Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Creeping paranoia

I've become very superstitious over the past few days. I'm afraid to use my Internet connection any time that it seems to be working, because it always seems to fail again shortly thereafter. I can't take the risk of uploading any pictures to my blog, obviously. In any case, the pictures I've taken will be historical documents by the time the sleeping technicians at France Télécom fix my problems. The connection is still working very poorly at the moment, but that's better than not working at all, which has been the usual state.

It's supposed to be snowing outside. I don't know if that's actually true, as I haven't gone outside today. I rather doubt it, since it's always warmer in real life than the weather service claims. If it says “light snow,” that means, at best, a bit of slush on the sidewalks. Traditionally, Paris has had about two weeks of snow days each winter, but in recent years that has shrunk to zero, although the weather service will claim that there has been some measurable snow on a few days (but like I said, their snow is actually slush inside the real city). I haven't seen actual, dry snow in any significant amount here in years.

The temperature is around freezing outside, which isn't unusual for this time of year. It usually doesn't go much lower, fortunately (I like chilly weather, but I don't like sub-freezing weather). Somehow, despite these low temperatures, the building's heating system still manages to push the temperature up to 79° F inside the apartment. I still have to open a window and let heat out in order to get the temperature lower. The radiators are much too hot to touch; I find myself wondering how they get water this hot to circulate in them, and how much pressure they may be under (the pipes are 72 years old).

Since the dew point is 26.6° F right now, the relative humidity in the apartment is just over 14%, which means that my mouth is dry and my nose is blocked most of the time.

I'm debating whether or not to call France Télécom again. Perhaps the phones are staffed by people who have actually seen a computer or network at this time of day, but I'm not optimistic. The only time people work full-time in France is in October; the rest of the time, they are either preparing for holidays or recovering from them. And even though the importance of data communications is approaching that of other common utilities like electricity or water, the customer-service aspect is not keeping pace with that—in fact, it's dead in the water and deteriorating. Anyway, I'm thinking about it, trying to decide if calling FT is more likely to help or hurt the situation. I wish someone at FT would simply see the problem at their end and fix it; if they are truly keeping an eye on their network, it should be obvious.

My Internet connection has deteriorated again (superstitions justified?), so I don't know if this entry will survive the trip to my blog.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I give up.

I've been holding stuff for a month now, waiting for France Télécom to fix my Internet connection. I can't keep it all set aside forever, so I'm just going to throw it away.

I just tried to call technical support for France Télécom a/k/a Orange. This is the “pro” support line, believe it or not, and I'm charged for each minute of the call once they answer (which takes a while). When I dial, a friendly recorded voice asks me if I'm calling for trouble on the same line from which I'm making the call, and gives the number. I confirm that this is indeed the case by pressing a button. The recorded voice warns me that the waiting time is six minutes.

I wait several minutes, listening to inane France Télécom music, and finally someone answers. I tell the woman who answers that about 50% of packets in the downstream direction are being lost on my connection. She asks for my telephone number so she can look up my file. (One wonders why she needs my telephone number if I just confirmed it to the recorded voice—not a good sign.) I give my number, again. She asks me to wait while she looks up the file.

For the next several minutes, I hear agitated female voices speaking in what sounds like Arabic in the background (I kid you not). After several minutes of this faint chatter, the line goes silent. I wait a few more minutes to see if somebody is going to answer, but nothing is forthcoming. So I hang up, with no solution to my problem and several euro poorer.

Every call to Orange/FT technical support over the past year or so has resulted in no help at all. The only time I got any help was from a kindly FT employee who contacted me by e-mail after I posted my problem on the Net. I don't know when or if FT will fix my connection, so I don't know when I will next be able to post any pictures or anything useful to this blog (I'm lucky to get even a text post in from time to time). My holidays are ruined because I have a barely-alive Internet connection, and all my leisure activity (almost) requires the Internet.

Do you see why I've given up? Remember that before you consider Orange or France Télécom for any of your telecommunication needs. When their equipment works, it works well, but if you ever need technical support for a problem, you might as well jump off a cliff. Other people have told me the same thing, and apparently their attitude is the same even towards large enterprise accounts.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Continuing Internet problems

I still have Internet problems, and I've seriously backdated this post to keep things in chronological order, so that I can post more in the right order if France Télécom's bumbling idiots ever fix their network. My apologies for the technical nature of this post, but the problem is very preoccupying at the moment, destroying my entire holiday “vacation” (in quotes because I don't actually get paid for days off, there just isn't any work at this time of year).

I've spent a few days looking at network traces. FT has an upstream problem that extends no lower than the DSLAM; the line and modems are good. About 50% of downstream packets are lost or dramatically delayed by the upstream network, particularly those of non-trivial size and those using HTTP protocol. This means that virtually all connections hang after a few seconds. Some packets never appear at all, others appear five minutes late, and many are in random order. The TCP/IP stack can handle random order, but not vast numbers of lost packets or packets that are so late that the application gives up on the connection.

So this essentially stops my Internet connection. FT and Orange (same thing, really) technical support is totally, inexpressibly incompetent, literally working from simple scripts that cover nothing except possible Windows problems and modem and line problems. Apparently FT thinks that its network is perfect and requires no surveillance or technical support, so anything that happens upstream of the line is a dead end if you try to complain about it. I've taken to publishing my measurements on the Internet, and I might even decide to print the data on handouts and give it to people in front of an Orange store so that they can see how France Télécom plans to shaft them (to me, 9 kbps out of 8000 advertised by the company is a pretty clear case of fraud).

Anyway, I managed to sneak this post onto my blog, hopefully the problem will be fixed sooner or later and I can return to regular Paris-related programming here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Internet Problems!

I haven't been able to post anything (particularly anything with pictures) since late November thanks to France Télécom's total incompetence. Right now my Internet speed is 5 kbps, exactly one thousand six hundred times slower than the speed advertised by FT for the service to which I'm subscribed, and ten times slower than an old-fashioned dial-up modem (the kind Grandma used to use). It takes half an hour just to bring up a typical Web page—if it comes up at all.

No sense in calling Orange technical support (Orange is the dorky brand name behind which FT hides when selling its Internet services). They are among the most incompetent technical support people I've ever seen, not even understanding basic computer terms. The only solution they ever offer for anything is to change a modem (which requires a $100 visit from a technician—see any conflict of interest here?) or reinstall their software. They don't know anything about their own network and literally don't understand what “network” means in some cases.

As a result, I have a huge backlog of things to post. I'm dating this post November 23 although it is actually a month later, just so that I can try to keep things in chronological order when and if I finally do get a satisfactory Internet connection.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More Christmas Stuff

Back along the Champs again, while drifting towards a bus stop, I took a look at some of the decorations on the avenue Montaigne, where all the top clothing designers have their flagship stores, and I visited the “Christmas village” along the Champs itself (below the Rond Point, in the parkland areas), which is something of a novelty, as I don't recall seeing it before.

The decorations on the avenue Montaigne (which branches off the Rond Point des Champs-Élysées, just like the Champs itself) were red rather than blue, and perhaps a bit more restrained, but I don't know who pays for them or how. They still looked nice.

The Christmas village was interesting. A number of these pop up around Paris during the Christmas season, but this is the first time I recall seeing it on the Champs. These villages are actually just rows of little wooden huts, usually designed to look like ski chalets, in which many merchants ply their trade. Usually they are selling stuff related to Christmas, or things that one traditionally sees only at Christmas, like special holiday foods. There are always a few, though, who are clearly itinerant merchants selling the same stuff all year long in many different venues, the only difference here being that their stands look like ski chalets.

As you might expect, foods sold in this village reflect local holiday tastes. I tried a cannelé, a kind of cake shaped like a small dome with ridges (like a tiny Bundt cake). I've seen them for years but have never tasted one. It tasted like a vanilla cake with a caramel topping and a texture like marshmallow inside. Tasty but nothing to write home about.

There were lots of other foods, of course. The theme of this particular village seemed to be globalization, as each chalet flew a flag of a different country or region. Some of the countries represented don't really celebrate Christmas, but I guess that's not important when there's money to be made. In addition to the usual foods stands, there were stands selling those cheap little handicrafts that seem to haunt just about every temporary exposition in the observable universe, stands selling household goods, stands selling bizarre gift items that are impossible to move at any other time of year, and so on. There were even some midway games that apparently got lost and drifted from the nearest country fair to the Christmas village.

The village seemed to be attracting a ton of people, despite the somewhat chilly air, but since it's on the Champs, that's only to be expected. Down at the bottom of the Champs, that eyesore Ferris wheel is up again, blocking the view of the Louvre and making huge amounts of money for its owner, who must be rubbing his hands with evil glee at this time of year. I thought that wheel was supposed to go away forever, but like a vampire, it keeps coming back and sucking life from the avenue.

I understand that French actress Marion Cotillard turned the lights on in some sort of Major Media Event when the avenue was lit. I didn't see her, but that's no big deal. She's a cutie, and she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in the movie La Môme (La Vie en Rose in English), but I'm not into movie stars, I'm afraid (and by the way, the real Edith Piaf was never even remotely as cute as Cotillard, although she didn't look too ugly when she was young).

Anyway, I eventually got to my bus stop, and from there I went home.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Christmas Glitter on the Champs

The Christmas lights on the Champs-Élysées were turned on this evening. There appeared to be some sort of lighting ceremony at the Renault restaurant/showroom, but I didn't examine that in detail.

As I've mentioned before, the lights now are tiny daylight-colored LEDs instead of incandescent lamps, so they are much smaller and more twinkly than their predecessors. In addition, tubes containing LED light chasers (lights that go on and off in synchronization to create an illusion of movement) hang vertically from the trees, creating the impression of falling snow. It's a very pleasing effect and the lights overall look very nice.

I note also that GE Lighting has been permitted some small banners along the avenue to promote their products. Whether this justifies the huge cost of lighting the avenue (which GE is expected to foot entirely, from what I understand) remains to be seen. But it does look nice.

There are two rows of trees on the Champs on each side of the avenue. The row closest to the street has a vast number of steady lights with the light chasers. The row furthest from the street has twinkling lights but no chasers. I've uploaded a very brief video of what it looks like to YouTube, which you can watch here. The video is noisy because it's noisy in real life (Paris is a noisy city in general). The rattling noise is a small car or motorcycle next to me as I made the video (I didn't look to see what it actually was—in real life one tends to ignore the noise).

The lighting runs all the way up and down the Champs, so when you stand in the middle of the avenue, it's a nice view (although it's somewhat noisy and nerve-wracking to stand in the middle of a busy avenue).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ugly Advertising on an Ugly Tower

Well, the inexpressibly ugly Montparnasse Tower seems to be adorned with a new, inexpressibly ugly advertisement, twenty stories high. Once again, apparently money has spoken, and aesthetic considerations have been tossed to the wind in order to allow more crass commercial exploitation of Paris to take over.

I'm not even sure what this multi-story billboard is advertising. I only know that it's ugly, and you can see it all over the city. You'd think that City Hall would object to this type of eyesore, but I suppose a lot of cash changed hands and a lot of good old boys called in some notes to get this advertisement installed.

I hope it will be removed soon.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sabotage on the TGV!

While coming home recently, I noticed a delay on RER Line B due to “actes de malveillance," which means vandalism. It turns out that this was more than just run-of-the-mill vandalism; the SNCF (the national railway company) considers it organized sabotage. Somebody is trying to cause trouble for rail transport.

In addition to many minor incidents over the past few months, there have been major ones. In one recent case, the bad guys carefully cut a hole in a fence on a bridge passing over a high-speed TGV train line (the high speed lines have no grade crossings, only bridges and underpasses), then lowered themselves down and attached a length of steel reinforcement bar (the kind used to make reinforced concrete) on the 25,000-volt catenary above the tracks. When a train came by and hit the bar, the power was interrupted for an entire section of the line, and many TGV trains were stalled for hours. Fortunately, the train that actually hit the rebar was a special train that runs early every morning before the passenger trains to inspect the lines. The train was undamaged, as far as I know, but the catenary had to be repaired and the power restored.

The work was done by people who knew what they were doing and knew exactly when and how to best interfere with the operation of the line. This tends to imply an inside job, or a job by someone who knows the railways well and has some sort of grudge against them. No suspects have been found thus far.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween—or Not

Today is Halloween. You wouldn't know it by looking around Paris, though. This isn't surprising, but a few years ago, things were different.

Some years ago, the president of a French company that specializes in costumes and disguises for special events decided to embark on a personal crusade to promote Halloween in France, for purely commercial reasons. Now, Halloween has never been any kind of special occasion here. The following day—All Saints' Day, November 1—has long had special significance, which amounted mainly to French people visiting their dead relatives at cemeteries on that day. Unfortunately (in the eyes of some), visiting graves isn't very lucrative, whereas Halloween, with its long commercial tradition in the United States, seemed much more promising.

So this CEO pushed and pushed to make Halloween into a Major Event, and for a time he succeeded. Things snowballed and for a period of two years or so, Halloween became popular with certain segments of society, especially children, who enjoyed the idea of dressing up in costumes and receiving free candy. At the peak of Halloween's popularity, many stores decorated for the occasion and sold costumes, make-up, and other paraphernalia specific to Halloween (including many costumes and masks produced by this particular French company).

At one point, a store near me that sold things like bathroom towels and bedsheets converted into a Halloween store each year, and the owner said that she made more money in the month preceding Halloween than during the rest of the year put together.

However, a few years ago, this CEO died, and with him died all the intense efforts at promoting Halloween. Very rapidly, the cultural inertia of French society took over and restored the status quo. Today, there's hardly any sign of Halloween any more, although some children and their families still enjoy the dressing-up and trick-or-treat parts. The big department stores, which had embraced Halloween very briefly, were the first to give it up, followed by smaller stores, bars, etc. Even Disneyland has greatly dialed down its observance of this commercial holiday. Everyone just shifts directly to Christmas now, just as in the past.

I recall being somewhat surprised during the peak of the craze to see children walking from store to store on the Champs-Élysées demanding candy from store owners. I don't recall ever seeing that in the United States; looks like something got lost in translation.

Anyway, I don't see any sign of Halloween this year. I never dressed up or anything, anyway, so it's not a big deal, although it was something interesting to break things up in October for a while.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Big Iron Towers and Monsters to Come

I was walking past the rue Saint Dominique just after sunset when I happened to look west down the street. It looked like a pretty ordinary street in Paris—or indeed, in Europe—except for the gigantic iron tower looming in the distance. Although I've seen this a zillion times before, it struck me on this occasion how incongruous the Eiffel Tower looked, sitting there in the background, a hundred stories high in a city where most buildings are no more than a tenth of that height (by city ordinance). I took a picture to preserve the moment.

If you'd like to see the exact location where I took the photo, you can check it out on Google Maps here. The photo was taken looking west, right where the boulevard de la Tour Maubourg meets the rue Saint Dominique, at 5:11 PM.

This type of view may have its days numbered today. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, wants to start building skyscrapers inside the city, starting with a huge glass monstrosity nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower on the south side of the city. More than thirty years ago, when then-president of France Georges Pompidou wanted to do the same thing, he built the Front de Seine group of high-rises and the Maine-Montparnasse Tower, all of which are now renowned for their ugliness and seediness. Pompidou died before he could do much more damage, but now Delanoë wants to pick up where Pompidou left off, ruining the Paris skyline forever.

After Pompidou's mistakes, a city ordinance was passed limiting buildings to about 37 metres in height. Delanoë has apparently now set that ordinance aside. This is all the more surprising when you consider that Delanoë was a Green candidate, supposedly concerned about the environment and keeping Paris beautiful. And most of his actions are in line with that position, but now, suddenly, he has moved over to the Dark Side. I guess anyone's scruples can be dispensed with if enough money is on the table. More than two thirds of Parisians are strongly opposed to building any new high-rises, but we shall see if the government is still willing to listen to the rank and file of the electorate.

Worst of all, the first tower was designed by Jean Nouvel, one of the worst architects I've ever seen. Just about everything he designs is an unbelievable eyesore, but I guess there isn't much competition in France. It's not like they've had any Frank Lloyd Wrights any time recently.

I keep hoping that these plans will be overturned and discarded before anything is actually built, but I'm not optimistic. Maybe now is the time to visit Paris, before it starts to look like Manhattan or Tokyo.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Laundry Day

Saturday nights are laundry nights for me. There usually aren't too many people at the laundromat on a Saturday night, although there were more than usual at my favorite laundromat tonight.

In theory I should probably wash clothes once a week, but in practice I usually wait two weeks and then wash a double load. Ironically, I have a washing machine in my apartment—but my neighbor claims that water leaks onto her floor every time I use my own washing machine, so I go to a laundromat. A plumber checked my installation and it's fine, but I think the pipes lower down are so clogged (not having been reamed out in more than half a century) that anything more than a bit of dishwater causes them to overflow.

So I filled a big plastic bag with clothing and took it to the laundromat. I wash everything in one load. I just set it to colors at 40° C and throw in some detergent and go. It takes 45 minutes to wash, and 30 minutes to dry. The machines are brand new and well maintained, and they do a very nice job. It usually costs me €11.50 to wash my regular load of clothing.

While I wait for the wash, usually I get groceries—there's a Daily Monop (a small supermarket chained owned by Galeries Lafayette) not far away that is open until midnight. However, I didn't have enough money to buy any groceries this evening, so I spent the last money I had on a Carte Orange for this coming week, and on a can of soda pop. That leaves me with nothing until payday (the middle of next month). This is going to be yet another challenging few weeks.

On Saturday night, people are very much out and about. It was brisk outside but not really cold, and the sky was clear. I walked around the area while I waited for the clothing to wash. Around Montparnasse, especially to the east, there are lots of cinemas and restaurants and the streets are usually full of people, so I usually walk around there on my laundry night. One street, the aptly named rue de la Gaïté, is filled with a curious mixture of legitimate theaters, sex shops, and restaurants. There's a Lido-style show on this street; it used to be a venue that featured a lot of one-man comedy shows, but I guess that wasn't profitable enough. Another place features commedia dell'arte, but all I think of when I pass it is that it looks like a firetrap, with all sorts of wooden decoration on the façade—I hope it has all been treated with fire retardant.

Down the street is a restaurant that featured an Edith Piaf impersonator for some twenty years straight. She used to appear there every night. But then, a few years ago, they remodeled the restaurant, and the impersonator disappeared. Presumably she didn't go well with the new, modern decor. I wonder where she went.

[Addendum: A signer of my guest book informs me that the Edith Piaf impersonator is Evelyne Chancel (I recognize the name now that I see it), and although she no longer appears as regular entertainment at the restaurant I mention above, she is still doing well in Paris, appearing mainly at special events—she has her own Web site here, if you'd like to learn more. — AA]

The entire area is filled with restaurants, and many of them have open outside terraces. Parisians love to eat outside when the weather is nice, so that they can people-watch and chat at the same time (and they can also smoke, which is no longer allowed indoors). Having lived here for such a long time, I sometimes forget how unusual it is in most places to see people sitting at chairs and tables outside on the sidewalk at restaurants. It's routine here.

In the same neighborhood is another theater, so minuscule that I don't think it holds more than a dozen people. The auditorium is about the size of a small living room. I guess they don't need too many spectators to break even. Another theater has a fancy, huge, and archaic façade. Overall the area is a bit eclectic but pleasant to visit.

By the time I make a circuit of this area, then down the boulevard past the classic restaurants of the area (La Coupole, La Rotonde, Le Select, etc.), and move back up towards Montparnasse, it's time to go get my clothing out of the machine and put it in the dryer. Tonight there were lots of people drying things, including one who had taken up about four machines with carefully sorted clothing that he had apparently washed separately as well. He dried these four loads with different settings and then carefully folded and packed every garment. I don't understand why people expend so much energy doing such things. I just put everything in one machine to wash it, then in another single dryer to dry it. Simple. It's clean and it smells nice when it's done. I don't care if it's wrinkled.

Anyway, with the washing and drying done, I reloaded everything into a fresh plastic bag, and returned home.

It's easy to take the atmosphere of an area like this for granted when you live around it for a long time. I still remind myself, however, that many (most?) cities in the world are deadly dull, and that makes me more appreciative of the nice atmosphere that I enjoy in Paris. They don't roll the sidewalks up here at 8 PM, thank goodness. Although I can't afford to go anywhere and don't have much time to do so, anyway, it's nice to know that there's so much almost literally at my doorstep. There are dozens of movie and live theaters and restaurants within a few minutes' walk of my apartment.

Even on the quiet street where the laundromat lives, there are some interesting shops. A shop that sells bridal gowns stayed open extra late for a customer. There's a place that has steam baths for women only. There's a shop that sells English-language used books, and right next to it a shop that rents and sells English-language DVDs. There's a shop that sells baskets and beds for dogs and cats. There's an art school. There's an antique shop, a bakery, a shoe-repair store, a hotel, and three or four restaurants. Not bad for a tiny, out-of-the-way little street.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Premiere on the Champs

Recently while walking down the Champs I saw yet another movie premiere. In France, and indeed in Europe and the world at large, Paris is an important spot for movie premieres, and they typically occur on the Champs (except for Disney films, which usually premiere at the Rex, near the Opéra Garnier). A canopy with a red carpet is set up in front of some theater, lots of lights are set up, rent-a-cops are hired, photographers and fans gather. You get used to it. It reminds me of Los Angeles (New York is probably similar, but I don't know New York very well).

Anyway, so I'm walking down the Champs, near a certain new restaurant that looks uncannily like another gangster hangout (of which there are a surprising number in the sidestreets near the Champs), and I see the standard set-up for some movie premiere. I don't stop to look at these things, and I just walked right past the waiting crowd in this case, but I did see the name Josh Brolin. The name rang no bells, but from the last name I assumed this person to be offspring of James Brolin (Traffic, Catch Me If You Can, etc.), and a quick look at the IMDB when I got home confirmed this. I guess the movie was that new one about the current U.S. President, which I haven't seen and don't plan to see.

Come to think of it, I can't remember the last time I actually went to a cinema. I just wait for the DVDs to come out these days, and I know lots of other people who feel the same way (including some who actually work in the movie industry, ironically). It's too expensive and too much trouble to go to a cinema these days, and sometimes the quality on a big-screen TV at home is better than the quality in the cinema, although I don't have a TV myself any more.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Paris or Bussed

As the Métro becomes ever more crowded at rush hour, I've been trying to find alternative ways of getting to work. “Crowded” is, of course, a relative term, and I've been told by people familiar with subways in other major cities (London, New York) that rush hour on the Paris Métro is tame compared to these other systems, but it still seems very crowded to me. Apart from the sheer difficulty of squeezing into the subway car at the station, there's the high density of airborne pathogens that can infect me with a cold or flu for a week, and I cannot afford to miss work due to infections.

So I've been looking for alternatives and options. One option is to take different lines. The main line from where I live to where I work is absolutely jam packed at rush hour, but another line nearby is much less crowded. Unfortunately, this latter line requires a train change and so is a bit longer in terms of time to get to work. Still, I tend to use it more than the direct line, simply because it's easier to find a train at rush hour with some space that I can fit into (on the direct line, sometimes I have to skip several trains before I find one with space for me).

Another option is walking. I like to walk, and walking for miles is not a problem for me. However, it requires leaving somewhat earlier in order to allow for walking time, and it is vulnerable to weather (it's not fun to walk in a driving rain), and it wears out my clothing more quickly—a single stroll across the city, for example, can wear holes in nice wool dress trousers, although garments intended specifically for hiking will show no signs of wear at all after such a walk. Anyway, these factors limit the practicality of walking, but I do it when I can. I can certainly use the exercise.

Still another option is Vélib’, which I've written about before. Unfortunately, that requires a credit card, which I don't have, or a check, which I also don't have. And it's very difficult to ride a bicycle efficiently dressed in business clothing, at least for me. So that's not very practical right now.

Finally comes the option of city buses. There are nearly four thousand bus stops in the city, ten times the number of Métro stations, and one often can find a bus stop within a hundred feet or so on big city streets. There's a bus stop only a 1-minute walk away from my apartment building, and another only a two- or three-minute walk from my school. I decided this week to try using the bus to get to work.

The bus has advantages and disadvantages. It is often less crowded than the Métro, at least on certain lines (including the lines I use). There are more stops so you can often get closer to your departure and destination points. It's more scenic, if that matters. But it's also slower and far less regular in departure and arrival times. It might take twenty minutes to get somewhere during off hours, but more than an hour during rush hour, due to traffic.

The results of my experiments were mixed. The bus has indeed proven less crowded than the subway, even at rush hour. However, because of traffic, it has been much more irregular in travel times, causing me to be 18 minutes late on one occasion. And the waiting time for a bus to pass can be very long, and it changes at different hours as the buses are released at changing intervals. Still, I will add it to my list of viable transit options and avail myself of the bus when circumstances point to it as the best solution.

Parisian buses are clean and comfortable and pleasant looking inside. Nevertheless, I usually don't recommend them to tourists because they follow extremely convoluted routes through the city, and you have to know exactly where you are and exactly where you wish to go in order to make use of them. If you are traveling more or less randomly through the city (as a tourist might), it takes a long time to figure out which bus(es), if any, can take you from where you are to where you wish to go.

Adding to this is the way in which bus routes are displayed at bus stops and inside buses. The maps are long horizontal strips that graphically show the route of the bus and the stops. However, real-world bus routes don't fit conveniently into a narrow horizontal strip, so the maps used on the strips are highly distorted in order to make the whole route seem roughly horizontal. This means that, if you don't know the layout of the city very well, it can be impossible to figure out exactly where the bus is going and what route it is taking to get there. It can be particularly difficult to figure out how close a stop shown on the map might be to your ultimate destination. I know the city well, like most residents, so I can figure it out, but for visitors it will almost certainly be frustrating to determine exactly where the bus is going from these highly distorted maps (although I do find them rather clever).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Speech Impediment Epidemic

If you walk around Paris long enough, you'll discover that there are zillions of “orthophonistes,” or speech therapists … so many, in fact, that you wonder how they find patients. French people don't seem particularly prone to speech impediments, so why are there so many speech therapists? It took years for me to find out exactly why speech therapists are so thick on the ground.

It turns out that speech therapists in France make most of their money teaching children to read. An inability to read is lumped together with many real speech impediments, and speech therapists dedicate the bulk of their practices to teaching reading rather than correcting actual speech problems. It seems that French public schools can't always teach reading effectively, and so speech therapists serve as private tutors to help kids learn.

The reason for this probably has something to do with the French méthode globale of teaching reading, a hugely defective teaching technique that is very much like the "look and say" method of teaching reading in the U.S. Both methods eschew teaching children the relationship between letters and spelling and spoken pronunciation, and instead expect them to somehow memorize whole words without sounding them out. The results are disastrous, producing a very high proportion of functionally illiterate children, but the methods are still used in both countries. Children crippled by exposure to this brain-dead technique for teaching apparently go to speech therapists to learn about what might otherwise be called phonics. Once their “impediment” is corrected (that is, once the speech therapists reveal to the children that letters represent sounds), reading ability improves.

Or at least that's how I understand it, based one what I've seen and been told. I learned to read by sounding things out, so I was never handicapped by the incompetence of institutional educators. It is interesting that the same egregious mistakes have been made in both American and French public education systems. It's not very reassuring, though.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Take-off on the Champs

On the Champs this week, there is a street show extolling the virtues of French aerospace technology. I had three hours free so I walked through this show in the afternoon. It was moderately interesting, although the part of the Champs on which it was set up (the lower part below the roundabout, which is mostly parkland) was very dusty, especially with lots of people walking around the exhibits.

France has a long and impressive history of accomplishments in aerospace, although it doesn't shine quite as much now as it did in the old days. It's still a world leader in this domain, though, and so there was some interesting technology to see. I rather liked the jet-engine displays and the example of A380 landing gear. A lot of the marketing and patriotic stuff I could do without.

As for airplanes, only small aircraft were on display. There was a glider, and there were several small general-aviation single-prop aircraft, plus a few helicopters (trucked in, not flown in), a stealth drone, and two fighter jets (an old Mirage and a new Rafale). There were a lot of Scarebu—er, Airbus displays, too, although I think Airbus works more against the image of France as an aerospace leader than in favor of it.

Several simulators were available to the public to try out. Just my luck that none of them were for aircraft that interested me. There was an Airbus sim, but I prefer airplanes that are flown by the pilots, rather than by PCs. There was a fighter airplane, but I'm not interested in fighter aircraft. And there was an ATR-something, but commuter twin-turboprops don't do anything for me, either. Had they offered a Baron or a Boeing, things would have been different, but I suppose lightning would have struck anything built by Boeing at this show. I'm surprised they admitted that GE participated in the designs of the engines on display.

There were two displays of the intake cowling for an A380 engine, which is about 12 feet in diameter on the inside; you could walk through one of them. (The engines on the Boeing 777 are slightly larger, although there are only two of them, whereas the A380 has four.)

There were some displays of old stuff, including the forward section of an old Caravelle, but I mostly like modern aircraft, or at least recently-built versions of older designs.

It was a nice way to spend an hour or two, and the weather in the city was perfect, with mostly sunny skies and fluffy clouds, a breeze, and relatively cool temperatures.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Parisian Paranoia

Today, while walking past a conference center on a street I won't name, I noticed barricades and a cop in front of the center. More significantly, I noticed a larger number of plainclothes rent-a-cops milling about. They were even more obvious than the real cops, despite the lack of uniforms. I puzzled over this until I saw people entering the conference center, dressed in a way that identified them as members of a certain religious/national group that is remarkable for its extreme paranoia in situations like this. Even though Paris isn't a city prone to violence, and openly violent incidents are extraordinarily rare, people in this group seem to be afraid of their own shadows and require great amounts of security (in their view), and not just only the security provided by regular police. Since it seems that this is disproportionate to the risk, I often wonder if it isn't just a tacit assertion of self-importance—I've seen it with other people and groups in other contexts, as when a has-been, unknown “celebrity” surrounds herself with bodyguards to protect her against threats that don't exist, simply because she likes to imagine that she is still important enough to be at risk.

Anyway, while walking past this venue, minding my own business, I caught one of the rent-a-cops approaching me out of the corner of my eye. With all the stealth of an elephant overdosed on stimulants, he moved in behind me and accelerated as if he planned to jump me or something. I could see the wheel turning in his tiny head (it was too small to have multiple wheels turning): he apparently thought I was a bad guy with evil intentions, or at least was hoping that I was. I don't like being followed by dorks, so I turned to face him directly, showing him that his cover was blown, and he immediately veered off to one side. I don't know if he actually thought I hadn't noticed him; I guess I could charitably assume that he wanted me to notice him and feel intimidated. But I think the reality is that he thought he was being sneaky and didn't realize how painfully obvious he was. Given his inability to be discreet and his obvious incompetence in determining who is a risk and who isn't, I have to wonder what real security he could provide to anyone.

There are people in the world who truly understand security and can keep people or places secure, but they seem to be outnumbered 1000 to 1 by impostors who have learned everything they know about security from movies and television shows. Fortunately, I don't think this particular event needed much security, anyway, so perhaps it all works out to have pretend rent-a-cops protecting an event against pretend risks. And I'm sure it makes the attendees feel a lot more special than they really are.

The media in France point out that even the French president surrounds himself with bodyguards, and he did this even before being elected. Are there really commando groups scheming to take him down at the first opportunity, or is he simply paranoid? There has been considerable speculation on that point. Indeed, one could ask the same thing about American presidents: Are they really in that much danger, or is all the over-the-top security really just an assertion of how important they are supposed to be?

Anyway, for average people like me, this species of theater is just an obstacle to getting from place to place. I think that anyone who feels he is in so much danger that he has to close off a street, neighborhood, or city just to move about should probably just stay home in his fortress, so that the rest of the world (Paris in this case) can just get on with life without being forced to watch the show.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Spotlight on Rollerblades

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Pari-Roller, an association that has been organizing weekly rollerblade rallies in the city since 1994. They start from Montparnasse every Friday night at around 10 PM. There might be 15,000 people on rollerblades on a given evening. They skate around until 1 AM.

For the tenth anniversary they had some sort of event. I didn't check it out in detail because I was waiting for a take-out pizza to be ready, but they had a stage set up with someone bellowing into a microphone in the standard way that one sees at such events.

The only unusual thing they did (and the thing that drew my attention to the event) was to set up a big circle of carbon-arc searchlights and point them directly up, creating a shaft of blue light that impinged on the low clouds over the city. I saw that from afar (it was visible from everywhere) and suspected it might be coming from Montparnasse, and I was right; I even guessed it might have something to do with rollerblading, and it did. There aren't a lot of other major events that take place at Montparnasse on Friday nights at 10 PM (although the area is quite lively overall until very late at night).

This roller-rally is one of the many nice things about Paris, although I'm sure it's not the only large city to hold such rallies. It is well organized so that traffic is stopped as the rollerbladers pass.

Unfortunately it's hard to take pictures of it, as it takes place at night and there isn't much light. Incidentally, I'm actually capable of taking better pictures than you see in this blog, but tiny digital cameras typically have no provision for manual override of many critical parameters, which means that you get whatever the camera is willing to take and cannot adjust things like shutter speed or aperture. Usually you don't have much control over focus, either.

The pizza was a good deal, since it was a two-for-one offer and for only a couple euro per meal I can eat for two days or so (two 2-person pizzas is about four meals, for €15.20). I put the pizza in the fridge. Pizza is one of those things that seems to taste as good or better after being reheated from the refrigerator.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Getting In and Out

Many apartment buildings in Paris seem to have been designed with absolutely no consideration for moving anything larger than a hot plate into and out of apartments. Up to just a few decades ago, elevators were rare, even for buildings with eight or nine floors (roughly the limit imposed by Paris zoning laws historically). Since stairways were often relatively tiny as well, I have to wonder how people got furniture in and out of these apartments in the old days.

Today, it's a bit less of a problem. True, if you order a new television set or sofa, two or more burly furniture delivery men will still wrestle it up the stairway if necessary (elevators, even when they are present, are often too small to hold anything more than one average-sized person). But if you are moving lots of things, the easiest way to get them in and out is via the windows, if windows of suitable size are available (and they often are).

Doing this requires a clever contraption with a flat, open platform that is winched up one or more floors at a very steep angle on guide rails. It seems that most Parisian moving companies have plenty of these gadgets on hand. It's routine to see one of them sitting on the sidewalk, with its boom carefully adjusted to reach right up to the window of an apartment, and moving men raising furniture up to the window or lowering it down therefrom with the winch. With something like this, you can move sofas, big-screen TVs, perhaps even pianos (although I haven't seen that).

The first time I saw this, it looked very odd, but I'm used to it now. Where I was born, people have sprawling, single-level homes, with big doors, and the movers use nothing more complex than a ramp leading into the moving van. It's just one of the many, many differences between Paris and my hometown—nearly all of which strongly favor Paris!

I always feel guilty about ordering anything bulky for delivery, since, as I've said, these handy devices are not usually used for delivery of single items. The delivery guys always have to struggle to bring stuff up the stairs, if it won't fit in the tiny elevator. I suppose they are paid for it, but I suspect they aren't paid very much (nobody is paid very much for anything in France).

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Heat from Within

Looks like I spoke none too soon about the building heat returning to haunt me. Today, when I woke up in the morning, I noticed that the apartment seemed awfully stuffy and warm. I worried that a new heat wave had started. But no! It turns out that the management of my building has turned the heat on—in September!

It's 68° F outside, and the heating inside the building is blazing away, raising the temperature in the apartment by 14°. With enormous irritation, I was compelled to turn on the air conditioning, despite the perfect outside weather, in order to remove the heat added by the building's central heating system.

Once again, I'm paying for the fuel that is being wasted to overheat the building, and I'm paying for electricity to remove the heat thus generated. Without air conditioning, the temperature will climb to the high seventies and above indoors. I opened a window over one radiator so that it would exhaust its wasted heat to the exterior, but I still needed the A/C to remove the heat. Unless it gets really cold outside, this situation will persist until next spring.

The cognitive dissonance here amazes me. Europeans criticize air conditioning as wasteful and decadent, but they absolutely do not hesitate to squander untold amounts of fuel and electricity to dramatically overheat buildings for half the year. The City of Paris recommends that people set their thermostats to 66° F, but I can't even get the temperature down to that level with A/C, thanks to the blazing central heating of the building (plus the fact that it isn't cold outside to begin with).

The problem isn't limited to my apartment. If you walk into a department store, for example, you're struck by a blast of stuffy heat, and in no time you are perspiring. I suppose this is in part to accommodate saleswomen in the building who wear fashionable but extremely skimpy clothing that is completely unsuited to cool weather. Rather than offend Dame Fashion by wearing a sweater or something a bit more substantial, they continue to wear the flimsy t-shirt-like apparel and then complain that it's too cold. Of course, for clients who come in from the cold in sweaters or jackets, the heat indoors is exhausting, but clients don't matter. The problem doesn't arise with salesmen, since they are often required to wear suits, which include multiple layers of fabric and are more than warm enough for the mildly chilly weather that obtains at this time of year.

Sometimes I get the impression that nobody in Europe is happy at a temperature of less than 85° F.

I think this has to do with historical climate trends and current climate. In regions of the world where it's usually on the cool side, people become oversensitive to cold and wish for intense heat. In regions of the world where it's usually on the hot side, people become oversensitive to heat and wish for frigid cold. The only difference between the two is that it's a lot easier to stay warm in cold weather than it is to stay cool in hot weather. In cold weather, you can dress in a way that will keep you warm, making heating systems less necessary than they might otherwise be. But in hot whether, your only option is to refrigerate the environment. In the first case, you're working with Mother Nature; in the second case, you're compelled to work against her.

Anyway, rant off for now. But it's really frustrating to have to constantly air-condition, even in winter.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Christmas in September (?)

A few days ago I noticed workmen stringing electrical cables in the trees along the Champs. For a moment, I thought they might be preparing to put up Christmas lights, but then I thought to myself nah! It's way too early!

Turns out my first impression was correct. The Christmas lights are actually being installed right now, even though we are still in the month of September. I don't know if that means they plan to light them earlier, or what. Usually they turn them on sometime in November, which is already pretty early.

The current batch of lights is based on bluish-white LEDs, which make a very nice, sharp, sparkling impression when strung in the trees. Some of the lights are animated light chasers that make it look as though snow is falling; the effect is pretty convincing. They look nicer than the plain white lights that the Champ used to have (although those were still quite nice). Anything is better than the floodlit garbage bags on the trees that some avant-garde artist sold to the city a few years ago—that experiment was not repeated!

Informed sources tell me that GE Lighting has provided the lights for the last several years. An association that represents merchants on the avenue puts out a call for proposals, and they insist that bidders do the lighting for free, in exchange for some vague sort of publicity for the company doing the lighting—even though the association forbids the display of any advertisements. Apparently all the bidders turn them down regularly, except GE. In the past, Osram or Philips or other companies have occasionally taken the bait, but not any more. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to light the avenue, and the return on investment is nil, since nothing indicates to passerby that the lights are provided by a particular company.

Whoever actually does it, though, it's pretty to look at during the Christmas season. And I guess now it will be pretty to look at even outside the Christmas season, since we are a full three months away from Christmas (the autumnal equinox was only this weekend!).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

To the Barricades!

One of the most common sights in Paris is the galvanized steel barricade, even though they aren't mentioned in tourist guides. You run into them (no pun intended) everywhere in the city, and they magically move from place to place from one day to another.

The barricades are portable, and look to be a meter or so in height and perhaps three meters long. They can be linked together to form chains of substantial length. To link them, you rotate one of the barricades through a precise angle, then slip a hook on that barricade into a loop on another. Since they must be rotated to be separated, this keeps the barricades secure when they are connected in long chains, because you can't really rotate the ones in the middle of the chain, only the ones on the ends. Quite clever, I think, albeit rather irritating if you are confronted with a long line of them and you need to get past them (of course, that's the whole idea).

They are easy to climb over and are not intended for control of angry crowds, but they work well for crowds that are behaving. Sometimes they are arranged in two parallel rows, with “ribs” made from individual barricades separated the two rows, to form a kind of no-man's-land between the two rows. I suppose the idea is that anyone trying to cross the barricades can be shot more easily while he's in the space in-between.

When major events are held in town (that is to say, about every other day), you can easily understand the purpose of a string of barricades along a street. For example, you see rows of them on the Champs during the Tour de France bicycle race, since the last leg of the race ends there and crowds are heavy. But in other cases their placement is mystifying. You might see three disconnected barricades on a sidewalk, and nothing else. One has to wonder why they are there.

The City of Paris seems to have roughly 1,492,876,135 barricades in place at any one time. When they are not in use, presumably they are stored in a warehouse the size of Vermont somewhere outside the city. Some of them belong to the city's police headquarters; others belong to the Ministry of the Interior (which controls police forces in the country). They are often marked to identify the owners—the ones in my photo belong to police headquarters, as the small PP logo indicates. The ones in this photo were just sitting on a street corner. Nobody steals them (who would steal a barricade?).

I've seen unmarked trucks placing and removing barricades on many occasions, although I can't always figure out why they are doing it. One day a street near you will be crowded with barricades, and the next day they'll be gone. They are a nuisance, like pigeons, only they don't move under their own power (I think).

A popular spot for barricades is in front of schools (to keep wild mass murderers out, I suppose) and embassies (to keep wild terrorists out, I suppose). Indeed, by counting the barricades in front of an embassy, you can find out how important and/or despised a country is … the U.S. and Israeli embassies are always at the top of the list. I noticed, for instance, that barricades in front of the Chinese embassy multiplied at the start of this year's Olympics, but then thinned out again after the first day. And many embassies have no barricades at all. Sometimes I get the impression that barricades add prestige to an embassy, since countries that are not important tend not to have any enemies.

I've become so accustomed to barricades that I don't notice them much any more, but I remember being struck by their near ubiquity when I first came to Paris. Paris is a major European and world capital, and the French are fond of mass demonstrations as well, so it's not hard to understand why barricades are so common.

Cool Weather Prevails

For weeks now the weather has been wonderfully cool. Everyone else complains, because people in consistently cool climates seem to enjoy blazing heat, but I'm very happy indeed. I haven't had to turn on my poor, creaky little A/C in weeks. This is nearly seasonal weather. I hope it lasts.

This is actually kind of a brief rest period between the heat of summer and the heat of winter. That is, in another three weeks or so, the central heat in the building will be turned on. The building heat is turned on based on the calendar, rather than the actual weather, so even if it's 85° outside, the heat goes on at a certain date. In fact, unless it's quite cold when the heat is turned on, I sometimes have to run my A/C just to keep the heat inside the apartment down. The pipes alone heat the apartment even if the radiators are off (but I can't seem to turn the radiators off, either). Thus, it's hot in summer … and usually hot in winter, too.

If this winter is actually seasonal (i.e., chilly), it shouldn't be a problem. If it turns out to be another non-winter as it has been in previous recent years, it's going to be a hot winter again. If the temperature outside stays below 50° F or so, things work out okay, and the building heat actually helps, but if the temperature outside hovers around 68° F or so, it gets too hot inside.

This summer has been unusually cool in relation to other recent summers, although it has been roughly seasonal much of the time—but in the past decade we haven't seen much seasonably cool weather. I've been quite happy except for a few inevitable heat waves.

The leaves are turning on some of the trees, which is considerably earlier than usual. Typically the trees only turn sharply around November or late October.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Opera Quarter

I finished work early and actually had time to go for a walk recently, and went up by the Opera—the old Opera, the Opera Garnier, not the newer Opera Bastille.

The area around the Opera Garnier (the opera that served as the setting for the fictional Phantom of the Opera) is quite lively. There's lots of shopping, lots of places to eat, and to the east, lots of movie theaters and some other attractions. I wandered around for a few hours on the way home. I don't often have time to walk anywhere these days, so it was a refreshing change.

I didn't have much money so I couldn't do anything, but I did splurge and buy an éclair from chichi Fauchon near the Madeleine. French people judge people heavily based on appearance, and I always sense a certain apprehension in the staff when I walk in and they see me in my standard attire (at this time of year, hiking shorts and boots, and my all-purpose utility vest). They relax just a little bit when I actually buy something, since this strongly implies that I'm not a terrorist or a bum. In this case, I was charged too much for the éclair (prices had gone up and the tag had not been changed), so they gave me a second éclair for free. Both éclairs were “Mona Lisa” éclairs, filled with chocolate and nuts and some other stuff, and topped with an edible picture of the Mona Lisa. They were messy but good, albeit not quite good enough to justify their price.

I walked around the entire area in kind of a random way (Paris is a city ideally suited to random walks—there's something interesting on every street), looking at the foot traffic among all the stores and peeking into store windows. Eventually I converged on the area east of the Opera, along the boulevard des Italiens and the boulevard Montmartre. There are tons of restaurants, shops, cinemas, and other attractions on these streets, although restaurants are the majority tenants. And it's not all French, alas! There are quite a few Italian restaurants, several Starbucks (including one fabulous Starbucks that is a palatial, converted bank lobby), a couple of McDonalds, a Pizza Hut, the Paris edition of the Hard Rock Café, and many other places that don't necessarily match the Gallic stereotype.

Like most major streets in Paris, this one has people on it day and night. There's much to see, so walking slowly is a good idea. There are many small, permanent shops selling all sorts of things (clothing, books, records), along with stands on the street selling still other things (cheap jewelry, crêpes, candy, popcorn, etc.). Anyone who is hungry will find his favorite food somewhere on this street. Although theme restaurants aren't big in France (the T.G.I. Fridays that used to be on this street went out of business), there are still specialty restaurants around here, including one place that sells only baked potatoes, another that sells only a few varieties of pasta, and so on. The Grévin wax museum is here, as well as several old, covered shopping galeries with unique and interesting shops inside. This is where you find the aforementioned Hard Rock Café (pretty good food, but the music is sometimes intolerably loud during concerts). There's a vast Monoprix supermarket with an impressive entrance, although that location is one of those semi-jinxed locations that go through many tenants over the years. Anyway, overall, the place has atmosphere.

There are cinemas, too, although they were quiet as I walked past in the afternoon. At night, lines form outside the cinemas. Many still have decent-sized screens, and a few are well known for this, such as the Max Linder Panorama (where I once saw 2001: A Space Odyssey from the balcony during a Stanley Kubrick festival), and especially the huge Rex, a cinema in the classic style with a massive screen. The Rex hosts many premières, including those of most Disney films, and it has provisions for stage shows. It is so well known that you can tour the theater as an attraction in its own right. There's also a discothèque below it.

If you go far enough east on the boulevard Montmartre, onto the boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle, the restaurants and cinemas thin out, the stores get a bit less chic, and eventually you end up at a huge stone arch that marks the intersection with the wicked rue Saint Denis. Centuries ago, this narrow street regularly hosted royal processions, but today it is known best for its ethnic groceries and discount telephone stores to the north, and its prostitutes and sex shops to the south. The latter has been greatly tidied up, in the sense that the street itself has been fully renovated, along with streets around it. The prostitutes are still there in small numbers; they are more obvious here than in most other parts of the city, standing around in doorways, but they are not obnoxious. Coincidentally, this is part of the garment district, so the storefronts around them are often wholesale distributors for various kinds of clothing, including fashionable stuff that ends up being sold at high prices when it finally arrives on racks here and abroad.

I turned south on the rue Saint Denis and went through prostitute-land to reach bar-land, the area around the Forum des Halles which again is very lively with tons of restaurants. By then it was getting late and I was short on time, so I hopped on the Métro to go home (fortunately I had purchased a pass before I ran out of money).

Walking around like this reminded me of the good old days when I was able to walk for several hours a day in the city. Overall, I've walked some 30,000 miles in Paris over the years I've lived here (yes, that's really 30,000 miles—it's not a typo).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beware of Bicycles!

The success of Vélib' in the City of Light over the past year seems to have encouraged Parisians to take up cycling in a larger sense, even when they are not renting the Vélib' bikes. I see more and more bicycles around the city. In fact, nowadays, when walking around the city, you have to watch for both motor vehicles and bicycles.

Bicycles move more slowly, but their riders also seem more oblivious to traffic laws (which also apply to bicycles). They ride through red lights, they ride on sidewalks, etc., and this does not enhance safety. It's a wonder that more of them are not killed. These days I have to look carefully at bike paths when crossing them, just as I do with streets, because there are often Vélib' riders or others barreling along on their cycles without paying attention to pedestrians in their paths.

I often walk to school (in part for exercise, but especially for the sake of saving a Métro ticket), and there are a couple of danger spots that I'm now quite careful about. You never know when a silent, speeding Vélib' will materialize from the shadows and run you down like a skunk in the road.

A recent report shows that Parisians are not only riding bicycles more, but they are also using mass transit more—traffic on the subway is up six percent over last year. Perhaps our fine mayor's continuing attempts to compel people to use greener forms of transportation than cars are finally having an effect. Among the zillions of cars still on the streets, though, the proportion of SUVs continues to rise.

There was a time when I tried to ride a bike in Paris. Those were the days. The city is somewhat more bike friendly now. But no time or money for that these days.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Politics (Ick!)

I passed the headquarters of the UMP today, which is one of the more important of the many political parties in France. It's also the party of the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. I've passed this way before; there are always barricades out in front, and often shiny black sedans and hefty-looking men in conservative suits milling about.

On this occasion there were large, patriotic banners adorning the building, of the vaguely stirring but not very substantial type that political parties seem to favor. “Helping France win together” was the slogan of the day. It sounds inspiring at first glance, but like most such slogans, the more you look at it, the less it seems to mean.

Unlike the United States, France doesn't have a rigid system of just two firmly-entrenched political parties that have arranged to effectively exclude all other parties from the system. Instead, it has multiple parties that are usually classified as roughly either “left” or “right,” depending on their political leanings (liberal or conservative, respectively). The names change, alliances shift, schemes are hatched, intrigues develop, and so on, but behind it all is the same aging cohort of politicians who play a sort of game of musical chairs, periodically taking up official appointments or even being elected to office, only to have the music start anew with the next round of elections. Some of them get lucky each time the music stops, and the others must stand around and wait for another turn, but the players are always the same.

Also unlike the United States, France has a president who has been married to two supermodel trophy wives, the current of which just released an album (she's also a singer). Laura Bush was cute in her youth (two terms in the White House have taken their toll), but as far as I know she hasn't appeared in Vogue or recorded a CD with all her greatest hits. She did kill her (rumored) erstwhile boyfriend by running a stop sign when she was 17, though, which I guess creates a little bit of intrigue.

Anyway, there are lots of differences in the political systems, even if the foundations are the same. There's theoretically more of a choice of candidates in France, with so many political parties that come and go like clouds on a blustery day, but since the candidates are all drawn from the same pool of old men, the choice is often not as great as it might seem. Still, I have to contrast this with the United States, in which every other Presidential election amounts to a choice between “keep the guy who's there now” and “replace him with someone else.”

Needless to say, I'm not interested in politics and I don't get involved in politics. But it was hard to ignore this big red, white, and blue banner as I walked past it. Which reminds me … why are red, white, and blue so popular for such purposes? I know that children are very fond of the colors blue and red, at opposite ends of the spectrum (look at the color schemes used in many toys)—perhaps there is a connection.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Holy Excretion! … and Spiders

Near the noble chapel of the Hôtel des Invalides today (where Napoléon is entombed), I came across what appears to be a portable urinal of some kind, grouped with other portable toilets. I can only assume that this is a remnant of the visit of Pope What's-His-Name a few days ago.

The design is intriguing. It provides essentially zero privacy … however, given that many French men seem to be no more self-conscious than stray dogs about urinating in public (sometimes they urinate in the same places), I suppose that's to be expected. This urinal has three “stations,” if I may so call them, at which users would be facing each other were it not for a central partition. There's a sort of hole at each station; I presume that the user snuggles up against the partition and tries to aim directly into this hole in order to urinate. (The hole is a fair distance from the base, which might be challenging for boys and extremely short men.) The base of the contraption seems to be a holding reservoir of some kind. There's a gizmo at the top that allows the entire urinal to be hoisted into the air (presumably when not in use) for transport.

It's kind of ingenious, I guess, despite the near-total lack of privacy and the total absence of any provision for washing the hands after use (given how few men wash their hands after using public toilets, I suppose this was considered superfluous).

The strange thing, though, is that it's rather shaped like a cathedral, which I suppose makes it slightly more appropriate for the visit of the Pope. I wonder how close to his august personage this device was placed, if indeed it was used for that event. I note that the urine goes down, towards Hell, while the “spire” of the device points skywards. The design might even inspire a user to gaze heavenwards, once he had carefully located the all-important hole to Hades.

People who live near the Invalides, where one Major Media Event™ took place, say that even residents had a hard time getting into the area while the Pope was lurking about. One wonders who exactly was able to see him in such a case.

Anyway, moving right along … after getting home this evening, while eating my piece of pound cake on my mattress for dinner, I observed a spider scampering across the floor near me. Unfortunately, this scampering act violated the tacit agreement that I've had since time immemorial with my arachnid roommates: to wit, they are to remain in their secret lairs, generally somewhere in the bathroom, and I'm to remain on my own turf, which includes most of the rest of the apartment, except perhaps a corner or two. In return, they may partake of all the insect meals they wish, and I'm untroubled by bugs (unless you count spiders as bugs, but if they stay in their blasted compounds this is not a problem). My encounter with the spider ended tragically for the spider. I trust that she has surviving descendants who will carry on her line (and our agreement).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vive Vélib'!

It has been somewhat more than a year since the semi-free, automated bicycle rental system known as Vélib' (pronounced "vay-leeb") was first installed in Paris, and the program has been a tremendous success. It doesn't seem to have made much of a dent in motor-vehicle traffic, but the bicycles provided by the system are everywhere.

The idea is straightforward: At nearly two thousand locations around the city, there are rows of custom-made bicycles attached to computerized posts. You pick a bicycle, wave a card at the post to which it is attached, and ride away with it. The first half-hour is free, then every half hour thereafter is billed at an increasing rate (to discourage people from keeping the bicycles for long periods).

I see people riding these bicycles all the time, day and night. Paris has a fair system of bike paths within the city, although sharing a bike path with a bus lane (as is often the case) doesn't reassure me. I used to ride a bike occasionally in the city, but the stress of dealing with traffic, the lack of continuity in the bike paths, and the poor quality of some road surfaces (ever try to ride a bike on wet cobblestones?) discouraged me.

These bikes are extensively vandal-proofed, and they are very heavy in consequence: they weigh about 50 pounds. Even so, many are broken by antisocial louts, and quite a few have disappeared (supposedly they've been spotted as far away as Casablanca). Some people question whether the system will survive for the long term; it's too early to say. For now, at least, they are doing well.

The system is operated by JC Decaux, the same company that has similar monopolies on certain street advertisements, Sanisettes (those self-cleaning toilets one sees on Paris streets), bus stops, and so on. They seem to get all sorts of juicy contracts. This contract requires that they operate the Vélib' system for free in exchange for the ability to put up advertising around the city (whereas the deal for Sanisettes requires that the city pay the company for all operation and maintenance of the toilets). The company also monitors who has used the bicycles and where for a period of two years, which somehow got past the French privacy laws.

I have never used the system personally, since I don't have any of the resources required for it (checks, credit cards, etc.). In today's world, if you don't have a credit card, you're a second-class citizen, which ironically means that the people who might profit most from free bicycles are not allowed to rent them. Interestingly enough, France is even more into credit cards than the USA in many respects, so the have/have-not contrast is even sharper here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A German Pope in Paris

This morning I noticed a police presence on the Left Bank that was slightly greater than the usual background noise, and puzzled over it for a time. Then, as I walked towards the Esplanade des Invalides—the park in front of the Hôtel des Invalides below which several French secret services are supposedly and incidentally headquartered—I saw that some sort of vast temporary construction was in progress, and it dawned on me that this is September 12 … and Pope What's-His-Name is supposed to visit on September 12-13, isn't he?

I can't remember his name; I know he's German. Compared to his popular predecessor, the French might say il brille par son absence ("he shines through his absence," meaning he tends to be conspicuously invisible), but history shows that popes are highly variable in quality and character. France seems to be rolling out the red carpet for him, in any case. That can be technically justified by the fact that he is also a head of state and not just a religious leader—he's the head of the Vatican, the microscopic child-free sovereign state cum tourist attraction inside Rome that forbids shorts and bare shoulders. But most heads of state are not invited to conduct religious services or give speeches to thousands of people during an official visit. Even the American president doesn't get that treatment, although he might enjoy it. At least the Bishop of Rome is not afraid to appear in public without miniguns on either side of him for protection or a "security area" ten miles wide around him.

About 92% of France is Roman Catholic; most of the rest is Muslim or Protestant. There is a small but influential Jewish minority. I'm nominally Catholic, too, although you'd never know it to look at me—to me, Catholic churches in France are items on a tour itinerary, not houses of worship (in France, most of them actually belong to the state, as part of a deal separating the state from the Catholic church just over a century ago). Less than 14% of French people are actually practicing Catholics, unless you count one trip to church for a wedding and one for a funeral as "practicing" Catholicism. Many are Catholics only in the sense that they've been baptized as such, and they may consider themselves agnostics or atheists. There's still a very devout minority of Real Catholics, however—enough to fill a church or stadium for a visit from the Pope. Many of them seem to be recent immigrants from Third World countries, so Catholic missionaries must still be hard at work.

I didn't linger to see exactly what was going on, and I avoided the area on the way back home. I'm not interested in Major Media Events,® and I don't even watch them on TV, much less in real life.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Paris Smarts and Standards

Walking down a few streets today, I counted the number of Smart cars that I saw. It looks like up to 20% of the cars parked on the streets are Smarts—an amazing figure. It's as if the Smart has become the Standard Parisian Car. It just suits the city extremely well. I don't know if it enjoys the same success in other large, densely populated cities, but these little Smart cars sell like hot croissants in the City of Light.

Come to think of it, like any big city, Paris has a lot of "standards" associated with it.

The surprisingly simple, standard Parisian sandwich contains Swiss cheese (Emmenthal) and slices of ham, with butter. It is (predictably) called a Parisien. It's tasty but nothing that would thrill a gourmet. And hot onion soup is (or was) a Parisian standard in cold weather; it doesn't do much for your breath but it's delicious and (very) hot on cold days.

Parisian buildings are often distinctive, with an architectural style that one doesn't see elsewhere in France. Perhaps the most recognizable feature of many Parisian buildings dating from the nineteenth century (and there are lots of those) is the Mansard roof, named after François Mansart. The design predates the buildings by hundreds of years, but it was so extensively used in the mid-nineteenth century that it has become very closely associated with Paris.

Parisian women have a traditionally standard shoe, a flat or low-heeled black shoe (often glossy black patent leather) with a simple bow or other ornament on the instep, very much like a dressy slipper. The standard color for garments is black, although that's not specific to Paris. And, unfortunately, many Parisian women smoke like chimneys, something I've mentioned before (but it really disappoints me, so I'm mentioning it again).

There used to be distinctive Parisian accents in French, but those have faded a great deal. Parisians still have a distinctive sound, but it's a much more standard pronunciation than it used to be. People who still speak with strong, distinctive accents are rare today, and often quite old, and the accent itself makes a person sound a bit archaic. There are some styles of speaking that are often associated with Parisian stereotypes, such as the haute bourgeoisie, that are parodied regularly by comedians, but real people with these accents are relatively rare.

I find it interesting that when I speak French in Paris, people ask "Where are you from?" but when I speak French in the provinces, people say "oh, you're from Paris." (By the way, for relentlessly urban residents of Paris like myself, the "provinces" includes just about anything outside the boulevard périphérique, the oval beltway that encircles the city.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

France vs. Red Bull, Drugs, and Pharmacies

Lately I've seen Red Bull all over the place. This curious energy drink was originally banned in France, because it contained taurine. I don't know why the government was opposed to taurine. Anyway, early this year, Red Bull developed a formula without taurine and started marketing it in France. A very short time later, the French government legalized taurine, and the original Red Bull invaded the shelves.

France has some weird rules. It outlawed taurine, but now has changed its mind. It still outlaws the sale of medications containing bismuth subsalicylate, the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol (which is why you can't buy Pepto-Bismol in France). In this last case, it seems that there was a rash of unexplained cases of encephalopathy in the 1970s in France that appeared to be caused by bismuth compounds; the government banned the sale of such compounds, and has regularly renewed the ban.

At the same time, other drugs are freely available, including ethanol, to which about one French person in six is addicted (by some estimates), and nicotine, to which about half the population seems to be addicted. And compounds containing small amounts of codeine are available without a prescription in France, such as certain cough remedies (codeine is an excellent cough suppressant) and some pain relievers (the equivalent of Tylenol II with codeine).

American visitors, who come from a country that takes illicit drugs as if they were candy, often become excited when I tell them that they can buy products containing codeine over the counter. They always seem to be looking for a way to get high. Unfortunately for them, the amount of codeine in over-the-counter remedies available in France is so low that it's almost impossible to get any mood-altering effect out of them without taking an amount that will result in toxicity from other ingredients. For example, to get high on pain relievers with codeine, a person would have to take so much that the acetaminophen in the medication would damage his liver. Thus, France correctly reasons that there is no serious risk of abuse with low doses of codeine in OTC combined medications. The only problem is that such low doses don't necessarily have much therapeutic effect, either, but presumably they help a little, and they don't hurt.

All medications in France come from pharmacies, even over-the-counter remedies that require no prescription. You cannot go into a supermarket and buy aspirin in France; you must go to a pharmacy. Pharmacies thus have a very lucrative monopoly, and since the number of pharmacies is also regulated as a function of population, competition is guaranteed to be low. And French people adore prescription meds just as much as Americans do—France is a very important market for drugs such as Valium and Prozac. When you enter a pharmacy, you often see little old ladies (the life expectancy in France is very long) at the counter with stacks of prescriptions for dozens of medications. In addition to the usual packaged forms familiar to Americans (pills, capsules, etc.), French drugs sometimes come in glass ampules that must be broken open (I guess that seems more magic and wonderful), and the French also like to package medications as suppositories, which I think is part of a more general anal preoccupation that is part of the culture (ick!).

Pharmacies are easy to find in Paris, as they seem to be on every street and invariably have a big green cross marking their location. The green crosses are usually lit and come in a seemingly endless variety of styles. The older ones just have green or blue neon flashing inside them, but new ones use green LEDs to display all sorts of flashing, abstract graphics, not to mention handy announcements on special offers, time and temperature, humidity and air pressure, geomagnetic activity, sun spots, and so on (okay, I exaggerate, but it does get pretty weird at times). I think all these electric green crosses must come from some giant Electric Green Cross catalog; pharmacies seem to compete to see who can have the biggest, brightest, and flashiest green cross outside.

In addition to drugs, over which pharmacies have a monopoly, they also sell all sorts of other health-related goods that can also be found elsewhere. The pharmacy prices are usually higher. And they sell products of questionable efficacy, including various diet aids, electronic muscle exercisers, vitamin blends, health candies and bars, and so on. The principle seems to be that as long as something doesn't actually hurt anyone, it can be sold, even if its effectiveness for its stated purpose remains unproven. These peripheral products are often advertised with elaborate displays in the windows of the pharmacy.

All pharmacies have to have an actual pharmacist running them, and they are not a part of other stores, although some are physically located in other stores (such as the drugstores on the Champs) for convenience. These pharmacists are very extensively trained. Not only are they good at recommending medications for specific purposes, but they can also identify mushrooms (because many French people like to gather wild mushrooms for the kitchen and need a way to weed out the dangerous ones) and fix minor injuries, like cuts and bruises. If you ask for something for, say, a cough, the pharmacist will immediately pull something off a shelf and suggest it, and may well continue to pull other things off the shelves until there's a little pile of different medications on the counter. He or she may also ask questions to determine exactly which product to recommend, and the pharmacist will be well informed on interactions, side effects, and dosage.

Pharmacies also sell veterinary medication for your kitty or puppy. It makes sense, since they are already handling medication for people, and a lot of pharmaceutical science is common to all species. They are also the source of things like vaccines—if you need a tetanus shot, you can get the vaccine itself at the pharmacy (with a prescription) and then have a qualified doctor or nurse give you the actual shot.

I've not been able to determine whether pharmacists may legally dispense prescription medications without an actual prescription, but I've seen it happen, so there must at least be a certain official tolerance of the practice in some cases. For example, if someone needs a certain prescription medication, like something for hypertension or some other drug with low abuse potential, and it's obvious that the person is a legitimate user of the medication who just doesn't happen to have the prescription handy, the pharmacist may sell it to him, anyway. Of course, if someone comes in asking for a thousand hydrocodone tablets and claims that his dog ate the prescription, he's going to leave empty-handed.

One way to tell if you're in a part of town occasionally frequented by drug addicts is to look at the ground around the entrance to a pharmacy. If you see lots of empty green boxes of Neo-Codion, you know that druggies occasionally pass through the area. Neo-Codion is an excellent cough suppressant available OTC that happens to contain some codeine, and opioid addicts who are in withdrawal will sometimes buy it to take the edge off their symptoms, downing an entire box of tablets or an entire bottle of syrup. It still won't relieve them of the need for a fix, but apparently it makes the wait somewhat less agonizing. Pharmacies won't sell codeine-containing products for this purpose, but there's a limit to how much they can do to control how people use the products once they are legitimately purchased—addicts may go from one pharmacy to another, buying a little bit at each of them.

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