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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