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.