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.

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