Friday, December 25, 2009

Poverty for the holidays

Well, Santa hasn't brought me anything but bills this year, as usual. Paris is a great city in which to live—even when you are poor—but it's even more fun to live in when you are rich (at least as far as my fading memory goes).

This year I'm behind on rent, utilities, food, etc., as usual. Or actually, I'm usually up to date on rent, since I pay that first, but this year I'm behind on everything. In part that's because the company that manages my building shafted me this summer with a fraudulent demand for payment, but also it's because my employer is trying to starve me. The weird thing is that I have a job, and yet I'm making less than some people make on welfare or unemployment benefits. My employer doesn't care what financial hardships it imposes on its employees, as long as they are abused in a way that makes maximum money. I wonder how my company's clients would feel if they knew that the “professionals” working with them can't afford socks or toothpaste.

Anyway, I don't pay any attention to holidays. There are days when I work (and for which I'm paid, even though it's minimum wage), and days when I don't work (and don't get paid). Other than that, I don't observe any distinctions … although some holidays are especially inconvenient because you have time off but not much opportunity to use it, since everything is closed.

Moving right along … the numbers say that tourism in Paris has actually done just fine this year, despite the economic depression started by rich, greedy bankers in the U.S. There are still quite a few people in the world with the money to go on vacation, and Paris is the world's number-one vacation destination city. This hasn't helped me very much, but I do see about as many tourists right now as I had seen before the depression. Even American tourists have only slightly declined. I guess it cheers me up a little bit to see that not everyone is struggling to pay the rent or buy groceries.

My main holiday activity has been dragging whatever personal belongings I can find to the eBay store to be auctioned off. I don't have much since the government seized almost all of it six years ago, but I've been looking around for anything that might sell for something on eBay. Unfortunately, the store only accepts things that are worth at least €30, and a lot of the stuff I've found isn't worth that much.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Strolling on the right side of the tracks

So I went for a stroll in the chichi Sixteenth on the way home—where the Good People live. It's one of the most expensive districts in Paris, along with the Seventh. The Seventh seems to be somewhat more popular with retirees, but the Sixteenth has a lot of residents who are still working.

By “Good People,” I don't necessarily mean people who are nice or fundamentally noble in any way, I simply mean that they have certain characteristics in common. They are fluent in French, they buy their major appliances—instead of carrying them through broken store windows—and they don't do illegal drugs (although they may be addicted to ethanol, nicotine, and prescription narcotics),. They also remained in school past their teens, and they have good jobs, which they've obtained by knowing people in the right places. They don't have criminal records, although they may be cheating on their taxes and standing knee-deep in malversation.

Thus, they don't kill each other or set fire to cars or sing rap songs about shooting cops and beating women. However, they are not all sweetness and light, either—the French invented snootiness and snobbery, and both are widespread in the Sixteenth. Still, it's a nice part of town, with nice stores, safe streets, and polite people. It's only slightly out of my way when going to or from school, so on this particular occasion, with a bit of extra time, I decided to walk through it. The residents are not necessarily keen on intruders who do not dress fashionably and haven't been appointed to lucrative sinecures by the old-boy network, but they don't say anything.

When strolling through this part of town, I usually start at the Étoile (the roundabout where the Arc de Triomphe lives), and go down the avenue Victor Hugo. This is a shopping street, with a lot of clothing shops, especially at the upper (Étoile) end. My favorite stop is the Häagen-Dazs on the place Victor Hugo. I'm not a special fan of Häagen-Dazs, but it has no local competition, so that's where I stop for ice cream, if budget permits. If I'm pressed for time, I then turn down towards the Trocadéro, but if I have more time, as I did in this case, I continue on down the avenue towards some other shopping streets. There's a nice McDonalds restaurant further down the avenue, although I don't often eat there. One of the nice things about this restaurant chain in Paris is that every location is decorated differently, and the one on this avenue is no exception.

There are few pedestrian shopping galleries in this area, unlike some other parts of town, but there's one at number 111 on the avenue Victor Hugo. The gallery contains an eclectic mix of businesses with exceptionally bland signs identifying them (particularly when you contrast the signs with the architecture), ranging from a shop that produces dental prostheses to a “cell-phone clinic” to the Au Bal Masqué costume shop. The gallery is old, with a wrought-iron mezzanine and a frosted-glass roof. It's not usually interesting enough for me to step in and shop around, but the view from the entrance is charming.

Which reminds me (although I'm not sure why): Another thing that is almost totally lacking from the Sixteenth is sanisettes. I suppose the Good People don't want filthy hoi polloi gravitating towards free public facilities—“ça nuit à la bienséance”—and would prefer that they just hold it until they can crawl to some other part of town.

A little further down the avenue is the avenue de Montespan, although it's really just a small street, not an avenue. It's quite pretty … but it's a private drive. Probably populated by lots of Good People who don't want any contact with Ungood People.

(I should mention in passing that, while Google Maps has some excellent, recent, high-quality views of Paris, sometimes you'll find things blacked out. That's usually because one of the Good People with a rigid endoscope firmly lodged in his rectum has objected to himself or his car or his dog or his dog's déchets being visible on Google, despite their presence on public right-of-way, and has profited from the absurdity of French IP image law to compel Google to remove the view.)

Further on, after crossing the broad avenue Henri Martin, I walked along the dismantled railway that winds briefly through part of the Sixteenth. It is sunken below ground level but open, and it looks a bit like a tropical jungle. I've seen evidence that some homeless people are living down there. I imagine they have considerable privacy, despite their location in the midst of a densely populated city, since they are well below ground level, and they are hidden by all that foliage, and it's very hard to actually get down there (and a bit spooky to contemplate). And besides, Marie-Chantal would be racked by a strong frisson of disgust at the mere thought of encountering a person sans domicile fixe.

It's rather odd, with this near-rainforest in a huge ditch in the middle of the street (or perhaps between two streets, depending on how you look at it), and these wonderful residential buildings on either side. I suppose it beats a median paved with colored gravel. Only a part of this serpentine succession of streets has the jungle; much of it is paved over today. There's a bit more jungle further north, but I had bypassed that part earlier in my stroll. Line D of the RER somehow finds its way onto this path under the paved parts up north, but I'm not sure how. The open areas are abandoned and overgrown with vegetation and very incongruous in a city where bare dirt and grass are rarer than one might think, although I like the look of these mini-jungles … from a safe distance, of course.

Reaching the chaussée de la Muette, I turned east and headed down the rue de Passy, which is a nice shopping street. There's even a shopping center of sorts on this street, called Passy Plaza (Passy is the name of the neighborhood). One doesn't see many large shopping centers in Paris because there just isn't room, but there are some tasteful, small ones, and this is one of them. There's also a more traditional indoor market, with a very dreary 1930s facade, aptly called the Marché de Passy; markets like this often specialize in fresh food, whereas a place like Passy Plaza will be more along the American lines of shops and stores with clothing and things, most of which will be chain stores. The small shopping centers of this kind in Paris often notably lack identifiable anchor tenants—all the tenants are more or less equal.

When I got to the end of the rue de Passy, I just hopped on Line 6 of the Métro and went home. I've spent a lot more time on the Left Bank, so there wasn't much interest in walking through it, and it was getting late. Passy is the spot where Line 6 comes up above ground on its way from the Étoile terminus, and you get a nice view of the river and the Eiffel Tower as you cross the river to the next station. You also get a look into lots of people's apartments as you move further down the line. I guess the people who live there figure that nobody lingers long enough to be a nuisance, so they just leave curtains and shutters open. In the evening I'm surprised by how many apartments glow with the light of a computer screen.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rudeness in the Métro

While taking a trip in the Métro to the north side of town (too long a walk for the time I had), I observed a group of people heckling and harassing a young woman with a drum. She had a large drum on a little hand cart, not protected by any kind of case, with a colorful design around the edge. The people I observed harassed and ridiculed her continuously all the way to the platform. I was amazed. Normally, you'd expect people behaving in this way to be clueless, angry young males, but in this case they were all “adults,” at least in a legal sense—in fact, two of them had gray hair!

It's unusual to see people being so mean. They weren't Parisian, as far as I could tell. They were made bold by numbers, I suppose, and perhaps by alcohol, since such a large percentage of the population in France keeps a steady level of ethanol in the blood during waking hours. Still, it was exceptional and rather depressing. The woman with the drum was obviously unhappy, but there wasn't much to be done. It's not strictly illegal to make fun of someone, I suppose.

Their provincial status might have had something to do with it, if indeed they were from outside the Périph.’ People tend to be bold when in groups and far from home. And people from the provinces don't necessarily know the rules for the Big City. They might also be from some low-level scum social class where abusing strangers is the norm. In any case, their behavior was inexcusable.

Fortunately, the woman with the drum got off at a different station from the losers, so she managed to escape them.

I continued up to my destination, my favorite Indian grocery store near the Gare du Nord, where I spent 13 precious euro buying malted milk and psyllium husk, both of which are hard to find in Paris outside Indian groceries. I like malted milk and cream, and the psyllium boosts the fiber content of the sinful malted drinks I make with these ingredients. It's cheap and it tastes good. I don't know what effect it has health-wise, and I can't really say that I care.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Versailles, again

I went to Versailles recently, with visitors in tow. I haven't visited Versailles on my own in years—it doesn't change much, so it's not like you have to see the “latest” Versailles each season. However, I do see it a lot with visitors, particularly in summertime. This visit was exceptional because it was in the winter.

Winter in Versailles is somewhat different from summer. The palace and buildings look the same, but they are comfortable inside, instead of stiflingly hot and humid and stale as they are in summer. This makes visiting the palace much more pleasant. There are also fewer people, although the tourists never go away entirely. At least the crowds are not unmanageable, and you don't feel you're going to be trapped and crushed while walking through the palace. Finally, the temperature outside is nice, too (read: cool). Summertime is exhausting in the gardens. The only real disadvantage is that the gardens aren't as green as they are in summer, and the statues outside are covered to prevent water and freezing temperatures from damaging them. (All the statues look the same to me, but each one is an individual work of art—the royals did not buy their sculptures at Wal-Mart.)

We took both the lengthy guided tour of the private apartments of the royals with a museum employee, and the self-guided tour of the Grands Appartements. The latter I know well, the former I don't often take because of time constraints. We took the English version of the guided tour, which isn't as informative as the French version, since the guides are typically much more fluent in French, but it's still interesting and lasts for about 90 minutes.

We passed through the Hall of Mirrors right at magic hour (magic hour being the hour just after sunrise or just before sunset when natural light looks especially flattering). The light was great and I got a few nice photos of the grounds outside, as well as the room itself. There were far fewer tourists than in summer, which helped, and the temperature was low enough to keep people from passing out, whereas in summertime many people just want to get out as quickly as possible after seeing the Hall of Mirrors.

I've seen most of the palace before, of course. The decor is elaborate and beautiful, albeit a bit busy for my tastes. There is very little furniture to see, however, since most of it was sold (legally) during the Revolution. Buying it back from whoever owns it now isn't always an option, and even when it is, it's expensive. One piece of furniture that the government did buy back at auction, a sort of small dresser, cost $15 million! Not exactly IKEA prices, I'm afraid.

On this tour I did see one of the royal toilets that I had not seen before. There's one on the tour that is a flush toilet of sorts, and another (the new one I saw this time) that isn't a flush toilet—meaning that a servant had to empty it by hand (ick!). Both were cleaner than the handful of filthy public toilets that are at Versailles—although one new set of toilets in the Petit Trianon were amazingly clean by French standards. Anyway, the toilets are kind of fascinating in a way, because you never hear much about how the king and his entourage went to the bathroom back then. It's kind of like movies and TV shows, where no character ever uses a toilet unless it's part of the plot.

The guided tour is much more interesting than the walk-through, self-guided tour, but it is only available at certain hours. Although furniture is scarce even on the guided tour, there are a few nice pieces, such as a huge clock that will remain correct for dates up to the year 9999 (Louis XVI in particular was very fond of gadgets). Versailles also still has the king's private desk, which he used for secret stuff—it was never auctioned off by the revolutionaries. One or two rooms are almost fully furnished, and some of the furniture isn't half-bad, compared to the very over-the-top decor elsewhere in just about every room.

The guided tour also shows you the opera, which was built entirely of wood for one of the king's son's weddings, but was retained because it was so handy. It served for both performances and parties, and is still standing … and it's still used for performances.

We were also lucky on the self-guided tour because it included a temporary exposition of Louis the Various art, some of which had not been publicly displayed since the royals were still alive. It was very interesting, although not very well ventilated. Unfortunately photos were not allowed because of the poor condition of some of the art (paintings and tapestries, mainly).

Anyway, the palace tours were nice. Then came the gardens. You need a lot of stamina and good walking shoes to tackle the gardens. I usually skip almost all that with visitors, but a few want to go out and explore. The Queen's Domain—with the Petit Trianon, the Grand Trianon, and Marie-Antoinette's little park and faux village where she played pool and partied with her friends—is especially interesting, although now you have to pay to visit it, whereas it used to be free. You can spend hours in the gardens.

We managed to see her Disneyesque play hamlet, plus part of the Petit Trianon, and by then fatigue was setting in. Altogether this was a 7.5-hour visit to Versailles. I've done Versailles with other visitors (particularly large tour groups) in 40 minutes flat. Needless to say, we leave out a few things on the group tours. But not everyone has seven hours to spend at Versailles, and, more importantly, not everyone is interested in spending seven hours at Versailles. I usually don't even suggest Versailles to people who are staying in Paris for less than a week, as there are many things to see in Paris already, and Versailles tends to consume at least half a day and often a full day unless the visit is very carefully orchestrated and very condensed.

Versailles is highly deficient in restrooms and places to eat. I did manage to find a pasta salad and some banana cake, which were quite good, although there's no place to sit down to eat them.

My feet were a bit sore when I got home, which is quite unusual. However, I spent a lot of time standing rather than walking, and while I can walk for enormous distances without my feet objecting (thanks in part to excellent hiking boots), standing seems to make them tired fairly quickly.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Attack of the Eiffelians

Tonight while walking home I saw the Eiffel Tower partially shrouded in fog, which isn't unusual. For some reason it looked like a giant alien spaceship looming over the city from where I was, which is a bit unusual. My imagination must have been especially sharp tonight.

When the weather is like this, it's useless to go to the summit of the tower. All you see is mist, and it's cold and damp. The searchlights at the top of the tower managed to pierce the mist a bit, but most of the time the summit itself was completely hidden. Once in a while it would briefly peek out of the mist.

My aviation-oriented brain notes that this would be a full overcast at 1000 feet AGL.

If you know Paris really well, you'll be able to figure where I was when I took the picture.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another leak!

There have been too many unpleasant coincidences lately. It's very eerie.

Only a few days after getting the mysterious leak in the kitchen fixed—the one that appeared simultaneously with the visit of the water-meter man—another leak appeared in the bathroom, in the pipe that leads into the toilet. The meter man had never been in the bathroom, so it could not have been his fault. I had not touched any of the plumbing in question, so it wasn't my fault, either. And yet there it was. At first it was only a drop every two seconds, but it accelerated rapidly, and soon was filling my 5-liter bucket (the same one that I had sacrificed only days earlier for the other leak) within an hour or two.

After asking several people for advice, since I cannot afford a plumber and don't know anything about plumbing myself, I decided to try to fix the leak. It should be simple, or so I was told, since I only had to unscrew something, put in a new washer, and then screw it back together.

I went to the BHV, which has tons of stuff for do-it-yourself fanatics (like Samaritaine, in the days before LVMH destroyed it). In the plumbing section I located a little pack of washers of all different sizes (I didn't know what size I needed), and I got a small wrench and some Teflon tape. I already have one wrench, but I suspected I'd need two (I was right).

Returning home, I gathered my resolve and entered the Lair of the Leak, after turning off the water at the meter (something I had learned to do the hard way quite recently). I had to guess at which parts of the fittings I needed to fix were mobile, and which were not. Fortunately, my guess was correct, and within a few seconds I had separated the toilet tank fitting from the supply fitting. The fiber washers inside came apart in my hands. (I don't understand why the French have such an affection for crummy fiber washers). I found two new washers in my pack that looked the same, and installed them. Then I screwed everything back together. I turned on the water, and sure enough, the leak had stopped.

I accidentally tilted the flush mechanism inside the toilet tank a bit as I turned the supply-side fixture, so I had to move it back to the vertical. Later on, I discovered that this seems to have greatly reduced the incidence of the flush button on the tank getting stuck and letting water run endlessly through the tank and bowl—a problem I've had ever since my neighbor broke a hole through my wall and knocked chunks of plaster into the toilet tank. Now it hardly ever gets stuck. I don't know exactly what changed, but it's nice to see an occasional sliver of good luck separate from the tree trunks of bad luck that I usually have.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Real vandals, no ghosts

Although it hasn't been covered much by the media, the Paris Catacombs were vandalized more than a month ago (mid-September). Someone managed to sneak into the underground galleries during the night on a weekend, and did a huge amount of damage, tearing out the centuries-old bones from their neat stacks and sculptures, smashing them, and tossing them onto the floor, “with a pickaxe” according to some reports. The Catacombs will thus be closed at least until the end of the year, so that things can be cleaned up. Some of the damage is permanent, of course, since the bones cannot be replaced.

These vandals apparently did not enter the Catacombs through the official entrances … which requires some explanation. There are some 300 km of underground galleries under Paris, many of them formerly serving as stone quarries for the buildings above. (I'll refrain from commenting on the wisdom of quarrying stone for buildings from locations right beneath their foundations, apart from pointing out that the practice was stopped nearly two centuries ago.) There are innumerable entrances into this underground maze, the vast majority of which are closed and locked by the government. However, some people make a hobby of breaking into the network and exploring it, which is both illegal and dangerous. There are no lights, there are many areas that are underwater or otherwise hazardous, it's very easy to get lost … and nobody can hear you scream.

It seems that the vandals broke into one of these locked entrances and then somehow made their way into the very small portion of the galleries that make up the public Catacombs that are normally open to tourists during the day.

The public portion of the Catacombs consists of a clean, relatively roomy, and relatively well-lit path some nine stories underground, running for 1.7 kilometers (more than a mile). Security gates with locks block every detour from the one path open to tourists, preventing people from wandering off or getting lost (voluntarily or involuntarily). The vandals got past this in order to do their deeds. The Catacombs are protected and locked at night, but it's only reasonable security, not bank-vault security—the possibility that someone would break in and try to destroy them out of sheer malice had apparently not occurred to the authorities, which is somewhat understandable.

I suppose that now many of the careful stacks and sculptures of bones respectfully created by those who originally carted the bones into the Catacombs will never be the same now. I suspect that they went after the most famous areas, too. We'll see when the Catacombs open again.

In the movies, a ghostly hand would probably reach out from the bones, grab the vandals’ ankles, and hold them until they were dead and transformed into bones themselves, in retribution for the desecration of the site. Unfortunately, in real life, nothing happens to stop them, so they just make a shambles of the entire site with impunity. The police have no leads.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Christmas in October, hijinks at La Défense, and poverty

The weather has been cooler lately, which is fine with me, although a few days have gotten relatively warm, in the sense that my apartment has overheated. If it's 64° F outside, the temperature may rise uncomfortably to the mid-70s or beyond in the apartment, thanks to the aggressive heating system of the building, which has now been turned on.

With the days growing shorter, I sometimes walk to school before dawn, and sometimes I see pretty pictures, like the one shown here.

Anyway, October had barely started this year when workers began putting lights up on the Champs-Élysées—the world's most famous avenue™—for Christmas. Granted, it takes quite some time to put up lights on all the trees of the avenue, especially at French speeds, but that still seems awfully early. It seems like they were just taking them down yesterday. I like Christmas lights, though.

Last year, a national celebrity was hired to ceremonially turn the lights on. As I recall, it was Marion Cotillard, a French actress who won an Oscar for her performance in the title role of a French film about Édith Piaf, La môme. Because the ceremony is a touristy thing, the officials who arrange it have to try to find someone in France who has at least some slim chance of being recognizable outside the country, and last year, Cotillard was an obvious choice, having been one of only a tiny handful of French performers who have actually won Oscars since the award was created. This year, I don't know whom they will ask to flip the ceremonial switch. Most people outside France wouldn't even recognize the French president, much less any other celebrity from the country. And if Édith Piaf herself, one of France's biggest historical claims to fame, returned from the grave to turn on the lights, I don't think anyone would recognize her, either. But they might manage to get eight or nine seconds of airtime on CNN, if they are lucky, and if they turn on the lights on a slow day.

In other news … there was a bit of an uproar over the candidacy of the French president's son, Jean Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, for a juicy position as the head of the EPAD, the organization that oversees development of La Défense, a suburb of Paris that is one of the most prestigious business districts in Europe. Shades of nepotism clouded his candidacy, especially since he is only 23 years old and still in school, which are both very rare characteristics for someone appointed to this type of position. Some people actually believed that there was no connection between his potential election to the post and his father's position as head of state. But in a Latin country, there are always connections between people everywhere, because people are hired for jobs based on whom they know, rather than what they know.

As it turned out, Jean Sarkozy finally gave up his candidacy amidst the many accusations of favoritism.

La Défense is a nice place, actually, at least during the day. At night, it's deserted, except for a few shady denizens that one ordinarily wouldn't want to meet. In daytime, it's a very dynamic and quite pleasant place to work, with quite a few skyscrapers surrounding a vast, totally pedestrian plaza. Transportation is relegated to underground tunnels, and the area is well served by freeways, buses, taxis, and commuter trains. I used to work there in the old days, when I had a salary I could live on. It was especially nice in good weather at noon, because everyone from the surrounding towers would spill out onto the plaza to walk and eat lunch (lunch being quite a long affair in France, even in La Défense). In the old days, the plaza was a large open expanse; today, thanks to the continuing efforts of the EPAD to turn every square meter into profit, it's a lot more crowded. Still, it's nice, and it's quiet, too, since there are no vehicles around. All you hear are people talking and walking, unless the EPAD has set up some stupid noisy event, which happens often enough, unfortunately.

I've been trying to sell whatever I can scrape up in my apartment to raise money, but it's a very slow process. Everything takes forever in France, which is good when creditors are after you, but bad when you are trying to make money to pay them. EncherExpert, the store that sells your stuff on eBay, builds multiple delays into its payment process so that you wait at least a month for your money. Supposedly it sent me a small check on October 15, but it's been over a week and I have yet to see it. That money could buy some extra groceries. In the meantime, I'm down to five euro, so I couldn't do any laundry this weekend, and I lost the credit on my cell phone because I couldn't add any before the existing credit expired. Luckily I still have some milk and bread and other things to eat in the fridge, so I'm not starving yet.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Leak no more, and noise outside the window

The meter technician returned Monday morning. He instantly claimed that the leak in the kitchen was not the responsibility of ista-CIS, despite the extraordinary conjunction of “coincidences” that clearly pointed a finger at the previous technician's visit as being the cause of the leak. He seemed rather grumpy but nevertheless offered to call his office to see if they wanted him to fix the leak. He couldn't get through to the office, and while waiting to call back, he looked at the leak. Apparently the cause was just a leaky washer, so he pulled out a wrench, replaced the washer, and fixed the leak in a few seconds, grumbling that it wasn't the company's responsibility during this time. The leak stopped.

With the leak gone, I was happy, and immediately after fixing the leak, he left, grumbling a fast “Au revoir” as he walked away. Well, at least the leak is gone, and that's all I'm worried about. Although if I catch anyone trying to bill me for anything, I'm not going to be happy.

He insisted that the leak starting during the previous technician's visit was a coincidence. However, I calculate that the chances of that leak started by pure coincidence at the same time that the technician was working on the meter are about 1 in 600,000, which doesn't seem very likely to me. Even if the technician had visited 100 times, instead of just once, the chances of a leak occurring during any of his visits would still be less than 0.017%. I'm sure he must have bumped something or did something that started the leak. And it was on the joint that connected the meter to the apartment, although this technician said that the company is responsible only for the meter itself.

In the old days, I would have just had the leak fixed at my expense—not because it would be my responsibility (it wouldn't), but simply to avoid the tremendous hassle of trying to get people to take responsibility for things. I did that routinely in the past; it was one of the many advantages of having money. Today, I have no money at all, so that option no longer exists, and so I must battle to get other people to do what they should already be doing out of conscience.

In France, in particular, avoiding responsibility seems to be a national institution. In the United States, it is less so, not because Americans have any stronger conscience (that would be too good to be true), but mainly because Americans worry more about possible litigation. In the United States, law substitutes for morality and conscience: if it's legal, it's moral, and if it's illegal, it's immoral. In France, litigation is less of an issue, even though French people sue each other regularly. The difference, I think, is that litigation is more likely to go either way in France, whereas in the U.S. corporations usually seem to lose to individuals. That may come from the fact that France tends to adjudicate most issues using trained judges rather than untrained juries—it is one of the claimed advantages of such a system, although an increased risk of corruption is the flip side of the arrangement.

Right now, there's a tremendous amount of noise outside my window, as a building across the street has its facade steam-cleaned. Paris city ordinances require that facades be cleaned at least every ten years; the laws were put in place thirty years ago and transformed the city from a pile of soot into a photogenic gallery of mostly nineteenth-century architecture. Anyway, the noise is horrendous—but the weird thing is that I was able to sleep through it this morning. I'm so used to street noises (Paris is a noisy city), that the sound of steam cleaning right across the street (loud enough to impede conversation, had I anyone with whom to converse) does not disturb my slumber.

The weather has been very nice these past few days, still a bit warm and humid for my tastes, but nice. Fall weather is often just as nice as spring weather in Paris, but there are fewer tourists (relatively speaking only—there are always lots of tourists in Paris in an absolute sense). I have no money to go out (you can't step outside in a big city without spending money), but the weather is very inviting. I need to look for something else to sell on eBay, maybe.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The heat is on!

Well, a moment I've been dreading has come: the building management for my apartment building has turned on the central heating. It's 76° F outside, and they've turned on the heat. Now I have to pay for the heat that they are wasting, plus I have to pay for the electricity to run an air conditioner to remove the heat from the apartment, unless I want to croak from hyperthermia in 90° temperatures. I can't believe the incompetence of this company. How do they make their decisions?

At the same time, there's been no move to fix the increasingly severe leak in my kitchen. I called ista-CIS again, and they told me they'd send someone out on Monday morning. We'll see. In the meantime, I have to empty the 6-litre bucket in the kitchen every 2-3 hours.

I tried bringing some things to the store that just opened in my neighborhood that sells your stuff on eBay. They accepted two of the things I brought, but not the third, which was just too worthless in their estimation. I don't have much to sell because the government seized my personal property years ago, and of course I've never had the means to replace anything. But I'm trying to scoop up whatever trinkets I can find and maybe get something for them. I only have €20 left for many weeks to come, so every euro helps.

My last grocery errand brought me to the Carrefour City supermarket I talked about a few posts ago, in order to see what the place was like. The choices were poor, the prices were no better than Monoprix, and the lines in front of the cash registers were all 20 minutes long. I won't go back. The only advantage it had was that it was on the way back from school, but that's not enough of an advantage to stop going to Monop Daily.

Several people have reneged on debts they owed me, leaving me even more poverty stricken. I have a diet of flavored rice and pound cake with milk.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

France revealed

Once a year, the French government sponsors a weekend called the Journées du Patrimoine, during which places that are normally closed to the public open their doors and conduct tours. This weekend marks the Journées du Patrimoine for 2009 (the weekend is usually around this time of year). About 15,000 different places have opened their doors this weekend for people interested in seeing them. The most popular is probably the Élysée Palace, where the French president lives—the lines are typically hours long to get in for a tour, starting early in the morning. There are plenty of other places that are less crowded, such as subway repair centers, or historical monuments that may already be open to the public but without guided tours under normal conditions … such as La Coupole, a huge and popular restaurant near Montparnasse that dates from the golden years of the Montparnasse area, when it was one of the major hot spots in Paris (the area still popular now, but with fewer socialites and no gangsters).

I haven't gone out, since I'm not that interested in standing in line for anything, but overall this event is always a great success.

Only 40 years behind

A supermarket near to where I live underwent a transformation over the summer holidays. It used to be a fairly conventional supermarket; now it has been converted into a more upscale, trendy supermarket called Carrefour City.

The incredible, unbelievable, miraculous breakthrough represented by this supermarket is that … it's open until 11:45 PM, Monday through Saturday. Big deal, you say? Perhaps in the United States this wouldn't be remarkable, but in France, supermarkets that don't keep banking hours are quite a new development. If this trend continues, French consumer society will be caught up with American consumer society before the end of the next millennium, instead of being mired in 1971. The mind boggles!

Of course, the French influence is still apparent. The supermarket is closed on Sundays, precisely the day of the week when most people are likely to have free time to go shopping for groceries. And it's open until 11:45 PM, instead of midnight, because allowing employees to leave by midnight is more important than providing good customer service.

The competition does a bit better: Monoprix's Monop' Daily supermarkets stay open until midnight. Carrefour City has even adopted the color scheme of Monop' Daily. So much for taking risks with originality. (Carrefour, by the way, was fined again by the government for not following rules on expiration and refrigeration of foodstuffs a few days ago.)

There are some other chains that are staying open “late,” meaning until 10 or 11 PM. I suppose progress is being made, slowly but surely.

This particular Carrefour City was closed on the day I photographed it; signs on the windows said the closure was due to a fire (I couldn't see any sign of a fire, but perhaps it was in a back room somewhere). The layout of the store looks a lot more sleek and modern than its predecessor, in any case.

There's already a Daily near me where I tend to shop, and it's open until midnight, but I might make a stop at this new store sometime just to see what the competition is doing. There are also many smaller supermarkets in most neighborhoods that stay open even on Sundays and late at night, usually because they are family-operated and can thus work around labor-law restrictions and avoid the 16th-century attitudes of labor unions. In French these tiny markets are sometimes called “neighborhood Arabs,” because so many of them are run by Arab immigrant families (the term is not meant pejoratively—it mainly reflects the often stronger work ethic manifested by immigrant families starting small businesses, as compared to laziness of the native bourgeoisie).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Web sites that suck (in France)

France as a country has long been very good at building very bad Web sites, profiting from its two decades of lag behind the rest of the developed world to produce sites that look like they were designed by seventh-graders on their first day of computer class in junior high. A new record for terrible French Web sites was set just a few days ago, when erstwhile failed presidential candidate Ségolène Royal had a site created for an association, Désirs d'Avenir (“future desires”—sounds like the name of a DVD that you'd find in the backroom of the video store), that supports her political activities.

By a truly amazing coincidence, this new Frankensite was created by her current boyfriend, André Hadjez. Her honey spent two months giving life to the monster, and charged her association more than $57,000 for his handiwork. Somehow, out of that bare-bones 57-kilobuck budget, he managed to find the funds necessary to use a background image taken from the set of desktop wallpapers that ships with Microsoft Vista, a stroke of artistic genius that was instantly identified by observers. Hours after the original site debuted, it was replaced by another site that sported an eye-straining day-glo magenta background. The last time I tried to look at the site from school, it was inaccessible. A few hours ago, when I tried to see it from home, I was unable to view it because—like every French Web site designed since the extinction of the dinosaurs—it consists entirely of a Flash animation, and I don't run Flash animations on untrusted sites for security reasons.

Ms. Royal supposedly said that “This idea is Andre's. He's a very talented man in multimedia and very much in love.” I'm not sure how being in love helps one to build Web sites. In fact, looking at this site, I'm more inclined to conclude that being in love somehow puts talent (if any) into suspended animation.

Anyway, this mess attracted strident hoots of ridicule from every corner of Francophone society (the rest of the world was mostly indifferent). The site is terrible even by the extremely undemanding standards of French web-weaving. I could easily do ten times better for ten times less, and so could the vast majority of webmasters working in this century. If this is an example of what Ségolène's beau produces for $57,000, I shudder to think what he might charge for a site that were actually presentable and modern.

If you search around on the Web, you can find copies of the two initial home pages of the site pretty easily (which has changed several times as the association struggles to carry out damage control). It's impossible to say anything complimentary about them.

There are also many lampoons of the site popping up, although I don't know if they'll be around for long once the 15 minutes of fame that this site has bought for its owner have expired. Some people have even speculated that the site might have been deliberately designed bad, in order to generate buzz, because it's hard to believe that anyone could create anything so inept without wanting to.

This does help demonstrate that, if you find burning $100 bills in a hibachi to be too solid a financial investment, you can always waste money even more efficiently by hiring a French firm to build your Web site.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Another retirement-by-suicide and other forms of hysteria

Today another employee of France Télécom tried to kill herself, right in the office, by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Apparently she had been moved around the country and had been given very few real things to do, and she had just been told that she was being retroactively demoted and moved to yet another location.

Obviously FT has some very serious management problems, but it's not the only French company to be poorly managed, not by a long shot.

Speaking of hysterical overreactions, it has been revealed recently that the government (specifically the Ministry of Justice) has an extreme plan for suspending civil liberties in order to protect against the apparently hellish prospect of a swine flu epidemic. The list of measures under consideration is long and frightening—far from the type of thing you'd expect to see in a nominal democracy. The mere existence of such a plan is worrisome, and it's even more worrisome that anything so extreme would be considered for a public-health situation that is very tame by comparison. Swine flu infections tend to produce milder symptoms than ordinary strains of the flu, and only 13 people have died of the swine flu in France (which is nothing when you consider the number of people who catch the flu). How the government got from something so non-threatening to a plan that effectively imposes martial law is a bit of a mystery. As it is, schools are being closed every day due to hysteria over the swine flu, even though all the kids who catch the disease seem to be recovering just fine after three or four days.

A French doctor in a televised discussion has suggested that vaccinating everyone might not be such a good idea, either, because the vaccine has been prepared so hastily and so carelessly that it presents more of a danger to public health than the flu itself. He speculated that the vaccine, if universally administered, might kill perhaps three times as many people as the flu would kill, making it a bit foolish to insist on immunizing everyone. He suggests that the pursuit of money, not public health, is behind the push for vaccination. Given the sorry history of France with respect to public health crises in the past (such as the affair of HIV contaminated blood transfusions some years back), this would not surprise me. Indeed, it's odd that such hysteria surrounds a disease that has killed only 13 people, whereas a heat wave that killed 15,000 in 2003 elicited virtually no action or suggestions at all on the part of the government, apart from suggestions to drink more water!

Anyway … the weather is quite cool at the moment, although it is very humid. The leak in my kitchen continues to worsen, and I still have no money to fix it (and I still wonder why I'm expected to fix it at my expense). I have to turn the water off a lot to slow it down, and I'm not even sure if that is working.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Après nous, le déluge

Well, the leak in the kitchen is dripping four times faster than it was last week, when it mysteriously appeared as the water-meter technician did something to the meter.

I talked to the insurance company (Matmut). They said it's not their problem; they only reimburse for water damage, not the cost of repairing leaks. The building management company also says it's not their problem. And ista-CIS, the company that sent the technician who apparently caused the leak, also denies responsibility (through the technician). Apparently I'm expected to pay for repairs, but I have only €36 to my name right now.

I empty the 6-liter bucket I put beneath the leak every three or four hours. It isn't going to hold a full day of leaks once I go to work tomorrow, so there's a good possibility that there will be water all over the kitchen floor (at least) when I get home. At the insurance company's suggestion, I'm sending them a letter (shown here, redacted, in French) describing the leak and its circumstances in the hope that they might be able to compel ista-CIS to fix it. But I'm not optimistic.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Not happy with your job? Jump out a window.

Suicides are again in the news in France, after a 32-year-old employee of France Télécom who couldn't stand her job threw herself out of a window. A bit unusual, you might say. France Télécom says she had issues.

The problem is that 21 other people at France Télécom have committed suicide for the same reasons. And there have been many suicides at Renault, as well.

In the United States, if you don't like your job, you quit and find another job. But that's not how it works in France. In France, your elders decide for you what career you will pursue while you're still a teenager. You are then shunted into a specific educational program that aims at the selected career path, which simultaneously closes other paths. Once your schooling is complete, you are expected to find a job in the selected career domain and retain it for the rest of your life.

Changing careers is seriously frowned upon in France. If you change careers in the U.S., it might be considered evidence of versatility; in France, a career change on your resume will inevitably elicit the question “You changed careers … what went wrong?” Someone who changes careers is considered a failure, or a rebel. How could anyone not want to do the same job for his entire life?

Even changing jobs is risky. Not only does it make you seem unreliable in the eyes of French employers, but it might be impossible to find a new job after leaving the old one. It takes a very long time to get a job in France. If you are over 40, or if you are changing or have changed careers, or you look or sound like an immigrant, or you don't have a network of well-placed friends to offer you a sinecure, you may not be able to find any work at all. The unemployment rate in France has been high since time immemorial. It's hard to fire people, and it's also hard to get hired (because it's so hard to fire, amongst other reasons).

This all being as it is, it's not surprising that some French people consider killing themselves to be the only escape from job dissatisfaction. You can imagine how dire the situation must be if people are committing suicide. Many French companies are still managed in an authoritarian, eighteenth-century style that is not conducive to worker happiness at best, and leads employees to jump out windows at worst.

Even knowing these things, I'm still astonished that people would kill themselves rather than change jobs. I know most French people are hysterically paranoid about losing their jobs, but still. I've never heard of this happening in the United States. It's pretty weird. It's hard to understand how France can hope to compete in global markets with serious problems like this haunting it.

I'm reminded of a classic example of French cluelessness: the color scheme of Orange, France Télécom's ever-confusing doppelganger. I guess nobody there ever did enough research to discover that orange and black (the company's colors) are associated with Halloween in the United States.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rice cooking, leaky pipes

I don't know how to cook, but I do have a rice cooker that I received as a gift. After my parents sent me some money for groceries, I went to the store and bought some butter, four eggs, and some frozen chopped spinach, plus a jar of tikka sauce. I already had a bag of rice. I managed to concoct a rice meal that doesn't taste too bad. There's enough to last for several days. It's hardly French cuisine but it's one of the few things I know how to make, and in theory, at least, it should be cheap—my calculations reveal that it works out to about 2 euro per serving, which is a slight savings over ready-made meals (although it's more expensive than a small loaf of pound cake, which is one of my other low-cost meals).

I found a plastic pail that's bigger than the cup I was using to catch the leak in the kitchen that I've had since the meter man worked on the meter. I had to cut one corner away to make it fit beneath the leaky fitting. It holds six liters instead of the single liter the cup held. However, the leak is now dripping once per second rather than once every two seconds, so it still fills up every few hours. No progress yet on getting the meter company to fix it (or pay to have it fixed). I don't have the several hundred euro a plumber would charge to fix it, and my insurance has a deductible that probably would prevent it from covering the repairs. That's what I get for letting the meter man in (at the syndicat's insistence).

The weather is turning hot again, after about a week of very nice, cool weather. Sometimes the weather is simply seasonal, but most of the time it's warmer than seasonal, as usual (if that makes sense). We are getting far less rain than we need.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Everyone for himself

There's a water meter inside my apartment. In France, sometimes they don't put meters outside, where you'd expect to find them; instead they are inside a residence, which means that meter readers must periodically enter the residence to read the meter, which means that somebody has to be there to let them in. It's a very bizarre arrangement. My electric meter is outside, so that can be read without entering the apartment, although the electric company usually “estimates” my consumption (by taking the real consumption and tripling or quadrupling it) instead of actually coming out to read the meter.

Anyway, the water meter is inside the apartment. Years ago, the company that runs these meters, which is apparently called ista-CIS (I'm not sure, as it has only been identified to me as “CIS”) installed electronic meters that magically transmit their readings to some central point, so that nobody has to come into the apartment. Which was great as far as I was concerned.

This electronic meter apparently runs on a battery, which has to be replaced every few years. In February, my syndicat (that's how the French refer to a building management company) sent me a letter telling me to be ready on a certain day for a technician to come out and (apparently) replace this battery. So I took a day off work, losing a day's wages … and he never showed up. There was a note on the wall in the lobby when I got home that said he was “sick” and wouldn't be able to come (I guess this company has only one employee for this task, or something).

A few weeks ago, the syndicat sent another letter that said I absolutely, positively had to let this technician into the apartment to do whatever has to be done to the meter. They said it was defective and had to be replaced, or maintained (the letter wasn't consistent on this point), otherwise I'd be charged a hefty fixed price for water (500 cubic feet per month). The date for his visit was September 2.

I wasn't working on that day (yesterday), so I was there waiting for him. He showed up early. I showed him into what passes for a kitchen in my apartment: a very crowded little alcove with a fridge, an unused washing machine—that's a separate story for some other day—and a sink with a cold-water faucet. He shifted the small washing machine out of the way, and went to work. It only took a few minutes. I didn't keep an eye on him so I'm not sure exactly what he did.

As he was finishing, he said “look, you have a leak.” I walked over and peered into the very crowded space behind the washing machine. Sure enough, at the fitting that connected the output of the meter to the water supply inside the apartment, there was water dripping from the fitting. Beneath it, there was a tiny puddle of water a few inches wide. The fitting dripped at about once every two seconds. I had never noticed any leak before, and it seemed odd to me that something dripping every two seconds would produce such a tiny puddle, but I made a note of it. The technician then put the washing machine back into place and left.

Several hours later, I walked into the kitchen, and the floor was covered with water, which came as a shock. It had been dry that morning. In fact, it was normally dry. I looked behind the washing machine and realized that the leak was dumping water all over the floor. The thing is … there had been no water before the technician came, and I now realized that with a fitting that is dripping every two seconds, there is absolutely no way that it could have been leaking before the technician came, or the kitchen would have been covered with water long ago. Since the kitchen had been bone dry before his visit, and was soaking wet only a few hours after his visit, the appearance of this leak precisely coincided with his visit. I had not previously noticed the leak before he pointed it out to me because there had previously been no leak.

To me it's just too hard to believe that by some magic coincidence this leak decided to spring up at the very moment that the technician was working on the meter … therefore the meter technician must have done something to make the fitting leak. There's just no way that it could have been dripping like that before he came without leaking water all over the kitchen floor (which is exactly what it did in only an hour or two after he left).

So I called the syndicat to tell them that the technician must have broken something, because I now had a water leak in the kitchen. They called ista-CIS, and the technician called me back the next morning (this morning). However, he said that his responsibility was the meter only, and there was absolutely no way that he could have caused a leak. Yes, he pointed the leak out to me, but it wasn't him. Maybe the kitchen was dry before he came and wet afterwards, but it wasn't him. Maybe it was on the fitting that connected the meter to the apartment, but that wasn't his responsibility.

That seemed very difficult to accept, given that I had had no water at all in the kitchen before his visit, and now the leak was flooding the floor. I had to put a plastic cup beneath the pipe (the only thing I had that would fit beneath it), and empty it every two hours to keep water from getting onto the floor. He should have realized this himself, because the floor was dry when he came to visit. But he denied any connection between the leak and whatever he did to the meter.

So I called the syndicat. They said it wasn't their problem, either. They said it was my problem, and it was up to me to pay for repairs. After all, what proof did I have that the ista-CIS technician had caused the leak? I guess a dry kitchen before his visit and a wet kitchen afterwards weren't stufficient proof—or, more likely, they simply assumed I was lying and had taken this opportunity to blame an existing leak on the technician.

It's hard to believe that the technician could deny a connection if the kitchen was dry when he arrived and wet two hours after he left. It's also hard to believe that I would leave something leaking in the kitchen for years, waiting for the once-in-a-decade maintenance visit from the ista-CIS technician just so I could blame it on him. But in France, everyone is assumed to be a liar until proven otherwise, and proving otherwise consists of having the best lawyer.

It's very tiring. Why does everyone in France try to escape all responsibility for everything? Why can't people be honest? Why would I lie about a leak in the kitchen, especially since a sudden leak would presumably be covered by insurance, anyway? How could a technician not see a connection between dry floor on arrival and wet floor after departure? Why not just come back out and fix it? Why is everyone in France so hellbent on shafting his neighbor? It's a weird cultural thing, but it's very fatiguing. Is it the Latin/macho influence? I don't know.

And to compound this all, I'm broke. I won't have anything until the 15th at the earliest. I'm down to my last fifty cents, literally (all I have is what's in my pocket, and in my pocket I have fifty cents). I spent half of my last twenty euro on milk and pound cake, and the other half on the laundromat (if you're wondering why I go to a laundromat when I have a washing machine at home—well, like I said, that's another French-culture story for another day). A plumber would charge hundreds of euro for a leak I didn't cause, and I don't have a credit card or even checks. A lawyer would want several hundred euro per hour.

I still have to try calling ista-CIS one more time, but, it being a French company, I pretty much know how that will go (“Mais non, Monsieur, ce n'est pas nous!”). I may stop by the insurance agent's office tomorrow to see what they can do, against my better judgement, even though that will probably only make things worse (I'm not sure how, but taking any positive action always makes things worse, and of course it's a French insurance company). In the meantime, I have to empty the plastic cup under the pipe every two hours, 24 hours a day.

Monday, August 24, 2009

France caves on drinking laws

Late last month, France put a new law into effect that requires a person to be at least 18 before he or she can buy or be served alcohol. The limit used to be 16 in certain cases.

It pretty much passed me by because I'm over 18 and I don't do drugs (not even ethanol). I'm sure it disappoints some people (those who are under 18 and do ethanol) and rejoices others (those who are over 18 and do ethanol, and don't like to practice what they preach). Of course, in France, practically everyone drinks, and they don't usually wait until age 18 to start. French people go directly from breastmilk to alcohol and coffee. Cow's milk is for cooking, not drinking. The logic is that milk is for babies. But if one follows that logic, for which species are alcohol and coffee intended?

The new law also specifies that businesses may ask for ID before selling or serving alcohol. I'm sure that will be more honored in the breach than in the observance. I've never seen anyone carded in France (granted, I don't often go to places that are dedicated to serving alcohol). Even McDonald's and Disneyland serve booze in France.

Today was the last day of the summer season of the Fête des Tuileries, as I mentioned before, so no more tasty Greek sandwiches for another few months (they return over the Christmas holidays). That place served booze, too, of course—in fact, it didn't serve any drinks except alcoholic drinks! I always went to a stand next door to buy a soft drink to go with the sandwich and fries. Unfortunately, it cost $14, which is about $13 more than I can afford to spend on meals right now. For the moment, meals consist of pound cake, or some pieces of bacon, with milk or (occasionally) caffeine-free Coke.

The heat comes and goes. The evenings are cool but the days are hot. Overall it's still unseasonably warm and dry. I keep hoping this streak of bad (for me) weather will break, but no sign of that yet.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sandwiches, the Fête des Tuileries, and Paris Plage

Apparently Paris Plage has been a big success this year. The success of the event each year depends a lot on the weather. If it's not hot, people don't go there as much, and if it's way too hot (as it is right now), people don't go, either, but if it's in between (in the 90s Fahrenheit, as it has been in recent days), they seem to flock to the event.

It has been on my list, but I haven't had the energy to visit this year. Most days have been too hot. My threshold of tolerance for heat is low, after years spent suffering in the hellish desert conditions of the Great American Southwest. Eventually, everyone will be like me, as the planet continues to heat up; but right now people in formerly cool regions like Paris are like the proverbial frogs [no pun intended] in a saucepan filled with water on the stove, blissfully unaware that the water is gradually heating up. When it's hot, all I want to do is find air conditioning. I've sweat enough to fill Lake Mead in my lifetime, and I'm tired of it.

Anyway, what I'm missing slightly more is the Fête des Tuileries—the small fair that runs twice a year next to the Louvre—which I've only visited once or twice this summer. I don't ride the rides, but I do eat the junk food, and I especially like the simple Greek sandwiches sold by one regular attendee at the fair. Mmm, I like those sandwiches, complete with an equally simple box of french fries. But heat and poverty have kept me away (a sandwich, fries, and Coke cost €10).

Paris Plage closes tomorrow, so that the expressway it occupies can be back in service by Monday morning. The Fête des Tuileries closes on Sunday.

Heat wave o'the week and nearby movies

For some days now, blazing heat has been the rule again in Paris—yet another “heat wave,” or so it is considered officially, even though heat waves are now more common than “normal,” seasonal temperatures.

It got up to 102° F outside my window, which means it was about 110° F on the street. The “normal” yearly maximum temperature for Paris is 76° F, so it's about 30° above normal, again. There's also a pollution alert in effect, as there almost always is when extreme heat traps pollutants in the Parisian air—today was a 6, out of 10 (10 being the worst).

My ancient air conditioner struggled continuously throughout the day, but could not get the temperature inside the apartment below 81° F. Still, that was 25° or so cooler than outside, and every little bit helps.

I learned this evening that some American film is being shot almost literally outside my door (actually a street or two away). The talent includes Leonardo DiCaprio, whose name I recognize (I saw him in Titanic and The Aviator), plus some other actress named Ellen-something. However, there are location shoots every day in Paris—it's like Los Angeles in that respect—so it's nothing worth seeing … particularly at 110°.

I take a keen interest in the technical aspects of cinema (and just about everything else technical in the world), but I've never been a fan of people. If I happen across a location shoot and the equipment looks interesting, I may pause and watch (if the weather isn't too hot!), but I often miss or don't recognize the talent. You can see famous people a lot in Paris, anyway, if you're looking for them. There isn't anyone worth seeing in 110° heat, however, and I pity the cast and crew working in today's hellish, disquietingly freaky weather.

Tomorrow I actually have three hours of work, for which I'll be paid €36 before taxes. That'll make 13.5 hours (€162) of work so far this month, which is slightly more than my bimonthly electric bill. (If you are wondering why my electric bill is €80 a month for a one-room studio … well, I wonder why it's so high, too! I guess EDF has to make fat profits for its shareholders.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Technology in Paris, firefighters, and pharmacies

Although the major attractions of Paris mostly depend on history and tradition rather than the cutting edge of technology, the fact that Paris is a major world capital means that it still gets some technological innovations before anyone else on the block (at least in the European neighborhood, and sometimes even in the world).

I saw a tiny example of this while waiting in line at McDonald's on the Champs (the busiest restaurant in France). There was the usual array of flat-panel displays above the counter hawking all sorts of McDonald's stuff, but I noticed that one of the displays in the middle was in three dimensions. Intrigued, I shifted from side to side and confirmed my suspicion: the display was designed like certain novelty postcards, using an old technique for 3-D that consists of having tiny linear lenses on the screen that make only one of two images visible depending on your point of view. When you stand just right, one eye sees a slightly different image from the other eye, making 3-D display possible.

I found this interesting, but the novelty of the effect lasted only for about thirty seconds, which was barely five percent of the time I spent waiting in line. And I don't actually remember what the display was advertising, so it would seem that the 3-D effect did not make the advertising any more effective.

I've seen other minor examples of high-tech here and there. One of the designers in the Avenue Montaigne (where many high-fashion designers have their flagship stores) is using LCD panels to alternately hide and reveal the contents of store windows. Ho-hum. Of course we have our high-tech sanisettes, which are both modern and practical. The City of Paris also spends a lot of money on highly customized vehicles for various purposes. The street and sidewalk cleaning equipment is very modern and carefully chosen for the job. Fire and paramedic trucks, which at first glance look like ordinary vans, are in fact custom-designed for the fire department and contain a great many special features that make them highly adapted to Paris.

In fact, Paris firefighters are world-famous. Their helmets are very distinctive, with a very glossy metallic finish, and a very cool reflective visor that matches the helmet. They aren't designed this way just to look cool, however: the reflective finish and the reflective visor help shield firefighters against radiant heat. Their vehicles are also very specialized, as I've indicated. They have to be, because the tiny streets of Paris won't necessarily accept more conventional equipment. Ladder trucks, for example, are especially compact so that they can fit down smaller streets without too much trouble.

Speaking of ladder trucks … you'd think that they'd be used mainly for fighting fires, and they are certainly used for that. But they have another important use: getting people out of apartments. See, Parisians tend to put a zillion locks on their apartment doors, so much so that even a locksmith may not be able to get into the apartment, much less firefighters. If they get a call about someone possibly ill inside an apartment, they don't just bust the door down. Instead, they pull a ladder truck up to the outside of the building, extend the ladder to the outside window of the apartment, and go in that way. It's easier to get in and it doesn't require chopping a door down.

This sort of thing happens more often than you'd expect. Many Parisians live alone in their small, well-barricaded apartments. French people live a long time, and French old ladies live an especially long time. Sometimes old ladies (or other people) expire silently in their apartments, and only the smell or a long period of inactivity clue anyone in to their deaths. The fire department then comes, enters the apartment through a window, and checks to see if the inhabitant is alive. Often she (or he) isn't. I've seen this happen on many occasions, although I haven't waited to see if the person being checked on was dead or alive.

Speaking of elderly French ladies, I went to a pharmacy not long ago to top off my stock of aspirin, and I was struck once again by the vast number of people filling vast numbers of prescriptions. The woman in front of me looked to be in her early thirties, and yet she had a stack of prescriptions to fill … and she wasn't really an exception to the rule. People of all ages are taking all sorts of medications; the French seem to love medication. Apparently France is one of the world's leading markets for Valium, and standing in line at the pharmacy while each person fills half a dozen prescriptions, I had no trouble believing this. I was tempted to step closer and see exactly what this relatively young woman was buying, but I was too polite to do that. I wonder how many mood-altering medications were on her list.

Finding a pharmacy is a bit of an exercise in itself, at least late at night. Most of the pharmacies in my neighborhood were closed when I went out looking late on this Saturday night. Open pharmacies are easy to find because they nearly all have green neon crosses outside, and if the cross is lit, the pharmacy is open. I searched everywhere, and finally found one pharmacy open, probably the pharmacie de garde. The law requires that one pharmacy in each neighborhood—the pharmacie de garde—remain open all the time, so that there's always a way to get medication (you never know when you might run out of Xanax in the middle of the night). Other pharmacies post the location of the pharmacie de garde on the door when they are closed. I didn't check for a pharmacie de garde, but I spotted a glowing green cross, so I just headed for that. It took forever to get served, thanks to the thousands of prescriptions being filled in front of me.

For people with a very long life expectancy statistically, France sure seems to embrace heavy medication early in life. I doubt that the medication improves the life expectancy, but perhaps they find a lifetime on Prozac less stressful (?).

Friday, July 31, 2009

All quiet on the Parisian front

Today is the last day of July, and is typically one of the quietest days of the year in Paris, thanks to the mass exodus of Parisians on summer vacation during July and August.

In the olden days, Parisians abandoned the city (almost literally) during the month of August specifically, which they spent at their second homes or on the beach. In modern Paris, this tradition has greatly mellowed, and now Parisians take their long French vacations (six weeks is the legal minimum per year) sometime between the start of July and the end of August. The period between mid-July and mid-August seems to be the quietest time of the year these days—the time when the greatest number of Parisians are out of town.

It's no longer a total abandonment of the city, either. Again, in the olden days, just about everything shut down during August, but that's history now. There are quite a few small shops—especially family-run boutiques and bakeries, and other small businesses—that close for two weeks or so (not a month any more) between July and August, but just about all other businesses remain open. These means that there's less traffic and no pollution, and no crowding on the Métro, but there are still things to do, because they don't just roll up the sidewalks the way they used to.

During much of the day, there is little or no sound of traffic outside my window, and I live near a fairly busy street that usually has traffic practically 24 hours a day. It's pleasant. There is still some summer construction work going on in my street, so I occasionally hear construction noises, but for the most part it's quiet. At night, it's completely silent, which is a little bit eerie.

The weather has been up and down. One day it's hot, the next day it's seasonal. We've been pretty lucky most of the time, with only a moderate number of brief heat waves. I still find it uncomfortably warm when I go out, but not to the point of risking heat stroke, as I do during heat waves. I hope cooler (i.e., seasonal) weather prevails.

My favorite ice-cream place in the Latin Quarter (Tutti Sensi) is not reopening. It has been converted into another souvenir shop. Thank goodness the original in Montmartre still seems to be going well enough. I love their ice cream.

Lately I've discovered (or rather rediscovered) Subway sandwich shops. They've suddenly appeared in Paris over the last few years, and they offer a welcome alternative to the lame sandwich offerings one sees at most French places. A typical French sandwich is a parisien, which means a couple slices of ham and a few slices of Swiss cheese on a stale, hard French baguette. The sandwiches from Subway are much better. Politically incorrect, but true! Not to say that there are no good sandwiches in Paris—there are, and some places even have long lines in front of them because of their great sandwiches. But the average basic sandwich you buy at a bakery or something is nothing to write home about; it will relieve your hunger, and that's about it.

Paris Plage is operating now; it runs from late July to late August. The expressway is blocked off and the artificial sandy beach welcomes Parisians who aren't leaving the city on vacation for the summer. It seems to be attracting quite a crowd, although I haven't felt a desire to visit (I don't like going out when it's hot). I rather prefer the Tuileries fair, next to the Louvre, because of a certain little restaurant there that serves great gyro sandwiches for seven euro (beyond my normal budget, but sometimes I splurge).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Heated picnics

With great reluctance, I dragged myself out of the apartment yesterday—even though I had the day off (without pay, of course)—in order to pay some bills. Thanks to my rotten luck, it was one of the hottest days in the past two weeks, with more than 100° F on the street. In the evening, this brought people outdoors (an overcast helped shield people from the blazing sun). This is in part because many places don't have air conditioning, and in part because many people seem to think that 100° F in the shade is “nice weather” (an opinion I'm sure they will change in the future, as hot weather becomes the norm).

On the Passerelle des Arts (more often called the Pont des Arts, although technically any purely pedestrian bridge is a passerelle), there were tons of people sitting and having picnics in the evening. This bridge is consistently popular for picnics of all sorts, from shared bags of potato chips to five-course meals, and there was barely room to stand on the bridge today. Traditionally, people have brought alcohol onto the bridge, since French people can't get through the day without this drug, but there's now an ordinance that prohibits alcohol on the bridge after 10:30 PM (it was about 9:00 PM when I walked over it). The police were out and about, no doubt preparing to enforce this ordinance. There have been scuffles on the bridge in the past in the wee hours, when people got a little bit too drunk, but generally the mood is excellent and it's quite safe.

The outdoor socialization wasn't limited to the bridge. In the Latin Quarter, the terraces of restaurants were absolutely packed, even though this was only a Thursday. In fact, walking through the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter, with their limited vehicular traffic, I could hear the hubbub of conversation in the rue de Buci from several streets away. It was just amazingly crowded, but it was a very nice atmosphere, apart from the sweltering heat. Again, this was in part because most restaurants and bars aren't air-conditioned, and in part because people just wanted to get out of their stuffy offices and apartments … and in part because it's illegal to smoke indoors in public places now, and many French people are just as addicted to tobacco as they are to alcohol.

I arrived home very tired and dehydrated. Oddly enough (and just my luck), today (Friday) is much cooler, only about 68° F outside, and I'm trying to muster the energy to go out and profit from it. I guess I need to buy some groceries anyway.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Beautiful sunsets in Paris

While Paris is a beautiful city, it is not known for beautiful sunsets. Pretty sunsets can occur anywhere in the world, but some weather conditions are more conducive to this type of sunset than others, and the weather in Paris is usually not of the type that produces them. However, there are exceptions, and I managed to catch such an exception while I was beneath the Eiffel Tower a few days ago, as you can see in this photo.

I've seen much nicer sunsets in Paris, but they are quite rare and very unpredictable. I recall one truly amazing sunset once that I was unable to photograph in color because I had my camera loaded with black and white film. There's a picture of it in my gallery of street photos on my Web site, but black and white doesn't do it justice.

Spiders dearly missed

I'm beginning to note the absence of the big spider that breached our peace treaty not long ago and met her demise early as a result. The big spider is no more—but many varieties of tiny flying things have lately made their appearance in the apartment. Coincidence? Maybe. But these tiny flying things would be a smorgasbord for a big spider, and with no big spider to have them for lunch and dinner, they seem to multiply.

I have some sticky stuff that I got at a little hardware store down the street, and I've hung a strip of it in the bathroom (the flying things seem to like water). It's very effective if the tiny flying things hit it, which they often do. After a few days, there are many cadavers stuck to the strip, testifying to its effectiveness. But I'd be happy to leave these flying things to a resident spider, if one were around to take advantage of them.

I did spy a tiny spider in the bathroom, near the radiator. I didn't disturb it, since it was on its own turf. Hopefully it will collect some of the flying things and make them less of a nuisance for me. It seems like an equitable deal. I provide the bathroom, where there's always a bit of water to attract flies and their ilk, and the spider provides the web that removes the flies from active flying status.

Which reminds me … have you seen the movie Ratatouille? Do you recall the seen in which the rodent protagonists visit a terrifying shop that has dead rats hanging in the window? That shop is not fiction—it actually exists, near the Forum des Halles. I've taken a picture of it to prove it. Indeed, when I saw the movie, I recognized the shop from real life right away. It specializes in methods for killing rodents, but it provides some other pest control products as well.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sanitary sanisettes, heat, and smokers

The temperature is 18° F above normal today in Paris, again, and that's just the official temperature, which is always lower than the real temperature on the street. Yesterday, the real temperature, in the shade, was 95° F. Looks like another season of “unseasonably high” temperatures, just like most of the past fifteen years or so, which have also been “unseasonably warm.” I just sit and listen to the rusting A/C in my apartment, hoping that it will last a little while longer. Even with that, I can't get the temperature below 80° F in the apartment.

Anyway … a few days ago, while risking heatstroke by going for a short walk through Paris, I came across one of those new sanisettes that I've mentioned before, this one fully installed and operating. I couldn't resist trying it out. It's a vast improvement over the previous generation. It's free, like its predecessor. The door is controlled electronically with elevator-style pushbuttons instead of mechanical levers (although there's a big red lever on the inside for emergency exit, which reminds me a bit of an aircraft door). A recorded voice makes announcements as you enter, use, and exit the sanisette. For example, it advises me that “the door is now closed and locked,” which I suppose is meant to be reassuring, although I can imagine it sending a claustrophobic into a panic.

Speaking of claustrophobia, though, the inside of the new generation of sanisette is very roomy—about half the size of the main room in my small studio, in fact. The main reason for this is that all sanisettes are now accessible to wheelchairs. Apparently the concerns that caused New York to abandon the concept of sanisettes after the wheelchair lobby insisted that they all be accessible have not been an issue for the City of Light. I cannot help thinking that this new generation will probably be especially appreciated by low-cost prostitutes and drug addicts, with its interior roominess, but we shall see.

The toilet inside the sanisette looks more conventional with each generation of the gadget. So does the sink, which now looks the way a sink should look. It's still equipped with the automatic sensors that turn on the soap and water when you put your hands over it, and it still has the hot air fan to dry them (more or less) after they are washed. There's a larger mirror to one side of the sink as well. And the toilet has two buttons, one for a “little flush,” and one for a “big flush,” in keeping with current European water-saving practice (in the previous generation of sanisette, the flush was always the same, and occurred after you left the sanisette, during the cleaning cycle).

The outside of the sanisette looks nicer now, and there are multiple indicator lights to tell you what it's doing. Green means it's available, yellow means it's occupied, blue means it's in its cleaning cycle, and red means it's out of order. Right now, all the new sanisettes are spotlessly clean and in perfect working order; we shall see if they remain so after several months of abuse by clueless tourists and vandals. The instructions are now in multiple languages (including braille), so perhaps that will help prevent the former group from doing damage, although tourists can be really stupid.

The sanisette even has a sink on the outside, for washing hands I suppose. It's not marked to indicate that the water from the faucet is potable (the inside sink explicitly indicates that the water is not drinkable), so it's best to assume that it's not.

That last part deserves a bit of explanation. Paris has two municipal water supplies, one of which provides safe drinking water, and one of which provides reasonably clean water that isn't intended for drinking. This is more environmentally sound than pumping drinking water everywhere for every purpose. Outdoor faucets that let you wash your hands usually provide only the reasonably clean water, not drinking water. The exception is Wallace fountains, which do indeed dispense drinking water (in a continuous stream, no less—which seems very wasteful to a former desert dweller such as myself).

In fact, Paris hires technicians to taste and smell the drinking water, in order to make sure that it has no strange taste or odor, in addition to being safe to drink.

But I digress … anyway, this new sanisette is very nice. Even my mom would like this sanisette. I hope they don't get too beat up by the population (cf. Vélib' bicycles, which are being vandalized and stolen at record rates).

And speaking of digressions … on my walk through Paris-turned-inferno, I was once again struck by the vast number of smokers in front of just about any building containing offices. It amazes me that drug addicts such as smokers are entitled to five times as much time off during the day as non-addicts, simply so that they can yield to their addictions. A significant number of French people who smoke have wisely welcomed the recent total ban on public smoking as an additional incentive to quit, but a hard core of tobacco dopers continues to smoke, and instead of abstaining at work, they just spend even more of their employer's money puffing like junkies out in broad daylight, in front of the building. At some places you literally have to work your way through a cloud-ensconced throng of cigarette addicts just to get to the front entrance. It's pretty disgusting.

Eventually the heat got to me and I returned home, after trying to cool off with some ice cream. I was very disappointed to see that the excellent ice cream shop in the Latin Quarter (Tutti Sensi) has closed. I can't imagine why, since purveyors of inferior ice cream in the same area (Haägen-Dazs, Amoretto) seem to be doing well, especially with the ever-increasing temperatures in Paris. I hope the one up in Montmartre (La Butte Glacée) is still there; I haven't been up there lately.

The yearly summer carnival in the Tuileries gardens has arrived. They have great granités (a bit like snow cones, but with the syrup actually frozen into the ice) and gyro sandwiches there.

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