Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A visit with the social worker

I had an appointment with a social worker today. The law requires that anyone being faced with eviction proceedings must be counseled by a social worker. She was very nice. She told me about rent assistance (aide au logement), for which I can apply to the Caisse des allocations familiales—the welfare board, in other words. So I shall gather all the papers necessary for that and apply. She talked about some other stuff, too, but I quickly became confused by all the various welfare plans available. I don't know if I'll qualify for any of them, but if she can find something to help, that would be great. She will also prepare a statement that she will give to the court for my hearing.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving (?)

Thanksgiving isn't celebrated in France, which seems to come to a surprise to most Americans. But that's the way “foreign” countries are, you know: everything is different!

My mailbox contained a sort of Thanksgiving souvenir, namely, a summons. My landlord wants to evict me for being late on the rent. The eviction hearing is set for January 25. Proof that France does not observe Thanksgiving, I guess.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Heat 'n Hu

A new all-time record for nighttime temperature in Paris was set a few days ago, with 15.4° C (59.7° F) recorded, beating the previous record set in 1924. The temperature itself wasn't uncomfortable, but it was accompanied by 80% relative humidity, which made the day miserable. I had to turn the air conditioning on to remove the humidity. The situation was complicated by the fact that the building heating system is now running at its usual fusing-platinum setting. Things haven't improved much: right now it's 15.5° C (7° above normal) with 76% humidity.

Anyway, with the weather report out of the way: The latest “excitement” has been the visit of Hu Jintao to Paris. Hu Jintao is the president of China, which I discovered after looking it up (I don't follow politics and about the only politicians I know are Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy). France and Paris have gone overboard to give HJ the royal treatment. A large chunk of the city has been blocked off during his stay, and the Champs was blocked for a time while he rode by, accompanied by the Garde Républicaine, a part of the Gendarmerie that is mainly devoted to pomp and circumstance, with fancy horses, shiny helmets, etc. I'm so jaded by such events these days that I didn't even have the energy to take a picture—sorry.

The security was comparable to that accorded to the POTUS when he afflicts France with a visit, only with the added pomp of the horses and stuff. Granted, Forbes magazine considers HJ to be the most powerful person in the world, but I don't think he has nearly as many enemies as Obama, so the heavy security was puzzling. So was the royal/deity treatment. But then I discovered that HJ had come with €20 billion in his pocket for desperate French companies, and I understood.

I actually saw the man driving down the Champs, as I happened to be there when he passed. There was a modest gathering of people behind the barricades on the avenue. The procession was quite over-the-top, though, with multiple motorcycle escorts, the aforementioned horses and shiny helmets, and so on. I saw the world's most powerful person in the car, but I didn't know it was him until I got home and saw a picture of him (of course, I suspected it was the Chinese head of state, what with the Chinese flags up and down the avenue and all, but I had no idea what he looked like).

I'm not sure whether all the theater was intended to convince HJ that France could be just as oppressive as the PRC, or whether it was just to flatter him so that he'd sign those billion-euro checks more quickly. The €20 billion or so he's leaving behind will help many French companies to fatten their profit margins and accelerate their outsourcing of jobs to Romania. Still, it's only a drop in the bucket compared to the zillions of dollars and euro sent to China by Western countries in exchange for cheap goods and in pursuit of short-term gains.

(I remember when my mommy used to tell me to clean my plate because there were millions of children starving in China. Nowadays, what appears on the average American child's plate may have actually come from China, at dirt-cheap prices, and complete with a sprinkling of cadmium, melanine, lead, or some other extra ingredients.)

Anyway … in a way it's refreshing to see France kowtow to someone other than the POTUS.

In other news: The American store in my neighborhood got a new shipment of delicious Welch's grape soda, so I bought a can ($3.50) against my better judgment. My diet tends to be dictated by whatever has the lowest price at the grocery store (pound cake, potato chips, etc.), but sometimes I weaken and buy a special treat. Starbucks sells some delicious raspberry and white-chocolate cheesecake, but it's even more expensive ($6.20 a slice), so it's an even rarer treat. Ditto for ice cream ($9 a cup).

Monday, November 1, 2010

Boo! (hoo?)

Well, Halloween has come and gone, and France seems to have ignored it. No surprise there. The store down the street, which normally sells pillowcases, towels, and other items that make it nearly impossible to turn a profit, still stocks up on Halloween stuff each year, and there was a lot of stuff in the window when I passed it a few days ago. I don't know if they're making as much money with the scary stuff as they used to. I was out to buy some food briefly on Halloween itself and I didn't see anyone dressed for it.

Today is All Saints Day (Toussaint, in French), and it's actually a public holiday. Technically, it's a two-day Catholic holiday (the next day is All Souls Day), but nobody cares about the second day. And they only care about the first day because it's a day off from work for many businesses. And it's the justification for a two-week school holiday, which is even more important. In theory, at least, the French visit their dead relatives in cemeteries on November 1, but I don't know how common that actually is (I don't visit people in cemeteries, as a general rule, be they relatives or not). I've had two aunts and two uncles die in the past year, but wherever they are, I'm sure it's not in a cemetery, and I doubt that they sit around waiting for visits from me … life (or afterlife) goes on, after all.

Vacation has stopped all the strikes. The French love to strike, but they love to go on vacation even more. So when a vacation period rolls around, they lose enthusiasm for striking. It's one thing to use a strike as an excuse for skipping work or school, but it's quite another to be expected to give up vacation time for a strike. So the strikes have fizzled. It helps that the French legislature finally passed the bill that increases the retirement age from 60 to 62, so it's pretty much a done deal now.

I like this time of year. The weather is extremely nice. These days I can't afford to go out and enjoy it, but it's still nice to know that it's there. Paris has actual seasons, whereas the region where I was born, in the Great American Southwest, does not (actually, winter was hot, and summer was hotter, but that hardly qualifies in my book). I'm 15 degrees further north here than in the town of my birth, so the seasons and the daytime periods are more variable. It provides variety—just when you get tired of a given time of year, you enter a new season.

Weather at this time of year does remind me of the Valley of the Sun in one way, though. When I was tiny, we used to go to the state fair every year at this time, and the city being within a desert, it actually got a little bit chilly at night in late October, which I loved. (Today, MegaPhoenix is so large that it never cools off, even at night.) Of course, the sights and sounds of the fair probably were part of it: corn dogs, Indian fry bread, turkey sandwiches cooked over mesquite with BBQ sauce, etc. All the junk food that the French don't eat.

Paris doesn't have state fairs, but it has many other attractions that compensate. At this time of year, the sun is already setting a lot sooner, and there's a very nice time around dusk during which it's getting quite dark, except for the deep blue twilight glow in the sky, and yet all the stores and shops are open. So you have this nice cozy light on the street, and the deep blue in the sky, and a chill in the air, and tons and tons of people on the streets, and it's very nice.

Poverty prevents me from going for the very long walks in Paris that I used to enjoy, but I did manage to walk for a while after buying some stuff at the Indian grocery I prefer, near the Gare du Nord. It's practically on the opposite side of town from where I live, and Métro tickets are outside my budget, so it's a long walk. But it's nice when the weather is nice.

Nobody ever walks on the street where I was born—it's too hot, and everything is miles apart, so you always drive around in a car. In Paris, everything is within walking distance, if you have some extra time, and if you don't, there's great public transportation. Everything is busy and bright and attractive, and you can walk for hours in the evening just watching the “flow of humanity,” so to speak (I hate corny expressions like that, but I can't think of anything better right now).

For example, coming home from the Indian grocery, I passed through some extremely busy areas east of the Opéra Garnier. For example, walking west on the boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle and then along the boulevard des Capucines, it's practically non-stop restaurants, and all of them are busy. There are lots of cinemas as well, and shops. In the evening, at dusk, there are just amazing numbers of people in these areas. Parisians have small apartments and prefer to go out to entertain, so when the weather is nice, they are out in force, and the weather when I came home from getting groceries was superb.

Anyway … all the Christmas lights are now installed on the Champs. I saw crews putting them up on the avenue Montaigne on Friday, too. I'm not sure when they are officially turned on. I wonder if they'll try to find another celebrity who might be recognized by Americans to participate in the ceremony, as they did last year (I think it was Marion Cotillard then). They don't realize that Americans just don't care.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The riots that never were

I'm being constantly reminded these past few days of the immense gulf that separates the media from reality. I'm being asked regularly (by people far away from the City of Light) how I'm dealing with the “riots” in Paris that people are seeing reported by the ever-reliable news media. And I reply, as always, that I've only seen riots on the news, just as they have. In the real world, I don't see anything.

Right now, Parisians are mostly irritated by recent strikes, not by any kind of riots or violence. Transport strikes are the most irritating. However, in reality, they haven't been that bad, at least not over the past two or three days. It depends on where you are going, though. For those of us who live and work inside the city, transit strikes hardly matter at all, since we can walk to work. I walk to work every day, so I don't see strikes much. I did ride the Métro and RER on Monday, and while the Métro was fine, the RER was slightly slower than usual (about half the normal number of trains). So I had to wait ten minutes or so for a train, but it wasn't too crowded. In France, a strike usually means a significant work slowdown, but not a total stop.

As for the “riots,” I haven't seen any of those. And while the media reports on various and sundry disturbances in Paris, I haven't actually witnessed these disturbances, even though, in some cases, I've supposedly walked right through them. It's as if the news media live in another dimension.

Nothing has made me more wary of the news media than living in Paris. When you live in a city that is the center of so much world news, you very rapidly come to see just how hopelessly distorted news reporting is. There's just no connection between what the media say and what's actually happening. The constant sensationalism of the media with respect to Paris has led me to be extremely suspicious of anything the media says about any topic. I take all news reports with an enormous grain (or rather boulder) of salt these days.

I've seen some non-Parisian news items that clearly illustrate the media's total cluelessness. For example, a few days ago, at Fleet Week in San Francisco—an event that includes many impressive airshows—a Boeing 747 was invited to make a flyover during one of the shows. These flyovers are heavily regulated by the FAA, which defines very specific areas in which they are allowed to take place, with very specific restrictions and very precise waivers of certain regulations so that they may be carried out safely and legally. Anyway, someone made a video recording of the 747 flyover, and somehow CNN got hold of this video, and CNN presenters (with absolutely no clue concerning aviation, photography, Fleet Week, or anything else) apparently interpreted the flyover as some sort of neo-9/11 attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. Supposedly one of the presenters (I didn't see the initial newscast, as I don't watch TV) even said to the other “don't look at it!” apparently because he thought the 747 was going to hit the bridge.

Now, I watched the video, and it was abundantly, blatantly obvious that the 747 wasn't anywhere near the bridge. It passed well in front of one of the towers, which it could not do if it were actually flying towards it. And the relative size of the airplane in comparison to the tower in the background made it equally obvious that the 747 was thousands of feet away from the bridge. I don't understand how anyone could think otherwise. But CNN pounced on it, broadcasting sensationalistic claptrap without even trying to verify anything. (Other news services seemingly missed this news, thank goodness.) The FAA felt compelled to issue a statement, just the same, reassuring all that there was absolutely no conflict between the 747 and the bridge. People who were actually at the show weren't especially bothered by the flyover, without the polluting influence of CNN news.

Anyway, that's not the first time that CNN has blown it. I recall it posting a scary story about an asteroid headed for the Earth a few years ago, and another story about a solar flare threatening our planet. Both posted without any background research at all, and more or less retracted shortly therafter.

I mention all this to illustrate just how unreliable the media are. You can take anything they say and just throw it away.

Back to Paris, then. All is well here. The weather is slightly chillier than normal, but it's sunny outside, and I rather like chilly weather, anyway. There are still scattered protests and strikes, but there are always protests and strikes in Paris. That's one reason why Paris lost its bid for the Olympics—the threat of strikes was just too great to make the Olympic committee comfortable.

The strikers and demonstrators this time are from the extreme low end of the curve, I'm afraid, although strikers in general are often not very gifted intellectually. Apparently they cannot do simple math. The government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 (oh my!), which would still make it one of the earliest retirement ages in Europe. There isn't much choice, since money is running out, as the population ages. You cannot pay people retirement for half their lives. There's no other option … but some people are still whining about it. It just amazes me. It makes French people look extremely selfish and stupid to the rest of the world.

And, as with all demonstrations of this sort, there are always some looters who infiltrate the demonstrators and use demonstrations as an opportunity to steal TV sets from stores and what-not. It's hard to track them down and arrest them in such large crowds, although more than a thousand have been intercepted and charged. They don't care about the purpose of the demonstrations, they only care about how much loot they can collect in the confusion.

And then you have the totally clueless teenagers from high schools who demonstrate only to escape class and to have an excuse to rant and rave. It is somewhat revealing that they especially like to demonstrate during school hours—weekends, on the other hand, are for other occupations.

Oh well … never a dull moment in the City of Light!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Weather as it should be!

The weather was completely seasonal for October today … which is to say that the weather was excellent. Clear skies, cool temperatures, and a nice breeze, and clean air.

April in Paris is justifiably famous, as spring weather in the city is generally excellent. But what is less known is that fall weather is just as nice. When the city is not being blasted by heat waves, it's wonderful to be outside. And the temperate climate of the city means that spring and fall last for a long time, whereas summer and winter are relatively short. For the same reason, summer traditionally isn't very hot, and winter isn't very cold, although the past 15 years or so have seen a general and significant increase in temperatures, especially in summer.

For the moment, however, the weather is seasonal, which is the kind of weather I like, and the kind I encountered when I first moved to Paris.

Tomorrow is supposed to be a big strike day, with many major unions scheduling yet another round of useless strikes in various domains. Transportation is always affected, because that's what gets the most air time on the news. Sometimes utility companies are affected, or government services. When a standard strike doesn't get enough attention, unions will occasionally resort to sabotage, such as greasing rails to prevent trains from safely passing over them, or deliberately turning off electricity to neighborhoods to emphasize a utility strike. This all seems exceedingly puerile to me, but what can you do?

The unions and their constituents are still protesting retirement reforms. They might as well protest cloudy days, since there is simply no alternative to reform for the future.

Anyway, I'm unaffected by most strikes, since strikes usually affect transportation, and I walk to and from school each day. It's 45 minutes each way, but it's my only exercise, and I can't really afford to take the Métro or bus, anyway (my income is so low that even Métro tickets are a bit of a luxury, which I ration carefully). I think I've mentioned this before, but since money matters preoccupy me, I'm mentioning it again.

I noticed that Christmas lights on the Champs were being put up in mid-September this year. It seems to get earlier every year. Eventually I suppose they'll be on year-round. I cynically suspect that the reason for this is to encourage consumers to spend money, rather than to encourage spiritual reflection in visitors to the avenue. Given that side streets along the Champs are increasingly populated by seedy entraineuse bars, and that the avenue is afflicted during the night with scum from the suburbs looking for trouble, the general trend seems to be very much away from spiritual enlightenment.

Halloween is just three weeks away, but since the death several years ago of the person who single-handedly promoted the event in France (and whom I've talked about in previous posts), there is no significant interest in it that I can see. Cultures are not easily changed.

The day after Halloween is a holiday in France, on which families traditionally visit their dead relatives in cemeteries, but there isn't any celebration or commercial activity associated with that—even though you'd think that a cemetery would be a great place to dress up as a vampire or ghost. Actually, cemeteries in Paris are spooky enough even without costumes, with Père Lachaise being at the top of the spooky and interesting lists.

In other news … I am amused by the lines I see waiting outside Louis Vuitton on the Champs these days. I can't imagine why anyone would wait in line for the dubious privilege of spending too much money on things of too little value, but people do it. Asian tourists are especially enchanted by Louis Vuitton—my experience is that tourists from the Far East in general have extremely gauzy dreams about Paris that are only very tenuously connected to reality. It makes me wonder how media portray the city in that part of the world. Anyway, I guess most of the people waiting in line don't realize that there's another Louis Vuitton store on the avenue Montaigne, just off the Champs, and there's no line and no waiting there.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Danger, danger!

Well, not really. A lot of people have been asking me if France is safe lately (except for my parents, who now know better, after years of experience with sensationalist media reports). The answer is yes.

Just today, the government gave final approval to a new law that prohibits people from hiding their faces in public (with a few exceptions, such as upcoming Halloween parties, if any). The main purpose of the law is to prohibit Muslim and/or Arab women from hiding their faces in public. The public and government perception of this practice is that it represents an unacceptable form of oppression of women, and so the hope is that by outlawing it, men who attempt to restrict the freedoms of their female relatives will be forced to relent, at least a little bit, and at least in public.

The reality is that almost nobody in France hides her face. Even though about six percent of the population is Muslim, most Muslims are no more religious than most Christians or Jews, and don't observe elaborate restrictions on attire. Not only that, but the practice of hiding the face is only common in certain Muslim countries, and isn't actually required by Islam itself (which only counsels modesty, not specific items of attire). What this means is that there are perhaps 1000-2000 women in France who conceal their faces out of Muslim or Arab tradition, while the rest do not. This also means that the law will have very little practical effect, since hardly any women hide their faces, anyway. But it is an important symbolic gesture, for better or for worse.

The law provides that women (or actually anyone) hiding their faces in public will have to pay a fine. It also provides, however, that men who compel their female spouses or relatives to conceal themselves in this way can be sentenced to pay a huge fine and even serve jail time. Here again, the idea is to prevent a general oppression of women from taking hold in France.

I can't agree with a law that dictates how people should dress in public, although I understand the motivation behind the law. The great majority of people in France favor it, although quite a few have the same reservations that I do. We'll see how it works out—it will take effect next year. Since so few women conceal their faces, anyway, there probably won't be many prosecutions … although a few women have been deliberately flaunting the future law to get media attention (such as one who was thrown out of the audience of a courtroom recently because she refused to reveal her face).

Anyway, this new law has angered a very small number of chronically angry males who believe that women are property, not human beings, and this has led to various acts of rebellion, the most visible of which being several phoned-in bomb scares at places around the city. In September, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice after someone phoned in bomb threats (no bombs were found). The government feels that the risk of protest actions, violent or otherwise, is elevated right now because of these angry young males. I'm sure in time the kiddies will settle down—people like them are always fuming about something, for anger is their nature.

As for actual “terrorist” actions, well, there have been none. Life goes on as usual. This does not prevent media outlets from making mountains out of molehills, nor does it prevent the band of cowards at the U. S. State Department from issuing travel advisories for Europe. But even the State Department merely said that travelers should be vigilant … not that they should stay at home and hide under their beds, although there are probably a few who will do that.

My parents know better now, as I've said, so they no longer send urgent e-mails or telephone messages asking if I'm still alive. And I have to admit that living in a big city that is so often in the news, and seeing the gigantic gulf that separates media reports from reality, has taught me to be extremely wary of anything the news media say about anything in the world. In fact, I simply don't watch the news; I long ago learned that you don't really miss anything by skipping the news, and life seems a lot more pleasant when you aren't constantly hearing doom and gloom reports from “around the world in thirty minutes.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

The natives are restless

Yes, the natives are restless, which is not an unusual state for the French, who are among the world's most dedicated whiners.

The target of their complaints these days is retirement reform. The French have some of the longest life expectancies in the world—in fact, French women have the second-longest lifespans in the world, after the Japanese—and so naturally the population is gradually aging. The problem is that the country has long had generous retirement policies that allow people to retire from some jobs as early as 50 years of age. But the way things are going, 50 years of age is closely approaching the midpoint of life, meaning that a person retiring at that age is going to live for just as long after retirement as he did before. And that's a problem, because the working portion of the population has to support the retired portion of the population, and the former is shrinking, while the latter is growing.

For years, the French government has tried to address this problem, but the French descend into the streets at the slightest provocation, and interminable strikes by major labor unions have caused the government to constantly pull back on its plans to reform the retirement system. Still, reform is a mathematical inevitability, so it's only a question of time. The longer the government waffles over it, the worse it's going to be. You'd think that labor unions would understand this, but they don't, and since their primary concern is actually to show how powerful they are, rather than to work in the best interests of their constituencies, they constantly oppose every hint of reform.

Anyway, this means that there are lots of demonstrations in Paris. Anyone who lives in this city is used to those, but they are still a nuisance. Some of them have been taking place on my standard route to school, which means that for days at a time I run into CRS agents (riot police) who are blocking one of the streets I usually take, forcing me to detour down a side street. The CRS is there to prevent any demonstration from getting out of hand, since there are always angry males in any demonstration who can easily get carried away. Usually everyone behaves, but no chances are taken. Chanting is one thing; throwing rocks at the windows of government buildings is quite another. The CRS aren't always friendly when working in this capacity, but they are generally civil, and actually I usually prefer to be on their side than on the side of the demonstrators, who tend to be very self-centered and aggressive sometimes.

So I thread my way between demonstrations. Sometimes I'm unlucky and I stumble right into one, with people chanting and carrying banners and what-not. They always want the same things: either special privileges or money. They even use the same tune for their chants, although the words change. Sometimes high-school and college students demonstrate, but only because it gives them a day off from school—typically they have even less of a clue as to the purpose of the demonstration than their elders.

My neighborhood has a higher than normal proportion of government buildings and ministries, so it gets a lot of demonstrations. Usually the CRS are good at figuring out who is part of the demonstration and who isn't, and those who are obviously just local residents going about their business are allowed to move unimpeded past the barricades. Sometimes they are mistaken, especially in my case, because, with my hiking boots and shorts and my fly-fishing vest, I suppose I look like a militant. But eventually I get to where I'm going. Sometimes I find myself on the CRS side of the barricades (as in my picture here). I find all demonstrations tiring so I just avoid them; there is no novelty in them for me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nice weather

Excellent weather today, not too hot and not too humid (although still a bit much of both for my tastes. I took a simple photo at the top of the Champs on the way home. Blue skies with fluffy clouds and a breeze.

Most people think of Paris in the spring, or indeed April in Paris, as being the best time of the year for the city, but the fall is just as nice. Spring and fall typically last for quite a long time in Paris, so there's lots of very nice weather.

The nice weather almost made me forget that I had only €2.50 to my name. I should be paid soon, though (my employer takes weeks to pay us each month, for some reason).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I've been living in Paris for quite some time, so I don't really know what prices are like elsewhere. I thought my non-Parisian readers (if any) might be interested in seeing a typical grocery bill from a large supermarket in Paris. This is what I spend on one recent visit (I've converted to U.S. dollars at the current exchange rate on the assumption that the reader is in the U.S.):
Qty            Description            Unit Price  Total Price

6 whole milk 1.5 liters $ 3.07 $ 18.42
1 caffeine-free Coke 1.5 liters 1.93 1.93
5 pound cakes 200 g 1.59 7.95
2 chunks of pre-grilled tuna 4.70 9.40
1 box of 18 fish sticks, frozen 5.21 5.21
1 twin pack of paper towels 2.60 2.60
2 twin packs 25 cl heavy cream 3.59 7.18
2 medium bags Bugels (crispy snack) 1.47 2.94
1 twin pack plastic dish-scrubbing pads 3.43 3.43
2 mini sausage snack packs 3.26 6.52
2 hachis parmentier frozen meals 4.44 8.88
1 three-pack dish sponges 4.84 4.84

TOTAL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 79.30
This represents about five hours of salary. The milk will last almost a week (I like milk), the other foods will last for a few days. I have to buy a similar amount of groceries almost twice a week, so that's about $120 a week for food, or about $520 a month (roughly two thirds the amount of my rent). This does not include things like eating during lunch at school, which can cost from nothing (if I skip it) to $15 or so (one hour's wages).

Most of my money thus goes to food and rent, with the rest (if there is any “rest”) going to utilities. My tax burden is minimal because I'm now below the minimum taxable income level.

If you think that my choice of foods seems nutritionally questionable, I agree. However, I'm constrained to pick based on price and preparation time, and that tends to favor nutritionally unbalanced, calorie-dense foods.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Noise from where?

For some time now, I've been hearing music reverberate through my building at all times of day and night. Only the louder bass parts get through, but it's typically the boom-boom-boom type of beat that you hear in the bulk-purchased background music played in hair salons and trendy clothing boutiques.

It's not so much the sound that bothers me. What bothers me is that I cannot seem to localize it. I don't think it's coming from either of my immediate neighbors. It doesn't seem to be coming from an apartment in the hallway. And I can hear it well at some points, but not others. If I go outside the building, there's no noise, which is unlikely if there were an open window near the source of the music (as there is likely to be at this time of year). It's quite a mystery.

I do wish that whoever is playing it were interested in a wider variety of music—what I'm hearing now sounds like that kind of disposable pop music that no one will remember six months from today. And he or she must have some pretty substantial speakers, perhaps the massive kind of speakers favored by people who have had their hearing damaged by a massive kind of speaker.

Oh well, maybe I'll eventually figure out where it is coming from. It just started this summer, which implies a new tenant, or someone renting something for the summer (we'll see if it disappears in September).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Is it the full moon?

A few days ago, while I was enjoying the cold air from the air conditioner, a bus rolled into the Seine River. Yup, that's right, a tour bus, parked at the Bateaux Parisiens (one of the excursion boat companies on the river, this one very near the Eiffel Tower), just rolled right off the parking lot and into the river. The bus was unoccupied, its load of Austrian tourists and driver being on the excursion boats. The driver swears he set the parking brake. Very strange, and a first in recent memory.

The parking lot is on a very gentle incline, but I'm still not clear on how the bus could get rolling like that, especially if the parking brake truly was set. I wonder what became of all the shopping bags and luggage that were probably stored in the bus. Oh well.

There's a video of the bus on YouTube, which you can see here.

That's not all, though. A few days after the bus rolled into the river, a barge going upriver sank. That, too, is a first in my experience. Here again, the crew claims not to have any idea why the barge sank, but my guess is that it was overloaded, as many of the barges tend to be. It was carrying sand, and it was probably loaded down all the way to the water line. A few waves probably washed over it from passing boats, and put some water into the sand, which of course made it heavier. From there on it would be a vicious circle, with the boat sinking deeper and deeper and taking on more and more water.

The moon was full during one of these days; maybe that had something to do with it. Lots of weird things seem to be happening lately.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Relief at last!

The start of July was terribly hot. It has relented slightly but I still worry about the future. Fortunately, my mommy and daddy have gifted me with a new air conditioner, to replace the old one, which had more things wrong with it than I can count (broken bearings, loss of refrigerant, half-working fans, a leaking condensate tank, broken dehumidification, broken switches, etc.).

The new A/C is more powerful than its predecessor, and of course it's brand-new, so everything works. It seems to be very efficient. It's an Italian design, by DeLonghi, which has a pretty good reputation for appliances and A/Cs), although the Italian part worries me somewhat (I'd prefer German design). It was built in China, which worries me more, but it's the best I could manage.

The A/C has an unusual feature that takes water from a tank that you fill and sprays it on the condenser coils on the hot side of the A/C. If you know how A/Cs work, you'll recognize this as a very effective way to massively increase the cooling capacity of the unit. It appears to work really well, the only drawback being that you have to fill the tank periodically. It will still cool without the water, but not as efficiently. It is so efficient when the tank has water that it is exempt from certain EU requirements for energy efficiency.

The unit claims to accept tap water, and supposedly has a resin filter to soften it. Tap water in Paris is moderately hard (about two thirds of Parisian water comes from underground wells that contain quite a bit of minerals), and the A/C has a setting for this. However, just to be on the safe side and to extend the life of the unit, I've been using distilled water, even though that costs about €0.50 a litre. In typical weather, where I only use the A/C intermittently, it seems to go through a 10-litre tank filling in about 10 hours. Electrically, I've calculated that the cost of operating the A/C 24 hours a day would be about €90 per month, but since that (hopefully) will never happen, the real cost should be about €20 per month during the summer.

You can see that I'm obsessed with air conditioning. I grew up in a hellish desert climate, and there is absolutely no way that I'll tolerate hot weather ever again. Paris gets hotter every year, so A/C is a necessity now for some part of each year, and I can't live without it. Fortunately, thanks to Mommy and Daddy, I can sleep reasonably well at night in summer, without tossing and turning on sheets that are sopping wet with sweat.

Europeans still think that air conditioning is decadent, and “wastes energy.” They are such complete dorks sometimes! Well, they may prefer to live in the 17th century, but I'll stay in the 21st, thank you.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Weekly Heat Wave

The wonderfully cool weather (with pretty clouds—see my picture at right) of last week has given way to blistering heat again. The heat waves outnumber and outlast the cold snaps by a substantial margin. It's difficult to do much of anything when it's 95° F outside on the street (the “official” temperature is always lower, but it isn't measured on actual streets where real people walk).

I've had to turn on my rickety A/C, which doesn't work very well but is better than nothing. I thought of getting a fan to draw cooler air through the apartment in the middle of the night, but I can't afford a fan (the cheapest I've seen is €20, which is more than I can afford).

I notice that when the sun is out and there are no clouds, the temperature rises consistently by about 4° F each day. If nothing interrupts this progression, there seems to be no obvious limit to how hot it can get, which makes it possible for Paris to beat places like Las Vegas in temperature in some cases. And yet Paris is actually north of Montreal. I've heard it said that if the Gulf Stream stopped, it would lower temperatures in Western Europe by several degrees; perhaps that would be a good thing for Paris, where temperatures have risen by more than a few degrees in just the past decade or two. The historically “normal” temperatures for the city are often 15° F below the real-world temperatures of the city these days.

For several thousand years, Paris has had a cool climate. Why did it suddenly become hot only a short time after I moved here? It's like hot weather follows me around like a curse. No matter where I go, I find myself listening to air-conditioning units running.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I know that I have trillions of fans assiduously following my superlative Paris blog, and I'd hate to have them slit their wrists in depression simply because I've not posted often enough recently, so I suppose I should provide a general update of sorts, on various subjects.

The weather has been good and bad over the past few weeks. “Good” in my book means cool and cloudy; “bad” means sunny and hot. (This is the opposite of what most people prefer, but I was born and raised in a hellish desert climate, and I have no desire to return to that experience.) Some weeks have been well below average in temperature, and I've been (relatively) happy. Other weeks have been very hot, and I've been unhappy. Right now a new heat wave has started, so the weather is depressing me.

My tiny microwave broke, after long years of loyal service. Although microwaves are cheap these days, they were still beyond my budget, so my parents sent me money to buy a new one (my parents regularly save me from starvation with handouts, since my employer's abusive policies prevent anyone from earning a decent wage). I got a very cheap one that lacks the features the old one had, but I never used any of the features on the old one other than the timer, so I haven't really lost anything. I got the microwave at Darty, a very popular appliance store that is very good with customer service (making it an extremely rare exception to the French rule). That's where I've bought all my appliances over the years, since my experiences with them have always been positive.

The replacement of the microwave meant I could heat things again, so I've been able to eat warm rice and dehydrated apples, plus milk, which are about all the food budget allows these days.

Last weekend, there was a Major Media Event on the Champs, during which all sorts of plants were planted right on the street for Sunday and Monday (which was a holiday). Had the temperature not been at the level of a blast furnace, I might have gone to visit this event, but I can't stand to go outside in hot weather. The temperatures were in the 90s (Fahrenheit) on the street.

Earlier in May I missed the Paris City Fair (Foire de Paris), one of the two largest expositions to come to Paris each year (the other being the International Agricultural Show, which I also missed). No budget, and no time, as usual. It's unfortunate because this fair is often pretty interesting, especially the home-improvement sections (of which there are many), with their fully-built model kitchens and gadgets and other things. Come to think of it, I haven't been to either of these shows in years. Time passes quickly.

While walking across town to buy some curry paste for rice (the Métro is also beyond my budget these days) on a somewhat cooler day, I encountered not one but two demonstrations in the Latin Quarter and next to Notre-Dame. Living in Paris rapidly inures one to demonstrations, so I didn't even really take note of what they were about, but tourists were snapping away with their pocket cameras—which I suppose doesn't necessarily mean that they knew what the demonstrations were about, either.

Lately there has been much talk in France about banning the burqa (a garment that entirely conceals a woman, including her eyes) in public. I believe some legislation has been passed to this effect but I don't know its current status. I don't favor laws that impose dress codes on people on public right-of-way, even though the burqa is closely associated with oppression of women in some countries. If a woman really does want to be treated as property by her husband, and chooses to wear this exceptionally bizarre (by Western standards) garment, that is her prerogative. I do agree, however, that the garment should be removed to make the face and head visible when necessary for identification purposes (and that includes when driving).

Hardly anyone actually wears burqas in France, anyway. The estimates I've seen are around 1000 women for the whole country. Often they are either trying to advertise their religious beliefs, or they are simply tourists from countries where this attire is normal (and often required) for women. Black seems to be the favored color, which makes me wonder how women dressed like this in places like Saudi Arabia are able to avoid heat stroke (I note that the men dress in white, which makes perfect sense, so I wonder why the women would dress in black, which seems a bit morbid in attention to being conducive to heat prostration).

There are a lot of women who wear scarves in France, and do so because of Muslim beliefs, not because of fashion. The more elaborate the head or body covering, the more a woman is trying to advertise her beliefs. It's not really any different from a Christian woman wearing a gigantic crucifix on a chain around her neck to “witness” her devotion to Jesus, or a Hasidic Jewish man carefully dressing in order to satisfy every detail of the myriad requirements for attire imposed by Judaism. Part of it may be pure religious devotion, but part of it also tends to be advertising.

Anyway, not much else to report from the City of Light for the moment. High season for tourism is in full swing, and tourists are everywhere; even in a depression, Paris leads the way as a tourist destination. And I've been trying to sell things on eBay, but I'm running low on possessions. I've been wondering if I could get anything for books or a couple of DVDs—although the eBay store doesn't like to sell anything that is worth less than 30 euro.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Il faut que la voiture s'adapte à Paris !

Like virtually all European cities, Paris was founded and prospered long before automobiles came along, and many of its streets are designed only for pedestrians and the occasional cart and horse, not for SUVs and Hummers. Despite this, the city has gradually been forced into yielding to the automobile over more than a century, and the results are grim (in my view).

A typical small street in Paris has several lanes reserved for cars, and only a very, very tiny space reserved for sidewalks. There are many streets that have “sidewalks” that are only about 18 inches wide. Pedestrians are thus forced to walk in the street half the time, and that's dangerous, not only because of cars, but especially because of motorcycles, which routinely pass between lanes of cars at high speed (it's illegal, but this is France).

The street where I work is no exception to this rule. Three lanes, two for parking and one for driving, are reserved for cars. The tiny sidewalks are barely a yard (one meter) wide. You can see from my picture that there are lots of pedestrians struggling to walk on the sidewalk without stepping into the street (where they might be killed by an illegal motorcycle), whereas the vast expanse of pavement reserved for cars is largely empty.

The current mayor has tried hard to reduce vehicular traffic in Paris, but I don't believe he has attacked this problem yet. I wish he would.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pain in the Ash

Some days ago, a volcano erupted in Iceland. That's not especially unusual, nor even very newsworthy, since volcanoes erupt in Iceland all the time; Iceland is somewhat the European capital of volcanoes (with Italy probably running a close second). But there was a bit of a problem with this erupted, in that it was spewing out hundreds of tons per second of particularly nasty volcanic ash—and prevailing winds aloft were carrying the ash directly towards the rest of Europe.

Aviation authorities did the prudent thing and halted air traffic over the Continent. That's something that routinely happens everywhere when huge plumes of volcanic ash threaten aviation. The difference here, though, was that the ash was drifting over an area that is home to 600 million people, with some of the busiest airspace in the world. Stopping air traffic in this area thus became very painful financially to many companies within a short time.

Safety dictates that aircraft not fly through volcanic ash at all. Ash of the kind being coughed up by Ejyafjallajökull isn't like sand or ordinary dust: it is made of microscopic, jagged, sharp pieces of glassy rock that can chew through just about anything far faster than ordinary sandblasting. Worse yet, the ash has a relatively low melting point—lower than the internal temperatures in jet engines—so first it chews away at engine parts, then it melts inside the engine and clogs it up. Sometimes the engine stops. Even if the engine doesn't stop, it may suffer millions of dollars worth of damage and fail shortly thereafter.

The damage doesn't stop with engines. The ash can sandblast windows, turning them opaque within minutes, making it impossible for pilots to see outside the aircraft. It can block pitot tubes, which are essential for determining the speed of the airplane (failing pitot tubes are one possible explanation for the crash of Air France Flight 447 not so long ago).

Anyway, it would be foolish to fly through this ash, and the few aircraft that inadvertently did so suffered great damage (historically, there have been many incidents of engine failures and damage from volcanic ash in aviation). So air traffic had to be more or less grounded in Europe, given the way the wind was spreading ash all over the place, like spreading frosting on a cake with a spatula.

In theory, there's nothing to be done about this. It's nature, and it's something you just have to try to put up with. But in this case there was too much money at stake to just sit by and accept reality. Lots of greedy airlines wanted to restore their revenue streams, come hell or high water, and they put pressure on government bodies. Eventually, the authorities decided that safety wasn't that important, after all, and that money should be given priority, and so the airspace over Europe was reopened.

Fortunately for everyone, the ash cloud was beginning to diminish at about the same time. This gave airlines the mistaken impression that they were right, and that the authorities had been too cautious. In fact, we were just lucky. The planes are flying again now.

I didn't actually see any ash clouds over Paris, even though high-altitude ash plumes swept over us. I didn't see any ash falling on the ground, either, nor did I smell anything. However, since my reasoning is not crippled by greed, I know that the mere absence of visible ash doesn't mean that anything is safe. I was somewhat concerned about breathing the ash (which can cause lung damage), but fortunately the ash stayed high in the sky and didn't fall over Paris (although it certainly fell in places in the U.K.).

I worry that the fact that airlines got away with being careless this time may encourage them to compromise on safety in other ways in the future. Airlines care only about money, not safety. They remain safe only as long as it is economically expedient to do so, which means that they remain safe mainly out of a fear of being heavily fined for any lapses in safety, as well as out of a fear of scaring off passengers if they have accidents. But if those two factors weren't around to twist their arms, the airlines would cheerfully operate with zero safety. Some of them are still taking chances as it is, as they have with this ash cloud.

Anyway, it's over now, provided that Ejyafjallajökull doesn't start spewing a zillion tons of ash again and provided that the winds remain favorable. If Ejyafjallajökull wakes up its neighbor, Katla, then these recent ash problems will seem trivial in comparison to what may come.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I hate baguettes

I made the mistake of buying baguettes—those long, skinny loaves of French bread—again a few days ago, against my better judgment. Sometimes it's hard to find any other type of bread. Of course, by the time I got home, they had turned to rock. Stale baguettes (that is to say, baguettes that are more than 3 hours old) are among the hardest objects known to man, after diamond and corundum crystals. The bullet-proof crust cannot be broken by normal mammalian teeth, and the interior tastes like cardboard. Any attempt to break the stale baguette into pieces produces a shower of bread crumbs that scatters in every direction. Freezing does not arrest the hardening process.

I had to look around for a store that had some sort of bread that would keep for longer than a few hours and was soft enough to actually eat. This afternoon I found a bakery that had something that looked acceptable, so I bought some of that and threw the remaining concrete baguette out.

I have come up with a useful idea, though: baguettes could conceivably be put to work as a dual-use technology, and could be shipped to Marines in Iraq. They could be frozen, ready to bake, and all the Marines would have to do is put them into an oven. Once they were baked, they could be removed, slathered with butter and Brie cheese, and eaten to provide a delicious lunch. However, any baguettes that were still uneaten after two hours could be mounted into special launchers on Apache helicopters and used as armor-penetrating missiles to break into reinforced concrete bunkers, which any three-hour-old baguette should be able to manage with ease. Thus, first it's lunch … then it undergoes a Hideous Transformation into a deadly weapon!

That would make the disposal of uneaten baguettes less of a problem. Currently, they are thrown into the trash and they end up in landfills, where they eventually become embedded in the Earth's crust and block the movement of tectonic plates. So it would be good for the environment, too.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More proof that spring is here

The last day of March brought weather that is nearly typical of the season, and today was textbook seasonal.

Yesterday was slightly chillier than normal (about 6° C), and very breezey, with very big, fluffy clouds, some of which had angry dark bases that produced fleeting, brisk rain showers. This was not perfectly typical of the season but it's extremely common. I rather like this type of weather. The rain is a nuisance but it is always brief, since it comes down from specific, fat rain clouds that are moving at high speed in otherwise scattered cloud cover without precipitation. One moment it's cloudy and pouring, and the next it's sunny and dry with blue skies. And I like the coolness of this kind of weather.

Today, the weather was absolutely textbook April in Paris, with little fluffy white clouds, a brilliant blue sky, and no precipitation. The temperature was around 11° C (52° F), and there was a light breeze. Excellent weather.

The area around and across from the Eiffel Tower was clogged with tourists, as is usual for this time of year. The Depression has not reduced overall tourism much, but the demographics of the tourists have changed, with fewer Americans, and more Chinese.

Unfortunately, the Eiffel Tower itself had some sort of technical problem, and the line to get into the tower was more than three hours in length, winding back and forth below the tower. I'm amazed that people were willing to wait that long. The weather was great, though, and anyone actually going up into the tower would get quite a nice view.

While I was waiting to cross the street in front of the tower, I was nearly trampled by street vendors sprinting to escape the police. The innumerable vendors selling tiny Eiffel Tower key chains and other junk at the base of the tower and on the Trocadéro plaza are all operating illegally, and they are often illegal immigrants as well, so the police periodically try to clean them up. Many of the vendors have a sixth sense that warns them when the police are near, and those who display their junk on the ground place it on a sheet with strings at the corners, allowing them to instantly gather up their merchandise and run when the police show up. When the police do come, it's like lions chasing water buffalo: the slowest and stupidest among the “buffalo” are caught by the LEOs, and the others escape, as there are too many to round them all up at once.

Anyway, the police were chasing them as I stood on the corner, and several of them barely missed me as they ran past. I worried a bit that they might knock me down and hurt my little camera—this camera is not nearly as fancy as the ones I used to use, but it's still far too expensive to replace on my budget. And not only did some of these dregs nearly knock me over, but the cops managed to tackle one of them and get him on the ground right next to me. They handcuffed him, carefully collected his junk, and led him away to the police station.

'm not sure what happens to vendors caught like this. In theory, they can go to jail or be deported, but I don't know how often that actually happens. They can be quite irritating since they try to sell their junk to everyone they see, and they are often persistent. Since other merchants around them have taken the time to wade through French bureaucracy and pay their taxes, I don't see why the losers should be allowed to get away with doing neither.

By the way, security at the Eiffel Tower is getting more and more paranoid. Now they have glass-walled walkways from the security checkpoint to the entrances. That's a recent addition. I wonder how those are going to feel in the summer time when they turn into greenhouses.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cool again!

It turned cool and rainy again today. I'm relieved to see the temperature drop again. It was 5° C on the way home, which is just the way I like it. It did rain a lot today, which I wasn't too happy about (I prefer that it rain during the night), but the overcast was nice, and there was a breeze.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stormy weather

While I was in class today, I heard thunder and saw pouring rain outside the windows. It was only an hour before the end of class, so I was a bit worried, since I walk to and from school to save money (Métro tickets are expensive—even with part of the price of a weekly pass paid by my employer, I still can't afford them). Fortunately, the rain let up before class was over, and I was able to walk home without an umbrella, albeit underneath a dense overcast.

I could see the thunderstorm to the east, still dumping tons of rain on the suburbs, with occasional lightning. Thunderstorms are rare in Paris, so they offer a change of pace, as long as the power doesn't go off (but it almost never does, since all utilities are underground). Most rain in Paris is light, misty rain that comes and goes.

This type of weather is a foretaste of April in Paris, when the skies are generally deep blue with white fluffy clouds, occasionally interrupted by brief rain showers. It's usually very nice weather (although it has been getting hotter and hotter in recent years), and if you visit at this time of year, you understand why people rave about April in Paris. But I'll let you in on a little secret: October is just as nice.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Indian grocery time

Today I went to buy some more paste to make rice with, and I had to go to my preferred Indian grocery up by the Gare du Nord to get it, since none of the normal supermarkets near where I live seem to carry it (they sometimes carry Indian curries and stuff, but not the specific paste that I want). This involves a three-hour walk, since taking the Métro would be expensive (about $3 round-trip, which is expensive for my budget).

Lots and lots of Indian stores line the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis above the Gare du Nord. The whole area is a bit seedy at night, and only so-so during the day, but that's where you go to get Indian stuff. The grocery I prefer has the stuff I want, which mainly means basmati rice, various curry pastes, psyllium husk (a very nice natural shredded fiber supplement), and Horlick's malted milk. I already had rice at home but I got some extra curry paste and another box of Horlick's.

As you walk down this street south of the Gare du Nord, the Indian stores give way to groceries and other businesses catering to other immigrant populations, such as North Africans, Turks, and so on. There's a lot of variety in the foods available, if you are looking for variety. There are a lot of “taxi phone” places, too, which consist of lines of telephone booths where you can call various countries at low rates. I don't know how much lower the rates are than standard telephone rates, but the places are popular, so they must be cheap (or the people who use them don't have phones at home, one of the two). I think Skype is a better deal, but perhaps the customers of these places don't have home PCs or Internet access.

As you get to the big arch of the Porte Saint Denis, built by Louis XIV, the exotic grocery stores disappear, and they are replaced by wholesale garment merchants and prostitutes. During the day, the garment merchants reign; after nightfall, the prostitutes dominate, although there are a few prostitutes during the day, too. This area used to have busted sidewalks and cracked pavement, but a few years ago everything was repaved, with the street paved in white marble cobblestones, and the sidewalks redone in carved granite blocks. Very nice, especially with pretty streetlights added. I rather wonder why so much was spent on this particular street, which is hardly the garden spot of Paris, but it still looks nice; I'm sure the locals appreciate it.

The rag trade blends with and then yields to sex shops as you move still further south. The sex shops then yield to trendy restaurants and clothing shops as you near the Forum des Halles. Then the restaurants get more numerous, the clothing shops wane, and a few jazz clubs appear as you go beyond the Forum, continuing south.

Soon you arrive at the twin theaters of Châtelet. Just beyond that is the Seine River, and when you cross the river you're on the Île de la Cité, the historic heart of Paris. As I passed this way, in front of the national law courts, I saw tons of police officers and police cars around the courts, along with a vast crowd waiting to get into the courtrooms. I don't know who was on trial, but it must have been somebody famous. There were more people waiting to get into the courtrooms than there were waiting to get into Sainte Chapelle (which is inside the law courts area), which is unusual.

And still I walked on, straight south (I told you that it took three hours). When you cross the river again, you're in the Latin Quarter, which is a very nice area indeed. That's where I took a right and made my way down the boulevard Saint Germain, and ultimately from there on home. No time to linger, alas! And no money to spend, anyway.

Market day

There's an open-air market near where I live that operates twice a week. This morning I walked through it on the way to school, just for a change.

Open-air markets still exist in Paris. In fact, they are carefully regulated and supervised. There are many different spots in Paris where they are held. Each spot has a market on certain days of the week. The day before, trucks arrive to set up awnings for the stands. On the market day, merchants arrive at the crack of dawn to set up shop. By the early afternoon, they are cleaning up and packing up, and by evening, they are gone. Then the trucks return and remove the awnings.

The market nearest me has mostly food, plus a few stalls with little things like hats and small articles of clothing. The food is the interesting part, as usual. Open-air markets are for people who have time and money, and I have neither, so I just strolled through this market to see what I could see. Lots of good things to eat, extremely fresh, including fresh fish sitting on ice, plus fruits and veggies, cheeses, baked goods, spices, meats, and so on.

I have to wonder what wealthy elite of the city's residents can actually afford to shop in this market. It isn't so much that the prices are high (although they are). It's just the time that it takes—don't these people have to work for a living? My part of town is famous for its large population of retirees, but these markets exist everywhere in Paris. Maybe the shoppers are the non-working half of couples. I don't know.

I couldn't smell much because I still have a cold (or maybe I'm getting one, or recovering from one—I can never tell these days). It probably smelled good. It looked good. The non-food stuff wasn't very impressive, though. And I notice that the entire space set aside for the market isn't occupied; there's still about a fourth of it that's empty. Maybe there's just too much space, since it has been that way for years.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A change for the worse

A few months ago, Apple finally opened an Apple Store in Paris, at the Carrousel du Louvre, an underground (literally) shopping center next to the Louvre Museum.

It was about time, since France is still one of the most loyal Apple markets. France likes to think of itself as special, and I suspect that motivates the French to buy lots of Macs, because Apple likes to think of itself as special, too.

Anyway, so now there is this Apple Store at the Louvre. Rumor has it that Steve (Jobs) originally wanted to put a store on the Champs-Élysées, which would have certainly been a more logical location than a shopping mall next to one of the world's largest museums. But apparently owners' associations on the Champs insisted that all façades conform to certain restrictions—restrictions that Steve was unwilling to accept. So there is no Apple store on the Champs, but there's one next to the Louvre, now. Perhaps the powers that be in the case of the Louvre were more amenable to persuasion, whatever form that persuasion might have taken.

The Carrousel du Louvre was substantially remodeled to cater to Apple's demands. The remodeling is not an improvement. The worst change was the near-demise of the food court. This food court had been a huge boon to the Louvre ever since its construction nearly two decades ago. Prior to its existence, people visiting the Louvre came out of the museum starving and dying of thirst, since there are (were) very few places to eat or even get a drink of water in and around the museum. The food court fixed that, with high capacity, more than a dozen restaurants, quick cafeteria-style service, and reasonable prices. Apple, however, has changed all that.

Now the food court is much smaller. A good part of it had to be sacrificed to accommodate the Apple Store, which occupies two floors. There's a Genius Bar where many of the restaurants used to be. I'm not sure why Apple calls it a Genius Bar, since I do not see even a hint of genius in its design or apparent purpose. It's just a waste of space.

The remains of the food court has been redesigned with an upscale decor. The restaurants that remain are nearly all run by Autogril, an Italian conglomerate best now for its mediocre highway restaurants. The food court used to have restaurants run independently, with very different types of food. Now the restaurants all have the same shadowy parent company, and the differences are mostly illusions.

Worse yet, the prices have tripled. I guess that eating near an Apple Store has to be more expensive than eating far from an Apple Store.

Another problem is that the one and only restroom in the food court has disappeared. Now there's just a new set of fancy pay toilets down on the lower floor, far from the food court. Because of this, there's no convenient place for people to wash their hands before or after eating. This probably doesn't bother many French people, since so few of them regularly wash their hands, anyway, but it does not bode well for foreigners with higher standards of hygiene and a desire to avoid illness.

And the pay toilets, which charge €1 for everything, don't respect their posted opening hours, in the true French tradition. When I pointed out to the manager of the toilets one evening that he was closing well before the posted closing time, he said that he goes by the time on his cash-register PC, and showed me that it was many minutes fast. However, I suspect that he doesn't open early based on that time. He left a line of people with no restrooms—probably people who had walked over from the food court. (There are some other toilets way down in the bus parking garage, but they aren't known to most visitors and they are usually filthy, plus you have to pay for them, too, or at least you did last time I looked.) Of course, these pay toilets offer a delightful choice of high-fashion toilets created by different designers, but that is scant consolation when more pressing and mundane reasons for seeking a restroom command one's attention.

Really the only bright spot in the remodeling is the installation of a McDonalds, which the mall sorely needed. Before you start whining about this, remember that the purpose of the food court (at least originally) was to keep Louvre visitors from starving or dying of thirst. Visitors don't care about haute cuisine; they just want something to eat and drink, and they want it fast and cheap. McDonalds fills the bill, even if the rest of the new food court does not.

In any case, thanks to Apple, it's no longer possible to eat quickly and cheaply at the Louvre unless you go to McDonalds. There's a Starbucks beyond the security checkpoint, but it doesn't really serve much in the way of food. The tiny French-style snack bar near the ticket windows serves only the usual lame sandwiches and lame fruit-flavored drinks, at high prices. There's a sit-down restaurant, but of course that is overpriced and underwhelming as well.

A lot of money was obviously spent by certain people in certain ways to effect this unfortunate change to the Carrousel du Louvre. It's a pity that it works against visitors to the museum, instead of in their favor. And it's hard to believe that the same people who come to see the Mona Lisa or the Seated Scribe will also want to pick up a mother-of-pearl iPad on the way out.

I've even noticed a change in the demographics of the food court. Before Apple came, you saw mostly tourists, families, and others visiting the Louvre. Now you sometimes see Macheads loitering … that is to say, geeks who fantasize that they are artists and buy Macs to prove it—rebels without a clue who sit around in 1970s attire discussing technological issues that haven't been current in twenty years, hoping that others nearby will buy into their fantasies as wholeheartedly as they have. Everything about them spells “loser” to me (and they probably received their iPods and iPhones from Mommy and Daddy for Christmas)—and that's pretty harsh when you consider that I'm not exactly at the pinnacle of success myself. But at least I have a clue.

Oh, well … the original food court was nice while it lasted. Now visitors to the Louvre can still eat, but not as quickly, with far less choice, and at much greater expense, unless they go to McDonalds (which I consider a viable option, although many others feel otherwise).

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sick for the weekend

Well, the cold that some student gave me seems intent upon making me miserable for the entire weekend. Worse yet, I developed tummy trouble this morning … but I think that is linked to some yogurt drink I bought at Daily Monop, one of a chain of small supermarkets owned by Monoprix. I noticed that some of the yogurt drink was past its expiration date, even though it was still being sold by the store. Unfortunately, I didn't spot that until I drank the yogurt, and now my tummy hurts. I guess Monoprix doesn't care about the health and safety of its customers.

When my tummy settles down, I'm going to have to go out and buy some meds at the pharmacy. Fortunately there's one that's open seven days a week not far from me (although it might seem very far on this occasion).

Oddly enough, as the tummy ache worsened, the cold symptoms disappeared. Could there be a connection? I don't really know. I'm infected with colds so frequently that I cannot distinguish the end of one from the start of another.

I haven't gone outside this weekend, but then again, I never do. Going outside costs money, which I don't have. I go out only when I have to, to buy food (when I have money for food) or wash clothing (when I have money for washing).

It's hard for me to keep track of time as well, since I have the shutters on the windows perpetually closed, with opaque paper over them to keep light out. The main reason for this is to make it easier to see the screen of the computer (the windows face south, so I'd be blinded by sunlight if they were open), but it also helps me to disregard the time of day. For some reason, being reminded of the time by the movement of the sun or the light of day irritates me. It may come from growing up in a desert, where the sun is always, perpetually shining during the day, and constantly marks the time of day, impossible to ignore.

In any case, there's nothing to see out the window except the building across the street. I don't want them seeing me, so that's another reason to block the windows and close the shutters. Hmm … and there's yet one more reason: since I like flight simulation and I fly in real time, usually on the west coast of the United States, blocking local daylight makes it easier to adapt to the time in the sim, since it might be nighttime in Los Angeles while it is daylight here in Paris. I hardly ever fly the sim in France, ironically, because it's impossible to find the necessary charts and procedures online, whereas this is easy for the U.S.

Friday, March 19, 2010

First heat wave of the year, and umpteenth cold

It got up to 68° F today, which is 16° F above normal for this time of year, so this counts (in my book) as the first heat wave of the year. Hopefully it won't last. While 68° F in itself isn't bad, it's only March, and it's supposed to be a lot chillier at this time of year—when it's warm like this in March, I worry about what it might be like in the summer. Plus, the humidity has gone way up, and it's at 100% right now with light rain. High humidity makes 68° F feel like 85° F, which makes me drip with sweat if I try to go for a walk.

At least the building heat isn't blazing away as it usually does. It's 56° F outside, and 74° F inside, with the radiators cold. Just the heat of everyday living warms things up inside enormously. And I have a window open to help keep the apartment cool.

My weekend will be wasted, since one of my students has kindly infected me with a cold. Actually, I think I always have a cold—I'm always recovering from a cold, developing a cold, or fighting a cold. Without exaggeration I can say that about half the people around me are sneezing and sniffling. They could at least try to stay home when sick. I have to work when I have a cold because I'm paid only for the actual hours that I teach (and that's only paid at minimum wage), but students can postpone classes if they want, so nothing prevents them from spending time at home to recuperate. But they come anyway.

The French still see disease prevention as a kind of theoretical ideal, rather than a goal easily attained by simple prophylactic hygiene. If they'd just wash their hands occasionally, that would help a lot. And if they'd delay their sneezing and blowing their nose until they were out of the crowded subway car, that would also help. But these things do not seem to occur to them. I wonder how Pasteur managed to make his discoveries in this type of cultural climate.

It is interesting to note that France has had the highest incidence of H1N1 influenza in Europe, even though it spent zillions of euro to line the pockets of some private pharmaceutical firms by ordering enough vaccine for just about everyone (whether they wanted it or not). The vaccine was rushed into production, and those lucky contractors rushed to the bank. Now France is trying to get people to actually get vaccinated, even though it has become clear that H1N1 was hyped beyond belief.

It seems that people always panic the most about the things they've prepared for the most, while ignoring things that they haven't prepared for. Unfortunately, chance does not guarantee that the things they'll have to deal with will also be the things they are best prepared for.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Big fire in the ’burbs

On the way home today I saw a massive cloud of smoke arising from somewhere behind the Eiffel Tower. I couldn't tell how far away it was, but when I got home I learned that it was a fire in a kind of landfill in the suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, which is just outside the southern city limit of Paris.

Big fires are unusual in Paris, fortunately. I recall quite a massive fire at the corporate headquarters of the Crédit Lyonnais bank (before it merged with Crédit Agricole) that was a major news story some years back. By a curious coincidence, the fire destroyed quite a bit of evidence that might have been useful in elucidating some odd things happening at the bank at the time. The building contained a lot of computers used for trading. The company took backups—but it simply left the tapes on the drives after the back-ups, rather than store them off-site. Hmm. I think that putting the fire out was great fun (in a sense) for the firefighters, though, as big fires like that are very rare. Like the fire I saw this evening, it sent smoke all across the city (Paris is only a few miles across, after all, if you don't count the suburbs—which I don't).

Fortunately none of the smoke seemed to drift towards my apartment. I don't like breathing smoke, and neither do computers.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Election day

Yesterday (Sunday, May 14) was an election day in France, with many regional elections being held. Voter turnout hit record lows.

One interesting similarity between France and the United States (or at least the part of the U.S. in which I lived) is that elections are held at local schools. In the days before an election, you see official poster boards made of dull gray metal set up outside the polling places, with various posters put up by various political parties.

Unlike the United States, with its two stagnant lookalike political parties and its legislation that effectively outlaws every other political party, parties in France are in constant flux, with shifting policies and members and leaders, often dissolving and reforming regularly, sometimes under the same or similar names, sometimes under completely new names. The same general categorization of parties into liberal and conservative camps (called Republican and Democrat in the U.S.) exists, but beyond that, there isn't much coherency that I can see.

The Front National, an extreme-right party, made a strong showing in Sunday's first round of elections. Their posters often show blond, blue-eyed models, in order to emphasize their opposition to immigration by people with swarthy or nearly-black complexions, dark hair, and dark eyes. They seem to overlook the fact that the average French person also has dark hair and dark eyes, albeit with pale skin. Their models look more “Aryan” than French.

There are some parties that I know of that never seem to have put any candidates in any election. I'm not sure why they exist. One of them has a small headquarters near my apartment. France does not have laws that lock out all but two political parties like the U.S., so it's not too hard to put candidates in elections, but I guess some parties can't even meet the modest prerequisites for that. And yet they continue to exist, year after year.

In addition to the far-right parties, there are far-left parties that continue to nominate the same candidates year after year, who are never elected. The photos on the posters are old—the candidates never seem to age. But in real life some of them must be about a hundred years old by now. The once-strong French Communist party is mostly a shadow now; it has been in decline ever since the Soviet Union dissolved and stopped bankrolling the party, and the far-right Front National has seduced some of its membership.

Ultimately the people elected are often the same ones over and over, members of the Old Boys' Club playing musical chairs (very few girls are allowed to play). I don't know the details, as I care nothing at all about politics. I don't understand why people don't run independently on their own merits, anyway. Partisan politics tends to do a lot of damage over the long term, from what I've seen.

The French election procedure usually has two rounds, unless someone wins with an absolute majority in the first round (nobody did on this occasion). I've been told that French people usually vote for their ideals on the first round, and then vote for their wallets on the second. Elections where some extreme parties have almost won on the first round have made voters a bit more wary, I think, and perhaps they are more inclined to vote the same way in both rounds these days. When there is a second round (and there is almost always a second round), the leaders from the first round have a runoff vote, and the winner is elected.

Since I'm not a French citizen, I can't vote in these elections. But I never vote in elections, anyway. All the candidates tend to be liars and resemble each other in many ways (ambitious, power-hungry, self-centered, control freaks, etc.), and until you can force candidates to do what they say they'll do after election, most elections will just be a roll of the dice.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Not visiting the International Agricultural Show

Perhaps the most attended show in Paris is the Salon International de l'Agriculture, which is held every year in Paris at about this time. The show is so big that it takes up the entire Parc des Expositions on the south side of Paris—about eight buildings, each with multiple floors, each floor the size of several football fields. Although it's intended (in theory) for farmers, it is very popular with the general public, including kids (who like to come to see the animals). It is running this week, until Sunday.

I haven't been to the show in years (the picture I've posted here is ten years old), mainly because it's too expensive. Admission this year is €12 (about $17), which is again too much for me, since I have only about €60 until the end of the month (I'll be paid mid-month, but all of that will go to rent). I had almost a full day free today and this would have been an ideal occasion to go, but there just isn't any money to do it. There never is.

Anyway, as I said, it's popular with kids because of the animals. Many city-dwelling kids don't have any opportunity to see farm animals outside of this show. There are cows, pigs, sheep, horses, etc., and some shows displaying prize-winning animals, as you'd expect at any farm show. There are lots of dairy cows, and since cows have to be milked every day, there's also a temporary dairy set up to process the milk, which you can buy after it is pasteurized, refrigerated, and packaged right on the spot in a state-of-the-art mobile dairy. When I go to the show I always buy as much milk as I can carry, since it's sold quite cheaply and of course it is very fresh (only about 30 minutes old when you buy it).

The show also features a ton of government feel-good displays about the environment and how much government is doing and how wonderful or terrible things are (depending on the interests of the government agency in question), along with displays by various industry groups. Some of these are interesting, most of them are a bit too political and self-serving.

Some of the exhibits at the show are borderline creepy. For example, you can see entire steers hanging from racks—essentially dead cattle intact with skin removed. These carcasses look way too much like the animals from which they came. You can also see exhibits of slaughtering equipment, such as devices that shock and kill poultry. It's enough to make you a vegetarian, if you aren't already (although I'm sure that's not the intention of the exhibits).

The agricultural show makes me sneeze, too. I left my hay fever behind when I left my hometown to move to Paris, fortunately, but there's hay at the agricultural show, and after hanging around the hay for a few minutes, I start to sneeze. Moving on to another area fixes it.

The show also has a lot of food. There's a section with foods from around France that has all sorts of tasty but pricey stuff (well, at least it's pricey for someone with no money, like me). I like the kouign amann, which is a sinfully fattening cake from Brittany, made with bread dough, sugar, and butter, all of which are pressed together and cooked for hours until the butter soaks through everything and the sugar carmelizes. Mmm. Best with fresh whole milk!

In past years I've done without the show because of budget restrictions, as I've said, but for some reason I had a hankering to go there and take some pictures for my blog this year. Alas! That is not to be, thanks to the insurmountable barrier of the admission price.

The other big show that is immensely popular and also takes up the entire Parc des Expositions in Paris is the Foire de Paris (Paris Fair) around the month of May. However, I usually can't afford that, either, and this year will probably be no exception.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dregs on the Champs

While passing one of two Quick fast-food restaurants (the main competitor to McDonalds) on the Champs, I was surprised to see that it was closed, with a notice on the windows that said it had been closed by police headquarters for nine days because of “noise and disorder.” I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I suspect the restaurant was being haunted by various scum from the suburbs, now that the Champs is increasingly becoming a meeting place for gangbangers and other losers in the wee hours. I also suspect it's not the restaurant's fault but purely linked to the fact that Quick is one of the few places that stays open after midnight on the avenue.

The area around the Champs is deteriorating because of the dregs that ride in from the suburbs on the express subway (RER) at night and especially on weekends. After laying waste to their own neighborhoods, they apparently want to make a shambles of one of the world's prettiest cities as well. They like to fight, and I guess they need a pretty stage on which to do it. I've already mentioned in other posts some of the changes that have taken place. On parallel streets I see more and more clubs of questionable reputation, too. They look suspiciously like the bars you used to see in Pigalle. I'm surprised that the city is not doing more to prevent this kind of deterioration, as the Champs is very popular with tourists.

There are a couple of hot spots that police have identified as being popular with gangs (some of which are now based in Paris, alas!), and the Champs-Élysées is one of them. The Gare du Nord train station is another, although that part of town has been rather seedy at night for years (unfortunately, it is also the train station that serves the Eurostar). The Forum des Halles is yet another spot that gets a bit weird late at night. I still wouldn't call any of these areas dangerous, but they seem to be gradually getting worse. I hope something is done about it. I prefer that the losers stay outside the city.

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