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.

Car Talk

France Télécom is still shafting me on my Internet connection, with speeds so low that I'm roughly in the same position as someone with an analog telephone modem from the 1980's. As a result, it's hard to upload posts and photos, but I do what I can.

Anyway, today, while going to the laundromat, I observed the aftermath of an accident near where I live. From what I could tell, a car had taken a left turn a little too sharply and had hit the small concrete median on which the traffic lights were mounted with the left front tire, and had flipped onto its side. I could only see the bottom of the car as it rested on its right side from where I was, but I presume the driver and any passengers had already left the car, as the police were milling about and there didn't seem to be any concern about injuries. I didn't have my camera with me (exceptionally), so I couldn't take a picture.

Oddly enough, this isn't the first time I've seen this type of accident. I saw the very same thing a few years ago at a different intersection, only I actually saw it happen. It was rather bizarre to see the car bang against the median and roll up onto its side. The driver simply climbed out. In both of these accidents, I've not lingered long enough to see how they get the car back upright. Just pushing it back wouldn't necessarily work, since it might hit the median again or the traffic light support.

People drive small, light cars in Paris, cars that easily flip in this way if they hit something on a turn. Indeed, the most popular car in Paris appears to be the Mercedes Smart car, an incredibly tiny little car that is greatly favored by Parisians because it can park just about anywhere, and parking is the worst part of driving in Paris. These Smarts are so small that they can park perpendicularly to the curb in some cases and still fit. They also don't use much fuel (gasoline is $8 per gallon in Paris). Unfortunately, being Mercedes cars, their prices are not as small as their size would suggest, but I suppose there is economy in operating them. They are very cute.

Walking along the Champs a few days ago, I stopped in some of the flagship stores of major auto manufacturers. Several of them have exposition showrooms on the avenue, and some of these are coupled with restaurants, so that you can eat overpriced and mediocre food and admire the automobiles at the same time. At one time, you could even buy a new car in these places, too, but I think the actual dealerships have moved out.

The main manufacturers present on the avenue these days are Citroën, Renault, Toyota, and Peugeot. Citroën has the wildest exhibition space, recently completed after a very long period of construction. It features cars on rotating platforms, one above the other, several stories high. I haven't figured out how they get the cars onto the platforms, as there are no obvious ramps or elevators, and the platforms are so numerous and high that I don't see how they could all be lowered to the ground. It makes one a bit dizzy, in any case. There are rally and Formula 1 cars on display, plus a concept car, plus recent car models, plus an old 2CV, once the mainstay of automobile travel in France. The decor is a garish red and white. I didn't see any sign of a restaurant. The same location once held a more conventional showroom (relatively speaking) with a Hippo restaurant (Hippo is a chain of restaurants specializing in beef and waitresses in short skirts).

Renault has a showroom across the street, with a restaurant on platforms suspended above the cars on display. They have recent models, plus some F1 and other racing cars, all in mint condition, of course, along with a very early Renault model. At one time, they had a museum with a retrospective display of many early models, but that seems to be gone now, or I missed it. They place a lot of emphasis on Formula 1, and they have toys and key chains and scale models to sell. I've eaten here in the past; it was not a memorable experience apart from the high price.

Not to be outdone, Toyota has a showroom as well, with a restaurant on the upper floor that I haven't tried (Japanese cuisine, apparently). They have a lot of concept cars on the ground floor. The current concept car looks like an unbaked loaf of bread, with little jet engine exhausts, early Batman style, in the back (not visible in my photo). The decor is relentlessly white. There's an almost-obligatory F1 car on the upper floor.

Finally, Peugeot has a showroom up the street, which I didn't visit on this occasion. It might still have a dealership inside, but I think all the dealerships have been moved out now. I almost bought a Peugeot 206 there, years ago, after I got my French license, but I settled on a cheaper and nicer Renault Clio instead. (I don't have any car at all these days.)

You'd think that with the world's finest mass-transit system, Parisians wouldn't need cars—and indeed, about 80% of Parisians don't even have a license, much less a car. However, someone is still buying and driving cars in the city, including an ever-increasing number of totally useless and wasteful SUVs. The current mayor's vigorous attempts to discourage driving (adding more bicycle and bus lanes and reducing lanes for private cars dramatically) don't seem to have much effect.

I must admit that I'm not really interested in cars most of the time. I never went through that car-adoring phase that seems to afflict many boys sometime after puberty. Cars are just transportation, most of the time, although I suppose some of them are more fun to drive than others. My attitude is more typical of the average female consumer than the average male consumer … that is, I care mostly about fuel economy, reliability, and total cost of ownership. I don't even care about the color, usually; whatever is in stock is fine.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shafted by France Télécom

I've been unable to put anything in this blog for several days because of the extreme slowness of my Internet connection. In theory, it's an eight-megabit ADSL connection, or at least that's how France Télécom (disguised as Orange) advertises it. Eight megabits corresponds to about 400 pages of typed text per second. However, that claim is largely fraudulent. For the past few days, the real-world speed of my connection has only been about 189 bits per second, which is roughly the speed of teletypes used during World War II, and it's 42,000 times slower than the advertised speed.

Customer service at France Télécom is incompetent. They appear to be minimum-wage non-specialists who work from simple scripts that tell them what to ask customers and what to answer (I used to do technical support, I know how it's usually done). If your problem isn't on the script, they don't know what to do, since they don't actually know anything about computers or networks. To them, everything is a problem with your modem (the little box that connects you to the Internet) or your computer. They like to send out technicians to look at your box, even when there's nothing wrong with it, because they can bill you $125 for the visit.

As far as I can tell (and remember, I've been working with computers since I was 12 years old), France Télécom deliberately undersizes the network, so that it doesn't have the capacity to deliver the speeds that they promise. With zillions of customers downloading for hours or days at a time (pirated software, pirated DVDs, and so on), the network is overloaded, and there isn't enough capacity to support everyone. There may be configuration errors, too, as I see strange things when I do traceroutes on my connection. Nobody in customer service understands this, and nobody in customer service seems to have any connection to the people at France Télécom who do understand it, and so there's no point in talking to customer service, as they cannot help, and they don't talk to the people who can.

It takes several hours to display a Web page right now (I'm not exaggerating). A lot of my e-mail is being lost because the data moves too slowly and the e-mail servers give up, or simply because a lot of the data is thrown away and the servers give up when they see no response. Most Web pages today require dozens of accesses to many different sites, and so they may never display at all. If my connection actually ran at the advertised speed, all of this would be virtually instantaneous. And I know that my line does run at that speed, because France Télécom has tested it, and my central office (the place where all the telephone equipment serving my line is located) is right across the street! So it's upstream on their network. But nobody in their customer service knows what "upstream" or "network" means. And this is supposed to be a "professional" subscription; I'm afraid to think what customer service is like for their "consumer" subscriptions. What a bunch of incompetents!

The problem would be easy to fix, but FT apparently doesn't want to spend money to fix it, or the people who could fix it don't know about it because it's impossible to get in touch with them (customer service is a dead end).

Unfortunately this is typical of technical support at many companies, and since I've worked in technical support, I know what the actual reasons are behind the scenes. I'm thinking of writing an essay on it. It boils down to greed and incompetence, though, in every case.

I'm looking right now at the results of the speed test I ran ten minutes ago. I'm getting 33 kbps, out of an advertised 8000 kbps. That's 240 times slower than the speed that France Télécom brags about, clearly slow enough to count as fradulent advertising. And yet it's 170 times faster than it was this afternoon (it's a little past 5 AM now). If I'm willing to wait 5-10 minutes, I can see a Web page. I hope this blog post makes it through.

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