Saturday, December 31, 2011

The rue de Rivoli revisited

Yet another video online … this one a new strolling tour of the rue de Rivoli. I already have a video that covers the western end of this rather long street that slices through central Paris, but I've added another video that shows the eastern end, from the rue du Louvre (right next to the Louvre) to the place de la Bastille. The rue de Rivoli merges into the rue Saint-Antoine right around the rue de Sévigné, which then continues on to the Bastille. It's a nice walk with lots of people. I filmed it just after sunset, because it has kind of a nice atmosphere (the other video was during the day). In fact, the streets were a bit damp, giving them that Miami-Vice look.

The rue de Rivoli is quite long, and very straight for a significant part of its length. The rumor is that it functions as an impromptu drag strip at times in the wee hours, but I haven't walked it during the wee hours to verify that. The western end is pretty consistent, with multiple blocks of arcades and businesses like restaurants and tourist shops as it runs parallel to the north side of the Louvre. After the Louvre, there's a much larger variety of shops and businesses on both sides of the street, and a lot of pedestrian traffic, and far fewer souvenir and tourist shops.

The street eventually passes Châtelet, then the Hôtel de Ville—Paris City Hall—which at this time of year has an ice rink in it … and that justifies a slight digression. They were playing music at the rink, so I didn't include it in the video. Why? Because every time you put music in a YouTube video, you risk being flagged by copyright trolls. Now, the incidental capture of music in a video is normally an instance of fair use under U.S. copyright law (17 USC § 107), and may also be non-infringing on de minimis grounds. But try telling YouTube that. There are a lot of companies on YouTube that make fraudulent or invalid infringement claims just to “monetize” videos that they don't own, at the expense of the actual video creators. I want to avoid that kind of scam, so if there's a significant amount of music captured incidentally in a video, I often remove it, or just edit out the part with the music (I did the same thing for my video on dancing on the Seine, and my Luxembourg Gardens video). Unfortunate but true.

Moving right along … well, after skipping about 150 feet of the street to avoid that music, I continue on. There are lots of nice shops in a very nice atmosphere east of City Hall, and there's an open market on the place Baudoyer on some days, although it was winding down at the time I walked past. There's a large semi-pedestrian zone where the rue Saint-Antoine moves towards and merges with the rue de Rivoli a bit beyond that. Further east the pedestrian traffic quiets down a bit, then picks up again around the place de la Bastille, where is where this video stops. The video closes with a view of and from the huge Opéra Bastille, the city-block-sized replacement for the Opéra Garnier (at least for grand opera).

Someday I'll continue east from the place de la Bastille with another strolling video, since there is much to see down that way, too.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

New fashion for the bouquinistes

Bouquiniste is the term applied to a merchant with a small stall near the banks of the Seine River who sells used books, magazines, posters, and so on. In Paris, there are hundreds of these bouquinistes operating along the river, and they are a Parisian institution. I pass them often, and I wonder how they remain solvent, as they don't seem to sell a great deal, even though they frequently have a a fascinating array of old publications and printed material, most of it in excellent condition. I suppose their overhead is low, since they operate out of their green boxes, so they don't have to sell a lot to stay in business.

If you are wondering what I'm talking about, take a look at the short unedited video I've posted here, which shows a few bouquiniste stalls along the river. Bouquin is a French slang word for a book.

For whatever reason, these stalls are usually painted dark green. The bouquiniste stores all his merchandise instead the stall, and padlocks it shut when he's not open for business. During business hours, the stall is opened and the bouquiniste sets up a chair or to for himself as he waits for clients. Many people look, few buy. But the merchandise is often interesting, and it's in good shape, not junk, even though most of it is used. In fact, I rather wonder how the bouquinistes manage to build up their inventories of printed matter in such good condition. You can often find really cool books, or original concert or movie posters, or various art prints that you can't find anywhere else. It's no surprise that people like to stroll among the bouquinistes to see what they have for sale.

Anyway … the Paris city government issues permits for bouquinistes and helps with the placement and upkeep of stalls, and lately it has been considering an upgrade in the stalls because so many of them are beginning to show their age. It has commissioned four prototypes for new stalls that it has put on display at a certain spot on the river. I've posted a photo here of the four prototypes. I think the first and second (the two prototypes on top) are pretty cool, but they are a bit odd and a sharp departure from tradition, so I suppose one of the bottom ones might be better, all things considered. The Number 4 prototype (bottom left) is probably the one I'd vote for. We'll see how it goes. The bouquinistes are an important and well-loved tradition in Paris, so I'd hate to see any extreme changes made to them.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas decorations in Paris

Compared to what one sees in much of the United States, Christmas decorations in Paris are pretty lame.

I can think of several possible reasons for this. First, France isn't nearly as religious as the United States. Less than ten percent of French people attend religious services regularly, compared to about half the American population. The French also fret endlessly about what other people will think, and are thus much less likely to do anything extreme, such as heavily decorating a home or storefront or street. There's also probably some concern about political correctness, with the French being afraid of offending the substantial Muslim minority (although they never seemed to worry about offending the Jewish minority). Whatever the reasons, decorations in Paris are very simple and sparse compared to the U.S.

Another odd thing about decorations in France is that they aren't very colorful. Mostly you just see white lights, occasionally mixed with some blue lights or red lights (but not both). Green lights are scarce, and lights of all different colors, as you might readily find in the United States, are nowhere to be seen in Paris. Streets are not decorated unless local merchants get together and pay for it, so one street might have nothing while another might be moderately decorated. Even the decorations on the Champs are paid for by local merchants on the avenue.

Speaking of the Champs, they changed the “decorations” this year, and the new decorations are pathetic. The previous decorations included tens of thousands of tiny white LED lights and “dripping icicle” light chasers on all the trees. This year consists of a few Hula Hoops with lights on them, mounted on butt-ugly stands beneath most of the trees. The hoops change color from time to time, but most of the time they are so unremarkable that you might miss them while looking up the avenue. Somebody definitely went the low-cost route this year. And supposedly we are stuck with this bargain-basement lighting for the next four years. Public opinion of the new lights has been overwhelmingly negative.

I've put up a video of the lights on the Champs, such as they are, so you can judge for yourself. I almost didn't bother, since they are so ugly, but the need to communicate and document overrode my aesthetic sense.

And speaking of videos, I've also put up two other Christmas videos. One shows the much more substantial decorations around the large department stores in Paris, the other shows the Christmas market on the Champs-Élysées itself.

The Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores decorate far more than anyone else in the city. They've recycled decorations from year to year for several years now, but they are still pretty. As with other Christmas decorations in Paris, the department stores have not gone for much color in their decorations, but the designs are nice. In the past, they changed decorations every year, but I guess times are hard now.

The department stores also traditionally decorate their windows with animated displays for children. Those are a bit on the decline, too, but there's still a fair number of windows with displays for kids. The displays are often very complicated, animated by motors and cams above the ceiling that move objects in the display using fine plastic fishing line. It is typically very well executed and fun to watch. The non-kids windows this year feature some over-the-top fashion displays, essentially elaborate advertisements, some of which would spook me if I were a kid.

My third video concerns the Christmas market on the Champs, which is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was only started a few years ago. It's probably the largest Christmas market in the city. Like all such markets, it concentrates on food (especially mulled wine, because French people are strongly attracted to drugs like ethanol). The stalls also sell the kind of semi-worthless gifts that you tend to buy for people at Christmas when you feel obligated to give them something but not concerned enough to really pick a good present. Things like bars of home-made soap, strange-looking carved wooden objects, scarves and gloves, magic cleaning products, artificial flower arrangements, and so on. The merchandise at Christmas markets in Paris (and perhaps elsewhere) eerily resembles what one finds at similar markets in the United States. I find myself wondering where these merchants go during the rest of the year. Who buys home-made soap—and where—in June or July, for example?

This Christmas market, like all such markets, also features a lot of things that have nothing to do with Christmas, such as a “Father Christmas Roller-Coaster” that is totally unrelated to Christmas except for the sign that says “Father Christmas Roller-Coaster.” This coaster for kids actually looks like it was designed to resemble a caterpillar, but I suppose that children can be counted upon to readily hallucinate that the caterpillar has morphed into Santa Claus thanks to the all-important sign (if they are able to read it).

There's also a tiny ice rink that appears to use synthetic ice, which I thought rather interesting. And there's some sort of indoor attraction with “more than 200 animatronic animals” according to the signs outside. It looks like mostly dinosaurs from the outside, and here again, it's hard to see the connection to Christmas. I don't recall Santa having his sleigh pulled by velociraptors, but who knows?

There's also a gigantic eyesore on the place de la Concorde, a huge ferris wheel that is extremely popular with tourists even though it ruins the view for everyone along the axis of the Champs-Élysées. The owner of that wheel must rub his hands with glee each Christmas season at the thought of all the money it's going to make. I don't know how he managed to wrangle an authorization to put it up each year, and perhaps it's best that I don't know the details.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mouffetard Street

My video of Mouffetard Street is finally finished and online. I shot it in September, but it took a long time to get around to editing it.

The French word for “street” is rue, which is why you see this word so often on street signs in Paris. In place names, words like street or avenue are usually not capitalized in French, and the name of the place follows the noun designating the type of place … so rue Mouffetard simply means “Mouffetard Street.”

Mouffetard Street is one of the better known streets in Paris. It is famous as a street with a lot of food shops on it, although it really doesn't have that many food shops. It's extremely old, too: it has followed roughly the same path since the days when the ancient Romans ran the city, and there are signs that it had already been an actively inhabited area for thousands of years before the Romans arrived twenty centuries ago. Today it's a moderately straight street that physical extends approximately south from the place Maubert to the avenue des Gobelins in the Latin Quarter, although it doesn't actually take on the name of Mouffetard Street until you reach its lower (southern) end.

The street starts low at its north end, near the Seine River, and then rises significantly as it passes over the summit of the Montagne Sainte Geneviève, a hill named after the patron saint of Paris. From that point it descends again towards the avenue des Gobelins, ending at a spot where a small stream, the Bièvre, used to flow (and it flows still today—but it is completely buried below street level). At the summit of the hill, it passes discreetly to the east of the huge Panthéon, the twenty-five-story church of Saint Geneviève that dominates the Latin Quarter skyline.

Most of Mouffetard Street is “standard charming,” meaning that it is a typical street of Paris, which in turn means that it is charming, as soon many typical streets of Paris tend to be. For various reasons, it is more famous than most streets, but I wouldn't say that it is really much different from thousands of other interesting streets in Paris. However … since it is so well known, I've made a video about it.

From tourist guides, you'd think that Mouffetard Street is just jam-packed with food shops, but that's not really true. Most of the street (under its various names) is lined by shops and restaurants, and a significant landmark near its midpoint is old École Polytechnique campus. (The school moved to the suburbs years ago, but the campus is still there and serves as a government ministry now.) As it moves south and actually becomes Mouffetard Street by name, it passes the place de la Contrescarpe, a roundabout that Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast. From there, there are more and more shops and restaurants, and eventually the street is blocked to vehicular traffic, allowing only pedestrians. As you finally descend towards the southern extremity of the street, the food shops and some open markets appear. Overall, it's about 2/3 of a mile long.

In my video I start at the place Maubert (where there is a very nice open food market on certain days of the week, although not on the day that I shot), and I walk all the way down to the lower end of Mouffetard Street. I make a quick detour to show Hemingway's former apartment, which is right off the place de la Contrescarpe.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Luxembourg Gardens

This summer I filmed the Luxembourg Gardens with the intent of making a video about them, and I finally finished editing it. I just uploaded it to YouTube a few days ago.

The Luxembourg Gardens are some of the largest and prettiest green spaces in Paris. Oddly enough, they don't actually belong to the city, unlike the vast majority of other parks within its limits. The Luxembourg Gardens belong to the French Senate, which meets in a building at the north end of the gardens, the aptly-named Luxembourg Palace. Because the gardens belong to the national government rather than the city of Paris, they are guarded by gendarmes (who are part of the army), rather than police officers.

I consider the Luxembourg Gardens to be one of the best places to relax in the city. They are large enough that the non-stop traffic noise of Paris doesn't penetrate into the center of the gardens, so you can sit and relax in near silence while you read or vegetate. Often all you hear is the wind in the trees and the occasional cries of children playing nearby. The gardens are filled with chairs, which nobody steals (American visitors always ask me about that), and you can sit all day without being disturbed by anyone. Assuming you have that kind of free time on your hands, the Jardin du Luxembourg, as it's called in French, is a wonderful place in which to escape the stress of noisy streets and crowds.

The central gardens just south of the palace are beautifully manicured, in a style originally commissioned by Maria de Medici to resemble the style of her hometown of Florence, Italy. The rest of the gardens has alternating areas of tall trees and perfectly maintained lawns. Flowers decorate many parts of the gardens, and when the flowers wilt, they are removed and new flowers are planted, so that the gardens are always pretty (this practice is followed in other Parisian parks, too).

There's more to the gardens than just trees, flowers, and grass, however. There's a big playground for kids. There's a puppet theater for kids, too. There are playing fields for pétanque, a favorite game of the French, and there are tennis courts. There are basketball courts as well, and there's even an area with tables containing inlaid chessboards, if you prefer something a bit less strenuous. The long paths that run through and around the gardens are popular with joggers and strollers.

There's also a group of beehives in the park, and a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. And there's a gazebo that seems to attract a lot of high-school bands from the United States. On the day I was there, in fact, the Stevens High School band, from Rapid City, South Dakota was giving a concert. Talk about something completely different … it must have been quite an adventure for them. Unfortunately, I had to mute their performance in the version of my video that I uploaded to YouTube, because YouTube these days is afflicted with copyright trolls that will fraudulently claim copyright infringement on just about any music they find in an effort to dishonestly make money from advertising. They were playing things like a medley of Henry Mancini music. They were—well, about as good as you'd expect from a high-school band. I found myself wondering if they paid their performance licenses for the concert.

I didn't really manage to do justice to the gardens in my video. I'll probably have to redo a new version in the future.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Cour du Commerce Saint André

There's a tiny little passage between the boulevard Saint Germain and the rue Saint André des Arts in the Latin Quarter that is almost a thousand years old, called the Cour du Commerce Saint André. For centuries, it has been a small commerce street, and it still exists today, very much as it did back when Philippe Auguste was running France in the 13th century.

Although this small pedestrian passage is in a very busy part of the Latin Quarter, it's easy to walk past it without ever realizing that it's there. It is paved with very rough cobblestones and features a number of restaurants and an eclectic assortment of shops. One of the restaurants is a bistro from the turn of the century (the turn of the previous century, not this one), and another is the oldest café in Paris, the Procope, where people like Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, and other Big Names from history came to chat and eat. It was also in a courtyard just off this passage that the guillotine was first tested (on sheep). And the passage originally ran just outside the city wall of Philippe Auguste, and some vestiges of that city wall are still in place and visible.

At the north end of the passage, which is covered, there's a bonsai shop, a stationery store, a bar, two restaurants, and a podiatrist's office.

Overall, the Cour du Commerce has a great deal of charm for its small size, and that's why I decided to make a video about it. The great thing about Paris is that cool and interesting spots like this are the rule, rather than the exception.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More videos, like it or not!

A walk through the Latin Quarter inspired me to make another short video about the ancient Roman amphitheater in the neighborhood, and a visit to the Paris Plages event this summer inspired me to make a video about that.

The Roman amphitheater is called the Arènes de Lutèce by Parisians, and is about 2000 years old. It was completely covered over and forgotten more than a millennium ago, then was rediscovered in the 19th century. Part of it had been destroyed by then, but most of it was still intact, and it has now been fully excavated and partially restored. It is surprisingly well built.

For some reason, it feels a bit eerie to visit this amphitheater and see people playing soccer in it, perhaps because there were probably people doing exactly the same thing there twenty centuries ago. Once again, it makes me think of the stability of Paris, and how the more Paris changes, the more it's the same. The neighborhood around the amphitheater is lively and popular these days, and so it was two thousand years ago. As I walked around the amphitheater, which was in shadow as the sun prepared to set, I reminded myself that the light, the weather, and the people were essentially the same way back when, with one of the few differences being that the people playing in the amphitheater would have been yelling at each other in Latin in the old days, instead of the distorted descendant of Latin that they use today (i.e., French).

The east side of the main arena in this amphitheater contains structures that supposedly supported a stage in the days of the Romans. And there are cages around the periphery of the playing area that supposedly held wild animals for certain spectacles. Nobody's quite sure, but that's what the specialists say. It's not hard to believe, especially when you are standing in front of these things and looking at them.

Anyway … this summer I briefly visited Paris Plages, the subject of my other video. This event was created by the city government to entertain Parisians who couldn't or wouldn't leave the city on vacation in summer. Originally it consisted of closing the Georges Pompidou expressway that runs along the north bank of the Seine River, and then dumping tons of sand on the expressway, along with beach chairs and umbrellas, so that Parisians could enjoy a sort of beach of their own on the banks of the river. It was very successful from the beginning, and has become a tradition in Paris. Today the event extends beyond the banks of the Seine, but I only visited and filmed the part along the river, which is still the major part of the event.

Paris Plages isn't intended for tourists, although they are welcome to attend if they want. Most tourists don't know about it. Tour companies and guide books don't talk about the event because it's temporary and more oriented to the locals, so sometimes tourists just stare at it, wondering what all the activity down by the river is all about. The recorded patter on the excursion boats on the Seine doesn't mention Paris Plages, either, so tourists often look bewildered as they pass the artificial beaches on their boat cruises.

These days, it's not just sand and umbrellas. There are snack bars (dramatically overpriced), some activities for kids such as playgrounds, a real swimming pool, some concerts and live music, a few sit-down restaurants, and lots and lots of beach chairs and hammocks. There are misting devices at some points to cool people off when it gets hot (although July of 2011 was unseasonably cool). Back in 2003, when a recording-breaking heat wave drove temperatures on the street up to 110° F during the day, people actually slept on the ground during the night at Paris Plages, in order to escape the stifling heat of their apartments (which generally are not air-conditioned in Paris).

I only visited Paris Plages a few times this year. I actually preferred the cooler weather, though. When it's really hot, I stay at home with the A/C running, rather than go outside and suffer heat exhaustion. But July this year was unusually cool, and August was warmer than normal, but not like 2003.

Paris Plages runs every summer from roughly July 20 to August 20.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Moveable Feast redux

I'm not a fan of Ernest Hemingway, but I do have a well-worn copy of A Moveable Feast, his semi-fictional account of his time in Paris in the 1920s. I bought the book long ago because it's about Paris, not because it was written by Hemingway. It's the only work of his that I've ever read, and it will probably remain so, because I don't much care for his writing style, and if anything the book has discouraged me from reading anything else he has written.

Hemingway was depressed when he wrote the book, forty years after the period that he describes therein, and his depression casts a dark shadow on the entire text, like a huge storm cloud. There are some snippets of humor in the book, but for the most part it's just terribly morose, and this despite the fact that it's about my favorite city—and despite the fact that presumably the period Hemingway describes in the book was happy for him at the time he lived it. Still, it talks about Paris enough to be interesting, in moderate doses.

Of course, the city has changed since he lived here, greatly in certain ways but hardly at all in others. I don't think goats and their owners still ply the streets advertising fresh goat milk, for example … although I do hear the unmistakable braying of a goat in the street outside about once a week, and one of these days I'm going to peek out the window when I hear it to see if there really is someone still selling raw goat milk in the streets of Paris. Hemingway also talks about septic tanks being emptied by honey wagons in the 1920s, whereas I think that just about everyone is now linked to the extensive municipal sewer system that the city has had since long before Hemingway lived here. But there again, I do see trucks that look exactly like those described by him parked in front of certain buildings from time to time, so I do still wonder. It's true what they say about Paris: the more it changes, the more it remains the same.

Once of these days, I have a project to visit each and every spot mentioned by Hemingway in the book and document them all in some way, just for fun. Some of them have hardly changed at all; others have changed greatly. In an old picture of Hemingway with his son, I immediately recognized the street corner on which they were sitting, even though the photo was presumably taken nearly a hundred years ago.

A problem with A Moveable Feast is that the author likes to describe everything he eats and drinks in detail, which makes me a bit queasy. He never seems to drink anything that does not contain a great deal of alcohol, which further alienates me, as I don't do drugs. He seems to enjoy physical sensations, because he talks about eating, drinking, the environmental conditions around him as he walks about the city, and sex with his wife a lot. These discussions don't do much for me and make his book less interesting.

He also describes his poverty at the time he lived in Paris. In reality he wasn't poor at all, but apparently he thought it more interesting to exaggerate in the book. Unfortunately, I really am poor, and being reminded of the unpleasantness of poverty does not enhance my enjoyment of the book.

Still, I like the book, because it's about Paris and describes Paris in considerable detail. I don't have too many books like that, outside the category of guide books, so it's entertaining to go back to the book and read a few pages from time to time.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Some further strolls through Paris

The weather has been unseasonably warm but not too extreme, thank goodness, with many nice days, and too little rain to break the drought. I've produced two new videos, one a rather long video of the rue du Bac, and the other a short one of the infamous rue Cler.

For the former video, I walked continuously from one end of the rue du Bac to the other. This is a small and very charming street in the chichi Seventh District of Paris, running roughly north-south. It is lined by many cool shops and restaurants, and it caters entirely to locals. There are very few tourists on the street, which is nice. I follow the street from where it begins on the rue de Sèvres, next to the Bon Marché department store, up to its northern end on the Seine River. It is intended as one of my “you-are-there” videos, and I think that objective has been achieved.

The other video is a very short video showing Rick Steves’ sacred rue Cler, also in the Seventh. I show it before dawn, though, which is a slight departure from the norm. It's very quiet at that time of day, with no locals and no tourists clutching their little green guide books. I have no special affection for the rue Cler, but I know that many Americans worship it because Rick Steves has told them to.

I like to prepare videos that simply show a walk along a street, with no voice narration or music, because it's about as close as one can get to actually being in Paris. Originally I thought about adding music, which requires expensive licensing, but feedback from viewers of my videos has made it clear that they are more appreciated without music and with only ambient noise. In Paris, ambient noise generally means traffic noise, but these latest two videos are mercifully light on the traffic noise, becaue the rue du Bac simply doesn't have much through traffic, and the rue Cler is nearly silent (like most of Paris off the major avenues) before sunrise.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Twenty Minutes at the Louvre

I've finished my masterpiece on the Louvre, Twenty Minutes at the Louvre, which I've uploaded to YouTube. It's a look at the logistics of getting into the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, along the standard tourist track. I was a bit more imaginative than usual in preparation of the titles. Watching the crowds trudge through the museum in the video is rather tiring, but rest assured that it's even more tiring in real life (especially when it's 90° F inside the museum).

Earlier this month, I splurged on a ticket to the Louvre. I don't normally visit the Louvre on my own, since there really isn't anything there that I'm interested in seeing, but on this occasion I wanted to make a short video about the museum. I particularly wanted to show the “Greatest Hits” of the Louvre, meaning the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. The ticket is only ten euro, which is a pretty good deal in exchange for the opportunity to see a quarter-million works of art, but my budget is so limited that even this expenditure counts as a great extravagance.

As with all major tourist attractions, tourists visiting the Louvre follow a well-worn, well-defined pattern that does not vary over time. Most tourists enter the Louvre through the main entrance under I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the central courtyard (the “Napoléon courtyard”) of the museum. They do not know that there are several entrances to the Louvre, all of which are far less crowded than the main entrance. They wait up to two hours or so in line just to get past security at the front door of the pyramid, then they wait in line again inside the pyramid to buy tickets. Of course I shot some views of the long lines for my video.

The tourists do not know that there's another street level entrance 200 feet away that allows them to get tickets, enter the museum, and see the Mona Lisa in about five minutes flat, with no waiting. And another entrance, in the shopping center beneath the courtyard, is nearly as fast, with handy ticket machines and a very short security line. I show this in my video, too.

Tourists going through the main entrance or the shopping center entrance end up under the pyramid, which is below street level. From there, they have to climb multiple flights of stairs to get up to the second floor, where the Mona Lisa is. There are lots of signs and to some extent they can just allow themselves to be carried along by the current of humanity flowing towards the famous painting. In high season, the temperatures in the museum are in the 80s or above (Fahrenheit), with no humidity, no air conditioning, and no air movement. I've seen people close to passing out in the heat and crowds.

Once you get up to the Grand Gallery (as seen in The Da Vinci Code), it's a short walk to the Mona Lisa. This painting, the Louvre's priceless golden goose, is mounted behind bullet-proof glass in a gigantic wall all by itself, with a sturdy wooden railing in front of it to prevent people from standing too close. There's always a crowd in front of the painting. Most people looking at it are tired tourists trying to get their own photo of the Mona Lisa to bring home (apparently there's something special about a photo of the Mona Lisa that you've taken yourself, even though millions of better photos of the painting can be found all over the Web). Since they cannot see the painting directly because of the people in front of them, they hold the cameras above their heads to get pictures. Once they have pictures, they linger for a minute or two, and then they leave.

The museum establishes one-way traffic lanes to route people to and from the Mona Lisa, so you can't go back the way you came after seeing it. Instead, you get flushed into a different set of rooms filled with French painters. There are a few moderately famous paintings here, such as the Coronation of Napoléon, and after you pass through these rooms, you get a good view of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (the goddess Nike). Then you go down multiple staircases again to reach the Venus de Milo, a bit further east in a street-level wing featuring ancient Greek art. The Venus de Milo also has a crowd around it, but it's already much smaller than that in front of the Mona Lisa, because the Venus de Milo is far less known.

Beyond the Venus de Milo, things get really quiet. In other words, once you've followed the hordes to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, the crowds disperse. Most people leave the museum and go to Starbucks or somewhere else to rehydrate and eat before they collapse, but a few press on. In any case, once you move beyond the Greatest Hits, the entire atmosphere of the museum changes, and it starts to look a lot more like the quiet, calm place you'd expect a museum to be. Entire wings of the museum have hardly anyone in them, and most of the people wandering around outside the beaten path have at least some interest in classic fine art, otherwise they would have headed for the exits as soon as they saw the two main attractions.

I include all this in my video, including some snippets of the quieter parts of the museum, for contrast. Lots of people take pictures of the art in the museum, but nobody takes pictures of the crowds and the exhausting logistics of visiting the museum, so that's a niche I can fill.

Oh, and if you are curious, yes, you can photograph and film the permanent collections of the Louvre freely. You are simply requested not to use flash. The Louvre did try to outlaw photography for a while, but that only lasted for a year before they had to give in. The Orsay museum also outlawed photography a few years ago, but they haven't rolled back the change (yet).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Parisian Statues of Liberty

The weather has often been seasonal so far this summer, which is a welcome change from the standard succession of dry heat waves. It has even rained quite a bit at times. We need the rain, so I can’t complain, although I’d prefer that it rain during the night, rather than during the day when I sometimes need to go out.

I took a picture of the Eiffel Tower from the Mirabeau bridge recently. This bridge is about a mile downstream and southwest of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a good spot for a photo because it shows both the tower and the Grenelle bridge, and the Grenelle bridge is interesting because there's a 1/5-size replica of the Statue of Liberty on the central island on which the bridge is anchored. So you get both the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower in one shot, which is great for confusing tourists and others who don’t know the city well.

There are actually several Statues of Liberty in Paris. One is next to this bridge, as I’ve just mentioned. It's not an exact replica of the one in NYC, but it’s similar—it was a gift to the city from a group of American expats in 1885. Another is much smaller, and in the Luxembourg Gardens, and it’s not an identical replica, either. It was a gift from the sculptor himself (Bartholdi) to the City of Paris.

And that’s not all … there’s a full-size replica of the flame of the statue in NYC alone, at the intersection on the place de l’Alma, where Princess Diana died. After she was killed, people thought the flame was a monument to her, but no, it has nothing at all to do with her. So many people left junk at the site that they put a little rope around it, although it appears that most of her groupies have grown up or forgotten her because there isn’t much junk around the flame these days.

If you’ve ever seen Roman Polanski’s film Frantic (which is a moderately interesting film), the final shootout occurs around the first of these replicas, near the bridge.

Excursion boats on the river, like the Bateaux Mouches and the Bateaux Parisiens, used to go all the way out to the statue at the Grenelle bridge on their 70-minute river cruises, but after an accident a few years ago in which several boats bumped into each other, this part of the cruises was removed. Too bad, as you could get some really nice shots from the boats. I don’t know if any other companies pass by the statue.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Latest videos, and Bastille Day

One advantage of digital technology is that it costs essentially nothing to produce digital photos or videos, once you have the equipment. This allows me to go out and take pictures or videos freely … one of the few activities that I enjoy that doesn't cost lots of money. As my school has given me very few hours of teaching lately, I've been shooting more videos in order to take my mind off the fact that fewer hours mean even less money to live on.

I finally did a video on the Promenade Plantée. It’s 23 minutes long, which is about ¼ of the time required to walk it in real life. It’s the only video that someone has disliked so far. Maybe it’s a bit on the long side. But I did want to show how the parkway looks. And much of it is in my hand-hand traveling “you-are-there” style.

I’ve also done a throwaway video on the rue de l’Échaudé, a tiny, quiet street in the Latin Quarter just slightly off the beaten track of tourists. Despite its proximity to the touristy areas, it's usually almost deserted. I selected it just because I liked the quiet of the street; it has no particular sights of interest.

And I’ve also finished a video on the Marché d’Aligre, a market on the east side of town. People talk about it in the same way they talk about the rue Cler (i.e., they exaggerate a lot), but it's really a street market like any other in Paris, and street markets are legion in the city. I suppose visitors come to the city, see one street market, and are struck by its charm, and assume that it is unique. But Paris has street markets in every neighborhood, and they all have that same charm … that’s one of the attractions of Paris.

I found many of the merchants at the market to be very hostile. France is a country that is hostile to photographers generally, which is unfortunate since it is very photogenic. Some degree of paranoia is par for the course whenever you take pictures in public. But this market was worse than most. I felt as though I was not welcome there, whereas at most street markets the merchants seem to be happy to see customers. Maybe I looked too European, although there were plenty of customers there who looked very French. The merchants seemed mostly to be of recent immigrant ancestry, so perhaps they regarded those who are obviously not of the same ancestry with suspicion. They weren’t all that way, but enough of them were like that that I don’t have any pressing desire to shop there in the near future. I just wanted to get it on video because some visitors to Paris ask about it, having read wonderful hyperbole about it in a travel guide somewhere.

In other news … today is Bastille Day, the French equivalent of the Fourth of July in the United States. There’s a huge parade on the Champs each year on this date, although it’s essentially a military parade and some French people question the appropriateness of a strictly military parade these days. There are also huge firework shows throughout France in the evening, especially the big one at the Eiffel Tower. The crowds watching the parade are enormous, so I’ve never even tried to go to see it in person. And in the evening, the city is filled with drunks who use the holiday (and every other holiday) as an excuse to binge drink. So I just stay home on Bastille Day. It’s a day off work, which is all that matters.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I come to save snails, not to eat them

I was walking home through the snooty Sixteenth for a change, on a day that was becoming increasingly warm despite heavy rains the night before, and I happened across a fleet of snails trying to cross the asphalt sidewalk in front of me. There were a dozen of them or so, all moving at a snail’s pace (of course). The asphalt was dry and extremely hot, and I became concerned that these snails would not make it to safety before dehydrating, as they depend upon their snail-slime when moving, and the supply of that is in turn closely related to their hydration.

So I hit upon an idea. I went to the first supermarket I could find and bought a jug of water. Then I returned to the spot with the many snails and poured some water around them on the sidewalk in order to provide a non-dehydrating path to safety. A man passing by suggested that they might drown, however, which seemed plausible (my knowledge of snail respiration being rather limited), and he commented that it might be easier to just carry them to safety. Additionally he suggested that a nearby planter might be the source of the snails, as well as their salvation. The planter was about a meter off the ground, and it was hard to imagine how the snails could have made the trip from the planter to the pavement, but it was the only place nearby that might have harbored snails, as far as I could tell.

So this man and I picked up some snails and carefully put them in the planter. Some of the snails had their shells broken, but they were not squished, which would be consistent with a fall from the planter onto the pavement. Perhaps they tried to escape flooding in the planter during the rain (?) and were unable to hold on to the sheer, textured concrete wall of the planter. Anyway, I returned all the snails I found, including the ones with broken shells, although I wasn't optimistic about the future of the latter. I then poured the remaining water around the planter so that it might remain moist for the snails benefit.

I don't know how many ultimately survived. But just leaving them to die on the hot asphalt was out of the question. I was surprised that anyone offered to help, but perhaps the man who helped simply thought he was humoring a psychotic or something. French people are usually very diffident, and are not the type to lend helping hands to strangers.

I don't know the species of snail that I found. They looked a lot like the kind that end up on people's plates at some restaurants. These, hopefully, will lead a happy and unmolested life, if they survived the encounter with the hot asphalt.

(By the way, sidewalks in Paris are paved with asphalt, not concrete. The roadway is usually asphalt, too, although cobblestones are still quite common in Paris, thanks to their easy maintenance and superior wear characteristics.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A&F on the Champs, assault at the Lipp, nuclear power

A few days ago, a new Abercrombie & Fitch store opened on the Champs-Élysées. The Champs is the standard location for flagship stores of famous brands. I was moderately surprised to see a line in front of the store, which occupies the very pretty building that used to belong to Thai Airways. I'm not sure what the store contains that justifies waiting for an hour in line, but what do I know?

The store has an interior garden protected by an ornate gate, and a sign next to the gate says that A&F was founded in 1892. The sign is designed to look hundreds of years old, even though it has only been there for only a few days. I suppose some people will actually believe that the store is more than a century old. But today's A&F is only 23 years old at most, not 119. The original A&F went bankrupt 40 years ago, and today's Abercrombie & Fitch was part of the vast kingdom of brands owned by Limited Brands until 1998 (it is independent now). This is the store that sells push-up bikinis to seven-year-olds, something that David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch could have scarcely even conceived back in 1892.

At the gate of the store complex, there are bouncers/greeters of a sort. At first, I thought they might be hobos hired off the streets to work at the store, but then I noticed that they were all wearing the same hobo-garb, and it dawned on me that it was actually a store uniform, right down to the left shirttail strategically left outside the jeans. They still looked like hobos to me, but these were hobos who were probably wearing $400 worth of clothing. Marketing is a strange business, and the influence of Limited Brands, expert in that domain, can be seen here. I imagine that current A&F management has taken that further.

Anyway, moving right along … a few days after this, on a very nice afternoon in the city, I was assaulted by an employee of the Brasserie Lipp, right in front of that famous coffee shop. I was taking a picture of a sign at the entrance of the restaurant that emphasized a dress code, which is a rather quaint and over-the-top anachronism for a coffee shop, no matter how famous it might be. As I took my picture (video, actually) from the sidewalk in front of the place, a man scampered out of the restaurant and struck my camera. He insisted that I couldn't take a picture without permission, even though the sign is visible from public right of way and is designed to be so (not much point in keeping a dress code secret until after someone enters the restaurant, is there?). He didn't seem to understand this. His devotion to his job was as touching as his lack of intelligence was worrisome. You have to really like your job to risk a prison term for it. Of course, the camera was running, so it recorded the assault. I suggested that a video of his assault on YouTube might draw a lot more views than a simple picture of the sign, and he said he didn't care about it being posted to YouTube—which sounded like an autorisation de publication to me. (Unfortunately, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice, which is audible on the recording, so I probably won't bother posting it.) Judging from his fin-de-siècle personal grooming (which makes it easy to ID him in the video), I rather doubt that he'd care about anything that runs on newfangled electricity, apart from cameras pointed at his dress-code sign.

The last time something like this happened was in 1997, when a rent-a-cop in front of Fouquet's assaulted me because I was measuring the intensity of light on the restaurant terrace with a light meter (which he incorrectly believed to be a video camera). There again, I was on the sidewalk, doing nothing actionable or illegal, but Robocop made physical threats against me just the same.

Sometimes I consider filing a complaint against these losers, but why should I have to spend time and money on legal remedies just to get people to behave? And even if they behave temporarily, they're just going to make the same mistakes again, because they're too stupid to learn not to.

I do note that both Fouquet's and Lipp are among a handful of exceptionally snooty establishments that somehow still remain in business in Paris. Fouquet's used to turn away unaccompanied women, and forbid them at the bar (not sure if this is still in effect), and Lipp segregates guests by social rank. And so on. Not the sort of place I'd frequent, but some people like that.

It's unfortunate that France is simultaneously so photogenic and yet so hostile to photographers.

Today I was walking past the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), when I came across a small anti-nuclear demonstration. The demonstrators were demanding that France abandon its nuclear power program. Never mind that 85% of electricity in France is generated by nuclear plants, with a spotless safety record. Some of the demonstrators actually suggested that France return to coal, oil, and gas-fired power plants. They must be very paranoid indeed about nuclear power to prefer the myriad disadvantages of fossil-fuel plants to the cleanliness and safety of nuclear power. It all seemed very irrational to me—especially when I noticed that many of the demonstrators (some of whom had dressed up in cute costumes with cute props) were puffing away on cigarettes. In any case, I made a brief video of the demonstration, which you can see here.

One thing curious about this demonstration was that I noticed no real media presence. I couldn't find any mention of it in the newspapers. I guess it wasn't considered newsworthy. It was a rather small protest, but not so small that I'd expect the media to ignore it entirely.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Return to the Promenade Plantée

I went back to visit the Promenade Plantée a few days ago, which I haven't visited in ages. It's a strip of parkway on the east side of Paris, built about 25 years ago, along the path of an abandoned railway that used to end near the Bastille. The western end is elevated, the eastern end is below ground level. When I first visited it, long ago, most of the trees along the parkway were freshly planted saplings; today, they've grown quite large, and the parkway is a welcome and refreshing change of scenery from the concrete and asphalt that dominates Paris.

I was inspired to return there by recent references to the parkway among friends and acquaintances. In fact, I decided to make a little video that shows it, which I'm still editing.

It takes 45 minutes to an hour to walk the parkway. At the western end is the Viaduc des Arts. It's a converted viaduct for the old railway, with a parkway on top, where the tracks used to be, and shops beneath the arches of the viaduct at street level. The shops are heavily slanted towards skilled craftsmen, such as makers of musical instruments, ceramic art, etc. Many of the shops are quite interesting and even a bit eccentric. At several points, there are stairs that allow you to access the parkway on top of the viaduct. The parkway is a twisty central sidewalk surrounded by plants of all sorts, with occasional landscaping decorations such as fountains, plus many benches where you can sit as long as you want. The height of the viaduct isolates it a bit from the surroundings and makes it quieter than the sidewalks at street level.

As you walk east, the viaduc eventually yields to some interesting paths that cut directly through apartment buildings. These eventually lead to the Jardin de Reuilly, a very nice little park located at the site of a station on the old railway line. The line is gone but the station has been preserved. A suspension bridge leads over the main grassy area of the park. This park is interesting because it's the first place in Paris that has a free public water fountain that dispenses fizzy water instead of flat tap water. The fizzy water is refrigerated and carbonated because … well, just because the city wanted to offer free fizzy water to its citizens. People come to fill their water bottles with the free sparkling water. There's free ordinary water, too. Both dispensers get their supplies from the tap water network, but making the water fizzy makes it more fun to drink.

Continuing east from the park, you go through a small commerce area with mostly restaurants that is level with the surrounding streets. Beyond that, the street level rises, and the Promenade Plantée continues below street level. Most of this is in a kind of open valley where the trains used to run, but there are also a few tunnels. It's even quieter than the elevated portion of the parkway. There are usually lots of people throughout the parkway, but the eastern end has somewhat fewer people than the western end much of the time. There are lots of joggers and cyclists (there are bicycle paths to keep them apart).

After walking below ground for a while, you come to another park, and the path splits up in several directions, only one of which actually continues east, so you have to make your way carefully if you wish to continue following the parkway. Beyond that is a quieter portion of the parkway well below street level.

Following a relatively short walk in this area, you come to a dead end with a spiral staircase. A barrier prevents you from going further east. This is right near the city limit, just short of the boulevard Périphérique (beltway) that surrounds Paris. The staircase leads back up to street level, to a small path that runs parallel to the beltway. Beyond the barrier, the tunnels continue for a short distance and then dead-end in the suburb of Saint Mandé, which is just northwest of the Bois de Vincennes, one of the two massive parks that sit on either side of Paris and belong to the city (the other one is the Bois de Boulogne, on the west side).

All in all it's a nice one-hour stroll. I walked the parkway all the way to its eastern end, then walked back to the Bastille and then home through the city streets.

I was particularly struck by how much the trees have grown. It really looks like a jungle at some points, but that's a nice change of pace.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

More on French film

I've passed some posters advertising a new animated science-fiction film, The Prodigies, and I was surprised to see that it was produced by a French company. The French film industry can just barely finance the standard-issue French slice-of-life film, so to see a feature-length computer-animated film in 3D from a French company implies that either some truly wealthy backers were miraculously found, or someone broke the piggy bank for a one-off extravaganza.

France has one of the world's largest film industries, but it still trails way behind Hollywood and Bollywood. It's hard to find financial backing in France, and one of the most common sources of backing turns out to be a semi-government agency, upon which French filmmakers have come to depend (to an unhealthy extent, in my opinion). Often financing is a hodgepodge of nickels and dimes from a long list of partners, all of which seem to require that their logos appear in a hokey list across the bottom of the movie posters. The government has a taste for “artsy” films, which further complicates things, because it makes it harder to finance a film that might actually make money at the box office.

Another complication is the frequent leaning towards the auteur model of filmmaking, in which one guy (it's almost invariably a guy) writes, directs, acts, edits, and does just about everything else for a film, giving him complete control over the result. The problem is that there are probably only about five people in the world who have sufficiently diverse and significant talent to undertake all of those roles at once in a movie production, and the myriad others who haven't such gifts usually produce garbage when they attempt to do it all themselves. So a lot of French films tend to be arthouse B-movies, rather than successful blockbusters built by a team of specialized artists and technicians.

Then there's the dialog. In French movies, there are tons and tons of dialog. Talk, talk, talk. It's characteristic of French films. Action is quite limited. This may work for domestic release but it's a big problem for export, because you have to subtitle or dub all of the 36,483 pages of dialog. Many markets (notably the United States) just will not tolerate dubbing or subtitling. That's one reason why several French vehicles that were successful in France were remade by Hollywood for the U.S. market (e.g., Trois hommes et un couffin, which was remade as Three Men and a Baby).

Here's the typical French film: One man and one woman in bed. They talk (a lot), they have sex, and then they smoke cigarettes. Repeat this for two hours.

Most French films are slice-of-life films, without the multiple-act structure of American films. You feel that you've walked into the middle of something at the start of the film, and you feel you've been pushed back out at the end.

Are these bad or good things? Well, that depends on your tastes. Some people like prolix, slice-of-life films. They do well enough in France. But they don't export well, and it's worth noting that seven out of ten films at the local Parisian multiplex will typically be American blockbusters, dubbed or subtitled. You're more likely to find Oscar winners on the schedule rather than winners of the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

The one thing that probably is indisputably bad is the lack of money for filmmaking in France. Films are often made on a shoestring, crews and talent are poorly paid (or sometimes not paid at all), there's no room for special effects or much of anything other than the most banal location shots, and so on. There have been a few big-budget films, some of which have been extremely successful at the box office, but unfortunately these are exceptions to the rule. Most of the French box office ends up in the pockets of Hollywood these days.

It seems that French audiences respond to much the same things that please American audiences: lots of action, special effects, a clear structure to the film, with a simple plot and a good ending. But French filmmakers don't often produce this, so their films struggle even as Hollywood rakes in the cash. The few French films that have been made according to this Hollywood model have been just as successful as the American films. But I sometimes think that French filmmakers consider it below them to produce a movie that simply provides entertainment for a fee, whereas American studios have no such qualms.

Of course, you might look at the incredibly lame videos I've been putting on YouTube and wonder what qualifies me to criticize anyone else's work. But I don't think you have to be a talented filmmaker yourself just to form valid opinions of other films or the film industry in general. I think Roger Ebert is a good film critic, but the best he could ever do himself as a screenwriter was … Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens!

Anyway, I don't go to see movies much these days. It's too expensive. I can't even afford DVDs any more, and in any case I have nothing to play DVDs on, since I had to sell that long ago in order to buy groceries and pay rent.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A ride on the bus

I've put up yet another video. This one is a video showing a ride on a Paris bus, specifically, line 91 of the bus system. I go from terminus to terminus, Bastille to Montparnasse, shooting out the window in one uninterrupted take of 32 minutes.

Why make a video of a bus ride? Well, why not? It's interesting to watch the city go by out the window, especially if you've never been to Paris. I just wanted to do something different.

The bus was a big articulated bus, and I sat just behind the articulated part, facing backwards, and shooting slightly backwards. This position allowed me to avoid having the sun blaze directly into the camera at any point on the route.

Unfortunately the bus windows are tinted green, so I had to try to correct for that in post-production, with limited success.

You know, I really hate green-tinted windows. I associate them with desert heat, and that brings bag bad memories. The greenish tint also is associated with queasiness and illness in my mind, for some reason. Why can't they just darken the windows with a neutral gray? What is it about green that makes it such a popular window tint? And why are bus windows tinted at all in Paris? We're not in the tropics, and the sun isn't that much of a nuisance, most of the time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

DSK, and speed traps

Well, French news media are all a flutter, covering the “DSK affair” ad nauseam. Dominique Strauss-Kahn isn't well known elsewhere in the world, but in France he's quite a VIP, a member of the old boys' club that runs the country. I won't repeat the details of the affair since they have been exhaustively reported everywhere, but I can make a few observations.

The French seem to be mainly surprised by the fact that a member of the old boys' club can be arrested and prosecuted for anything short of murder. In France, that doesn't happen. Justice is meted out based in part on a person's social rank, and the boys at the top are practically immune to its effects. France is also a Latin, macho country (albeit not as severely afflicted as most Latin countries are), and so harassment of women is considered routine.

It's not clear whether or not this particular incident is a set-up designed to bring down DSK (which, by the way, the French pronounce as “day-ehss-kah”), but his alleged history of misogynistic abuse of women will not work in his favor irrespective of whether or not he is guilty in this case. I myself don't really know. It's not hard to believe that he's guilty, but there are a lot of coincidences that could imply a set-up, too. But I don't really care. DSK was potentially slated to run in the next French presidential election, but I can't vote in French elections, so it matters not to me.

In France, justice works at different speeds, depending on who you are. In the United States, it works at different speeds, depending on how much money you have. DSK is more or less unknown in the United States, but his wife is rich and he's spending $50,000 a month on his apartment where he is under house arrest, so maybe that will work in his favor.

The other recent event that illustrates the standard Latin doublethink that prevails in legal matters in France and other countries with ties to those ancient Romans is the change in speed-trap policies. The government has announced that it will no longer publish the locations of radar speed traps. See, in France, it's illegal to have a radar detector in the car, but it's legal to have GPS and database-based gadgets that warn whenever a driver is approaching a published radar speed trap. The doublethink here is that the speed traps are intended to catch drivers who are speeding, but at the same time the government publishes information that can only be used for one purpose: avoiding the speed traps. Thus, the government tacitly approves of speeding, while creating the illusion that it's doing something about it.

It's a problem because motor-vehicle accident rates have skyrocketed recently, and most accidents involve either excessive speed, alcohol, or both. The purpose of a speed trap, of course, is to catch speeders and thereby serve as a deterrent. But it's not a deterrent at all when you tell people about them in advance, thereby allowing them to speed everywhere except in the traps with impunity. Everyone in France knows this, but practically everyone denies it, instead saying that publishing the locations of the radar traps somehow improves safety, through some incredibly convoluted line of flawed reasoning.

The companies that manufacture these gadgets are up in arms, because stopping publication of the locations of the radar traps will put them out of business. They are wailing about loss of jobs (which I guess is more important than massive loss of life in accidents), and the importance of their products to other countries (hard to believe, since nobody has quite the same policy as France as far as I know).

Of course, I favor stopping publication of the radar locations. And I hope that DSK gets a fair trial, either going to jail if he's guilty, or being set free if he's not. But I'm not optimistic on either point.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Movies, and the Eiffel Tower

Another movie was being filmed near my house last night. I've become so jaded living in Europe's answer to Hollywood (i.e., Paris) that I didn't even bother to go take a look, although I saw the trucks parked nearby when I went to get some groceries. I don't know what movie was being filmed.

You can walk around Paris on any weekday and see film crews shooting on location. Paris is a popular setting for movies, TV shows, and commercials. I'm quite interested in the technology of cinema, but not as much in the artistic part. For example, I'm interested in cameras and lighting, and editing, and things like that, but I'm not interested in acting, and I'm indifferent to “stars.”

Perhaps one of the most widely talked-about location shots recently was that of Midnight in Paris, a film by Woody Allen. It got into the news because the French president's top-model wife, Carla Bruni, had a part in the film. Allen commented that he had wanted to make the film back in 2006, but that it was “too expensive.” And yet, when he made it in 2010, four years later, it was suddenly affordable? Hmm. It's tempting to see a link between Carla Bruni and the many tedious permits that must be obtained to shoot movies in Paris … but maybe I'm just being cynical, eh?

Anyway, so someone was shooting in my neighborhood, which happens quite often. I guess there's something about this part of town that makes it suitable for shooting—perhaps the fairly nondescript Parisian architecture and little-known streets make it easy for locations here to pass for anywhere. Who knows? But one often sees little pieces of paper taped to poles and doorways warning of an upcoming location shoot, and of the use of parking spaces by trucks. Often I've never heard of the production companies, the director or producer, or any of the actors.

Helpful hint: If there's a really large crew that is mostly idle, you know it's an American production. Americans always have at least one union member (or equivalent) for each task, plus a few dozen other people with no identifiable function. French productions are invariably strapped for cash, so they have smaller, more active crews.

I remember when Jonathan Demme came to Paris with his entourage to shoot The Truth About Charlie (2002), his very inferior remake of Stanley Donen's Charade (1963). They spent hours during the night shooting what would end up as 30 seconds on the screen, on the banks of the Seine River. There was a guy in a boat who just went up and down on the river to keep the water sparkling (at night, after the excursion boats stop, the slow-moving Seine tends to become mirror smooth). I knew it was an American production because French production companies can barely afford film, and that's with the help of dozens of sponsors (all of which are listed along the bottom of French movie posters, making them look like charity telethons).

Anyway, moving right along … while passing through the Trocadéro plaza not long ago on the way home, I noticed that an extra railing is being installed on the edge of the plaza facing the Eiffel Tower. I guess putting in this railing is a safety necessity, since they waited only 70 years to do it. I presume that it's intended to prevent people from climbing onto the low wall at that location to take pictures, but I'm sure they'll just climb around it, so it's a waste of time and money.

The weather is still unseasonably warm, but other than that it has been very nice. Even the pollution levels have been low. But there's a significant drought in progress, and the experts say that spring in Paris this year may prove to be the driest in over 200 years.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Canal St. Martin

I've finished my video of the Canal Saint Martin. Its just a short video that shows the Port de l'Arsenal, the open market that is held above the canal twice a week, and some of the locks on the canal.

The Canal Saint-Martin is a barge canal that runs roughly north and south in Paris. At the southern end, it starts in a small pleasure harbor called the Port de Plaisance de Paris Arsenal. From there, it travels underground to roughly the level of the place de la République, at which point it reemerges into the light and passes through a series of locks that raise the water level substantially as the canal moves north. From there it passes into the Bassin de la Villette, a rectangular, man-made lake dating from the 19th century, and then it continues up to La Villette, a large park with a number of attractions. It extends beyond that outside the city, but I've never explored that part.

In my video I show the pleasure harbor first. Some of the boats there are really nice, but their size is constrained by the fact that they must be able to fit through the locks at either end of the harbor (there's one final set of locks at the south end that brings boats down to the level of the Seine River, into which the canal empties). There's a bridge that crosses the harbor and affords a nice view thereof, plus a park on the east side of the harbor, with a single restaurant that is usually crowded.

At the north end of this harbor, the canal disappears into a spooky tunnel that passes directly beneath the place de la Bastille. It continues underground for a considerable distance, with only a few round vents at ground level to light the way. Above the canal, on the surface, is a parkway, part of which becomes one of the largest open markets in Paris two days a week (I show this in the video, too). Eventually the canal comes back out into the open. There are multiple locks along the canal that always seem to fascinate me. About 30 boats a day pass through them on the way up or down the canal.

The canal isn't as important to commerce as it once was, and it was almost replaced by a freeway in the 1970s. Today it's a protected landmark. Although there is substantial traffic on the side streets bordering the canal, which prevents it from being completely peaceful, it's still a nice place for a stroll.

A lot of tourists don't know about the canal. I guess Rick Steves doesn't talk about it enough. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, except for the tourists who miss seeing it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Île de la Cité, and the importance of bandwidth

I've finished yet another video, my longest yet (seen here). It features a few views of things around the Île de la Cité, the central island in the middle of Paris that is the historical heart of the city. Notre-Dame is the biggest attraction on the island, and I show a bit of that, but I also show some side streets, the flower and bird market, and the Pont Neuf.

I don't show the Sainte-Chapelle because it costs money to go in, and there's a long line, and the security is very tiresome (because the national law courts are in the same complex). Also, in hot weather like this, the inside of the chapel is hot enough to make you pass out. The stained glass is very pretty, though, so sooner or later I guess I'll have to get pictures or video.

The island is kind of nice. There's a very pleasant residential area at the west end, around the place Dauphine, and there's another small residential area at the east end. Both are, of course, unaffordably expensive. The average price of real estate in Paris now is about $1200 per square foot, and the prices on the island are far above average. All those nouveaux riches from the Third World are buying up real estate like it's going out of style, and they don't care how much they have to pay. And Paris is small, so there's only so much real estate to go around.

Apart from Notre-Dame, and the Sainte-Chapelle, there's also a flower market, as I've said. The flower market is open every day, but on Sundays it also becomes a bird market, selling both birds and everything that someone with pet birds would need, such as food and cages. The bird market seems to be smaller than it once was, but it's still interesting to see. The flower market is nice because some of the shops are practically jungles of flowers and plants, which I find interesting to walk through (as you'll notice in the video). As always, since this flower market is a few feet off the beaten path of tourists, it only receives about one percent of the traffic.

Indeed, there are lots of spots on the island with no tourists. There are lines outside the Conciergerie (in the same complex as the Sainte-Chapelle) and Notre-Dame, but nobody is walking down the tiny streets nearby. The decline in tourist traffic as you move away from the narrow path defined in the travel guides is as steep as a cliff. In one spot, there are so many tourists that you can barely move; but move twenty feet, and 99% are out of your way. Dare to walk to a different street (even one close and parallel to the touristy street), and there's nobody.

Some of the streets on the island are extremely old, of course, and to some extent this shows, although buildings do tend to be replaced over the centuries. One giveaway is the narrowness of the streets. It seems that the older a street it, the narrower it gets. (The narrowest street in Paris, incidentally, is the rue du Chat-qui-Pêche, in the Latin Quarter, which is so small that you can touch both sides with your outstretched hands.) The place Dauphine is also free of tourists much of the time, even though it features a pretty little park. Another park, the square du Vert-Galant, on the western tip of the island, is beautiful but has far fewer tourists than the area around Notre-Dame. (All of these are in the video.)

Anyway, I think I probably spent four hours or so shooting, for about 90 minutes of raw footage. It took maybe five hours to edit it. But then it took more than three hours to render it, and an incredible eighteen hours to upload it to YouTube!

It's all a problem of bandwidth and horsepower. It takes a lot of computer horsepower to work with video—video editing and rendering are right up there with video games as the top consumers of computer power on the desktop. Everything else pales by comparison. And then there's the issue of getting it from the computer to YouTube, via a broadband connection that is typically 10-30 times slower for uploads than it is for downloads. So uploading 25 minutes of video takes all day. I guess I won't be doing any feature-length videos any time soon. The actual video file, for 25 minutes, was 6 gigabytes in length … an entire DVD in terms of capacity.

Anyway, it's out there now. I got just a tiny bit more inventive for transitions. I have to be careful, though, because the mark of the amateur is the excess use of wild transitions and special effects.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nice weather, and architecture

Well, the heat wave let up, and today was a very nice day: cool, sunny, with a breeze. Nice April in Paris weather. I was able to go for an enjoyable walk.

I was tempted to try a video of the Luxembourg Gardens. Now that spring is here, everything is green and beautiful. The only problem is the dry weather and the breeze. When it hasn't rained, and there's a stiff breeze, many of the parks in Paris can turn into dust bowls, because the large numbers of people shuffling around on the dirt in the parks (actually finely divided limestone, in most cases) raises a lot of dust. This isn't a problem for people, but when you have optical instruments with you, like cameras or camcorders, it's important to stay away from those dust clouds.

In fact, it's even worse with digital cameras and camcorders. If one speck of dust lands on the image sensor, you get a dark spot in every photo or video, until you disassemble the camera (if that's even possible) and clean the sensor in a dust-free environment. Some recent cameras are built to reduce this problem, but it's hard to avoid entirely. Cameras with interchangeable lenses are even worse, since removing the lens exposes the sensor itself to outside air and dust.

So I was reluctant to go into any parks. I'll wait until after a day or two of rain, then go while the ground is still moist. After a rain the air is cleaner, too, although it wasn't too bad today (the pollution index was quite high, but visually it looked okay).

I did photograph a few other things.

I happened to walk past the Sainte Chapelle, which had its usual line of tourists waiting to get in. The Sainte Chapelle is in the same complex as the national law courts, so security is tight. I noticed that the gendarmes inside no longer keep pointy things for you while you're there. In the old days, they'd take anything pointy (scissors, files, pocket knives) and number them, and give them back when you left. Now a sign says that they just confiscate them. I guess it was too much work to try to keep track of them all.

The line in front of the Sainte Chapelle was long, and ditto for the Conciergerie, but the line for the law courts was empty. Sometimes it's the other way around, especially when gangsters or other “celebrities” are on trial.

South of that tourist attraction is the Latin Quarter, and for the umpteenth time I walked past the building at 1, rue Danton, which has very unique architecture. It was designed by Émile Arnaud in 1900, and built by engineer François Hennebique. Apart from the interesting style of the building, it was one of the first uses of reinforced concrete, although it certainly doesn't look like a typical concrete building. Unfortunately, in later decades, the style of Le Corbusier took over, what I call the “Hoover Dam” style because that's what his water-stained, soot-covered buildings seem to look like. I prefer Arnaud's style.

Speaking of architecture, I went past the Forum des Halles as well. The shopping center is being redesigned. The old design was kind of ugly, and like so many “modern” styles in aluminum and glass, weathering quickly made it even uglier. The new design looks like a glass trilobite from above, and I suspect it will be at least as ugly at least as fast. But architects in France are always trying to make their mark, and not always successfully. I'm at least thankful that Jean Nouvel wasn't the architect—that would be really scary.

I've put up my video on La Défense. It's lame, as usual, but it does show the plaza and the underground transportation hub. I couldn't afford to license any music for it, so it's just the usual ambient sound.

The Foire de Paris starts tomorrow. I'm debating whether I can afford the €12 ticket to see it, and maybe to take pictures. It's the largest annual exposition in Paris, filling the entire Porte de Versailles exposition center. It concentrates on things for the home, but it's very interesting. We'll see.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Watch your head! … and La Défense

I happened across an accident in the underpass that carries traffic on the Champs beneath the Arc de Triomphe today. The underpass has a very limited vertical clearance (2.4 m, or about 7'10"), and abundant signs warn motorists of this. Nevertheless, from time to time, an inattentive or impaired driver tries to take the underpass even though his vehicle is over the limit, and when the vehicle and the underpass meet, the underpass always wins.

On this occasion, a van had had its upper portion sheared away by the underpass. There's always clearance for the driver, so the driver always survives (unharmed if he's wearing seat belts), but the truck usually doesn't fare so well. The driver in this case (not visible in the photo) looked physically fine, but rather shaken and worried. There really isn't much of an excuse for getting stuck with this clearance problem, so he'll have a lot of explaining to do, and maybe a balloon to blow into.

I've seen it before, though, so this is hardly a unique occurrence. Vans, tractor-trailer rigs, etc. The only thing I really worry about is a tour bus. Tour buses often have passengers riding on a high deck, and if such a deck hit the underpass, the resulting carnage would be catastrophic. Fortunately, that has never happened, but it's probably just a matter of time.

After taking a few pics of this accident, I went up to La Défense. La Défense is a suburb of Paris that contains some of the most sought-after business real estate in the world. It's a planned suburb that has no motor vehicles at ground level. The surface plaza is purely pedestrian, ringed by tall skyscrapers, and all cars, buses, trains, etc., are constrained to pass underground. As a result, it's a really nice place to work. I shot some video of it that I'll be editing into a short feature on the area Real Soon Now.

In the old days, the pedestrian plaza at La Défense was completely open. Nowadays, though, greed has taken its toll, and more and more useless structures and “developments” are encroaching on the wide open space of the plaza. I don't consider this a welcome change.

At the same time, however, a lot has been updated at La Défense. The development of the zone first started way back in the late 1950s, and it took a while for it to catch on. It's doing very well today, but some of the older structures are showing their age. Fortunately, extensive renovation has fixed a lot of that.

For example, the CNIT, built in 1958, has been renovated for the third time. It's famous for having one of the largest unsupported roof structures in the world. The roof is a huge vault supported at three points on the ground, with no internal columns or supports of any kind. There's 200,000 square feet of floor space beneath the roof. It originally was an exhibition center, but today it's a mix of conference halls and a dual-level shopping center. It's pretty nice, and the most recent renovation has made it very modern. And that gigantic vaulted ceiling is still impressive—its center point is 20 stories off the floor.

Then there's the Grande Arche, a 40-story, hollow cube that contains office space. It's a bit odd looking, but interesting. It has “clouds” inside that I originally took to be temporary structures, but in fact they are a permanent part of the building. It's so large that the towers of Notre-Dame could fit inside.

It used to be possible to take an elevator up to the roof of the Grande Arche for a stunning view of La Défense and Paris, but the observation deck has now been closed, and will be turned into office space. Once again, money determines everything.

Opposite the CNIT on the plaza is the Quatre Temps shopping center, once the largest in Europe (I'm not sure if that's still true). More than 200 stores on several levels occupy the center. It has just been renovated as well, and now looks a lot more like a modern American shopping center. It was built back in the early 1970s, so the old decor was very dated. The new design looks very nice, and they've added a huge multi-level food court that's very nice as well, plus the inevitable multiplex cinema., which replaces an IMAX theater that apparently didn't earn its keep.

These days, there are almost 40 skyscrapers at La Défense, with about a dozen under construction or planned. Periodically they tear stuff down and rebuild it, which seems wasteful, but I guess that's how things go in high-priced areas like this one. There are a handful of residential towers, but I don't know that it's an ideal place to live. The area is extremely busy and animated during the business day, but it's a ghost town at night, to the point of being spooky. It's a great place to work, though. I used to work there.

Given the combined Easter/Passover holidays, La Défense wasn't as busy as usual when I visited today. It's busiest in the morning, at lunchtime (all French people eat lunch at exactly the same time), and in the evening when everyone leaves work. At other times during the day, it's quiet but there are still quite a few people (tens of thousands work in the towers). At night, it's just you, the wind, and the occasional gang.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What price art?

On the way home today, I passed through the Latin Quarter, and walked down some of the streets in the western part of the neighborhood, which are awash in art galleries of all sorts.

The weather was nice and the streets were peaceful (especially since most people are on vacation for either Easter or Passover), and it was a pleasant walk, but I did find myself wondering how art galleries manage to stay in business. The vast majority of galleries sell modern art, since old art is in limited supply and they're not making any more of it, but most modern art is (at least in my opinion) garbage.

Do people really pay €50,000 for a few splashes of paint on a canvas? I guess people like Jackson Pollack answer that question, but it mystifies me. I suppose it depends a lot on who made the splashes.

I think that many people buy or praise modern art because they're afraid that they'll seem uneducated if they don't. They don't actually see anything in the art, but they're worried that maybe others who praise the art are seeing something that they cannot, and they don't want to seem retarded, so they praise the art, too. It's exactly like the emperor's new clothes. I don't worry about seeming uneducated, though. A lot of modern art is garbage, designed to take advantage of people who worry too much about what others think, and I'm not afraid to call it as I see it. And I'm sure not going to pay €50,000 for garbage. If I want modern art, I'll go outside to the dumpster, pull out some garbage, glue it together, and put it on a marble pedestal in my living room. Nobody will know the difference, and everyone will be afraid to confess that they don't understand the “art.”

If I go to the Louvre (which I confess that I hardly ever do), I see art that I can recognize as art. It's still not that impressive—the mere fact that a painting is 500 years old doesn't make it good—but at least it shows some sort of talent. Old art seems to disproportionately portray a lot of generals, politicians, and saints, most of whom are either nude or dressed in bed sheets, but it's still better than modern art.

At the Orsay Museum, which picks up where the Louvre leaves off, and stops just prior to reaching the abyss of modern art, you can see things that are both artistic and recognizable. Some work of the impressionists is very nice, for example. You can recognize what it is, but it's not photo-realistic. It's a nice balance between the abstract and the concrete. I don't salivate over it the way some people do, but I like a lot of it. I still think Van Gogh looks like he was fingerpainting, though. And while Monet is pleasant as well, there are limits to how many depictions of stagnant ponds covered with lilies and scum that I can see before I need a break.

So do I like anything? Yes. Manet's Olympia is a nice painting, simply because it looks exactly like real life. His model, Victorine Meurent, looks a bit impatient and self-conscious. Of course, that's also why people found it scandalous. How dare a painter try to depict reality!
Jean Ingres did the same thing (minus the nudity, generally), and did a very good job as well. I like his paintings. He did a lot of commissioned work, and his portraits look like real people, which I suppose was exactly what his clients wanted.

Picasso got weird over time and I don't generally like his work. However, there's a museum in Paris that contains a lot of his earlier work, before he got weird, and he was a good painter in the early days. Salvador Dali, who has a small museum of his work in Montmartre, was an excellent artist, although his choice of subjects is a bit nightmarish—like Norman Rockwell with malaria.

Anyway … I've only bought one work of visual non-photographic art in my life, and it was an original cel from a Warner Bros. cartoon (Duck Dodgers in the 25½ Century, as I recall). I pawned it years ago out of poverty.

Blog Archive