alannah survived her evening of training for the organization she's volunteering with. I work. She volunteers, works on her French, and makes friends with all the local merchants so we're always in fresh produce and fish and meat. And together, we win.

This evening, after work, I swung by the Lazy Dog Gallery to pick up a new special-edition Swatch designed by rapper/artist Grems. Along with it, a nice print of his work for this project, as well as a couple of wristbands for the launch party/concert at La Scène Bastille. It'd be a bit gauche to discuss the retail value of this package, but let's just say I can not afford it. But that's ok, because I won it in a contest yesterday.

To celebrate our great luck (as if that's necessary), we stopped by our favorite wine bar for un verre ou deux... then brought home 10 litres of the stuff so we can have some with the fantastically fresh food Alannah had picked up at the local open-air markets earlier in the day.

We have no need to buy bottles of wine regularly anymore. We do it old school, filling up two 5L jugs of small-producer wine straight from the cask at the beginning of the month.

We've made friends with our next-door neighbor, everyone at the bar downstairs, and the guy who owns the boutique next door.

I've traded in taking the metro for riding the bus to/from work. It's a bit slower, but it's less crowded, more reliable, and I can get more reading done without the interruption of changing stations.

And I've just booked a pair of train tickets for a short break in Luxembourg.

I think it's safe to say I've found my groove.