Saturday, August 30, 2008

Heat Wave No. 45,183

Hot weather has afflicted Paris again. Today was hot and humid, in contrast to the past few days which have been seasonal.

I had to drag myself outside to take clothing to the laundromat—Saturday night is my usual laundry night. I bought some milk and yogurt while the clothing was in the machine. When the clothing was done and dry, I came home. My creaky A/C keeps the temperature in the apartment slightly lower than that outside, thank goodness, and every little bit helps.

Despite the heat, people were out and about, this being Saturday night. The terraces of the restaurants are always full on Saturdays (and nearly so the rest of the week). The conditions inside restaurants on hot days are often stifling, which encourages people to eat outside. I live close to an area with lots of cinemas and restaurants and theaters, and it's usually busy in the evening no matter what the weather. I would have been tempted to go for more of a walk myself if the weather were cooler, but I get no enjoyment from an outdoor sauna, so I plan to spend my time flying (in simulation) and doing other things at home.

It's supposed to be cooler tomorrow.

Ordinary Eating in Paris

Prices are going up everywhere, but they were never low to begin with in Paris.

Case in point: The things I ate yesterday. I had a can of Coca-Cola, for $1.47. For lunch, I had a ham and cheese sandwich—several slices of Swiss cheese and several slices of ham in a tiny, mass-produced roll of bread—for $6.32. In the evening, I had a large cup of ice cream for $9.29, and a vanilla Frappucino for $7.94, both because it was hot outside.

So that's $25.02, just to eat a few snacks during the day (notice that I didn't eat a proper breakfast or dinner). Unfortunately, that is typical for Paris.

You might say that I could eat at home and save money. That's partially true. If I fast during the entire day, I can eat only at home, although that tends to give me a headache. Even then, however, the rock bottom I can eat for—skipping breakfast—is about $10.50. That's still about $320 a month for food, minimum.

Food prices have gone up a great deal in the past few years. After housing, food is the largest expense associated with living in Paris.

I used to be able to buy a plain hamburger at McDonald's for $1.40 (the cheapest item on the menu, with about 280 kcal), but they raised the price of that, too.

Actually eating in a restaurant, of course, is much more expensive, typically $60-$75 a day.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Problem with Smoking

Early this year, France outlawed smoking in all public places. All the smoking rooms became illegal and had to be removed. Unfortunately, the French themselves are still heavily addicted to tobacco, and smokers who go through several packs a day are still legion.

The combination of a complete ban and a population that still includes many heavy smokers has produced a strange phenomenon. Pass any large place of business in Paris, at any time during the working day, and you'll see a crowd of people puffing away on their cigarettes in front of the main entrance. The bigger the building, the more smokers it will have in front, all day long. You have to walk through them to get in or out of the building. Seeing the number of them busy indulging their addictions and multiplying by the number of hours in the business day, one gets a feel for how much money and time these people are wasting for their employers as they take endless breaks for a fix.

If you really want to see this extended to almost a comical degree, go to La Défense, the huge high-rise business district just outside Paris, within sight of the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe. Buildings that accommodate thousands of people invariably have crowds of well-dressed office workers in front of them, all with cigarettes in their hands. If they were sitting on the sidewalk with needles in their arms, there's be a huge outcry about it—but since so many people in France are tobacco addicts, it apparently is allowed to slide. Still, it's money out the window, and I think it makes a poor impression to have a band of toxicomanes (drug addicts) milling about in front of the entrance to a chic skyscraper.

As it happens, the heaviest smokers tend to be young women. It's quite disappointing to see otherwise beautiful women, barely out of their teens (or sometimes still in their teens), walking down the avenues puffing on cigarettes. With the overall life expectancy in France, they're likely to spend the latter decades of their lives gasping for breath as the consequences of all those years of heavy smoking start to show. It's like the United States … with the clock turned back by 50 years.

Warwalkers Afoot

Lately I've noticed people with backpacks and laptops sitting in very unusual places outdoors while using their computers, such as doorways and window sills. It didn't take long for it to dawn on me what these people are doing: they're warwalkers—people who walk around with their computers looking for unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots so that they can use someone else's Internet connection for free (and somewhat anonymously).

These warwalkers look like American college students and are quite brazen, since they sit in windows and doors right on the street. I saw one sitting in the doorway of a closed restaurant (I've seen him there many times, it must be his favorite spot), and another one sitting in the window sill of a private residence. I assume the proprietors were on vacation, or they were incredibly unobservant (I'd notice someone sitting in my window).

One wonders exactly what these people are doing on the Internet that requires them to anonymously steal Internet bandwidth instead of just going to one of the thousands of places in the city that offer legitimate Wi-Fi access.

I also wonder if they shoplift and steal electricity as well. Most of them look innocent if you don't realize what they are doing.

This is why I don't use a wireless network at home.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

iPhone Fever

The United States isn't the only country in which people camp out in front of stores to buy new gadgets. I've seen it in Paris, too, alas!

When the latest version of Apple's iPhone came out a few weeks ago, the big Orange store on the Champ (Orange is the operator that provides services for the iPhone in France) had a line of campers in front of it. I don't understand that kind of fascination.

Whatever its origin, though, this fascination is good for the operator and good for the manufacturer. Whoever said that Apple and Orange don't go together?

Behind Apple there is Steve Jobs, a charismatic and mercurial technology visionary, and behind Orange there is … France Télécom, a gigantic, slothful bureaucracy that for endless decades held the telephone monopoly in France. The latter provides good-quality but overpriced telecommunications services, and it has some of the worst customer service imaginable. Truly, apples and oranges! The Orange logo (in orange and black), always reminds me of Halloween (hmm). With FT/Orange you usually get reliable service, but if something breaks, getting it fixed is like a ride through a novel by Kafka.

Apple works hard to make sure that nothing is ever out of stock, but they've failed with the new iPhone, as it is out of stock in most Orange stores (possibly even the flagship store on the Champs, although I haven't checked there).

The iPod Touch, a gadget that is just like the iPhone 3G but without the phone function, is available. I've seen it in stores at only a few times the manufacturer's suggested retail price. I guess stores are willing to gouge if they can find willing gougees (and Apple groupies are among the most willing around).

I'm glad I'm not into gadgets like this.

Sixty-Four Years Ago Today

Monday marked 64 years since the liberation of Paris during the Second World War, on August 25, 1944—more specifically, it marked the surrender of Paris by the Germans to the Allies (there had been fighting for days before this).

Today, just about everyone who might actually remember that event is dead, and those who are alive are 80 years old or beyond for the most part. It's pretty much in the history books now, but there are still traces of what went on around the city today. Most of those traces are in the form of plaques that mention some person (usually a young man) who was killed on a certain spot during the Liberation. These are not to be confused with other plaques that mark places where people were shot by the Germans (particularly the Gestapo). A lot of these plaques of both kinds are in the Latin Quarter, where there was considerable fighting, but they can be found in all sorts of places.

Despite the considerable time that has elapsed since the Liberation, you still see flowers placed near these plaques, at least once a year on the anniversary of the event, and often at other times. Sometimes it's the city government that provides flowers, other times it is private organizations or even individuals. Some of those nice old ladies that you see filling eight-page prescriptions at the pharmacies were teenagers at the time of the Liberation, and spent their time indoors and frightened as bullets flew about outside their windows during those fateful few days.

I'm not the type to get misty-eyed over dusty historical battles, but it is interesting to see actual direct evidence of them in the present. The United States was fortunate in that it wasn't really attacked directly in any significant way in WWII (except for Pearl Harbor, and that was a military target), but here the capital city itself was involved in the conflict, and it probably would have been bombed to the ground if France had not surrendered to the Germans. Contrary to popular belief, the French were not cowards, but they were still reeling from an incredibly bloody First World War fought largely on their soil, and the prospects of help from their allies were slim at the time, so there wasn't much choice but to recognize their disadvantaged position and give up. Surrender saved a lot of lives, but subsequent deportations cost a lot of lives as well (and some French people were extremely cooperative with the Germans in facilitating that, far beyond what the Germans demanded—these cases of eager collaboration with the Germans are still a sore subject with the French).

Anyway, there are still a few ceremonies and other events to commemorate the Liberation, even though just about all the participants were born long after the war ended. I don't bother to look them up as I'm not into military stuff.

Nespresso 1 / Amex 0

Up near the Opera, I was very surprised to see that the venerable old office of American Express on the rue Scribe is being converted into … a Nespresso store. Apparently Amex is keeping a small office next door, but the big corner entrance now leads into a Nespresso outlet that is under construction. It's amazing because that Amex office has been there for ages, and it is (was) something of an icon. Nestlé hasn't torn down the Amex sign over the door (yet?), but the rest is being completely rebuilt.

Nestlé seems to be pulling out all the stops to sell its Nespresso machines and cartridges. It's very obviously a variation on the razor-blade model: sell the razor for almost nothing and then make your huge profits on the blades. In this case, sell the machines at a reasonable (but not cheap) price, then make your billions on the proprietary coffee cartridges that people must buy for the machines. It's as transparent as the giant picture windows at the front of the store, but people still go for it.

This store that vanquished Amex is big, but not as big as the gigantic Nespresso store on the Champs, with George Clooney half-smiling from every window. That store is comparable to the extremely chichi and huge Louis Vuitton store down the avenue. The money Nestlé must be spending to push their Nespressio line … the mind boggles. It's just coffee!

Then again, if Starbucks can put a coffee shop every 300 feet in Paris today (and yes, they have one on the Champs, and several others nearby), coffee must be big business, at least this week. There were no Starbucks here a few years ago; now they seem as common as McDonalds. At least Starbucks offers a very tasty vanilla Frappucino that is not polluted by the taste of coffee, although it's extremely expensive (as it must be in order to maintain 95% margins). When I can save up for it, I like to buy one occasionally, especially in summer because the Frappucinos are very cold (as they should be, since they are 99% crushed ice).

It's getting warmer again; high temps predicted for days to come. I hope the weather reports are wrong—they often are.

Visitors from Afar

Today I saw people crowded around some brightly colored Lamborghinis on the Champs. I'm not interested in cars so I didn't bother with these, but I did pass one of them while trying to cross the street. It was in the way of traffic and pedestrians, flagrantly and illegally parked. I glanced at the plates of this one as I tried to squeeze past it in the crosswalk, and I was utterly unsurprised to see that they were Middle Eastern.

At this time of year, about 90% of the clientele in the most overpriced hotels of the city is Middle Eastern and Arab. I don't know exactly why they like Paris, but it is probably for much the same reasons that draw the other 25 million visitors per year to the city. The climate is certainly much more moderate here in summer than in the Middle East, so that's a factor (we've had increasing heat over the past few years, but still nothing like Middle Eastern deserts, except in 2003). And Paris has a reputation as a “sin city” of sorts, at least relative to many Arab countries. Arabs may come here to escape the oppressive restrictions that they endure at home, at least temporarily. Many of the women still walk around completely clothed in black, however; even here, most of the freedom is for the men.

Of course, most Arabs can't afford to fly to Paris (with their cars) and stay at a five-star hotel at €20,000 per night for a week, but a substantial minority of them are quite wealthy and don't have any trouble paying for such trips. Some of them are nice, and some of them aren't. There is a lot of culture clash that can cause problems, although large and expensive hotels are accustomed to dealing with them. They bring in a lot of welcome money during periods when tourists from other areas are less numerous, so nobody objects.

One of the “palace” hotels near the Champs is the Plaza-Athenée. Its staff always takes care to park the most expensive cars out in front, so as to create the impression that all the guests are megawealthy celebrities. I don't know much about cars, but I see a fairly predictable assortment of expensive cars out in front: Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces, and even a Mercedes or two for the peasants among the guests. Like most of the hotels in this category, the PA has a reputation to uphold, although it seems to have more of a car-show mentality than the others.

I once was walking past this hotel and found myself with dozens of photographers in front of me, shooting tons of pictures. I naturally realized that I wasn't the target, and then I heard someone say, in American English, “Have you had enough yet?” behind me. I assume there was some sort of Yankee celebrity behind me, although I never bothered to turn around and look. I finally squeaked past the paparazzi (I hate that word, since it's often applied incorrectly to anyone with a nice camera, but in this case there really were a few paparazzi among the photographers), and I never found out who had been behind me.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Summer Vacation Ends

It's the fourth and last week of August, and Parisians are starting to return from their summer holidays. The traffic is already much worse than it was just 48 hours ago.

Once upon a time, Parisians all took their summer vacations outside the city at almost exactly the same time and for exactly the same duration. The city became a ghost town, with most businesses closed for the entire month of August. Fortunately, those days are gone. There are still many Parisians who go out of town on vacation in August, but they've learned to stagger their holidays a bit more, with some taking off in July and others in September, so the city is not completely deserted at any time these days. Some small businesses still close for an extended period in August, but larger businesses stay open, and the city continues to move.

There is less smog during the summer vacation season. And much less traffic, of course. One sees fewer Parisians out and about, and most of the people walking around outside in the city are tourists. The quietest period seems to be from mid-July to mid-August. So today, on August 25, lots of people are returning to the City of Light to resume their everyday working lives.

I don't take vacations out of town. For one thing, I cannot afford to stop working, even briefly, despite the fact that I'm theoretically entitled to six weeks of paid vacation (the legal minimum). Besides, I moved to Paris because I like Paris, and it's easier and cheaper to live here than it is to visit here. Now that I'm here, I'm always at my vacation destination, so why go anywhere else? Even at times when I have been able to afford to take off work, I've still remained in Paris during vacation.

The past few days have been mercifully cool, which puts me in a good mood. It is forecast to return to another heat wave tomorrow, however.

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