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.