Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fickle weather and long walks

The weather has been highly variable these past few days, alternating between intense heat and tolerable coolness. I went for a walk on Friday, which was one of the hot days, but a constant stiff breeze made it a lot less exhausting, as long as I stayed in the shade. The weather was otherwise sunny with a very intensely blue sky and very clear air (thanks to the breeze).

I started near the Saint Augustin Métro station, and walked southeast down the boulevard Malesherbes towards the Madeleine, on the shady side of the street. The breeze was nice but it blew all sorts of stuff from the trees in my face, which I didn't care much for—the trees are constantly shedding tree stuff, which includes tiny bits of something that tend to fly into my eyes, especially when I'm wearing sunglasses, for some reason.

Tourists were out in force. The local tourist trade claims that the numbers are down, but the streets were still awash in tourists, many of them obviously American, although many other nationalities are represented as well.

I passed the usual traffic of Japanese tourists moving in and out of Mitsukoshi, the Paris incarnation of the famous department store. The Japanese are like Americans in that they prefer to observe foreign cultures, not mingle with them. Mitsukoshi allows them to buy their French souvenirs in a familiar environment, I suppose—much less scary than visiting, say, a French department store like Printemps. Down the street, the prettiest Starbucks in Paris, on the boulevard des Italiens, is filled with Americans (and wannabes) for the same reason.

In the small courtyard outside Fragonard, there was a fairly typical busload of tourists. Fragonard makes reasonably-priced perfumes, and they have a museum cum perfume store on this street, which is a favorite of tour guides. The museum is small but interesting, and at the end there's a wide selection of perfumes, soaps, and similar products, at prices that make them very practical gifts to offer to people to whom you'd rather not give gifts.

I also passed what must be the gaudiest façade in Paris, at a kind of restaurant-bar that seems to call itself The American Dream. It's hard to tell what the name is for sure, because there are so many different signs outside. The black, chrome, and glass façade contrasts garishly with the building into which it is set, as well as the other buildings on the rue Daunou (which, incidentally, is also the street on which Harry's New York Bar can be found). I don't know what the food is like or what it's like inside. The giant Elvis and Blues Brothers statues outside tell me that it's probably not my style.

Anyway, so I'm walking along, crossing the place de l'Opéra and the Opéra Garnier. As I crossed the street, I saw a commotion outside a building, with some people pushing and shoving each other. A police officer intervened, and then another, and another, until about a dozen had arrived. You'd think that the people in question would calm down and just drop their bickering with so many police advising them to do so, but I guess people who are prone to bicker are also too stupid to stop, and so they kept on. I didn't stay to see how it turned out. I'd be accused of racism if I mentioned the ethnicity of these people, but let's say it reinforced widespread stereotypes. Apparently some cultures condone physical altercations to resolve disputes, whereas that is much less acceptable to French culture. French people are certainly emotional and easily get into debates that can become quite heated, but they know better than to hit each other, as a general rule—especially with a dozen police officers as witnesses.

Moving right along, I continued up the boulevard des Italiens up to the boulevard Montmartre. The Musée Grévin, a famous wax museum, is up here, and out of curiosity I went over to the entrance to see if it might be worth visiting (I haven't been there in years). The admission was $26, which was about three times what I would have been willing to pay, so I skipped it. Their admission price reminds me of Cinéaqua, the ridiculously overpriced and nearly deserted aquarium in the Trocadéro gardens across from the Eiffel Tower. Don't people do market research?

Instead, I walked across the street to the very interesting Passage des Panoramas. Paris has a great many small shopping galleries hidden amongst its buildings, and the Passage des Panoramas is one of them (across the street are two others, but I didn't visit them on this particular walk).

Many of these tiny galleries date from the nineteenth century, and tend to be narrow, with skylights of iron and glass, and a very eclectic mixture of shops. The Passage des Panoramas is typical of the genre, and it's one of the oldest, having been built in 1799. There are many others in the same neighborhood: Jouffroy, Verdeau, Vivienne, Choiseul, and so on. Some have specialties—the Passage des Panoramas has been known for its stamp dealers, and the Galerie Vivienne promotes itself as a fashion center. Off the Champs-Élysées there are some modern galleries as well, such as Élysées 26—a fashion mall notable for its high-tech public toilets, in which each toilet is built by a different designer (it costs $2 to use them).

After looking through the Passage des Panoramas, I slipped south and walked down to the rue Montorgueil, a street that has been lined with shops (especially food shops) for about five centuries now. It's still popular today. There were a ton of people there on this particular afternoon. Shops range from modern supermarkets and the ubiquitous Starbucks and Quick fast-food restaurant to cafés that are located in buildings that are hundreds of years old (and look their age). Many shops still have the same pictorial signs that they would have had in past centuries, in the days when most people couldn't read.

On this street, which runs down towards the Forum des Halles, there's still a restaurant that specializes in snails, complete with a giant snail over the entrance to make their specialty clear to anyone who doesn't understand the restaurant's name, L'Escargot. The rumor is that they reuse the shells (after washing them); the snails you get didn't necessarily live in the shells in which they are served. I guess nice shells are harder to obtain than the soft edible part of the snail. I've had snails once (not here), and they tasted pretty good with butter and garlic and parsley, once you got past the psychological barrier; I haven't had them again, though.

Throughout this walk, I noticed that the city is installing the latest generation of sanisettes, which are considerably fancier than their predecessors. The new ones are much bigger, with multilingual instructions and provisions for the disabled, plus an outside water fountain. They use less water and electricity, they can accept wheelchairs, they have emergency exits for the fire department and extinguishers, and so on. All 400 sanisettes in the city are scheduled to be replaced, with about half of them being moved (including more in tourist areas). I saw a dozen or so being installed during my walk. They look nice.

Sanisettes spoil you. In many cities, finding a toilet is a challenge when you spend hours walking around, but in Paris, there are sanisettes all over the city. I have the locations of many of them memorized. Since 2006, they've been free, too. There are public toilets with attendants, too, at key locations in the city—such as the beautiful Art Nouveau public toilets near the Madeleine—but they are fewer in number than the sanisettes and they have shorter operating hours (but I have a lot of their locations memorized, too).

Sanisette is actually a trademark, or at least it was; it seems to have lost that status now. The British call these gadgets superloos. Anything is better than the old street urinals, the vespasiennes, of which one or two still survive in Paris (you can smell them a mile away). They were unsanitary, unsuitable for women, and handled only urination. Good riddance to them!

After visiting the 24-hour post office on the rue du Louvre to drop off some letters, I passed Dehillerin again. I don't cook, but I'm still tempted to go inside sometimes just to see all the kitchen stuff they have. I'm especially fascinated by the silicone molds they sell for cooking, which are soft and flexible like rubber but can withstand oven temperatures. They have lots of other cool stuff, too. On this occasion, though, I was content to look at the copper pots in the window. They say copper is really good for cooking, but I guess it has to be kept very clean.

And still I kept walking. The air was crystal clear thanks to the constant breeze, so everything looked wonderful (and the breeze kept me cool). Even the Refinery—er, I mean, the Pompidou Centre—looked nice today. Did I mention that I've actually been inside a few times? Once I almost threw some garbage into an exhibit—it looked like a trash can to me, and only after I saw the name plate next to it and noticed that it was all alone in the center of the room did I realize that it was actually “art.” I remember other exhibits, like Pollen Square, a giant square on the concrete floor covered with … pollen. Wow; those are the ones you want to write home about, eh? Anyway, I don't go there much any more, except to use the restrooms (still free, last time I was there) or to go up on the escalator to take pictures (except that now you have to pay for that). The escalator always reminds me of Beverly Center, although I think Beverly Center copied the Pompidou Centre.

Continuing into the Marais, I found myself walking past a spooky store that I've seen many times but never visited, called Eudemonium. It's always dark inside, behind heavy curtains, and it seems to specialize in statues of demons or things like that. I haven't gone inside because I'm afraid I might accidentally stumble through one of the gates of Hell or something. I wonder what kind of clientèle it has.

I also passed through the rue des Rosiers, which was very quiet because this was a Friday. For the same reason, my favoriate falafel shop was closed (although some other shops were open—I guess some shopkeepers are more devout than others). The street looks a lot tidier ever since it was repaved, but despite the emphasis on pedestrian traffic, there's still a never-ending stream of cars who seem bound and determined to drive through this tiny street, despite the lack of practicality and utility in doing so.

There are lots of things Jewish on the rue des Rosiers, of course (that's what it's famous for), including lots of places to eat kosher food (most of which were closed as I passed, alas!), and some places that sell religious stuff, and even an art gallery that sells religiously-oriented art. I'm only interested in buying food, but sometimes the other things are interesting to look at. My knowledge of Jewish religious doctrine is vague, and I don't speak Hebrew, so I don't understand everything that I see. I did note that the venerable Goldenberg delicatessen is still closed, after the health department shut it down for the umpteenth time—I guess it's really not going to reopen this time.

The rue des Rosiers is quite short, and I was soon walking back up to the rue des Francs Bourgeois. This latter street was tremendously busy, as usual, with tourists and with locals, as there are many shops on the street, mostly fashion-oriented. I have some video of the hustle and bustle on the street, which you can see here on YouTube (notice that you can hear people speaking English, and the Americans are pretty easy to recognize).

The place des Vosges was also busy, as it usually is. In addition to having Victor Hugo's house as an attraction (it is now a city-owned museum), it also has many art galleries and several restaurants. I actually like some of the art in the galleries, even though I'm not normally a fan of modern art. I don't remember what the restaurants are like, as I haven't eaten out in ages, especially here.

Finally, after walking around for quite some time, I ended up on Fig Tree Street (rue du Figuier), where the impressive Hôtel de Sens stands. This large mansion was built back in 1475—more than five hundred years ago—and yet it looks like it was finished yesterday. Except for the architectural style, that is, which looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie (especially inside the courtyard). Back when it was built, it was a residence for the archibishop of Sens, who covered Paris at the time (Paris got its own archbishop in 1622). Tristan de Salazar, who occupied the post at the time, had this fabulous mansion built. The quality of workmanship is remarkable. Not many buildings from that period survive in Paris, but this one looks like it'll be around for a long time. And anyone can visit it, as it is a public library today (what a cool place to read a book, eh?).

I finished my walk in the Latin Quarter, after walking past Notre-Dame. I had a mysterious coughing fit while walking past the cathedral: my throat got scratchy and the more I coughed the scratchier it got. Finally I managed to force myself to stop coughing until it settled down, but it was weird, it came and went suddenly. Maybe it was all that pollen.

Anyway, Notre-Dame looked exceptionally pretty in the clear air, even those terrible sculptures over the Door of the Last Judgement that depict the terrors of Hell for those who refuse to tread the high road of Catholicism. Most people couldn't read in the days when Notre-Dame was built (a thousand years ago), and so these sculptures told them what they needed to know about church doctrine in the form of 3D images … some of which leave little to the imagination.

After crossing the street into the Latin Quarter, I walked straight home. Later I went out to buy some groceries for the three day weekend: Monday was Pentecost, which is again a holiday after several years of government weirdness during which it was supposed to be a “working holiday” during which one worked without being paid.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Spring heat

Well, it's time for me to rant again, as a blast of heat invades Paris. Today the temperature is in the eighties (Fahrenheit). That means that our high in Paris is 16° hotter than the expected high for Los Angeles today. It means that the maximum today is 22° hotter than normal for this time of year, and in fact is 12° higher than the normal yearly maximum temperture for Paris (typically attained in August, not May).

My wreck of an air conditioner isn't working very well and it's difficult to do anything in the heat; even sleeping is a problem. Since air conditioners are considered a decadent luxury by Europeans no matter how hot it gets, they are priced like gold or diamonds: a portable unit costs seven times more here than it would in the U.S., and that's way more than I can afford.

It's supposed to be cooler tomorrow, but only if my luck changes. My luck for June may reach a new nadir, with the company doctor wanting to declare me unfit to work because of health problems, the government calling me into court to formally declare me bankrupt, my landlord—or rather the building management company—dunning me for back rent that actually isn't rent (apparently they “forgot” to break out the charges correctly), TNT (a courier company, like FedEx) dunning me for a fraudulent invoice to a company I've never heard of, and much more.

Anyway, before the current heat wave, the weather was pretty nice. Sunny with fluffy clouds, the kind of weather that Paris is famous for (and the kind that's disappearing, thanks to global warming). Supposedly, tourism is down in Paris as compared to last year, but the city still seems to be awash in tourists. The tourists now are wealthier, since in hard times the poor people can't scrape up enough for overseas vacations. I still see many Americans, even though the U.S. has entered a depression.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spring demonstrations

Public demonstrations seem to abound in springtime, especially those organized by labor unions. I've come across more than usual in the past few days.

I saw one demonstration at the FNAC on the Champs recently. The FNAC is a very cool store that sells all the things I like: computers, cameras, audio and video equipment, books, CDs, DVDs … all the good stuff. Apparently it wants to close its store or cut employees at its Bastille location (I didn't really investigate exactly what the complaint was), so employees demonstrated at the highly visible Champs-Élysées store. I'm sure it won't make any difference, but they demonstrated, anyway. I think most people couldn't care less about the grievances of the demonstrators, and are simply annoyed by having to work around them or go to a different store location. This was actually a bad choice for the demonstration, since many of the customers at this store are tourists, who don't care about local labor issues, and don't understand French, anyway, so they can't understand what the demonstrators are complaining about.

FNAC stands for Fédération nationale d'achats des cadres, which means, roughly, “Workers' Buying Federation.” And that justifies a slight digression.

Cadre today usually means “manager.” France is more class-conscious than the U.S., and still makes a sharp distinction between ordinary employees and cadres. Many French people long for the day when they will “passer cadre,” and join the managing class of society; it's a very big deal for them. I used to be cadre when I first came to France, but currently I'm not—I suppose that makes me less worthy as a human being than someone who is still cadre. It definitely makes a difference in how you are treated and what you are paid.

But in the case of the FNAC, cadre retains its older political meaning of “skilled workers,” as the store chain was started by a pair of strong socialists, to help ordinary workers gain access to good merchandise at reasonable prices. The political trappings are gone today, but the name remains. Nobody actually spells it out, though; they just pronounce it as “fnak,” rhyming roughly with “snack.” Never say F-N-A-C … that will definitely mark you as an out-of-towner.

It's a very popular store these days. It's not the cheapest store around, but it has a good selection of good products. In the days when I had money, it was a dangerous store for me, as I could not walk in without buying something before I left. Today I can't even afford batteries, so the danger is gone.

Enough with the digression. So these demonstrators were blocking the escalators at the entrance to the store, chanting into bullhorns, the usual song and dance. The usual waste of time. As the world increasingly becomes globalized, the unique practices of individual countries make less and less difference to large corporations. And old-school demonstrations like this seem increasingly anachronistic.

But this wasn't the only demonstration. While walking along the Avenue Montaigne, where all (well, most) top fashion designers live, I came across a closed street filled with colored bits of paper. It turns out the CGT (I've mentioned them before) was demonstrating about something. I'm not sure which company they targeted. There was a union member peppering a company representative with all sorts of questions, but since only the union member had a microphone, only the questions could be heard, not the answers. The demonstrators seemed very perturbed. I'm sure they probably wanted more money, more vacation, earlier retirement, lifetime employment, or one of those other standard things that demonstrators always want. They sure had made a mess in the street, though. The mess (along with the demonstrators) was gone when I passed later in the day—the city's cleaning army had been standing by, waiting for the demonstration to end so that they could clean things up.

In Paris, you get used to stuff like this. People on the street just trudged through all the paper and ignored the loud rants of the demonstrators. Just another day. I didn't even see anyone from the media.

But that's not all. I saw yet another demonstration on the other side of the river. Usually demonstrations are overwhelmingly male, but this particular one was 100% male—I saw no women at all. I'm not sure what they were demonstrating for, as they had no banners or anything, although they did have a catering truck for lunch. I never figured out what they were demonstrating about.

And perhaps the most unusual demonstrations I've seen lately have been “rogue” demonstrations by the Tamil Tigers around the Eiffel Tower. From what I've read, these demonstrations have not been officially authorized (that is, they don't have a permit). Which is not surprising, since the Tamil Tigers are one of the most notorious terrorist organizations around; both the European Union and the U.S. (and many other countries) formally classify them as a terrorist organization. But their demonstrations painted them as victims, and they had signs encouraging people to ask that they be removed from terrorist lists. The careful observer would see that their logo has a tiger ringed by golden bullets on it, but I could see that many people didn't quite realize what they were seeing, including some American tourists, who probably thought this group was some downtrodden helpless minority being crushed by a big bad government. These demonstrations appeared and disappeared quickly, so I suppose they were encouraged to disperse once the authorities found them. A few of the demonstrations led to violence, but fortunately I didn't see those. I think even some of the participants in the demonstrations didn't realize what type of organization they were demonstrating for.

My new mouse, and other things

I spent a huge amount of money (in relation to my income) on a mouse a few days ago. It cost €40 (more than I'll make before taxes this week). I use a mouse a lot, so it wasn't unjustified, but it was pricey.

I can't use an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, PS/2 mouse with a rubber-covered ball inside, like the old days. The computer loaned to me these days only accepts a USB mouse. I couldn't find a traditional mouse with a USB cable, so I had to get an optical mouse. That was more expensive than a traditional mouse, even though I have a traditional mouse that works perfectly (but it's PS/2, so I can't use it). Anyway, it turns out that an optical mouse doesn't track very well at the extremely high mouse sensitivity that I set on the computer (I like to be able to sweep the entire screen with only about one inch of mouse travel, so that I don't have to move anything more than fingertips when mousing). It wobbles at slow speeds, probably because the optical resolution is too low to match the sensitivity setting.

So I got a laser mouse. It's super-sensitive, so now it works very well. I have to get used to it more, though, because it's so sensitive that just staring at it will cause it to move. It's also a right-hand model, which in theory would be fine since I'm right-handed, but since I have a graphics tablet under my right hand, I mouse with the left hand, and this mouse doesn't come in left-handed versions. Oh well. In computerland, you are always spending money, not just to “upgrade,” but often just to keep things running.

Anyway, I walked all the way up to the computer store to get this mouse, and then I walked to school, and then I walked all the way home, including a stop for a few groceries. The weather was excellent, and much cooler and nicer outside than in the blast furnace of the apartment. Sunny with fluffy clouds, typical weather for this time of year. Tourists out in force.

I happened by the gigantic Printemps department store (right next to its gigantic competitor, the Galeries Lafayette department store), and noticed that the façade of the building is being restored. Part of it is done, the corner tower, and it looks very nice, so I took a picture. Heck, everything looked nice today, including the Opéra Garnier, which was nicely lit by the sun, and even the Assemblée Nationale (the French equivalent of a House of Representatives in the U.S.) looked nice.

It looks like the makeover of the old American Express office near the Opéra Garnier is complete. The American Express name has been retained, but the location is actually a store for Nestlé's Nespresso coffee, which here in France is promoted by George Clooney in huge posters captioned “What else?” (in English). The Amex office was/is a landmark, which is probably why the name was preserved (Amex still maintains operations in a tiny office off to one side). It has been a landmark in Paris for decades. But times change. Now it sells expensive coffee machines and even more expensive coffee cartridges.

On the way back from school, I noticed that the Bateaux-Mouches have changed their sign. They've been remodeling the whole site for a while. The new version (of the site) looks a bit odd, but at least it's new. And they finally changed the sign, too, adding a logo and a few photos and graphics. The old sign just said BATEAUX-MOUCHES.

Oh, and don't look for my reflection in the sign; believe it or not, I check all my photos and remove my reflection if present (but usually I take care when shooting to not have a reflection in the first place).

Friday, May 1, 2009

Life in the blast furnace on Labor Day

Well, the eternal problem has returned: My building management insists on keeping the building heat on full blast even when it's 70° F outside. As a result, it's 12°-20° hotter inside the apartment. There is no way to reduce the heat within the apartment, so I must exhaust it, by opening windows and by running my broken air conditioner, which barely produces any cold air at all these days.

So on these nice spring days, when the weather outside is wonderful, I'm spending money I don't have on electricity to pay for air conditioning to remove the excess heat that I'm also paying for, while the building furnace burns fuel oil and pollutes the air to create this excess heat. I guess City Hall's suggestion to keep building thermostats at 66° has gone unheeded, since it's at least ten degrees warmer than that inside this building. I imagine the building management doesn't care, since it just bills all costs back to us (both tenants and owners).

The weirdest part of this is that, in the wee hours of the morning, the heat mysteriously goes off, even though this is the coldest part of each 24-hour period. Then, in the heat of the day and afternoon, it comes back on, blasting away. I have one window directly over a radiator, so I open that, effectively wasting 100% of the energy spent on heat. But that's better than wasting 200% of the energy using A/C to remove the heat from the apartment.

It's like something Kafka would come up with. How can people be so … lacking in comprehension?

In other news … today is May Day, or Labor Day, the first of May. It's one of the rare days in the year when essentially everything is closed. Labor unions stage massive demonstrations on May Day to rehash their decades-old standard grievances: salaries that are too low, vacations that are too short, retirements that are too late, and so on. The CGT in particular, the most militant of the larger unions (and one that used to be closely associated with the now-ailing Communist Party in France, from what I understand), tries hard to maintain a permanently adversarial relationship with employers. No matter what an employer does, it's never enough, there's always something else that “must change,” some other “abuse” that must be rectified. Yes, there are a few true abuses from time to time, but often what the unions target are not really in that category; and, ironically, some of the true abuses are ignored by unions.

For example, I work under a type of employment contract that expertly works around just about every employee protection written into French law. It manages to cut away the “safety net” that former socialist governments of France tried so hard to create. But I don't see any union actions attempting to change this. During this coming week I'll earn a total of €36, before taxes. It's hard to pay rent and buy food on €36 a week. What are unions doing to fix that? Nothing, as far as I can see. But they do work hard to make sure that some people working in the public sector can retire at 50.

Blog Archive